Signs of a bust pile up.
Private-Equity firm Blackstone Group is planning to acquire Market Center in San Francisco, a 720,000 square-foot complex that consists of a 21-story tower and a 40-story tower.
The seller, Manulife Financial in Canada, had bought the property in September 2010, near the bottom of the last bust. In its press release at the time, it said that it “identified San Francisco as one of several potential growth areas for our real estate business and we are optimistic about the possibilities.” It raved that the buildings, dating from 1965 and 1975, had been “extensively renovated and modernized with state-of-the-art systems in the last few years….” It paid $265 million, or $344 per square foot.
After a six-year boom in commercial real-estate in San Francisco, and with near-impeccable timing, Manulife put the property on the market in February with an asking price of $750 per square foot – a hoped-for gain of 118%!
Now the excellent Bay Area real estate publication, The Registry, reported that Blackstone Real Estate Partners had agreed to buy it for $489.6 million, or $680 per square foot, “according to sources familiar with the transaction.” The property has been placed under contract, but the deal hasn’t closed yet.
If the deal closes, Manulife would still have a 6-year gain of nearly 100%. But here is a sign, one more in a series, that the phenomenal commercial real estate bubble is deflating: the selling price is 9.3% below asking price!
The property is 92% leased, according to The Registry. Alas, among the largest tenants is Uber, which recently acquired the Sears building in Oakland and is expected to move into its new 330,000 sq-ft digs in a couple of years, which may leave Market Center scrambling for tenants at perhaps the worst possible time.
It’s already getting tough
Sublease space in San Francisco in the first quarter “has soared to its highest mark since 2010,” according to commercial real estate services firm Savills Studley. Sublease space is the red flag. Companies lease excess office space because they expect to grow and hire and thus eventually fill this space. They warehouse this space for future use because they think there’s an office shortage despite the dizzying construction boom underway. This space sits empty, looming in the shadow inventory. When pressure builds to cut expenses, it hits the market overnight, coming apparently out of nowhere. With other companies doing the same, it creates a glut, and lease rates begin to swoon.
Manulife might have seen the slowdown coming
Tech layoffs in the four-county Bay Area doubled for the first four months this year, compared to the same period last year, according to a report by Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner, cited by The Mercury News, “in yet another sign of a slowdown in the booming Bay Area economy.”
Announced layoffs in the counties of San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda jumped to 3,135, from 1,515 in the same period in 2015, and from 1,330 in 2014 — based on the mandatory filings under California’s WARN Act. But…
The number of layoffs in the tech sector is undoubtedly larger, because WARN notices do not include cuts by many smaller companies and startups. In addition, notices of layoffs of fewer than 50 people at larger companies aren’t required by the act.
The filings also don’t take attrition into account – when jobs disappear without layoffs. “There is a lot of that,” Vitner explained. “When businesses begin to clamp down on costs, one of the first things they do is say, ‘Let’s put in a hiring freeze.’ I feel pretty certain that if you had a pickup in layoffs, then hiring slowed ahead of that.”
And hiring has slowed down. According to Vitner’s analysis of state employment data, Bay Area tech firms added only 800 jobs a month in the first quarter – half of the 1,600 a month they’d added in 2015 and less than half of the 1,700 a month in 2014.
“Employment in the tech sector has clearly decelerated over the past three months,” he said. “As job growth slows and the cost of living remains as high as it is, that’s going to put many people in a difficult position.”
It’s going to put commercial real estate into a difficult position as well. During the boom years, the key rationalization for the insane prices and rents has been the rapid growth of tech jobs. Now, the slowdown in hiring and the growth in layoffs come just when the construction boom is coming into full bloom, and as sublease space gets dumped on the market.
Here’s what a real estate investor — at the time co-founder of a company they later sold — told me about real estate during the dotcom bust. All tenants should write this in nail polish on their smartphone screens:
It was funny in 2000 because the rent market was still moving up. We rejected our extension option, hired a broker, and started looking around. As months went on, we kept finding more and more, better and better space while our existing landlord refused to renegotiate a lower renewal. We went from a “B” building to an “A” building at half the rent with hundreds of thousands of dollars of free furniture.
The point is that tenants are normally the last to find out that rents are dropping.
“All it takes is a couple of big tech companies folding and the floodgates open, causing the sublease market to blow up, rents to drop, and new construction to grind to a halt,” Savills Studley mused in its Q1 report on San Francisco. Read… “Market is on Edge”: US Commercial Real Estate Bubble Pops, San Francisco Braces for Brutal Dive