The BCREA Commercial Leading Indicator (CLI) rose from 144 to 150 in the first quarter of 2021, representing the third consecutive increase as the economy recovered from the COVID-19-induced recession. Compared to the same time last year, the index was up by 15 per cent.
It is important to note that while the economy is posting a very strong recovery, we are still in an abnormal and uncertain environment for commercial real estate. Normally, the type of growth we see reflected in the CLI would imply an improvement in demand for retail and office space. However, the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic and related public health restrictions are driving a wedge between what we see in the data and what is being experienced on the ground.
A 12 per cent jump in manufacturing activity, largely due to surging demand and prices for wood products, and a 6 per cent increase in wholesale trade activity were the main contributors from the economic activity component of the CLI.
Employment in key commercial real estate sectors such as finance, insurance, real estate (FIRE) and leasing increased by about 13,000 jobs in the first quarter. While our office employment measure is now at an all-time high, it is unclear what the implications are for office space demand given the uncertainty around the near-term outlook for a return to traditional office environments. Despite very strong sales activity, manufacturing employment fell by about 6,500 jobs. That decline may be a temporary phenomenon owing to the third wave of COVID-19 and its impact on manufacturing work.
The CLI’s financial component was positive in the first quarter of 2021, as REIT prices rose to their highest level since the fourth quarter of 2019 and risk spreads continued to narrow.