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When—and Where—Will the Next Downturn Start?

Posted on Nov 27 2018 - 6:50am by Lance Edwards
Corporate debt, tariffs, and rising interest rates number among the potential headwinds.

By Mary Salmonsen (MultiFamilyExecutive.com Article —  As the U.S. economy approaches 10 years without a recession, those with business or investments at stake are looking out for the same dangers that started the Great Recession and other downturns of the past.

However, according to Yardi Matrix analyses and projections, the next recession might come from a series of small economic events rather than a massive burst bubble.

“Economic downturns in recent decades have generally started with a bang—bubbles bursting in the housing or technology markets or oil-price shocks come to mind—but the next one is more likely to arrive as a whimper,” says Paul Fiorilla, director of research at Yardi Matrix. “There are many potential trouble spots—just none identified to date that have the capacity to create major waves by themselves.”

Economic trends that seem worrisome but not critical on their own could, taken together, sink the current cycle over the course of years rather than days or weeks. Yardi predicts that U.S. and global GDP will reach a high of 3% by the end of this year, with only slightly slowing growth in 2019.

“Absent an unforeseen event, 2020 is the earliest a recession could commence, and even that might be a stretch,” Fiorilla says.

Potential headwinds include:

  • The corporate debt bubble. Corporate debt currently stands at over $9 trillion, 50% higher than peak corporate debt during the last bubble. Fiorilla notes that debt-service levels and corporate debt as a share of GDP aren’t as high as in past cycles.
  • Troubled global economies. Examples include Japan, where the population is shrinking, China, where government efforts to curb debt have contributed to slowing GDP growth, and Europe, due to Brexit and anti-immigration sentiments.
  • The housing market slowdown. Home equity has grown by $9.2 trillion since the recession, but eroding affordability and rising interest rates have made it harder for first-time buyers to afford homes. Tariffs on building materials will continue to contribute to high construction costs as well.
  • Rising oil prices. When crude oil prices rose, the added cost to consumers “mitigated” the positive impact of the recent tax cuts, according to Fiorilla. Prices could further fluctuate due to geopolitical tensions, among other reasons.
  • Immigration policy. CRE companies report that their critical shortages of skilled construction workers are due in part to immigration restrictions in recent years.
  • Fiscal policy and tax cuts. According to Greg Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, the economic policies signed into law in 2017–2018 are projected to add 65 basis points (bps) to the U.S. GDP in 2018 and 50 bps in 2019 but could turn into a 30 bps drag on growth by 2020.
  • Rising interest rates. The federal funds rate stands at 2.0%, and the Federal Reserve is expected to raise policy rates 0.25% each quarter. The 10-year Treasury rate is up to 3.2%, the highest level since May 2011, which could increase the cost of permanent debt financing. Cap rates are also near all-time lows.
  • The yield curve. The yield curve has steadily declined since 2014. According to Fiorilla, if the Fed continues to raise short-term interest rates, the curve could invert, a phenomenon that has frequently occurred before recessions.
  • Tariffs. The Trump administration’s use of tariffs as a policy tool has increased the cost of many goods, including housing. This impact could worsen if affected countries retaliate.

At this moment, potential economic upsides include corporate tax and regulatory reform, which could spur investment and productivity, and wage growth, which could raise consumer spending. However, according to Fiorilla, “the most likely positive economic scenario is for growth to maintain its current level.”

Conversely, the most likely recessionary scenario would require many economic areas to soften at once or a combination of rising headwinds to take place, such as interest rates on tariffs or a major geopolitical event. “Whenever it comes, those recession scenarios are unlikely to occur before 2020 or 2021, and the resulting downturn will probably be shallow,” Fiorilla notes.

In the years to come, Fiorilla advises investors to make sure they understand their investment types and how they generate returns.

“With acquisition yields near all-time lows and interest rates about to rise, returns going forward are likely to come from income growth instead of appreciation,” he says. “With rent growth moderating in all property types, owners should focus on operational efficiency to increase net income. What’s more, investors must realize that property purchased today with the idea of a long-term hold is likely to have to endure a downturn.”