What Will be the Fate of Brick & Mortar Retail?

The traditional retail industry, and the real-estate operations that provide space for it, are not, for the most part, doing too well these days.  Billions of dollars that would once–not long ago–have been purchased in a local physical space are now purchased online and shipped from a warehouse that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Many services, too, that would formerly have been obtained in a local location are now obtained online…travel agencies, for example, have been largely supplanted by online services.

So, here’s a question to think about:  What kinds of businesses are likely to continue to require local presence, and perhaps even to increase in their local presence needs?

And what kind of businesses are currently major users of local space, but are likely to need a lot less in the future?

An example in the first category would surely be restaurants/bars.

An example in the second category would be, IMO, branch banks.

Your thoughts?

West Coast Real Estate Starts to Turn

When I moved to the West coast I noted that prices were generally high relative to incomes.  It is well documented elsewhere that San Francisco area housing prices are very high and Seattle has been skyrocketing as well.  In Portland, housing isn’t as costly as Seattle or San Francisco but is very high relative to the local job market, particularly within the city limits and in the nicer areas.  A condo in “the Pearl” in Portland (a local high rise market) is 2-3 times what I’d pay for a comparable unit in my former River North area in Chicago.

From an economic perspective, the income tax changes passed in late 2017, particularly the virtual elimination of the State and Local Tax deduction (SALT) for high earner households, along with continuing reductions in the mortgage interest deduction, should have had an immediate, negative impact on house prices in high tax states such as Oregon and California.  I didn’t see these effects, but changes in the housing market take a long time to appear, because many transactions are already under way and sellers will hang on in the market rather than taking a perceived “hit” to the value that they expect to receive.

It looks like the market, in Portland at least, has crested and is (likely) to proceed in a downward direction.  From an article in Bloomberg titled “The US Housing Market Looks Headed for Its Worst Slowdown in Years

Dustin Miller, an agent with Windermere Realty Trust in Portland, said he’s trying to manage sellers’ expectations, something he hasn’t had to do since the end of the last housing boom. One customer, a baby boomer moving to a new home across the state, expected to have buyers fighting over her house. She got one bid, below her asking price.  “Buyers want to shop and take some time, as opposed to having to rush and throw offers in,” Miller said. “It’s the market correcting itself. At some point, you hit a peak of momentum, and then things level off.”

The real estate agent refers to this as moving from a ‘peak’ to ‘leveling off’ and we will see if this moves to a prolonged rout, like we had back in 2008-9.  It will also be interesting to see if real estate in high tax states doesn’t bounce back as fast as real estate in states with lower tax rates, but we won’t be able to see the net effect of this for many years (and it is but one variable among a sea of variables).

I have a semi-sad theory about this – I don’t think folks understand the impact of the changes in tax laws until they file their taxes.  Whether due to complexity (it is hard to model just a couple of variables in a tax program unless you know what you are doing) or a lack of financial acumen, I believe that after 2018 taxes are filed in the middle of 2019 you will start to see more of a “wealth effect” as home owners start to realize the potentially large impact of the changes to the SALT deduction.

As I look out my window in Portland I hope that they complete the high rise buildings that they are working on, and don’t break ground on new ones.  We used to look at partially completed buildings for many years in Chicago after the 2008-9 crisis, until they finally completed them up to 5 years later.

Cross posted at LITGM

The Boom/Bust Cycle Isn’t about Emotion

My first experience with manias was in the 1950’s. As a pre-schooler, I was dragged along to the Filene’s Basement annual designer dress sale. Thousands of women of all types and sizes pressed against the glass doors opening into the subway station. Within minutes of the doors opening, these “maniacs” cleared all the racks and, holding armfuls of dresses, began stripping to their slips. That’s when I panicked.

Looking back, those women acted rationally. There was a limited supply of deeply discounted dresses available on a first come basis. They traded among themselves to get the right size and their most desired dress. Buyer’s remorse was cushioned by Filene’s liberal return policy.

