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Euro contagion, weak employment threaten recovery

The U.S. economy may be back on a growth track, but the path to recovery is full of potential pitfalls. For starters, economists fear that a euro crisis could spread and reverse recent gains in the U.S. credit markets. And despite rising employment, the jobless rate stubbornly clung to 9.7% through the first five months of 2010.

Compounding matters, the U.S. economy generated only 41,000 private-sector jobs in May, down from 218,000 in April. Collectively, those events spell trouble for economic growth and will delay a return to healthy commercial real estate fundamentals well into 2011 — or beyond.

“For commercial real estate this is a significant issue,” says Hessam Nadji, managing director of research services at Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Services based in Encino, Calif. “If we don't see the kind of encouraging job growth we saw in March or April, we're not going to see a resurgence in office or industrial absorption. At best, we expect 2010 to be the bottom of the cycle.”

Economists are skeptical of the U.S. economy's capacity for growth as government stimuli such as cash for clunkers, the $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, and temporary hiring of Census workers come to an end.

Some indicators point to an economic slowdown ahead, if not a backslide into recession. The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury rate dropped sharply from 3.8% to 3.2% in April, a sign of lowered investor expectations for economic growth. The index of leading economic indicators also turned sharply downward this spring and hit a 44-week low in June.

Flat economic activity and static job growth would hurt the commercial real estate sector, which needs absorption to stabilize lease rates and property values. In truth, the tenuous economic recovery so far offers few tangible benefits to commercial real estate owners, particularly to those struggling with underwater loans or income-sapping vacancy.

While the commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) market has been resuscitated, today's securitized loans are limited to a handful of deals backed by best-in-class properties. Total domestic issuance is expected to range from $10 billion to $20 billion for all of 2010. That's a fraction of the $150 billion in annual volume that was typical in the early part of the decade.

“We should not expect CMBS to grow very quickly in the near term,” says Sam Chandan, global chief economist and executive vice president of Real Capital Analytics. “The borrowers who are facing challenges in refinancing right now are not likely to benefit directly from a reinvigorated CMBS market.”

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