Stabilizing employment rates good news for commercial real estate?

Employment numbers are up according to a recent news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In their analysis, BLS announced that the unemployment rate had dropped to 3.5%, with 528,000 new jobs added over the course of the month.

These figures mean that, for the first time, unemployment measures have returned to their February 2020, pre-pandemic levels. BLS also noted that the gains were led by the leisure and hospitality industry.

Strong recovery in hospitality

Reporting on the figures, Real Deal pointed out that hiring at hotels, restaurants and bars was responsible for a large percentage of the 528 000 jobs created in July. Together with construction and healthcare, these sectors accounted for 43% of the overall job gains posted. Quoted in the article, Mortgage Bankers Association Chief Economist, Mike Fratantoni added: “This is not a picture of an economy in recession.”

Mixed results for other sectors

Though the construction industry was a strong performer, with an additional 32,000 employees hired, it’s worth noting that this figure would likely have been much higher if there were more workers available. The sector is still deep in the grips of a labor shortage that has put pressure on projects across the US, and led to a slow-down in new developments.

Meanwhile, the office sector also faced constraints, with the percentage of workers staying remote due to the pandemic remaining at 7.1%, exactly the same as in June.  As one of our NAI Offices recently reported, the future of offices has generated some strong dissenting opinions among those in the know, and exactly how the situation is going to pan out remains unclear.

Shifting sands

Though some of these figures certainly seem to indicate an upturn, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are still many indicators of a possible recession. As recently as a month before these figures were posted, there were announcements of cutbacks in the residential sector, and some experts were predicting a drop-off in employment rates.

For other experts, the picture is more nuanced. Lawrence Yun, Chief Economist at the National Association of Realtors (NAR) puts it like this:

“It would be one of the most unusual recessions — if it [the economy] does technically reach it — in that there are worker shortages. Some industries will lay off workers, but there could still be more job openings than the number unemployed throughout the recession.”

Long-term prospects

How the current job situation plays out, and how this affects Commercial Real Estate professionals, remains to be seen. We do know that the employment numbers we are seeing now exceed predictions that were made just a few months ago. If the positive trend in hospitality and construction continues, there could be a lot of new projects, and prospects, on the cards.

SOCIAL: How have hiring trends impacted commercial rentals and development projects in your area?

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US foreclosures: records and rebalancing

Foreclosures in the US were up in the first quarter of 2022 – setting what the data provider calls a “post pandemic high”. The data provider in this case is Attom, who specialize in real estate and property data – including tax, mortgage, deed, risk and other information for “over 155 million properties” country-wide.

It must be noted however that this level of foreclosure activity is still considerably better than the highs seen in 2020, before government intervention (more below).

A tale of two months

Attom’s Q1 2022 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report – released in April 2022 – shows a total of 78 271 properties filed for foreclosure in the first quarter of 2022. This is, they write, “up 39% from the previous quarter and up 132% from a year ago”.

Additionally, in March 2022 alone, the data indicates over 33 000 US property foreclosure filings – an increase of 29% from the prior month, and 181% compared to March 2021.

A mere month later, however, in the month-to-month reporting from the same provider (April 2022, released in mid-May), showed “a total of 30,674 properties with foreclosure filings — default notices, scheduled auctions or bank repossessions”. This was down 8% from March, but up 160% from April 2021.

Questioning the headline

As covered before on this blog, it is important to assess data and market reports like this one as pieces of a larger picture – viewed in context of time and other indexes. It is also worth noting that there is typically a delay between economic “crunch”, consumers feeling the pressure, and market movements showing the effects of said pressure.

The above caveats notwithstanding, the trend line this report highlights is concerning for investors who watch the residential market, and commercial brokers whose specialty/sectors are affected by residential, such as multi-family.

Specifically, the data point that March 2022 was “the 11th consecutive month with a year-over-year increase in U.S. foreclosure activity”, is not a positive direction for this metric.

Post-moratorium balancingWriting about the Q1 2022 “record”, a spokesperson for Attom explained that this foreclosure activity is “gradually return[ing] to normal levels since the expiration of the government’s moratorium” and the CFPB’s enhanced mortgage servicing guidelines”.

What economic and commercial property data do you keep a close eye on? 

Work smarter not harder: The impact of blockchain on CRE

So far in this blog series, we’ve looked at some of the most cutting-edge emerging technologies: The Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and virtual reality. We’ve discussed the potential these developments have to revolutionize the way we do business and work in the real estate space. 

