Market Commentary Blog:Macroeconomic Fundamentals

Sustained above-trend job growth is having a broad impact on commercial property markets. Demand for rental housing has accelerated this year, allowing the apartment sector to absorb a significant increase in new supply with little impact on vacancy rates.

GDP growth slowed to a 2.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, from 5.0 percent in Q3. Despite the deceleration in the headline number, however, the report was strong where it counts. Consumer spending, the mainstay of the U.S. economy, accelerated to a 4.3 percent annual growth rate, the strongest gain since 1993. The slowdown in overall growth stems from a decline in net exports due to weaker growth abroad and a stronger dollar.

The job market got off to a roaring start in 2015—and, as it turns out, hiring was also stronger at the end of 2014 than was initially reported. According to the most recent data, nonfarm payroll employment rose by 257,000 in January, and the average monthly growth for Q4 was revised up to 324,000—well above the 289,000 that was previously published (chart 1). Most sectors posted robust job gains, including construction, manufacturing, retail trade, business services, and health care and hospitality. Government employment declined slightly.

The apartment sector remains robust. Vacancy rates continued at 4.2%, a decade-low level that indicates little (if any) excess supply. An acceleration in the national job market has spurred household formation and continues to fuel strong rental demand. Rent growth eased to a 2.5% annual rate; this slowing may be due to seasonal demand weakness during the fall. 

Payroll employment beat expectations again as nonfarm payrolls jumped 295,000 in February. Job growth has steadily accelerated, with the average monthly increase over the past 12 months moving up to 275,000, the strongest performance in a decade and a half. The unemployment rate moved down to 5.5%, the lowest since before the financial crisis. The question on everyone’s mind is, how long can this continue before an overheating job market prompts the Fed to put on the brakes? 

Two steps forward, they say, but one step back. In the case of the job market, March was one very big step back. Total nonfarm payrolls increased just 126,000, less than half the average pace over the past six months. There was one bit of positive news in an otherwise disappointing report, however, as average hourly earnings increased 0.3 percent. 

Construction spending fell nearly 60 bps to a seasonally adjusted $966.6 billion in March, its lowest level in six months. Following a flat reading in February, growth in construction spending slowed to a 2% annual rate in March.

April non-farm payrolls and unemployment numbers offer encouragement that the labor market is regaining momentum after a weak show in March. The job market added 223,000 jobs in April, matching its 2014 trend and outpacing average growth in 2015 Q1. Further, the unemployment rate fell to 5.4%, its lowest level post-recession. 

Builders took advantage of spring weather and broke ground on 389,000 (annualized) multifamily units in April, a 32% increase from March. After a long and snowy winter season kept many new projects on hold, the strong uptrend in construction from the past several years appears to be underway again.