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NEW YORK CITY-The Manhattan office market showed signs of stabilization through the end of the third quarter backed by improving economic news, including a rebounding stock market and an increase in the New York City payroll employment, according to a report released Wednesday by FirstService Williams.

According to the report, monthly leasing activity has nearly doubled since the end of May. FSW says this held the overall availability rate in check at 13.4% between the second and third quarters.

The report says those developments suggest Manhattan’s office market is close to a bottom, assuming there are no additional hits to business confidence. While the overall availability rate was flat in Q3, asking rents fell sharply, declining by 8.5% during the quarter.

Dr. Peter P. Kozel, senior managing director and head of FSW’s research department, tells GlobeSt.com the asking rent decline was “no surprise” since they are essentially just “catching up to what deals were already done.”

He says “the third point was a pickup in leasing activity,” and although that was from a very low level, he says, New York City is climbing back and “getting close to the average monthly basis.”

Kozel says FSW watches “on a monthly basis, in fact on a daily basis, the additions to the amount of available space, and then the takeups,” which Kozel says is “somewhat of a measure of how much leasing activity is going on.” He says that’s an area where the market is seeing some stability.

But he also notes the fundamental role of jobs. Interestingly, Kozel stresses that payroll employment in New York City has stabilized. In fact, he says, there was actually a small uptick in employment in July and August from June figures.

According to the New York State Department of Labor, since August 2008, the number of non-farm jobs decreased by 57,100 or 1.5%, and the number of private sector jobs decreased by 96,000, or 3%.

On a seasonally adjusted basis, New York State saw private sector jobs increase by 14,000 or 0.2% in July 2009, while nationally, private sector jobs decreased by 0.2% over the same period.

Kozel says that in New York City, the labor force has actually continued to rise throughout the recession. “Quite frequently, in a recession, the labor force slows, because people get discouraged, in effect, dropping out of the labor force,” he tells GlobeSt.com.

Two weeks ago, the New York State Labor Department said that August’s statewide unemployment was up to 9% from 8.6% a month earlier. In New York City, headlines announced the unemployment rate had grown even higher, to 10.3%.

Kozel agrees, “the big headline news was the unemployment rate, but the other part of the story was that employment growth was basically static. The high unemployment made for good headlines, but it wasn’t really catching the essence of what’s going on in the employment market.”

In fact, he says, “we’ve had a smaller decline in employment, even by the household survey, than we did back in the early-2000s down cycle, or the similar period in the early 1990s.”

Kozel argues that the jump in unemployment is primarily caused by what he says has been a big increase in the labor force. “It wasn’t that employment was collapsing, instead the labor force was growing so rapidly, and that was causing the escalation in the unemployment rate.”

He further charges that the growth in employment is counter-intuitive, something New York City has not traditionally seen in a major economic downturn. Kozel says the growth in the labor force is actually a very powerful signal “that people at least have confidence, or more appropriately, the perception, that they have a chance at getting a job.”

Nationwide, “the labor force remained stagnant,” but in New York City, the labor force grew, says Kozel.

Ultimately, he says, many experts and predictors of future market conditions are looking at the wrong statistics. “I’m not claiming all is great, and there are many issues and plenty of uncertainties ahead in the New York City economy,” but he says, we should be looking at conditions through a standard analytical approach to economics.

“You don’t look at the number of unemployed people, you look at the number of employed people,” says Kozel. “Those who are employed are the ones who occupy commercial space. That’s why I think it’s important to follow that theory.”

Of big sales deals in Q3, the report cited only two transactions: Worldwide Plaza at 825 Eighth Ave. for $605 million, and the AIG headquarters deal for $150 million.

“The purchase of the AIG building, that was a great deal for an iconic building,” says Kozel noting that it sold for essentially the same prices that existed in the early 1990s. However, despite the deal getting done, he notes the challenged status of WorldWide Plaza. “That building had a lot of empty space.”

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