May 19, 2023 | 13:02
Commercial Real Estate Outlook
Commercial Real Estate Outlook
Commercial real estate (CRE) markets will continue to diverge by segment this year. The two sectors that flourished during the pandemic—industrial and multi-family housing—have slowed but should weather the expected mild economic downturn reasonably well. Retail faces a deeper chill as consumer spending will weaken in response to high interest rates and tighter lending conditions. The office segment will struggle the most, as a soft macro climate will compound the challenge from hybrid work.
Despite some reshoring of goods production and the construction of plants for electric vehicle and microchip production, U.S. real non-residential construction has sagged to 11-year lows amid high material costs, worker shortages, and a glut of office space. However, spending turned up late last year due to incentives provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, CHIPS Act and Inflation Reduction Act. Construction in Canada has performed somewhat better than in the U.S. amid robust resource sector activity, but it is no higher than a decade ago (Chart 1). This year, businesses will likely delay construction spending until the macro climate improves and borrowing costs fall.
The recent failure of a few U.S. regional banks will impact the CRE market largely through tighter lending conditions. Smaller banks provide about 70% of total bank loans to the sector. Commercial property owners could have difficulty refinancing, as the Fed’s latest survey of loan officers found that lending conditions for this group have tightened further.
Like most asset classes, commercial property values were inflated by cheap credit during the pandemic and are now sagging under the weight of the highest policy rates since 2007. After peaking in early 2022, U.S. property prices have fallen 15%, back to pre-pandemic levels, led by a 25% plunge in office values (Chart 2). Total rates of return on U.S. commercial property investments tumbled in the final quarter of 2022, led by offices.
A moderate upturn in capitalization rates suggests Canadian CRE prices are also under pressure. The upturn spans all major segments, with offices leading. Cap rates, however, have risen less than interest rates, resulting in below-normal spreads between the two returns. If interest rates stay high, further price declines will likely be required to attract investors. Meantime, Canadian commercial rent growth moderated to 3.2% y/y in December 2022 (Statistics Canada; latest data available), with decent gains in retail (4.0%) and industrial (3.8%) but a modest advance for offices (1.2%).
Despite high interest rates, credit quality generally remains strong. At 0.7% in 2022Q4, the U.S. delinquency rate on CRE loans from banks was only slightly above recent record lows (Chart 3). While this rate should return to the long-run median (1.8%) in a mild recession, even that would pale against the near-9% peak reached in the Great Recession. Trepp’s 30-day-plus delinquency rate for commercial mortgage-backed securities has turned up, but it too remains low at 3.09% in April 2023, with industrial, retail, and hotels still below year-ago levels. The office delinquency rate has drifted higher to 2.61%, though lengthy leases are holding it down. U.S. business bankruptcies spiked in March but remain below 2019 levels, while Canadian business insolvencies have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Regionally, Alberta should outperform other provinces if oil prices stay elevated, as an inexpensive housing market is attracting strong population inflows from other regions. Atlantic Canada is also enjoying a population spurt. In the U.S., an inflow of people and businesses to the South will likely see that region outperform the nation.
The main near-term risk to the CRE sector is if the economy suffers a hard landing, say because monetary policy tightens further or the U.S. debt ceiling impasse is unresolved. Longer term, climate risks could dominate, especially in regions prone to flooding, wildfires, and severe storms.
The industrial segment has benefitted from some reshoring of activity and vastly improved global supply chains after three years of disruptions stemming from the pandemic, Ukraine war, and deglobalization. The segment continues to support the logistics and warehousing needs of e-commerce firms. A low-valued currency has underpinned activity in Canada, while strong infrastructure spending has supported the U.S. segment. Industrial building owners have enjoyed low vacancy rates and rapid rent increases. Canada's industrial availability rate of 1.9% in 2023Q1 remains close to historic lows, driving rents 28% higher in the past year (CBRE). However, net absorptions are near a three-year low as consumer spending shifts toward services and new supply comes on stream. Capitalization rates remain low, but have followed a V-shaped route back to pre-pandemic levels. The industrial segment is well positioned to handle a mild downturn, though it's likely to decelerate in 2023.
