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How to Get From 0.25% to $250 Million

By Alex Dumortier, CFA - May 6, 2016 at 12:58PM

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Today's disappointing jobs report increases the likelihood the Federal Reserve will push back a rate increase; meanwhile, there's a new sign of excess in the ultra-luxury Manhattan real estate market.

U.S. stocks are lower in early afternoon trading on Friday, with the S&P 500 (^GSPC 1.05%) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.00%) (DJINDICES: $INDU) down 0.24% and 0.06%, respectively, at 12:45 p.m. ET. These losses follow a disappointing employment report for April showing employers added 160,000 jobs, the lowest figure in seven months, and nearly a third below the 12-month trailing average of 232,000. The unemployment rate remained unchanged at 5%, but that was largely a function of a drop in the participation rate -- i.e., people stopping to look for a job and dropping out of the labor force.

Interest rates: Lower for longer?
Following the release of the employment report, Goldman Sachs' influential Global Economics and Market Research team led by Jan Hatzius published a note saying they now expect the Federal Reserve to push back their second interest rate hike to December from June, according to Bloomberg.

Truthfully, it's anyone's guess what the Fed will do, but I'd note that there was a bright spot in this morning's report: Average hourly earnings rose 2.5% year over year in April. That's toward the high end of the range for growth over the past 24 months of 1.6% to 2.6% (average: 2.2%).

Still, "lower for longer" seems to be a reasonable conclusion based on today's report. While keeping the Fed Funds rate within its current target range of 0.25% to 0.50% may be appropriate in this environment (I don't have a strong opinion on this), that policy choice is not cost-free, as it increases the risk of unwanted spillover in asset markets (or elsewhere).

Meet the "Extrava-Condo"
This brings me to the second story of the day: The Real Deal reports that Vornado Realty Trust is now offering a four-story apartment in Manhattan priced at -- wait for it -- $250 million. Let me put that differently: The apartment is being offered for sale at a quarter-of-a-billion dollars.

As one observer drily noted on Twitter, "this seems excessive," but then so does the scale of the property: 23,000 square feet over four floors.

If Vornado were to achieve that price (or anything near it), it would be an impressive feat, even for the surreal ultra-luxury real estate market in Manhattan. The current record sale, for a penthouse apartment at One57, closed at $100.5 million.

This reminds me of hedge fund manager Bill Ackman who quipped in Oct. 2014 that he and some friends were preparing to pay $90 million for a Manhattan duplex because he "thought it would be fun."

(At the time, Ackman was backing Valeant Pharmaceuticals' bid for Allergan -- pride comes before a fall.)

Let me be clear: I do not know whether this phenomenon is directly related to a regime of ultra-low (even negative, in some cases) interest rates across developed economies, but I think it's a distinct possibility.

The building that will house "Extrava-Condo," 220 Central Park South, is still under construction. Vornado secured $950 million in financing from Bank of China, which bills itself as "China's most internationalised and diversified bank." With total assets of $2.6 trillion (roughly the size of JPMorgan's balance sheet), Bank of China is one of the Big Four commercial banks in China. Fun fact: The bank served as China's first central bank from its founding in 1912 until 1928.

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