Puppy Dogs, Rainbows and Three Caps

A nation’s overall happiness is not necessarily based on the strength of its economy.

Take Japan, for example. Its economy hasn’t grown much in almost 30 years, but it has one of the highest standards of living in the world and, according to a recent study by the CATO Institute, is the third “least miserable” country on earth. The U.S. is the 28th least miserable out of 95 countries ranked by CATO, which derives the rankings by the sum of each nation’s unemployment, inflation and bank lending rates minus the percentage change in real GDP per capita.

As I turn 50 this year, I’ve begun to think a lot more about things money can’t buy: more time with my kids, a decent first baseman on the Baltimore Orioles and the pursuit of happiness. I also wonder what’s happiness worth? While happiness is great, it may be a bit overrated. Based on seven independent studies, happiness peaks at the ages of 16 to 18 and 86 to 88. Everyone else—and this means you—is pretty much at the nadir of miserable for most of their lives.    

So, what is happiness worth? The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, ignorance is bliss and happiness is a warm gun (thank you John Lennon) all sound pretty good to me and sound even better as I get closer to my 86-year-old fountain of new happiness! And if happiness is measured by cheap stuff (i.e., a $500, 68-inch smart TV) and more free time, then 2019 is a good year. Technology and innovation have made all stuff cheaper (though services costs have skyrocketed) and many big employers are experimenting with four- and even three-day work weeks as knowledge-worker productivity has increased.

The problem is that the same forces that are increasing our happiness—particularly innovation that, due to efficiencies in things like electric cars, makes us use less stuff—are also slowing economic growth. These four forces are too much cheap money, cheap labor, cheap energy and innovation itself. So we may be happier, but we are in for slow growth, low inflation and low interest rates for a long time. Big deal you say, at least we are happy! Well, I like puppy dogs and rainbows as much as the next guy, but I can’t put them in my 401(k), which requires growth and cold hard cash.

The silver lining to lousy growth is lower cap rates for commercial real estate. In short, because growth has slowed globally, we are in a seemingly permanent environment of lower interest rates and inflation. This lowered cost of debt capital, combined with the increasingly lower cost of equity capital as both international investors and large U.S. domestic institutions increase their allocations to U.S. commercial real estate, means that cap rates can and likely will get lower. U.S. growth may be slowing, but the country’s relatively high-yielding (compared to bonds) commercial real estate is the cleanest dirty shirt in the global investment laundry.

“I can’t believe I’m paying a four cap.” Just wait. European inflation is falling, and the U.S. is following suit. EU cap rates are typically 50 to 100 basis points lower than U.S. cap rates for comparable assets because of lower inflation. Lower inflation ahead means lower cap rates are the latest luxury European export that will line the pockets of U.S. commercial real estate investors in the form of declining cap rates across the board in core markets like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.   Don’t be surprised when the three cap becomes the new four cap in the U.S.

Jamie Dimon, Alan Greenspan and a lot of other smart folks believe that the 10-year Treasury rate could go to zero to match the $17 trillion of zero or negative interest rate bonds globally. This means commercial real estate investors investors will do well in the years to come. With slower growth, my 401 (k) may be a disappointment in my golden years, but at least I’ll be happy (particularly if I buy a puppy)!

By Spencer Levy, Chairman, Americas Research & Senior Economic Advisor, CBRE.