From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Archive for the ‘Real Estate’ Category

Inflation outpacing wages. Fed expectations?

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Those of us who lived through the 1970’s may think that 3% or 4% inflation is childsplay, but the FED doesn’t necessarily look at it that way.  Indeed, they’re an “inflation conservative” bunch, and don’t take too kindly to the CPI heading northward.

An article this morning in CNN Money offers two painful scenarios.  First, inflation is nudging up, in no small part from housing costs and health care costs.  Add to that the impending impact of the coming Trade War, and the news isn’t very good.


Graphic courtesy


Second – and we’ve been predicting this – consumer prices are rising higher than wages.  The difference isn’t very big at the median, only 0.2 percentage points, but given the disparate increases in incomes in America of late, and the disparate consumptions patterns, this means that the burdens of cost inflation are being disproportionately felt by working families.

More to come….

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 13, 2018 at 6:59 am

Commercial property prices

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First, a happy 4th of July to all of our U.S. readers!  I’ve spent the day catching up on reading, writing, and napping.  I hope you’ve all done the same.

Part of my reading was a recent piece by Calvin Schnure for the members at NAREIT titled Commercial Property Prices Continue Steady Gains.  It’s an interesting read, and factually correct.  However, Mr. Schnure and I might arrive at somewhat different conclusions.  Case in point is illustrated by the graphic below, taken from his article:


Now, if you are running a REIT and want to convince potential investors that the world is rosy, then this is a very pretty graphic. On the other hand, if you are a real estate analyst (ahem…. please hold your applause) you have to wonder what the heck is going on here.  I’m particularly concerned with multi-family, which has increased in value on the order of about 60% since the previous peak (December, 2007) but is up by something close to 160% since the trough of 8 years ago.  Yeah.  That’s a huge run-up.  Couple that with the observations (anecdotal, at present) that multi-family vacancies are on the rise nationwide, and particularly, surprisingly, in formerly hot markets like Seattle (just to name names).

I’m not preaching a long-term or even intermediate term demise for multi-family.  Far from it, in the long term, these are still worth considering.  However, in the short-term, these annualized gains may not be sustainable.

By the way, there’s a lot more in the NAREIT article, and it’s worth reading in its entirety.

Watch this space.  We’ll keep you posted.

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 4, 2018 at 5:02 pm

And yet more on housing

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Twice burned, you know?  I think we should all be a bit gun-shy about rapidly increasing house prices.  Are we looking for a bubble or a peak?

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, reported a 6.4% annual gain in April, slightly down from an annualized rate of 6.5% in March.  While they produce a few other indices, all of them basically report the same thing.  Oh, by the way, my home city of Seattle leads the pack with an annualized rate north of 13%.

Glancing at the graphic, below, the slope of the current pricing graph looks suspiciously like what we saw during the bubble run-up.  As I’ve noted here previously, house prices increasing at a rate higher than 2 points over inflation is emblematic of a bubble.  That would suggest a nationwide rate somewhere around 4% – 5% right now.  You do the math.


Written by johnkilpatrick

June 29, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Deconstructing house prices

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I stumbled on a very interesting graphic on the inter-web the other day.  I can’t provide the citation just yet — it was posted anonymously on a data visualization web site.  Nonetheless, I’ve done a bit of research to semi-validate these numbers, and even if they’re off a bit, it’s a very useful graphic.

First, it tells us that since 2002, the median price of a new home in America has approximately doubled, from $175,000 to about $350,000 (depending on exactly which metrics you use, this is about right).  That’s an inflation rate of about 100%, more or less, in 15 years (end of 2002 to end of 2017).  In a paper I presented at the American Real Estate Society annual meetings about 10 years ago, I noted that post-WW2 data indicated that house prices/values should be expected to grow annually at a rate of about 2 percent points above the inflation rate.  I checked, and the actual inflation rate over that period measured by the CPI totaled 36%, more or less.  That averages about 2.1% per year, compounded.  The doubling of house prices in 15 years equates to an inflation rate of about 4.7%.  So…. 4.7 minus 2.1 = 2.6.  Thus, by my estimation based on historical averages, house prices have been growing about 0.6% per year faster than they should have since 2002.

You might argue that some of that was the last few years of the housing bubble, but that sponge got squeezed out in the post-bubble collapse.  Nope, folks, what we’re seeing is the echo bubble.  You might also argue that 0.6% doesn’t sound like much, but here’s what it amounts to over time.  If house prices had actually grown at the rate suggested by previous post-WW2 data, then prices would only have gone up by about 170% over that time period.  That means that a $175,000 house from 2002 should today be selling for about $295,000.  The difference (350,000 minus 295,000) of about 17% is the measure of the echo bubble — it’s the degree to which houses are currently overpriced.

Ahem…. that’s NOT the point of this story.  That’s just the introduction.  The more important story comes from deconstructing house prices into various tranches.  This graphic I found does a wonderful job of that:

Housing Starts

Here’s my point in a nutshell. Note that in 2002, the plurality of homes built were in the “less than $200,000” category.  Today, that’s the smallest category (the one in red).  Conversely, we’re building about twice as many homes in the expensive category (the green bar) as we were in 2002. While all housing starts are down from the peak, compared to the earlier years, we’re now building the bulk of the housing in the two most expensive categories, which is a real shift from 2002.