Multi-family property remains healthy in most regions, with rental vacancy rates pinned down by low joblessness and a still-pricey housing market. While home prices have fallen sharply in Canada, they appear to be bottoming, leaving many cities unaffordable for even middle-income families. Canadian benchmark condo prices are down 9% y/y to April, after soaring 33% in the previous two years (Chart 4). The apartment market appears healthier in Canada than in the U.S. due to stronger population growth. Rents across all property types in Canada are up 9.6% y/y in April (Rentals.ca). Demand for purpose-built rental units remains high as decades of under-investment clash with surging immigration. Multi-family housing will remain supported by a tight rental market in 2023. The Prairie Provinces and parts of Atlantic Canada, which are attracting both international and interprovincial migrants due to inexpensive housing, should outperform Ontario and British Columbia.
The earlier frenzy in the U.S. rental market has also subsided. The vacancy rate rose to 6.4% in 2023Q1, though this is about one percentage point below long-run norms. Zillow’s observed rent index for single- and multi-family units slowed to 5.3% y/y in April 2023 from 16.5% a year ago. Apartment building values tumbled 21% from their peak, exceeded only by the downdraft in offices. The price correction is a testament to how overheated the market was previously. Landlords face lower prices, weaker rents and higher borrowing costs, and the latter will hit owners with floating-rate mortgages the hardest. Still, continued poor housing affordability should put a floor under the rental market.
The retail sector has recovered on stunning job growth, brisk wage gains and excess savings. U.S. availability rates for retail properties remain low at 7.0% in 2022Q4 (CBRE). In Canada, rent growth is sturdy at 4.0% in December 2022 (Statistics Canada). A return to more normal online shopping patterns has helped in-store sellers. After spiking above 16% early in the pandemic, the e-commerce share of U.S. retail sales has fallen below 15%, though it’s still up from around 11% in late 2019 (Chart 5). According to a recent CBRE survey, about 70% of shoppers prefer in-person to online shopping, with the digitally savvy Gen Zers even keener than millennials.
More recently, the retail sector has softened in response to high interest rates. This trend should continue as the unemployment rate drifts higher. Big city retailers that rely on office commuters will face tougher times than their suburban counterparts. Construction of retail space, especially new malls, will likely remain at a low ebb.
Office buildings will remain the most depressed CRE segment for some time. A mild recession will compel companies to reduce headcounts and space, aggravating the secular challenge arising from the adoption of hybrid work. Earlier rapid growth in the tech industry had buttressed landlords during the pandemic, but a recent wave of layoffs is causing a surge in subleasing. While office rents have held relatively steady, incentives are on the rise, and more will be needed as tenants reconsider their long-run needs. Valuations of publicly traded real estate investment trusts have plunged in the U.S. in the past year, and have been sliced in half since March 2023 in Canada (based on this sub-sector of the TSX Composite Index). This flags some downward pressure on the privately-held office market in Canada, though institutional investors such as pension funds tend to have long-term investment objectives and may be better capitalized to ride out the storm.
Employees have been slow to return to in-person work. Many have settled on spending half their time in the office, albeit with wide variation across professions. Office return rates are lowest in the information sector, followed by some business professions such as legal and accounting. Office occupancy rates are lower in large urban centres due to high commuting costs and safety concerns. Toronto’s office occupancy rate was 47% of pre-pandemic levels as of April 15, according to the Strategic Regional Research Alliance. That’s close to the U.S. 10-city average of 49%, compiled by Kastle System’s access-card swipes as of May 10. Austin is at the top (61%), Chicago is near the middle (51%), and San Jose (aka Silicon Valley) is at the bottom (38%).
