From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

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Need a job?

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I pulled up behind another car at a stop light yesterday and couldn’t help but notice a license plate surround for the local construction laborers union, plus a labor bumper sticker in the back window.  This attracted my attention because the vehicle in question was a late-model Cadillac Escalade.

Admittedly this may have been an outlier, but all across the U.S. there is a huge demand for entry level construction trainees.  Here in Seattle (a high-wage, high cost-of-living area) entry level “no experience, no education” wages are in the high-teens per hour, rising rapidly to $50k per year with a modicum of experience.  Take some winter months to go get trained in plumbing, electrical, or HVAC and the annual income gets into the high 5 to low 6 figures pretty quickly.  (The average plumber in Seattle makes $95,000 per year, according to   Some sources put this number somewhat lower, but you get the point.

Ironically, these jobs are going begging, and the reasons are varied.  Many young people are scared off from a job that evidently requires a lot of outdoor work and physical stamina.  Yet, as one young woman in a carpenter training program noted, “If you work hard and you put in your effort, they’ll take you over somebody else who is muscle…” Baby boomers seem to think that if their children don’t go to college, they’ve failed as parents, and so the percentage of construction workers under age 24 has declined in 48 states since the peak of the housing boom.

Wall Street Journal has a great article this morning called “Young people don’t want construction jobs. That’s a problem for the housing market.”  It is indeed.  It is one reason why home construction per household in America is at its lowest level in 60 years of keeping records, according to the article. The reasons include lack of vocational programs in high schools, although many of these are coming back. The Home Builders Institute, affiliated with the National Association of Homebuilders, has as many as 6,000 young people in their training pipeline at any given time.

I’m not suggesting — nor is the WSJ, that flooding young people into construction jobs will change the housing affordability metric overnight.  The homebuilding industry is still replete with problems such as a trade war with our principle material suppliers, a lack of housing infrastructure, and short-term financing issues.  Nonetheless, young people might want to be reminded that a surprisingly large number of CEOs in the construction field got started with a hammer in their hands.

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 1, 2018 at 8:06 am

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

Boring stuff for a Sunday morning

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Any reasonably good education in finance or economics will include a discussion of the term structure of interest rates.  It’s important to understand — in normal times, short term rates (both borrowing and lending) are lower than long term rates.  However, these rates move all over the map, and at times the relationship can be inverted, as it was back in 2000 (see below).

(By Farcaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Why do these rates move around so much, and how can they become inverted (yes, that IS illogical)? Ahhh…. that’s important, but still terribly boring. In general, there are three theories — market expectations, market segmentation, and liquidity preference. Today, I’m interested in the third. In short, in times of trouble, investors (that’s you and me, by the way) want to stay liquid. As such, shorter term rates are artificially pushed down and longer term rates pushed up. The 2011 experience is an example.

So why is this of interest (pun intended) on a boring Sunday morning? Because I made the mistake of reading the news this morning, and happened upon a story from Quentin Fottrell of, reprinted in Yahoo Finance (yes, THEY’RE still around!) titled “Americans are hoarding money in their checking accounts — and that could be a problem.” In short, yes it could. To quote, “When times are good, Americans feel confident by keeping little in checking, but when times are difficult consumers store money in checking accounts, effectively pulling back on spending on retail and restaurants.” It’s an excellent article, and I highly recommend it.

Written by johnkilpatrick

May 27, 2018 at 8:10 am

Damage to Reputation/Brand

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In my last post, I commented about AON’s Global Risk Management Survey.  I want to continue on that theme today, and continue to compliment the great folks at AON for a super job.

Number one on their list was Damage to Reputation / Brand.  The open the chapter on that with a wonderful story, which I will briefly retell here (with full attribution).  A worker in China purchased an electronic device and while charging it, the device caught fire.  He videotaped the incident and uploaded it to the internet.  The clip was soon viewed millions of times around the world.  Other customers reported similar defects.  Even though less than 0.1% of the devices sold were defected, widespread panic followed.  the company was forced to issue a world-wide global recall costing an estimated $5 Billion.  Ironically, this tech company became a victim of the tech revolution.

AON notes that widespread fake news, the lack of fact checkers on social media, and the political cross-fire following the US 2016 elections all have risk for brand damage.  AON estimates that there is an 80% chance a company could lose at least 20% of its equity value in a month over a 5 year period doe to a reputation crisis.

Eight years earlier (2009), Damage to Brand / Reputation was ranked number 6 among risks by respondents.  Today it is number one.  Reputation / Brand events often arrive with little or no warning, to cite the survey, and organizations are forced to respond quickiily.  As such, it is critical that companies have comprehensive reputation risk control strategies in place.  Such strategies include meticulous preparation and executive training, to help maximize the probability of recovery.

Thanks again to the good folks at AON for providing this information.

Written by johnkilpatrick

April 9, 2018 at 3:29 pm

AON’s Global Risk Management Survey

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The good folks at AON just shared with me their very detailed Global Risk Management survey for year-end 2017.  It’s a terrific document, very thoroughly researched, and I commend them for the effort they put into this.  (Full disclosure – neither I nor Greenfield, nor any of its affiliates, have any interest in AON.).  This is the sort of study that should be on the desk of every CEO who has globally-affected interests, and certainly real estate and private equity fall into that category.

The document is chock-full of good stuff, and I’ll revisit this in future posts.  Two interesting comments, however, hit me right up front.  First, and I’ll simply quote from the survey, “…developed nations, which were traditionally associated with political stability, are becoming new sources of volatility and uncertainty that worry businesses…”. Of course, they’re taking about the U.S. and its misguided trade war, BREXIT, the elections in Northern Europe, and the impeachment of the South Korean president.

Second, what are the top concerns for global businesses and wealthy families?  The list may come as a surprise to those who don’t follow these important sectors, but these certainly make sense in today’s climate:

  1. Damage to reputation/brand
  2. Economic slowdown / slow recovery
  3. Increasing competition
  4. Regulatory / legislative changes
  5. Cyber crime / hacking / viruses / malicious codes
  6. Failure to innovate / meet customer needs
  7. Failure to attract or retain top talent
  8. Business interruption
  9. Political risk / uncertainties
  10. Third party liability

I can tell you Greenfield is deadly serious about these issues.  You should be, too.

Written by johnkilpatrick

April 4, 2018 at 11:51 am

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