Why?  The market is constantly screaming about the lack of supply for “affordable housing”.  Why aren’t builders building to that tranche of the market?  The answer is cost.  Two very disruptive forces are plaguing the homebuilding industry today.  First, the labor and infrastructure for building died off during the recession.  We have relatively fewer trained and skilled tradespeople, fewer developed lots (and a shrunken pipeline for development) and more expensive construction lending.  Second, the building materials themselves — lumber and steel — are in short supply, have been affected by price increases, and are now faced with tariffs.  Builders have no choice but to build more expensive homes to be able to cover the cost of construction.

Are we headed for a new bubble?  Back in the dark ages, when I was in graduate school, we were taught that inflation could be caused by either demand-pull (too much money chasing too few goods) or cost-push (increases in commodity costs).  Either way you look at it, the cost of owner-occupied housing is going thru the roof (pun intended).

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 26, 2018 at 8:14 am

Lumber and other simple stuff

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Tariffs anyone?  Jann Swanson wrote a great piece for Mortgage News Daily last week, titled “NAHB: Lumber Shortages and Prices Hamper Affordability.”  In short, the shortages of framing lumber are “now more widespread than any time” since the National Association of Homebuilders began tracking in 1994.  About 31% of single-family builders reported shortages of framing lumber in the most recent survey, along with shortages in other building materials.  A full 95% of homebuilders reported that prices of these materials were having an adverse impact on housing affordability.

While there are numerous reasons for this, including a shrinkage in the building infrastructure during the several years following the housing melt-down, the NAHB notes that the top five building materials with shortages are on the Trump Administrations list of tariff targets.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 25, 2018 at 7:31 am

Collapsing Price of Alternative Energy

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Most — nearly all — of our work is in real estate, but energy has a huge real estate component, so major shifts in the energy market have significant implications for real estate investment.

A recent report out of Lazard reflects just such a major shift.  Specifically, among five major sources of energy, wind and solar are now the low-cost alternatives.  Indeed, since 2009. the cost of solar energy (at a utility scale — not just what’s on the roof of your house) has declined by 86% to about $50 per megawatt hour.  Coal, for example, has declined in price only 8% during that period, and is now $102/MWh, or double the cost of solar.  Wind is even cheaper, at $45/MWh.

Thanks to Lazard for the accompanying graphic.

Lazard estimates

The implications for real estate are obvious. If and as utilities shift supply sources, and focus on alternative energy to meet increasing demands, there will be an accompanying demand for solar farms, wind farms, and new transmission lines.  Accompanying this, we’ll probably see a decreased utilization of coal mines, and certainly a reduced demand for new coal mines.

Written by johnkilpatrick

May 9, 2018 at 8:39 am

Commercial Real Estate — Prices vs Values

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Anyone involved in real estate knows that commercial prices and values have been on a constant uptick since the trough following the recession.  The very length and breadth of the recovery has caused nervousness among investors, appraisers, and lenders.  Today, I’m looking at two somewhat disparate views on the subject.

First, Calvin Schnure, writing for NAREIT, looks at four measures of valuation:

  • Cap rates and cap rate spreads to Treasury yields
  • Price gains, either from increasing NOI or decreasing cap rates
  • Economic fundamentals, such as occupancy and demand growth
  • Leverage and debt growth

At present, none of these is giving off warning signals, according to Schnure.  Cap rates continue to be low compared to other cycles, but so are yields across the board.  There continues to be room for cap rate compression, in Schnure’s assessment.  As for price changes, every sector is showing growing or at least stable NOI, with the proportion of price changes coming from NOI now equal or exceeding price increases coming from cap rate declines.  Across the board, REIT occupancy rates are high and on the rise, with industrial and (surprisingly) retail at or near 95%.  All equity REITs are in the low 90% range, compared to the high 80’s at the trough of the recession.  Finally, debt levels are rising, but at a lower rate than valuations.  Ergo, this is not, in his opinion, a debt-fueled cycle.  Right now, debt/book ratios are significantly lower than in the previous FOMC tightening cycle (2004-2006).  For a full copy of Schnure’s article, click here.

Second, I was at the American Real Estate Society’s annual meeting in Ft. Myers, FL, last week, and had the great pleasure to sit in on a presentation by my good friend Dr. Glenn Mueller of Denver University, the author of the widely acclaimed Market Cycle Monitor.  He tracks property types and geographic markets by occupancy, absorption, and new supply statistics, and for years has proffered a very accurate measure of commercial real estate, both nationally and locally, across four potential phases:

  • Recovery (rising, although unprofitable rents and occupancy)
  • Expansion (rising and profitable rents and occupancy, stimulating new construction)
  • Hypersupply (oversupply of new construction and declining rents and occupancy)
  • Recession (unprofitable and declining rents and occupancy)

Most markets cycle through these phases in a fairly predictable fashion.   Right now, most markets (property types and geography markets) appear to be in the expansion mode, with some (notably, apartments) potentially crossing the line into hypersupply.

In short, commercial real estate markets look healthy, absent the sort of exogenous shocks that sent us into the most recent recession.  That said, many of those same metrics read positive prior to the mortgage market melt-down.  Of course, commercial real estate actually faired pretty well during the recession, compared to many other asset classes, supporting the notion that in times of economic trouble, real estate equities can be great storers of value.

Written by johnkilpatrick

April 16, 2018 at 9:50 am