While each of those has its applications, none hold quite the same promise for changing the fundamental aspects of how we make, and document, commercial real estate (CRE) deals as blockchain. In this fourth entry in the emerging tech series, we have a look at the implications of this pivotal technology.

Blockchain basics

Nowadays, blockchain is a term everyone’s hearing with increasing regularity. To start, it’s worth having a brief recap of exactly what the tech is. At its simplest, a blockchain is a ledger – a record of information. Not all that different from the databases you’re already using to record details of properties, clients, or transactions. 

The feature that makes blockchain unique is the way that information is recorded. Each “block” can hold a certain amount of data. Once a block is full, a new block is started and the previous block forms part of an immutable chain – essentially a timeline extending outwards from the first block to the current one. 

Information on the blockchain is public and distributed across a network of computer systems – meaning that it’s very, very difficult for one person to hack or alter the information stored in the chain. 

Streamlined data

The opportunity blockchain presents for the CRE space, is the ability to streamline a lot of time-consuming tasks. Imagine having all of the paperwork for a given property digitized, accessible to everyone involved in the deal, and confirmed as accurate by multiple parties. 

Steve Weikal, MIT’s Head of Industry Relations at the Center for Real Estate, describes it like this:

“There are two areas where I think the blockchain is. There’s going to be the intersection with legal tech, so that’s land registry and recording and ownership, and all of that paperwork that exists in the system… the other is the intersection with fintech.”

Of course, an issue that comes up here is how this system can be used with potentially sensitive information – client details that shouldn’t be a matter of public record. For business networks, private blockchains can be set up to only allow access to specified parties. In this case, the identity of participants is verified in the network as well, unlike public blockchain where users can remain anonymous. Private blockchains function more like a traditional database in this sense, trading off some of the immutability of their data for privileged access. 

Sealing the smart deal

Maybe the most promising application of blockchain for CRE deals is being able to deploy “Smart Contracts” for things like tenancy agreements. Smart contracts hard code the details of an agreement on the blockchain, and are uniquely suited to real estate deals, because they can handle conditional clauses. 

As an example, startups like UK-based Midasium are already providing a prototype platform that replaces traditional landlord-tenant agreements. Using smart tenancy contracts, clauses of the agreement are automatically enforced when certain conditions are met. This can include paying rent, returning a security deposit, and directly deducting maintenance costs from the rental amount paid across to the landlord. 

It’s a system designed for transparency and rapid settlement, and the concept is gaining traction in other parts of the world. An added bonus of using smart contracts for tenancy is the possibility of building up a database of real-time data for rental prices and trends in the rental market.

A growing sector

Overall, enterprise reliance on blockchain is set for rapid acceleration. Forbes, quoting an International Data Corporation (IDC) report notes that:

“Investment in blockchain technology by businesses is forecast to reach almost $16 billion by 2023. By comparison, spending was said to be around $2.7 billion in 2019, and we will see this acceleration ramping up over the coming year.”

Blockchain adoption in CRE, however, is still in the early stages. The tech still needs to overcome a few growing pains – in terms of privacy concerns, operational complexity, and a lack of standardized processes – before we’ll necessarily see it forming the backbone of CRE transactions.

That said, it’s a space well worth keeping an eye on. There’s been growing interest, for example, in CRE tokenization –  splitting the value of a given asset into separately buyable blockchain-based tokens. What this means in practice is that instead of looking for one buyer for an expensive asset the value gets subdivided and opened to a much broader market. Which in turn may actually boost the value of the underlying asset.

There’s a lot of potential and little doubt that blockchain will make its way into CRE one way or another. But, like many things in the cryptocurrency and blockchain space, the real challenge will be separating the wheat from the chaff, the fact from the hype, and identifying functional applications of the tech rather than purely fanciful ones. 

CRE outlook stronger despite supply chain challenges

Since April 2020, the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP) has been keeping track of the pandemic’s impact on CRE with their regular COVID Impact surveys. NAIOP’s June 2021 survey collected data from 239 US-based members, including brokers, building managers and owners, and real estate developers. A recurring theme in this latest survey was the increasing challenges commercial real estate (CRE) is navigating associated with supply chain disruptions and materials costs.

