Industrial Market Outlook
Industrial Sector’s Time to Shine
The prominence of industrial properties as targets for investment is on the rise. A laggard in the early stages of the commercial real estate recovery, investors now rank the industrial sector ahead of all other property types for its investment and development prospects.¹ Lenders are seeing eye-to-eye with their borrowers, anticipating that industrial property mortgage volume will grow more consistently than other property types over the next year.²
The drivers of the industrial sector’s headline performance numbers are varied. Breaking a pattern of decline that began in the 1980s, increasing manufacturing activity and employment since the end of the recession have supported the absorption of a wide range of heavy and light manufacturing spaces. That trend coincides with continued growth in shipping volumes, both on a large scale at the nation’s deep-water ports and along the “last mile” where fulfillment centers are allowing online retailers to shorten delivery times in major metropolitan areas.
Across all industrial subtypes, the national vacancy rate fell below 8% in the first quarter of 2015, its lowest level since before the recession, according to Chandan Economics’ tracking of mortgage-financed properties. The pace of asking rent growth has improved in kind, rising to 2.8% in 2014 from 2.0% a year before. Rent growth is projected to surpass 3.0% in 2015 with significantly stronger results in the tightest segments of the market, including fulfillment centers and the most active ports. The situation is different for functionally obsolete warehouses and assets further afield from distribution channels. In those cases, industrial properties will see further declines in performance as leases roll, diluting cash flow.
Even in the strongest segments of the industrial sector, investors should watch supply trends in their markets closely. With the support of banks and other lenders, development activity is picking up across the full range of single-tenant build-to-suit properties, partially pre-leased multi-tenant properties, and even speculative development. Construction is concentrated in Southern California, the Mid-Atlantic, in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and Atlanta. In spite of strong demand-side drivers for space, investors in these markets may find that an observable surge in speculative development risks undercutting the performance of less competitive assets.
¹PwC and Urban Land Institute, Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2015
²RELA-Chandan Survey of Commercial Real Estate Lender Sentiment Fall 2014
Industrial Market Statistics in 2015
Industrial development activity increased sharply in 2014 and showed no sign of losing momentum in the first quarter of 2015. Measured in terms of dollar spending, construction activity jumped 50% between 2013 and 2014 and, on its current trajectory, will soon surpass the previous cyclical high set in 2007. Development is highly concentrated in a small number of metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles and the Inland Empire in California, Philadelphia and New Jersey in the Mid-Atlantic, and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and Atlanta in the South and Southeast. Investors in other markets should still keep a careful eye on construction activity. With the shortest development timeframes of the major property types, the balance of supply and demand can shift quickly in the industrial space market.
Asking rents for industrial space nationally increased by 2.6% in 2014, surpassing the previous cycle’s high of 2.5%, recorded in 2007. Across virtually all of the major investment markets, lease rollovers in the first quarter of 2015 were accretive to property cash flow. The strongest rent gains are in close-in fulfillment centers, which have experienced a surge in tenant demand as online retailers have pushed towards the “last mile” with consumers. Lifted by the rapid expansion of cloud storage needs, data centers also registered healthy rent gains.
Differences in rent trends were pronounced across markets. In San Francisco and San Jose, demand from tech firms and others pushed asking rent increases into the double-digits. Denver and Chicago followed Northern California. In the case of the former, the legalization of marijuana production has been a primary driver of new demand for space, pushing vacancy rates to their lowest levels on record.
In spite of improving fundamentals, the national average cap rate for industrial property sales and refinancing declined only slightly in 2014, to 6.2%. Significantly below its long-term average, the cap rate still affords a relatively wide spread over benchmark treasuries. Along with the most important industrial hubs, including the Southern California markets and Chicago, cap rates edged closer to 5% in San Francisco and San José, Seattle, and Miami. Aside from Chicago’s healthy valuations, the highest cap rate markets in 2014 were concentrated in the Midwest, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis. With relatively slow rent growth, weaker assets in these markets are also amongst the most exposed to downward pressure on values once interest rates begin a sustained rise.
Market Cap Rates
Value-weighted national average industrial cap rates fell to 6.2% in 2014, marginally lower than a year before. Market average cap rates ranged from just over 5% in the Southern California agglomeration of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Orange County to above 7% in some Midwestern and Southern markets. Detroit was the only major market to register an average cap rate above 8% in 2014.
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