McNellis: Is it a Wee Downturn?

WeCompany, WeLive, WeGrow, WeBank, SoftBank, Gemdale Properties, WeWork, Four Seasons, McNellis Partners, Palo Alto, office rents

After all, paraphrasing that famous philosopher, Yogi Berra: “Ninety percent of a recession is half mental.”

By John McNellis

It is a well-established law of cartoon physics that characters may walk on air as long they are unaware of doing so. Once Bugs Bunny realizes he’s airborne, however, gravity reasserts itself, and he plummets to earth. Is today’s economy Wile E. Coyote? Is it unconsciously aloft or, perhaps more interestingly, is it the reverse? Are we on stable ground that just feels like quicksand?

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The strongest argument in favor of an air-walking economy is WeWork. Or Uber or Lyft or any of the other unicorns destined to never make a dime. Throwing billions of dollars at these losers is a recessionary harbinger, calling to mind Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” warning. (A warning the political Greenspan failed to heed himself). I decided I was finished trashing WeWork last year, but the Wall Street geniuses and the business press are at it again and once again wrong about the company. Yes, Adam Neumann has a presidential sense of conflicts of interest. Ah hell, let’s face it, he’s an outright thief. #WeWorkOverInvestors. But today’s juicy narrative—ditch the tawdry Neumann and get on with the IPO—misses the point: WeWork should never go public. It is a flawed concept. Jesus—or even Warren Buffet—could run the company, and it would still fail. For details, see my July 2015 essay, “WeWork until WeDon’t.”

Other recessionary indicators? The near universal belief that the economy is too good to last, that our expansion is already deep into extra-innings. The graybeards seeking the cloud in the silver lining see a bevy of black swans: the trade war with China, Russia’s antics, flare-ups with North Korea and Iran. And now Ukraine and impeachment. Toss these fears and anxieties together and, perhaps like life itself, you can spontaneously create a downturn. After all, paraphrasing that famous philosopher, Yogi Berra: “Ninety percent of a recession is half mental.”

WTF? A recession? Are you crazy?

Another? Wretched excess worthy of Marie Antoinette. Marie would feel right at home in the Bay Area. Selby’s, a new restaurant that skirts Silicon Valley, sells a burger for $50. Klatch Coffee in San Francisco sells a cup of coffee for $100. Yes, $100 for a cup of coffee.

Some would say if you can’t see the recession from here, you’re not looking hard enough.

The counter is: WTF? A recession? Are you crazy? Unemployment is near an all-time low, the stock market is flirting with an all-time high, job growth remains strong, wages are rising across all economic strata and try naming a major American city that isn’t beset by construction cranes.

The real estate industry holds these diametrically-opposed opinions. I attended the ULI’s annual fall meeting last week in Washington, D.C. When asked to rate its businesses on a 1-10 scale (1 being the Great Depression), a sampling of fifty-odd developers from across the country averaged a 7. What struck me about this informal poll, however, was how often the more seasoned developers undercut their 7’s by responding, “We’re a 7 on our way to a 4.” The downturn elephant was quietly grazing in the room.

There is no telling how the national real estate market is because…there is no national real estate market. Every state, city and town is different, each subject to its own challenges and opportunities. For what it’s worth, here’s a loafers-on-the-ground glimpse of Silicon Valley: A gifted mortgage broker says the Valley’s for-sale housing market has seized up, its volume way off from what it was in the spring. Why? “The Chinese are gone, and the investors are sitting on their hands. They smell blood in the water, sure prices are coming way down. The only ones buying are people who actually need a house.” 

Ruing a normal housing market is laughable, but it hasn’t been seen in Palo Alto since 2009. Another high-end residential sales broker said, “The market just disappeared the last sixty days. We’re in a mini-recession.” He did think, however, it would return in the spring. Two project managers of new large-scale apartment projects both admitted they are only achieving their pro-forma rents by giving away significant free rent on signing. And I can tell you first-hand that our office leasing market has cooled.

The great Valley is slowing, but whether for a quick breather or an extended time-out, I have no idea (guessing the latter). But truth be told, I shouldn’t be opining about a countrywide recession at all. Why? Because, when one is standing in the middle of a burning field, the whole world looks like it’s on fire. My world—retail—has been in a recession since at least 2009, perhaps longer. Not a depression. Not an Armageddon. But a recession. A recession born, not of runaway fears and emotions, but of overbuilding, e-commerce and operating cost increases. That said, one can thrive in a recession—think mammals scurrying beneath choking dinosaurs: We’re under construction with three retail projects and buying a fourth.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Articles published in our Contributor section do not necessarily represent the views of The Registry or Mighty Dot Media, Inc. They represent a selection of topics chosen for the value of their editorial perspective. We welcome feedback and alternative positions on topics, and we will consider publishing those, as well.

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To read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.