Supply and delay
With more than 86% of developers reporting delays or materials shortages, it seems the impact of COVID on supply chains is set to become one of the longest-lasting effects of the pandemic. Adding to difficulties, 66% of those surveyed reported delays in permitting and entitlements, a figure that hasn’t changed since June 2020.

Fixtures and equipment for stores are also in short supply, with order backlogs stretching into months for some retail sectors. While this isn’t necessarily surprising, given setbacks in manufacturing in key suppliers such as China, the CRE market shows promising signs of being on-track for continued recovery nonetheless.

Development despite setbacks
Despite the issues highlighted in the report, the survey still showed an increase in retail prospects. New acquisition of existing retail buildings was indicated by 39.1% of respondents, while 31.3% mentioned new development going ahead. Both of these figures represent a strong improvement from a previous survey in January. Deal activity was also noted to be on the up, with figures doubling for office and retail properties over the course of a year, and industrial deal activity increasing over 20% since June 2020.

“Bricks and clicks”
International industry players have also noted that, though larger spaces are still facing delayed rental uptake, 20,000-30,000 square-foot sites are garnering increasing interest. The potential for these spaces is as part of a multichannel retail/warehouse approach – the “bricks and clicks” strategy. As the demand for online retail increases, logistic assets, and storage spaces become more valuable, contributing to an overall uptick in both virtual and brick-and-mortar marketplaces. 

A promising prognosis
Even with the supply chain challenges facing the industry, the Federal Reserve agrees with the trend data gathered from NAIOP participants. In their June 2021 Beige Book, the Fed noted upward movement in industrial output and consumer demand. Though economic gains were noted to be slow, the outlook remains steady and positive.

President and CEO of NAIOP, Thomas J. Bisacquino, puts it like this: “The materials and supply chain issues are lagging effects of the pandemic, and they are affecting every industry. While the pandemic’s impact was deep, there’s a sense of optimism among NAIOP members, with deal activity rising and an increase in people returning to offices, restaurants and retailers.”

Green down under: Sydney’s ambitious eco targets

Australia is certainly feeling the effects of the global climate crisis in recent years. The sensitive and beautiful ecosystem enjoyed by the “Aussies” has been ravaged by heat waves and wildfires and drowned in record-breaking floods – not to mention the tragedy that is the widespread bleaching of corals on the Great Barrier Reef, the result of rising ocean temperatures.

Perhaps this is why Australians are getting serious about cracking down on common pollutants and regulating the ecological impact of the industry. The latest news in this regard is the tough energy standards introduced by the City of Sydney (the government of Australia’s most populous city), and support for these coming from the leading property companies in the region.

Zero net emissions

Commercial Real Estate Australia published an article in late May 2021 detailing how the commercial real estate (CRE) and property leaders in the city have come out in support of the tough new energy standards that will apply to all development applications – from as early as the start of 2023. Specifically, the City[MOU1]  is targeting zero net emissions for the entire local government area by 2035.

The report reads: “For the first time, City of Sydney is proposing that DAs to build or redevelop hotels and shopping centers must achieve a minimum National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) environmental rating, in this case, four stars. It also wants to increase the existing NABERS rating for office buildings from five stars to 5.5 stars by the start of 2023.”

Sydney Mayor Clover Moore says this makes economic sense, as well as environmental, and will help “save more than $ 1.3 billion on energy bills for investors, businesses and occupants between 2023 and 2040”.

Lead by the people

What’s particularly interesting about this, and other eco-friendly news emanating from Down Under, is that these gains appear to be driven at a regional and personal level, more than from the incumbent government which has been described as “one of the most climate-skeptical political groups in the developed world”.

For example, green energy is a big talking point in residential and commercial real estate (CRE) spheres, with considerable demand from consumers. One in four Australian homes now have rooftop solar energy supplies, says Recharge News. Clean energy is now almost a third of the power mix in the country.

Demand-side driven

The real estate industry is considered a thought leader in this space in Australia and has been recognized by bodies like the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB), in which they have topped the charts for a decade.

Australia’s Green Building Council calls GRESB “the global benchmark for environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of real assets, defining and measuring standards for sustainability performance”, explaining that this assessment metric includes not just property, but also real estate investment trusts (REITs), funds, and developers – representing assets in excess of AUD $6 trillion.

Australian companies are also prominent in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index – another indicator, perhaps, of how the [professional and personal] tail can wag [government] dog in pursuing greener CRE.