Life will feel a lot more normal by spring/summer (Q2). By this time, the various vaccines should be broadly available (at least in the developed world). This is something that never happened during the Spanish Flu. From what I have read, the Spanish Flu lasted about two years and there were four major waves, the second of which was by far the most deadly. Ultimately, a vaccine was never found. It just petered out as people developed immunity. But medicine then was not what it is today, so surely we are destined to do better.
What happens with working from home is going to be one of the most important outcomes of 2021. Right now it feels like tech vs. commercial real estate. The tech industry has been quick to renounce offices (while many large tech companies continued to lease more space through 2020). And the commercial real estate industry has naturally pointed out that we’re all still going to need physical offices.
My view is that, yes, people appreciate the flexibility of being able to work remotely, but that we’re greatly exaggerating the extent to which work is going to disperse in the short-term. I think it comes down to three main things. 1) It’s nice being around other humans, both in the office and for those after work drinks. 2) Collaborative and knowledge-intensive endeavors work better when people are in the same room. And 3) corporate politics will encourage people to return to the office. Who do you think is going to get promoted first, the person who Zooms in from the Caribbean for meetings or the person who shows up to the office and grinds it out every day?
As the world returns to normal, we will, however, see an explosion in global travel. Many will be questioning how Airbnb’s sky-high valuation makes any sort of sense, but it’ll have the right story for what’s going on in the world (some people call these “story stocks”). The reality is that there will be a massive amount of pent up demand that starts to come out as soon as people start to feel safe and governments start to allow people to travel en masse. I’m already looking forward to the 2021-2022 ski season, which I fully expect to be a blockbuster season.
Because of this, we will see a decline in recreational real estate. The kind that was fulfilling people’s need for local travel during this pandemic. Instead, people will turn their attention to more international experiences and try and make up for lost time. Many will also come to realize that the whole working from home thing didn’t stick as expected and so they’ll start deriving less utility from their property outside of the city. Expect a kind of reversion to the mean when it comes to prices.
Urban/downtown real estate will strongly rebound in the second half of 2021. As restaurants reopen, as people return to offices, and as urban life in general resumes, we will see an increase in demand for condos/apartments, and probably larger urban spaces given the run-up in prices for single-family homes that many cities saw last year. (A bit more on this point can be found over here.)
The trends that are being accelerated as a result of this pandemic are not going to stop, though their rate of increase will temper. The apps and platforms that people started using in 2020, perhaps for the first time, have established new habits. People’s credit cards are now on file and it’ll be very easy for those online habits to remain. But the opposing force to all of this will be the strong desire for socializing, travel, and novel experiences. It’ll be the more routine stuff that will continue to live entirely on our phones.
The restaurant/food industry will bounce back in a slightly different form. Sadly, many businesses will have failed. But we will also see an explosion in new ideas and new concepts, satisfying our demand to be out socializing and trying new things throughout the new roaring twenties. Ghost kitchens and on-demand food delivery companies will continue to disaggregate how some restaurants are setup. Companies like Uber will see their ride-sharing businesses quickly snap back, which will more than offset the decline in food delivery as people resume eating out.
Public transit ridership probably won’t return to its pre-pandemic levels until at least the fall. Possibly late fall. This is going to be a serious problem for the various levels of government that subsidize virtually all public transit authorities. Many transit networks have seen ridership declines of 70% or so and, if my timing projections are correct, that will have been the case for about a year and a half.
The migration from high tax states (like California and New York) to low tax states (like Texas and Florida) will continue. This trend was well underway before COVID-19 and so I don’t see it reversing. What is perhaps more interesting to consider is how this dispersion of economic activity will ultimately play out against some of the centralizing/polarizing forces of the global economy. Urban agglomeration economies aren’t going to go away.
To end, I will say that I think it’s safe to assume that we’re all looking forward to the world getting back to normal, whatever that happens to mean. But ironically, once that happens, I reckon that some of us might look back on this period of time and feel hints of nostalgia. Perhaps you learned a new skill or perhaps you were able to spend more time with love ones. Time and distance may better reveal these silver linings.