The premise of U.S. financial regulation is that actors within private markets are irrational, but the evidence shows that it’s not maniacal, illogical behavior that sends markets into freefall.

Great Depression and Recession

Now in its seventh edition, Manias, Panics and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, Charles Kindleberger’s seminal work provides the narrative that underlies virtually all public financial protection and regulation: First, the irrational exuberance of individuals transforms into “mob psychology” and fuels an asset bubble. Then, when the exuberance of a few turns to fear, the mob panics and overreacts, causing a crash that brings down both solvent and insolvent financial institutions.

In his memoir, the former Federal Reserve Bank President and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was at the epicenter of the last crisis, concluded, “It began with a mania — the widespread belief that devastating financial crises were a thing of the past, that future recessions would be mild, that gravity-defying home prices would never crash to earth.”  

Most U.S. federal financial regulation originates from the Great Depression and the subsequent introduction of federal deposit insurance provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which was established in 1933 to protect “small” savers. All prior state attempts to provide insurance failed. Because there were no effective, non-politicized regulations that could prevent the moral hazard of insured banks and savings institutions taking on excessive risks, an extensive regulatory infrastructure was put in place.

Rational Actors

Now, the U.S. has about 100 financial regulators, including those in the U.S. Treasury and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the FDIC, and the Fed. With near-universal deposit insurance, bank runs have become a rarity, but systemic crises have occurred more frequently. It is incontestable that big bubbles eventually burst, asset prices crash, and financial crises ensue. What causes the bubbles to inflate to systemic proportions, and to ultimately burst, is more contentious.

At the time of Kindleberger’s analysis, individuals were assumed to be rational. The latest edition of his book, written after the 2008 financial crisis, postulates numerous theories about mob psychology (mania) that could lead rational individuals to produce irrational markets, but these ideas are all rather lame.

Read more

There Is No Possible Reform for HUD

“The Department of] Housing and Urban Development has done an enormous amount of harm. My god, if you think of the way in which they have destroyed parts of cities under the rubric of eliminating slums … there have been many more dwelling units torn down in the name of public housing than have been built.” ~ Milton Friedman, Interview, Hoover Institution, February 10, 1999

President-elect Trump’s appointment of Dr. Ben Carson as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development is being criticized on the grounds that he lacks the requisite administrative experience. More likely, Carson’s affront was to question why HUD exists.

Republican presidents have been ambivalent. Having bigger fish to fry, President Reagan appointed Sam Pierce HUD Secretary so that he could ignore it. George H.W. Bush repaid Jack Kemp’s political opposition by first making him HUD Secretary and then frustrating his attempts to eliminate the Department. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson, appointed by George W., was allegedly focused on participating in the traditional kickback schemes while his Assistant Secretary for Housing pursued homeownership policies that contributed mightily to the financial crisis of 2008.

Democratic presidents have used it as a platform to pursue other agendas. Jimmy Carter’s HUD Secretary Patricia Harris introduced Fannie Mae housing goals – quotas – as punishment for not appointing a woman to the Board of Directors. Between scandals, Clinton’s HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros promoted the homeownership goals that left both the financial system and the new mortgage borrowers bankrupt.

HUD’s budget is relatively small as compared to other federal departments, but it has always punched far above its budget weight in destructive power. To put HUD’s annual budget of about $50 billion in perspective, the cost of the homeowner mortgage interest tax deduction is two to three times greater, but HUD’s “mission regulation” of financial institutions has given it influence or control over trillions more.

The initial political interest in housing during the Great Depression was entirely Keynesian, i.e., related to the short-term potential to create jobs and relieve cyclical unemployment – the “infrastructure investments” of that era. The Democrat’s approach to construction, management, and allocation of public housing was generally implemented to benefit builders and rife with corruption. FHA and Fannie Mae were chartered mostly as off-balance sheet financial institutions to stimulate housing production on the cheap.

