Commercial Real Estate, Interest Rates, and the Federal Reserve
On September 20-21st the Federal Open Market Committee will meet and announce their decision on the target Federal Funds Rate and issue guidance on future changes. Given that the unemployment rate has remained stable and below 5% (4.9% as of the latest August report), hiring averaging above 200k per month for the long term, and inflation starting to read above 2% (2.1% annualized rate according to the Price Index of Personal Consumption Expenditures in the second quarter of ’16) it is widely believed that the Fed will resume raising its rate this September if economic conditions remain stable. The current target rate is 0.25-0.50% and any raise in this month is not likely to be more than 0.25%; however, the recent jobs report of only 151,000 (below the hypothetical 200k target to sustain growth) has led some to believe the rate hike will be paused to November.
A quarter point increase in and of itself is not likely to have any real significance to commercial real estate or other long-term assets; what will be impactful is the perceived stance of the Fed going forward with regard to the timing and magnitude of future rate increases. If the Fed postures that it must be aggressive in fighting inflation, then long-term interests will likely rise as could cap rates on investment real estate. This is not a very likely outcome of this FOMC meeting; the more likely outcome is a slight raise, or even deferment to the November meeting, with continued guarded measures to watch conditions unfold. With GDP growth averaging around 1%, it is hard to envision great fears about an “overheated” economy. Thus, it is not logical to expect much to change in the near term for commercial real estate, whatever the Fed may decide.
The Federal Reserve: Promoting Full Employment and Price Stability
To understand what the Fed is attempting to do, one must remember that they are said to operate on a “dual mandate” to promote full employment and price stability (i.e., keep inflation in check). At 4.9%, the US economy is theoretically at “full employment”, but given the slow rate of wage growth, small gains in productivity, and seemingly tenuous inconsistencies in hiring (May added only 24k new jobs) there is not a widely held view that the employment situation is healthy enough to sustain new economic shocks. Further, the unemployment rate that includes discouraged, marginally attached, and part-time workers who would prefer full-time employment stands at 9.7% (this is known as the U6 measure) which is above its hypothetical target of around 8% but drastically improved from its recessionary peak of 17.1% in December of ’09. Thus, the Fed has little motivation to “pump the breaks” and risk moving away from full employment.
Inflation and price stability is much trickier to assess. The Bureau of Economic Analysis produces the Price Index of Personal Consumption; as stated above its most recent reading is above 2%. The more commonly cited Census Bureau Consumer Price Index (CPI) is currently reading 0.8% annualized for all-items and 2.2% for all-items excluding food and energy. Overall, prices do not appear to be rising in totality, but certain areas such as Shelter, Transportation Services, and Medical Care are all growing at rates above 3%. If energy prices were to move upward, overall inflation could spike well above 3%. Thus, the Fed is pressured to “not wait too long”.
Impact on Commercial Real Estate
Commercial real estate has been in the winner’s circle for quite a few years, benefiting from high rent growth and simultaneously low interest rates and capital costs. Even low energy prices have a direct boost to net operating incomes of many commercial landlords. This dynamic is not poised to reverse itself in the short or even medium term. In fact, as fixed-income securities are much more at risk to interest rate spikes, more investment capital could move to CRE assets as a result of the Fed decision. In summation, real estate investors have little to worry about this round; but, it would be foolish to believe this low interest rate, high rent growth environment will last forever.