A major concern for building owners (and their lenders) is that the U.S. office occupancy rate appears to have plateaued at half of 2019 levels. Remote work could do to offices what e-commerce did to malls—make them far less essential to our daily lives. Still, the direction of office occupancy rates is unclear. Many workers, some of whom have seen their daily commutes shrink from 3 hours to 3 feet, prefer a hybrid option. But employers are more actively coaxing them back to in-person work, either with carrots (free food and gourmet coffee) or the stick (lower bonuses and fewer promotions). Unresolved is the impact of remote work on productivity. Gains at the individual level (partly due to less commuting time) may not compensate for aggregate losses stemming from inferior collaboration and training and a loss of corporate culture. Higher office return rates in Europe (70%-to-90%; JLL) and Asia (above 80%) suggest room for further gains in North America, though workers in these regions may enjoy relatively easier and cheaper commuting while residing in smaller living spaces, and thus have greater incentive to return to the office. It's possible that office return rates will stabilize at around 60% of pre-pandemic levels in the U.S. and Canada. However, this won’t necessarily translate into a 40% reduction in demand, as additional space might be required for new amenities and peak in-office days (Tuesday is tops at 58%, finds Kastle). We suspect office demand will shrink by up to 20% of 2019 levels.
Canada’s office vacancy rate spiked to a record 17.7% in 2023Q1 from 10.0% before the pandemic (Chart 6). Regionally, Ottawa’s rate climbed to 12.3% due to a spate of tech layoffs. The city nervously awaits the federal governments long-run leasing plans as public sector workers have demanded more flexibility to work from home. Toronto’s vacancy rate more than doubled in the pandemic to 17.5%, the highest since 1996. Its downtown rate is 15.3%, the highest in nearly three decades and up from just 2% in March 2020. It will rise further as 14 office buildings are currently under construction, according to Altus. Moreover, the effective office vacancy rate is higher than the official rate, which excludes available sublease space, and Shopify has recently put seven floors up for sublease. Calgary’s downtown vacancy rate of 32% is the highest among major Canadian cities, compelling its government to offer grants to convert office buildings into living space and public amenities, such as hotels, schools and performing arts centres. Montreal’s rate of 16.8% has nearly doubled since early 2020. Vancouver is the only major Canadian city with a single-digit vacancy rate (8.4%). Due to soaring vacancies, asking rents in Canada fell in 2023Q1 for the first time in years (Colliers).
The U.S. office vacancy rate jumped to 17.3% in 2022Q4 from around 12% at the start of the pandemic (CBRE). Cushman and Wakefield believe that up to a quarter of all offices could be “functionally obsolete” in seven years, requiring significant investments to either upgrade or repurpose. It expects vacancies to keep rising, as only a third of leases scheduled to expire by the end of the decade have already done so. In the U.S., the federal government is the biggest office tenant and, much like Canada, is having trouble getting its workers back in the office. Large budget deficits could force governments to save on office space. Another threat for office landlords (and workers) is that many professional service jobs can be done remotely in countries with lower wages than North America.
Class A towers with modern amenities will continue to attract tenants from older buildings. However, a flight to quality won’t fully immunize high-end buildings from remote work. Vacancy rates have risen as well for luxury buildings. According to Savills, around 19% of total high-end office space in Manhattan was available for lease in 2022Q4, up from less than 12% in early 2019.
Suburban office buildings may outperform downtown towers as many remote workers have moved to the suburbs and exurbs, compelling some companies to provide office space closer to home. CBRE reported that the average U.S. downtown office vacancy rate surpassed that of the suburbs for the first time in decades in mid-2022.
Loan defaults currently remain low because office leases typically last 10 years or more, but financial strain is mounting as vacancy rates rise. Property manager Brookfield recently defaulted on two large office towers in Los Angeles, while Columbia Property Trust defaulted on seven top office buildings across the country. Trepp says around $1.2 trillion of debt was backed by U.S. office buildings in mid-2022, suggesting that the ripple effects of wider distress could be material. Office towers in states with weak population trends are especially vulnerable.
More unused office space will be repurposed for living needs. Last year a record number of U.S. office buildings were converted to apartments. Repurposing will limit credit losses of office owners and allow lenders to recoup some losses. However, vacancy rates could stay high for a while given the lengthy time to convert a building. In addition, only a fraction of office buildings can be repurposed, depending on location, building design, and zoning regulations. Avison Young estimates that 34% of office towers built before 1990 in 14 major cities across North America have the potential to be converted to living space, though not all are economically viable.
High interest rates, tighter lending conditions, and an expected shallow recession will depress rental revenue and commercial property values this year. Even the sturdy industrial and multi-family residential segments won’t be entirely immune, though strong population growth should bolster the latter in Canada. These headwinds will translate into less lending and higher default rates, mostly in the beleaguered office market.