Inflation is the current hot mess controversy of the moment among economists—and, as a result, US business. The concern: trillions in fiscal stimulus from the government and a dovish monetary policy from the Fed in place since the Great Recession could fuel a wave of pent-up demand from millions emerging from pandemic isolation, causing a rush of inflation not seen in decades.
Could that happen? Possibly. Economists are sharply divided on the topic, but it helps to remember that the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which also pumped trillions into the economy, saw not a hiccough of inflation.
The important thing for commercial real estate to realize is that inflation isn’t monolithic. Rather, different aspects of commerce can feel vastly different effects. Some of the concern is the flip side of what many in real estate thought a year ago.
“If we went back 12 months ago, the big concern I was getting from clients was we were becoming Japan,” JLL chief economist Ryan Severino tells GlobeSt.com. “Now we went from we can’t generate inflation and push up interest rates to we’re in the 1970s. That’s how I know neither of those were probably true.”
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Which isn’t to say that inflation doesn’t exist.
“It’s pretty clear that there is an imbalance between supply and demand for many goods and services in the economy right now because pandemic-disrupted supply chains are not prepared for the surge in fiscal stimulus, and economic reopening demand,” Mark Fleming, chief economist at First American Title Insurance Co., tells GlobeSt.com. “There are good arguments for this inflationary pressure being temporary as supply chains will catch up, but there are also broader concerns about the amount of fiscal stimulus and loose monetary policy causing a longer run overheating of an economy already growing well above trend.”
There is also the question of where inflation is occurring because price increases did not show solidarity. “Although the 4.2% rise in prices over the past year was a noteworthy print, the numbers suggest that it wasn’t a broad-based increase across all goods and services,” Peter Essele, head of Investment Management for Commonwealth Financial Network, said in a statement on May 21. “In fact, of the major expenditure categories used to calculate the headline number, only a few came in above 4.2%. Energy commodities, used cars and trucks, and transportation services—specifically, airfare and vehicle insurance—stood out, which saw yearly price increases of 47.9%, 21%, and 5.6%, respectively. All other major expenditures were in line with long-term averages.”
There are aspects of inflation, like the surge in lumber prices, that can come down on the industry, but, again, not in an even-handed way. “In real estate, there are discussions about the price of lumber,” says Severino. “Land is very expensive now. Anyone looking to build, especially on the housing side where it’s well established that there’s a dearth of supply for demand, and that is a problem.” But that isn’t all of CRE.
Also, inflation is relative. “People are failing to grasp that we’re growing off prices that declined last year,” Severino adds. The jump of inflation is partly restoring the previously fallen prices.
That said, depending on where in the industry someone plays, the real inflation may not matter. Short term leases allow faster mark to market. Longer term leases give less flexibility to respond. But, as Severino says, “If it’s longer, usually there’s a clause in the leases for CPI.”