Your Dollar This Year

blitt chandan 14 Your Dollar This Year

My standard holiday routine requires that I travel home to Canada each December. Upon my arrival in Montreal, my welcoming family has come to expect that shopping for gifts will rise to the top of my agenda. Buying presents north of the border has historically offered two benefits: Apart from an easier trip through the customs declaration process, a favorable exchange rate has made it relatively cheaper to shop Canadian.

The decline of the greenback over the past decade has chipped away at my customary holiday arbitrage. From its nadir-which happened to coincide with the Bank of Dad spending devalued Canadian dollars to purchase my American dollar education-to the present, the loonie has made impressive gains against its southerly counterpart. Supported by an oil- and resource-rich foundation, the Canadian dollar is a petro currency, appreciating when oil and other commodity prices rise. Sound management of the federal budget, a healthier banking system and prevailing interest rates are also supporting the loonie.

In time for my next holiday shopping trip, the loonie could cede some of its gains if global oil prices should slide or if interest rates in the United States should rise, diverging from the prevailing rates in Canada. Forecasting of oil prices is a thankless exercise. As concerns short-term interest rates, the baseline holds that rates will remain near zero until the economy has weaned itself off the government’s largesse and a durable recovery is under way. Consistent with this expectation, the Federal Reserve has stated that monetary policy will remain unusually accommodative for the foreseeable future.

The current interest rate position was reiterated at the mid-December Federal Open Market Committee meeting: “The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 0.25 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions, including low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends, and stable inflation expectations, are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.” Policy makers have the flexibility to pursue policies in extremis because of the prevailing price stability.

But if the recovery is stronger than anticipated, or if credit eases apart from an economic recovery, inflationary pressures could rise substantially. The interest rate response should anticipate price instability rather than react to it. This Sunday, at the American Economics Association meetings in Atlanta (from where I am writing), Fed Vice Chairman Kohn made the case as follows: “Because monetary policy typically acts with long lags on the economy and price level, the choice of when and how to exit will depend on forecasts. We will need to begin withdrawing extraordinary monetary stimulus well before the economy returns to high levels of resource utilization.”

Also on Sunday, Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a similar view: “Because monetary policy works with a lag, effective monetary policy must take into account the forecast values of the goal variables, rather than the current values. Indeed, in that spirit, the FOMC issues regular economic projections, and these projections have been shown to have an important influence on policy decisions.”


Will Inflation Projections Rise in 2010?

For the time being, projections for inflation remain subdued. The Fed’s central tendency projection for personal consumption expenditure inflation falls below 2 percent through 2012. Core inflation falls slightly lower, on account of the exclusion of energy cost pressures, and well within the implicit target range. Of course, these are dynamic forecasts, since the Fed seeks to anchor expectations about inflation as a means of guiding the actual inflation rate.

Free of incentives to steer the outcome, the International Monetary Fund similarly projects that consumer price inflation will reach only 1.7 percent in 2010. But consumers are less optimistic. As reported in the Dec. 23 Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers, one-year inflation is pegged at 2.5 percent. The long-term inflation expectation is 2.7 percent.

Whether current policies will lead to an increase in inflationary pressures that will prompt an increase in interest rates is difficult to foresee. The Lucas Critique, which dictates that historical economic relationships may fail in the presence of economic policy changes, compels us to approach the question with circumspection. As described in a November I.M.F. report: “Central banks acted nimbly, decisively and creatively in their response to the deepening of the crisis. They embarked on a number of unconventional policies, some of which had been tried before, while others were new.”

It is the novelty of recent fiscal and monetary policy and the uncertainty of the attendant exit strategies that now disrupts our capacity to predict future price stability and economic growth. And so we must guard against the possibility of inflation even if our best analysis does not anticipate its conflating with our other challenges in 2010.

The I.M.F. recommends as much, albeit at a macro level: “The large expansion of central bank balance sheets is mirrored in the growth of bank reserves, underpinning concerns that the excess liquidity could transform into rapid credit growth and lead to inflation. Such concerns are not justified at this stage of the economic cycle, notably because of large and rising output gaps coupled with a shortage of bank capital and a tightening of bank lending standards. However, it is imperative that central banks develop plans that achieve timely and smooth exits from exceptional policy actions to ensure a smooth return to private credit intermediation and to forestall inflation.”


What Does Inflation Mean for Real Estate?

Some real estate operators and investors will dismiss concerns about inflation. After all, real estate is widely viewed as an effective hedge against inflation risk, because returns to real estate investments are positively correlated with inflation. On the other hand, cash and cashlike investments are not effective inflation hedges. As current or anticipated inflation rates rise, we might then expect that the portfolio share of real estate will increase. By this reasoning, a rise in inflationary pressures might spur an increase in investment in real property.

The relationship between inflation and real estate returns is more complex than this generalization. Rather than a consistent relationship, it is a conditional one. When vacancy rates are elevated and rising, as they are now, the imbalance in property fundamentals may dominate inflationary pressures. The efficacy of the hedge suffers. Mueller, Wurtzebach and Machi described the implications as follows almost 20 years ago: “… [T]he inflation hedging effectiveness of real estate is diminished during periods of market imbalance. … [T]he ability of individual real estate portfolios to effectively hedge inflation is more dependent upon market balance and the individual portfolio’s vacancy rate than on the presence of actual, expected, or unexpected inflation.”

Subsequent research has elaborated on this finding and its many nuances. But the broad conclusion that hedging effectiveness is conditional on other factors, market conditions or asset characteristics still holds.

Over the next year, the greater threat from inflation follows from its potential impact on short- and long-term financing costs and its implications for policy that would accommodate a recovery. For commercial real estate specifically, a rising-interest-rate environment is counter to industry and individual institution goals in support of refinancing and modification of legacy debt as well as new transaction activity. With a growing pool of commercial mortgages set to mature over the coming three years, investors should deign to embrace a benign view of inflation. 


Sam Chandan, Ph.D., is president and chief economist of Real Estate Econometrics and an adjunct professor of real estate at Wharton.


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