What’s the Impact of the US Debt Downgrade on CRE?

Everyone is trying to determine the impact that the recent S&P downgrade will have on the economy, their businesses, and their  personal investments.  I personally do not think it will have a substantial impact beyond the stock market’s roller coaster ride over the next few weeks.  That does not mean I believe the economy is in good shape, far from it.  I think this particular event is a distraction from the anemic job recovery across the country (granted that Massachusetts is finally outpacing the rest of the country after being the poor performer in the last few recessionary recoveries.)  Add to that the financial disasters within the European Union states, and the political unrest from London to Damascus, and you do not come away with much optimism for the next few years.

As for commercial real estate, we are in the “people business” in that the only way we can fill our buildings is to have businesses employ workers and expand that base.  With the uncertainty in the marketplace, we are not seeing any great surge in employment.  Some of the recent drop in the unemployment rate was unfortunately due to unemployed workers who gave up looking for a job.  The question is how do the businesses in the Commonwealth feel about their prospects?  Prior to the S&P announcement, AIM’s business confidence index for Massachusetts remained neutral at around 50 points out of 100 (not very encouraging.)

However, in our industry there may be some winners.  Investment funds have purchased commercial properties at a discount these past couple of years and more properties may come up for sale (either willingly or forced by their bankers.)  There will be exceptions to the dismal economic forecast in all real estate market categories with build-to-suits leading the way (e.g. Vertex, Novartis, Liberty Mutual) and a number of multi-family apartment projects benefitting from a robust rental market
locally.  The Seaport District will be an important bellwether.  After years of waiting for its “turn” there is some real momentum with Fan Pier, Liberty Wharf, and talk of multi-family housing, a hotel, and long-awaited retail. (Save the Date – NAIOP will be hosting a conference on the Seaport’s development plans on September 21st.)

Today’s Boston Globe had a good overview of the industries in Massachusetts and their reaction to the downgrade.  As I indicated in that article, as the industry that houses these businesses, we are “holding our breath” for the time being and hoping that what modest momentum we have had in Massachusetts does not get slowed any further.

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