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Logistics warehouse activity may cool as interest rates heat up

Investors, developers may back off frenetic activity due to higher capital costs

Industrial property sales volumes plunge in the past 2 months (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Nothing in the second-quarter data indicates that the 12-year bull market for U.S. logistics warehousing, and the trends of e-commerce growth and the need for businesses to maintain high inventory levels that have driven the surge, are close to ending. 

The industrial construction pipeline hit an unprecedented 699 million square feet in the quarter, up 112% from pre-pandemic levels and 177% above the 10-year average, according to Cushman & Wakefield (NYSE: CWK), a real estate services firm. New leasing activity for the year is tracking to exceed 800 million square feet, which would mark only the second year ever at such a lofty perch, Cushman said. 

Nationwide vacancy rates plunged in the quarter to 3.1%, 120 basis points below a year ago, according to Cushman data. Every U.S. region that Cushman canvasses reported under 4% vacancy rates for the second consecutive quarter. Twenty markets reported vacancy rates of less than 2%.

In Chicago, the country’s largest industrial market with more than 1.2 billion square feet of inventory, 8.1 million square feet were developed, the greatest second-quarter completion total in the market’s history, according to Colliers International Group Inc. (NASDAQ: CIGI), a real estate services firm. According to Colliers data, 20 projects totaling 8.1 million square feet commenced during the quarter in the Chicago market.

Colliers said that the Chicago market experienced in the quarter an uptick in vacancy rates for speculative development, where projects are undertaken with no formal end-user commitment, as well as a drop in leasing activity for the category. However, those changes reflect how tight the market has become and are likely more of a blip on the radar than a meaningful trend.

Two weeks into the third quarter, though, anecdotal evidence is pointing to a break in the action. Institutional investors who have pumped billions of dollars into the industrial market in search of higher yields in a low interest rate environment have hit the pause button, concerned about how to price real estate returns in an environment of higher interest rates and of the future direction of borrowing costs with the Federal Reserve in aggressive tightening mode. 

Jack Rosenberg, Colliers’ Chicago-based national director of logistics and transportation who represents industrial tenants, said that “cap rates,” which determine the annual return on a property’s investment by dividing its value with its net operating income, have begun to creep up due to the higher cost of money. A higher cap rate means the investment will likely yield less than it would have if interest rates were lower.  

Lack of clarity into the speed, extent and duration of rate hikes will slow, if not stop, development, Rosenberg said. That’s because no one knows what cap rates will look like in 12 to 18 months when the project is leased and is ready to be sold. One major developer and a significant investor, neither of whom Rosenberg would identify, are in “pencils down” mode, industry lingo for a corporate pause. Projects slated to begin this fall are being pushed into next spring. In the meantime, sale prices per square foot have been dropping, and buyers are requesting changes in their favor to contractual terms of projects currently under contract.

The angst over the Fed’s actions extends to developers as well. Lisa DeNight, national industrial research director at Newmark Group (NASDAQ: NMRK), a real estate services firm, said higher capital costs are leading some developers to halt or abandon projects. Some developers are even selling development sites. Unsurprisingly, “new construction starts have begun to slow, but still remain historically elevated,” she said.

A different cycle

This isn’t the first rate tightening cycle the industrial market has managed through since 2010. What’s different about this cycle is that it dovetails with construction cost inflation, labor shortages and long lead times for materials due to continued global supply chain disruptions. 

As bottlenecks ease and commodity prices decline due to market expectations that higher rates will curtail end demand, more supply will hit the markets and will do so at lower prices. However, that won’t occur until 2023 at the earliest, according to Newmark.

The average permitting and construction process for new industrial projects is taking five months longer than it did in 2019, DeNight said, and the average order lead times for a critical commodity like roofing materials remain at 30 to 50 weeks. Progress on obtaining necessary building permits continues to be hamstrung by understaffed local governments.

“Every stage of the construction timeline has been hampered by two years of challenges that are unlikely to subside during the balance of 2022,” DeNight said.

Despite higher rates, most projects now underway will be seen through to completion, said John Morris, Americas president of industrial & logistics for real estate services firm CBRE Group Inc. (NYSE: CBRE). Morris said that the 12- to 18-month lead time for end-to-end project completions means that it will take five or six quarters for the impact of rate hikes to be dramatically felt in the industrial market.

For now, occupier demand remains strong as e-commerce sales stay elevated and as tenants ensure they can occupy facilities ahead of the peak holiday season. Overall occupier demand is about 95% of what it was at this time a year ago, Morris said. Any slowdown will come from the supply side and not from demand, he said. 

Rosenberg said that none of his clients have indicated they are putting their leasing needs on hold, although he acknowledged that the people he works directly with are typically the last to know if a project is being shelved.

Carolyn Salzer, Americas head of logistics and industrial research at Cushman, said the supply-demand scales continue to favor lessors. “Right now, there just isn’t enough space out there for occupiers in general,” Salzer said. “What we have heard is that if a tenant needs to be in a market, they will make it work.” 

Tenants will have more leverage should supply begin to exceed demand, which, if it happens, will be a 2023 story,  she added.

The variable in all this is whether higher rates will trigger a recession, which could trigger a sustainable drop in consumer demand. Should consumers pull back, occupiers’ appetites will dull quickly, leading to a decline in rents and an increase in vacancy rates. However, should the economy avoid a contraction and new development continues to slow, then competition for available space is likely to surge and rents will soar.  

The many crosscurrents buffeting industrial real estate have produced a degree of murkiness that stakeholders are unaccustomed to. When asked for directional clarity, Rosenberg replied, “I’ll say, ‘Who the hell knows’ because nobody knows.”

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.