Whether Obama or Romney gets elected tonight, the next administration within the next four years will have two major crises that they will have to confront head on. One has been discussed frequently on the campaign trail – Iran getting a nuclear weapon, the other has been virtually ignored.  It’s the 800 lb gorilla in the room.  We would prefer not to acknowledge that it even exists, which is, the inevitable financial collapse of Europe.

What most people don’t realize, or are unwilling to admit, there is no solution to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. European leaders could assemble the brightest economist minds from all around the world together in one room, give them complete authority to act on the crisis as they see fit and it still would not change the ultimate outcome: Europe is going down. It’s inevitable. They are too far down the path to their own destruction to turn it around.

It’s only a matter of when, not if. True, they’ve done an excellent job “kicking the can down the road” these past three years and can continue to do so for some time to come but at some point the market is going to perceive their feeble attempts at a solution as putting a band aid on a gaping wound. When that occurs, market confidence will collapse taking down the European bond market and many of the European banks.

By now I suspect that many of you consider me a “nut job,” a “doom and gloom” type who thinks the world is coming to an end which I categorically deny. Humor me for a moment and for the sake of argument let’s assume my prediction is true. What then? How will this affect commercial real estate in the Pacific Northwest? To answer that question the following questions need to be answered:

  • How will this affect trade with our largest trading partner, the European Union? We will see a substantial decline in our exports to Europe.
  • How will this affect the U.S. economy? This will likely throw our economy into another recession.
  • How will this affect our stock market? The stock market is affected by emotion. When things are good it soars far beyond any justification. When things are bad it plummets far lower than it should. In this case the stock market will initially plummet similar to what happened in 2008, maybe worse. At best it will be a roller coaster of a ride, soaring to new heights on good news and plummeting back down with any hiccup in economic news. This will not be a good time to be heavily invested in the stock market.
  • How will this affect our bond market? It’s likely that Europeans will see our bond market as a safe haven and heavily invest in U.S. treasuries. If true, treasury yields, which are at historic lows, will likely go lower.
  • How will this affect our financial institutions? This is where it gets ominous. The vast majority of our lending institutions should be unaffected. Only our five largest banks – Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley are heavily invested in credit default swaps on European sovereign debt. A credit default swap is a fancy term for bond insurance. Our five largest banks have insured a boat load of European sovereign bonds. When these European countries default on their bonds, these U.S. banks will be left holding the bag. Though these banks have confidently stated they have it under control, call me a cynic but I don’t believe them.  Between you and me, I hope they do. I truly hope they do because the alternative is these banks are going down.
  • What response will the president (Obama or Romney) make to minimize the fallout on the American economy? This is where it gets interesting. The president has a very difficult decision to make: Does he let these five largest U.S. financial institutions go bankrupt? Or does he bail them out? Is the country in the mood to bail Wall Street out once again? Are these banks too big to fail? If he doesn’t bail them out will it not bring down the rest of the world’s financial system? Good luck Mr. President!
  • So back to the original question: How will this affect commercial real estate in the Pacific Northwest? I think this can best be answered by looking back to the 2008 financial debacle. Four years ago some commercial real estate investors survived while others did not. The common denominator for survival was:
    • Property type mattered. Apartments fared well. Office, raw land and single family subdivisions did poorly. Everything else was in between.
    • Those properties that were modestly leveraged survived. Those that weren’t were taken over by the lender. 
    • Those who have subsequently locked in long-term, low interest rate financing were the big winners.

When the Europe bond market collapses commercial real estate will be the investment that has the best chance to weather the economic storm. The stock market, on the other hand, will be a roller coaster basket case, the bond market will have incredibly low yields, and cash in the bank will yield no return. As long as investors invest in the right property type, leverage their properties modestly and lock in low interest rate, long-term fixed rate financing they will come out of this future economic crisis intact. And if inflation is the natural result of this disaster what better hedge against inflation than commercial real estate?

So am I a “nut job?” You decide.