Sep

7

Today is my (our, I guess) 29th anniversary. To celebrate, we decided to go the day before up to San Francisco. Sunday rather than Monday since the parking is better. One of the first places in San Francisco we went when we first met and came out west to visit friends was Union Street. It's a nice shopping district. Lots of nice cafes. Perfect for a Sunday. (Granted, it's summer, so the city was a tad cold, and the stiff breeze didn't help, but still, it's San Francisco. The place of lonely hearts (well, they're out on a hill, so they must be lonely. Or at least alone.)

Something seemed strange to me though. In 5 blocks, I counted 12 stores available for lease and 5 available for sale. Empty stores. That's unusual for this street. Three years ago, it was bustling. Today , not so much. Not many people walking on the street either. Schools reopened a couple of weeks ago, but maybe everyone is coincidentally taking off at the same time. Probably not, though.

I made a similar observation in May on upper Madison Avenue in Manhattan. Both are places where traditionally, it's been pretty easy to fill an empty store. Sure, those are places that are a bit expensive, but in San Francisco at least, there's lots of money floating around the city. That money is going somewhere. It's not all for 80 inch monitors. Union Street tended to get its "fair share" in the past. Consumer confidence is at record highs. I know that Amazon and the rest of the net has taken over much of retailing, but there's still a need for neighborhood shops for impulse purchases—as in, " forgot it's our anniversary." Or "If I don't do something for her birthday, it'll be a week of sleeping on the couch."

I have to wonder, then, as the Fed drones on about the need to hike, if the economy really is as healthy as many suggest. After all, 20 years ago, when the same measures used today were in use, it wasn't a gig economy. The Fed may have hiked, but it wasn't concurrently selling off its portfolio of debt instruments. And while there are lots of "for hire" signs out, the wages of a given job may not be what they once were. Just some observations and speculations.

Peter Drucker used to note that if what you see doesn't agree with the data at hand, maybe the data at hand are misleading. I have to wonder if the same thing is going on here. The numbers look good, but is the economy really as good as the numbers suggest? If it is, why are the shops now empty? 6 mos to a year ago they weren't. Did Amazon move that fast? Maybe, but somehow, that just seems unlikely. The disruption in retail has already hit the bricks and mortar stores. Except for Sears, which seems to have missed the memo.

Or is the Fed really justified in raising rates, as it did in 2007 and 2000 and 1990?

Mr. Isomorphisms writes: 

Low interest rates benefit only those who have access to them (established firms). Another decade of QE wouldn't help America's poor; only change can do that.

Alan Wolfe, in "the seamy side of democracy", argues that the USA is a story of conflict between stability and freedom–and that stability has always taken precedence. This was 1973.

Yes, people can and do take dogsh__ companies public (doesn't make their bonds good), but that's still different from healthy capitalism. Dynamism requires failure. With regard to everything being expensive but empty, I posted a note about Al Jazeera east 101's takes on paper holdings of China's million millionaires. As a simplistic story, ask yourself where the USA's lost manufacturing wealth 1980-2010 went. Then ask where they park their money. Vancouver is one answer for Chinese wealth. London/NYC are an answer for Saudi money. Qatar had the good sense to make their own BBC, investing in people instead of buildings.

Then turn in your copy of Sidney Homer's history of interest rates to the part where a Swede buys California ranching property based on figures, with no knowledge of how to run the thing.

anonymous writes: 

It is easy to get caught in the echo chambers of the two coasts. I've often heard, but only recently, recently how "nice" people are in the Midwest and South. Foreigners here in Los Angeles are frequently replacing locals who are leaving for many reasons. My town's Chinese population has jumped dramatically in the last 18 months. 

Stefan Jovanovich writes: 

Data from IHL: "Grocery, drug stores, mass merchants/supercenters, and convenience stores are adding a net 2,694 stores in 2018 on top of 3,115 net new stores in 2017. Department stores, specialty soft goods (apparel, shoes), and specialty hardgoods (DIY, electronics, sporting goods, books, furniture) are closing a net 682 stores in 2018 on top of 2,557 net closings in 2017."

Henry Gifford writes: 

High end retail areas in New York City, such as Madison Avenue (as mentioned on this site a couple of days ago) have higher vacancy rates than last year. But, retail rents outside of the 6 or 8 fanciest areas went up since a year ago, and vacancies remain fairly low.

All I've written above is to be taken with a grain of salt, however, as nobody really knows what retail rents go for, and even vacancies are hard to track with the increasing popularity of temporary (pop-up) stores. Apartment rents are easy to track, but retail leases usually include the building owner spending some money on repairs/buildout, and the owner usually gives some months of free rent. Owners used to bring electricity and water and sewer into retail spaces, and maybe nothing else, but now more and more owners pay large sums of money toward the cost of building out a space.

The reason is that the more money the owner pays, the higher the rent will be, and thus the larger the mortgage the owner can get on the building - based on the reported rent. If/when mortgage rates change, or mortgage availability changes, owners will pay more or less toward buildouts, and the retail rents will change accordingly, making any effort to track retail rents very difficult.


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