Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Will We have a Commercial Real Estate Crisis?

Casey Mulligan thinks probably not. From his New York Times piece:

For months now, experts have been predicting that commercial real estate will be “the other shoe to drop.” But in fact, non-residential building fell far behind housing construction during the housing boom. This shortage of commercial buildings relative to housing suggests that a commercial real estate crisis will not occur, or that at worst it will occur with much less severity than did the housing crash.

Here is the chart purporting to support this argument:


(Click on image for a larger version in a new window)

The error Dr. Mulligan makes is the belief that the housing bubble and future CRE performance was/is primarily a function of inventory. The chart suggests housing prices have collapsed because too many residential structures were built. That’s like saying Citibank’s stock price has collapsed because too many shares have been issued. Home prices have dropped because the financing that people used to buy homes at an inflated price is no longer available, not because there are more homes than people are willing to occupy. To the extent CRE inventories were tight, values were inflated, which won’t help us now if the deals were leveraged based on the higher values.

For example, look at Miami, a residential bubble market. The graph below shows the number residential permits issued in relation to the number of new jobs created on a rolling 12 month basis. The secondary axis is the OFHEO Housing Price Index year over year change.


(Click on image for a larger version in a new window)

Home price increases began decelerating in late 2005, but at the time Miami was creating twice as many jobs as new units, so if anything the market was undersupplied. Something else was clearly dragging prices down, and in retrospect we know it was the withdrawal of aggressive lending parameters.

Now, of course, most markets are losing jobs, and most markets are still adding units (and commercial real estate) as projects work there way through the development pipeline. We won’t see a recovery until the employment situation turns around.

What does this mean for CRE? We don’t know for sure how many deals were done with aggressive underwriting during the peak years, but we know there were quite a few and so we can expect some decline in values related to the withdrawal of aggressive leverage similar to what’s happened in the residential market. We also know that CRE is sensitive to employment trends, and those are very negative. The CRE situation may not become as bad as residential, but if it doesn’t it will be because the underwriting was better and employment improves. It won’t be because there was a lack of inventory.