Foreign investment in Chicago real estate reaches record high

Chicago was an appealing city for international real estate investors in 2015:

Chicago’s continuing rise to prominence on the world stage was further boosted by the latest figures indicating that 2015 will not only be a banner year for new construction and hotel occupancy, but a record-breaking period for foreign real estate investment as well. 2015 saw $3.27 billion of new overseas capital flow into the Windy City, according to recently published report by Crain’s Chicago Business, a figure that shatters the previous record of $2.18 billion set in 2013. Citing data from New York-based Real Capital Analytics, Crain’s reports that foreign buyers accounted for roughly 16 percent of Chicago’s total $20.2 billion of real estate sales this year. Chicago now ranks as the fourth largest market in the nation for foreign investment — up from last year’s eighth place — and trails behind only New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.

These positive figures are attributed to several factors. Oversaturation of traditionally stronger coastal markets has driven up prices to the point where commercial investors are often finding more lucrative opportunities in Chicago. Chicago is seen as a somewhat riskier choice for firms taking on commercial properties due to the relative ease at which new buildings can be added and tenants relocated — similar to CNA’s announcement earlier this week — but foreign buyers willing to take on this risk have enjoyed greater returns. In 2015, investment in Chicago saw first-year rates of return (“capitalization rates” for you finance-minded folks) averaging 5.1 percent, outperforming the 4.1 and 4.7 percent yearly yields of Manhattan and San Francisco, respectively.

While this sounds like good news (more capital flowing into the city and the potential for these investments to lead to other deals), I could imagine two downsides:

  1. This recently happened in Chicago, but it wasn’t the first city of choice for international investors. It is suggested here that investors are now turning to Chicago because the more desirable markets – NYC, LA – are oversaturated. So, this may confirm that Chicago is still the third city – or maybe even the fourth city if you include Washington, D.C. This may just feed the anxiety some in Chicago have of their place on the world stage.
  2. Even as investment from outsiders is viewed as good, would investment from foreigners be viewed as positive by all in Chicago? Americans occasionally have periods of fear that people from other countries are taking over and Chicago is a more parochial/less cosmopolitan market than some on the coasts. Foreign investment may be good but do Chicagoans like the idea that others are benefiting greatly off the Midwest?

How Wal-Mart plans to regain its edge

Here is an interesting summary of Wal-Mart’s corporate plans for the near future. The headline of the article says it all: “Wal-Mart, humbled king of retail, plots comeback.”

Three years ago, Wal-Mart ruled for convenience, selection and price. But today it is losing customers and revenue, and smarting from decisions that backfired.

Wal-Mart is not in danger of ceding its place atop the retail world. But competitors have begun to chip away at its dominance.

Over the last year, revenue at Wal-Mart stores open at least a year has fallen by an average 0.75 percent each quarter, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Revenue rose by an average of nearly 1.7 percent at Target, 8 percent at Costco and 5.9 percent at Family Dollar.

To fight back, Wal-Mart is again emphasizing low prices and adding back thousands of products it had culled in an overzealous bid to clean up stores. It’s also plotting an expansion into cities, even neighborhoods where others dare not go.

Even as the article talks about stagnant or slightly declining sales at existing stores plus some questionable decisions (like reducing the number of products on the shelves), the main issue seems to be perceptions. On the business side, Wal-Mart has been challenged, particularly on the lower end by dollar stores. But business has not tanked and Wal-Mart still thinks it has new markets to tap in the United States, particularly in urban areas. What do investors and shareholders think – is it just about stronger growth right now? On the public image side, stores like Target have offered an enticing alternative. And yet Wal-Mart has changed the layout and design of its stores to look more like Target and this seems to have helped. Ultimately, the article says Target’s revenues are still one-sixth of that of Wal-Mart.

It sounds like Wal-Mart thinks they need to make some changes. There is no guarantee that any business, even a behemoth like Wal-Mart, will continue to expand or even be profitable. And just by virtue of its size, Wal-Mart’s actions will continue to be scrutinized.