The problem of urban development, as many politicians and urban analysts saw it in the 1960s, stemmed from the 1956 Eisenhower initiative to build highways financed by the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, a byproduct of which was that more affluent people commuted from the suburbs while leaving poorer families behind. The pursuit of the American Dream of homeownership left city administrations accustomed to cross-subsidizing municipal services in fiscal distress, creating a vicious cycle: as services declined, more affluent households moved out.

The Housing and Urban Development Act in 1965 established HUD as a separate cabinet department as part of LBJ’s Great Society to give a greater priority to housing and urban issues. HUD inherited a mishmash of various New Deal federal programs, ranging from public rental housing to urban renewal, as well as financial oversight of FHA and Fannie Mae.

Faced with steep “guns and butter” budget deficits, LBJ focused on ways to further encourage off-balance-sheet financing of housing construction through “public-private partnerships.” Republicans, led by Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, convinced by academic studies that the urban riots of the 1960s were the direct result of poor quality housing and the urban environment and by lobbyists for housing producers, supported the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. The “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” was first introduced in the 1949 Housing Act. Title XVI of the 1968 Act “Housing Goals and Annual Housing Report” introduced central planning without specifying the goals, a timetable for implementation, or a budget.

In the late 1960s, the Weyerhaeuser Corporation produced a forecast of single-family housing production in the coming decade to assist with tree planting. Congressional math wizards divided the total forecast by 10 to produce HUD’s annual housing production goals for the nation. For the next decade, HUD Secretaries were annually paraded before their Senate oversight Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to explain why they did or did not meet these production goals.

Republicans have historically supported rental housing vouchers for existing private rental units for privately built housing to minimize market distortions. Republican HUD Secretary Carla Hills in the Ford Administration pushed HUD’s Section 8 subsidies for existing housing – something arguably better administered as a negative income tax – as a political alternative to the Democrats’ push for a return to public housing construction. But as a further political compromise, the largely autonomous local public housing authorities would administer these vouchers, leading to the same concentration of crime and urban decay as public housing. To borrow a phrase from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, “Republican social engineering” isn’t necessarily better than “Democratic social engineering.”

The economic goals of “affordable” housing have generally been in direct conflict with urban development. When I proposed demolishing the worst public housing projects and redeveloping the land, using the proceeds to fund subsidies for existing private market housing (something partially achieved during the Reagan Administration), Clinton Administration officials scoffed at the idea.

HUD combines socialist goals and fascist methods that seriously distort and undermine markets. There is neither market nor political discipline on the enormous scope of its activities. HUD met unfunded goals through financial coercion, undermining both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and their commercial banking competitors, with the collusion of the Senate Committee responsible for both financial and housing oversight, leading to the sub-prime lending debacle of 2008.

There is no economic rationale for a federal role in housing or urban affairs in a market economy. HUD represents a continuing systemic threat for which there is no cure. May it RIP.

Kevin Villani


Kevin Villani

Kevin Villani, chief economist at Freddie Mac from 1982 to 1985, is a principal of University Financial Associates. He has held senior government positions, been affiliated with nine universities, and served as CFO and director of several companies. He recently published Occupy Pennsylvania Avenue on the political origins of the sub-prime lending bubble and aftermath.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

Quote of the Day

Home Builders Say Federal Loan Limits Shut Out Many Buyers (WSJ):

One of the hallmarks of the housing recovery has been the historically low level of new-home construction, particularly at lower price points attainable for first-time buyers. Although a wide range of factors are at play, from slow wage growth to higher regulatory costs, builders say the FHA limits in many markets are shutting out potential buyers.
 
The challenge is particularly acute in California, which has the nation’s highest upfront fees for new construction, according to housing-research firm Zelman & Associates. Fees to pay for roads, sewers, schools and other infrastructure in California markets average between $40,000 and $72,000 per home, according to the firm’s research, compared with an average of $2,600 in Houston. [emphasis added]