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Analysts Say Rich Pricing Fueled by Global Torrents of Capital and Low Rates Rather than Irrational Exuberance — but Keep an Eye On Underwriting
By Randyl Drummer September 10, 2015
As commercial real estate prices have continued to surge, some have become concerned that valuations may be overheating or even reaching bubble levels as a combination of high demand, low interest rates and loosening loan underwriting standards contribute to a record spike in deal activity and price paid per square foot for trophy properties in top U.S. and global markets.
But while investors and analysts agree the surging demand for commercial property should be closely scrutinized for signs of overheating, several market indicators appear to reflect solid justification for the upswing in prices. So while peaking prices are a concern, analysts said it is premature to characterize the recent valuation increases as a ‘bubble’ that will inevitably lead to a market correction.
Rather, they said, the price increases seen over the past 12 months appear to be a direct function of the long period of low interest rates in a low-yield environment, coupled with strengthening fundamentals and rising property-income levels.
“Indicating that we are not in a bubble, we are still seeing a wide pricing gap for taking risk that did not exist in 2006 and 2007, when vacant buildings could fetch premium pricing because investors did not have to wait for leases to expire to get at the embedded rent growth,” said Walter Page, director of U.S. research, office, for CoStar Portfolio Strategy. “Capital is very risk adverse compared to 2007.” Perhaps most significantly, Page added, previous pricing bubbles have burst only after developers flooded the market with a large supply of new space within a very short time. With the possible exception of the office construction boom in Houston, this is not the case today.
Showing a measure of caution following recent stock market volatility and swings in August and into September, property investors appear to be taking a pause to assess conditions, with previously acquisition-minded investors now saying, “Not so fast.”
In recent meetings with several major investors, Page said the discussions have changed tone and now focus on not rushing in and taking their time to place money. As a result, they expressed expectations that sales volumes may slow somewhat in the second half of 2015, Page said.
Price appreciation has also slowed, both from earlier this year and compared with the early to mid-recovery period from 2010 to 2013, suggesting that pricing is reaching market-clearing levels, added Page.
Using the term ‘bubble’ to describe the current pricing advances gives the false perception that the market is not stable and is ready to burst,” notes Andrew Nelson, chief economist for Colliers International.
“Investors like to buy closer to the bottom, and it certainly seems we’re closer to the top, even if not quite necessarily there,” Nelson said. “At the same time, market fundamentals are strong and getting stronger, and I do believe we have some time left on the clock in terms of continued economic growth.”
While the abundant supply of cash looking to find a home in U.S. properties is helping to propel sales, only about half of U.S. office markets are achieving pricing above the last peak, with top-tier markets like San Francisco, New York and San Jose leading the way. Other major world cities show a similar trend.
CoStar sales data shows record CRE sales volumes in all product types totaling $600 billion over the past four quarters, which is 7% above the 2007 record of $556 billion, and up by 23% from the four-quarter period a year earlier.
Office sales of $148 billion over the past four quarters trail the record $203 billion in 2007, which included $60 billion in sales and re-trading stemming from sale of Equity Office Properties to Blackstone, which some consider to mark the previous cycle’s peak. The current four-quarter sales volume represents a 21% increase from a year earlier, so clearly office sales volumes are strong, Page said.
However, the office value appreciation rate has slowed to 2.4% over the past year, down from the 5% to 8% appreciation rate between 2011 and 2013, Page said. Value increases over the past year have ranged from just over 4% in the San Francisco Bay area to less than 1% in Chicago, Seattle, and Denver.
A marked slowdown in cap rate compression, from 50 to 90 basis points per year during the 2010-2013 period to a 20 bps decline over the past year, also has contributed to the slowing depreciation.
“Because of the expectation of rising interest rates, we are forecasting that the current 5.7% national office cap rate will mark a market bottom, with a rise of 20 basis points forecasted by 2018,” Page said.
Valuations should increase in most markets for several more years, suggests that the growing strength of local economies will be a key factor in improving property returns, Page said.
“Our forecasted annual returns through 2019 range from over 9% for San Francisco and Nashville to 2% for Houston and Washington, D.C.”
Also, rent levels in a large number of metros have not yet risen to the point that justifies new office construction. With the exception of multifamily, levels of new supply remain moderate in most property types, particularly the office market, where construction is almost exactly at its long-term average of roughly 124 million square feet per year, well below the 184 million square feet added at the peak of the last market bubble, Page pointed out.
Moreover, the construction is highly concentrated in about one-third of U.S. markets, led by Houston and New York with 13 million square feet. Seattle, San Jose and San Francisco are also hot spots for office construction.
The remaining two-thirds of markets have roughly half their historical level of new office construction, yet the vacancy rates for these markets are about the same as in 2007.
Globally, property is expensive on a per-pound basis in some top markets, and cap rates are low for the best properties, typically signaling modest returns and expensive pricing, Colliers’ Nelson agrees. With inflation and interest rates still very low, however, spreads between cap rates and long-term Treasury note remain above their long-term averages, making pricing look much more reasonable, he added.
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