By Alfred Gobar
Chairman, Alfred Gobar Associates
Over the past 50 years, increase in nonagricultural wage and salary employment as reported by public agencies has correlated closely with household formation and, therefore, housing occupancy. Employment growth is a good thing for real estate markets. An index of nonagricultural wage and salary employment for Southern California as a whole (Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego Counties) is illustrated in Exhibit A in comparison with a similar index based on the 1990 recession. As indicated, employment declined more in percentage terms in the current recession than it did two decades ago, and the recovery has been relatively feeble. Those of us interested in the High Desert real estate market, therefore, should have patience in order to identify attractive real estate market opportunities. From August 2007 until August 2009 (about the bottom of the decline in nonagricultural wage and salary employment), total job base in the six-County Southern California area decreased by about 800,000 jobs. Recovery since August 2009 through August 2012 has amounted to almost 200,000 jobs. Currently, therefore, the total employment base is about 600,000 jobs below the peak prior to the onset of the current recession. Theoretically this amounts to an improvement in demand from the low point of the cycle on the order of 135,000 dwelling units. Concurrently, however, despite modest new construction, approximately 140,000 new units have been added or are in the pipeline to be added to the total housing stock in Southern California; i.e., new development is at about the rate of demand growth.
There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. It is likely, however, that we are looking into a fairly long tunnel.
During the twelve months ended August 2012, nonagricultural wage and salary employment as reported by the California Employment Development Department for the six-county area grew by approximately 158,000 jobs. This is a significant increase. Employment trends for California recently have been outperforming the general trends for the U.S. overall.
Employment growth over the twelve months ended August 2012 shows increases in most sectors including construction. Of significant interest is the increase in employment in the finance sector amounting to 9.2 percent of the overall job growth. Within that category, employment in real estate-related activities—rental and leasing, etc.—amounted to 4.9 percent of the 158,000 jobs increase. The finance sector represents less than 6.0 percent of Southern California’s employment base. The real estate portion of the finance sector amounts to about 2.0 percent of the total base. These categories of employment, therefore, are growing substantially faster than the general economy and faster than their overall role in the economy.
Employment in leisure and hospitality accounted for a substantial portion of job growth during the twelve months ended August 2012, amounting to 23.3 percent of the increase. This sector accounts for less than 12.0 percent of the total employment base in the six-county area.
Government employment grew little during the most recent twelve months for which data are available, accounting for 2.2 percent of the net increase. Overall, government employment is about 15.0 percent of the total employment base in Southern California. If government employment were to be increasing consistent with the other categories, total increase in nonagricultural wage and salary employment over the twelve-month interval would have been above the long-term average for Southern California as a whole and job growth would have exceeded the long-term average trend.
When Harry Truman was President, he was said to have pushed for “one-handed economists” so that economists could avoid tempering their projections by saying “on the other hand.” Similarly, we should point out that for the past several years, employment estimates from government agencies have been subject to revision and to rather erratic behavior on a month-to-month basis contributing to some queasiness regarding the validity of the data. Since the recent employment figures have been so positive, however, until they are revised, we will continue to act like we fully trust their validity. In the most recent twelve-month data, the most significant growth in nonagricultural wage and salary employment occurred in Los Angeles County, followed by San Diego County, Orange County, and the Inland Empire, in that order. The level of nonagricultural wage and salary employment in Ventura County declined slightly during the twelve-month interval.
The pattern of housing development in Southern California derivative of building permit activity for 2011 is fairly consistent with the relative growth in nonagricultural wage and salary employment among the five study areas (Riverside and San Bernardino Counties are grouped together as the “Inland Empire”). A comparison of the percent of nonagricultural wage and salary employment growth accounted for by each of the five areas relative to the percent of new units authorized by permit in each of the five areas is shown below:
The specific data indicate that San Bernardino County represented 5.9 percent of the new units authorized during 2011 and Riverside County for 13.3 percent. Riverside County’s housing market benefits from its proximity to San Diego County, which experienced the recession sooner than the rest of Southern California and has been doing somewhat better than much of the rest of Southern California. In addition, Riverside County serves a national market for second homes and retirees.
The trend of building permit activity for residential development in Southern California since 1985 is illustrated in Exhibit B.
There has been a modest increase in residential building permit activity since 2009. Actual numbers of new units authorized by permit since 1985 for Southern California overall are summarized in Exhibit C. Projections for full-year 2012 suggest building permit activity for Southern California will total about 29,000 units. Interestingly, this is roughly 14.0 percent of the level of building permit activity observed in 1986 when Southern California was emerging from the 1980 recession. It is also interesting to note that during 1985—at the end of the 1980’s recession—building permit activity in Southern California totaled nearly 150,000 new units, while currently in 2012, approximately three years after the bottom of the current recession, building permit activity is only 20.0 percent of that level at about 30,000 units a year.
Although the 1980’s recession had the special features of extraordinarily high inflation and interest rates, the recovery from the current recession has been minimal, suggesting that economic growth that occurred during the 1980s supported a strengthening housing and real estate market, while the tepid economic growth observed currently has obviously not resulted in similar real estate sector activity.
Exhibit D shows the pattern of residential building permit activity on the High Desert. At the peak of activity, more than 8,000 units a year were being authorized by permit. Recently, as shown in Exhibit E, overall residential building permit activity has been on the order of less than 250 units per year in 2011 and likely to be substantially less than 1,000 new units for 2012.
The figures in Exhibit E are influenced substantially by 205 multi-family units authorized by permit in Victorville. Absent this atypical level of activity in multi-family housing construction, overall building permit activity on the High Desert would probably be on the order of 350 units for the full year, or less than 4.0 percent of the more than 8,000 new units authorized in 2005.
Based on the average building permit value per unit, much of the new construction of single-family housing on the High Desert recently has apparently been custom homes. This is not a product that lends itself to high-volume activity. Much of the real estate activity observed recently has been of a qualitative nature—purchase of distressed assets that lend themselves to be reworked for enhanced value. The whole process of flipping foreclosures has attracted increasing levels of interest on the part of real estate professionals who have limited opportunities in tract developments, land entitlement, or other large-scale endeavors which typify opportunities in a strong market. Although interest rates are at record lows—a factor which should encourage real estate development or real estate investment—uncertainty associated with the tax environment, the risk of a double-dip recession, and general unease about an uncertain fiscal policy in light of the potentially inflationary impact of the current monetary policy contribute to anaura of uncertainty that makes real estate decisions particularly difficult, even for those intrepid individuals who somehow chose to make their living in this field.
One thing that makes this recession different from previous ones is that heretofore we generally relied on the housing market to lead the country into an economic recovery. Because of efforts through the Community Reinvestment Act and encouragement of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, we induced marginal buyers into real estate ownership prior to the recession. The reservoir of pent-up demand represented by potential first-time homebuyers was severely eroded and is not readily available to stimulate an economic recovery associated with lower interest rates and more moderate-priced housing. Significant portions of the housing market(which is the largest proportion of the real estate market) have been overexploited because of the interference of government policy, making this recession atypical relative to past experience. Basically, we have already shot that arrow and no longer have it in our quiver. This implies that the recovery is likely to continue to be slow, and that the real estate market will not begin to be vibrant for quite some time. Opportunities, therefore, will continue to be in rearranging real estate assets better to conform to the demand profile or exploiting market imperfections associated with limited understanding of the characteristics of demand and supply for real estate product. Raw demand is not likely to drive a strong real estate market for a number of years.