Sunday, July 12th, 2009
Ed Morrison wrote the above about Cleveland, but he could have been describing any number of other cities. Why is it that so many cities have turned to large real estate projects to attempt to restart growth, turning away from strategies that previously made them successful?
The answer possibly lies in structural economic changes resulting from the nationalization and globalization of industry. Up until the 1990’s, many businesses, such as retailing, utilities, some manufacturing, and especially banking operated on a regional or local basis. The meant that the civic leadership of a community was heavily dominated by businessmen, again, especially bankers, whose success was dependent on the overall macroeconomic health of the particular city or region they were located in.
But with banking deregulation, we saw large numbers of hometown banks merged out of existence. Industry after industry was subjected to national or international level roll-ups as changes in the economy and regulatory environment gave increasing returns to scale.
Why is it that “real estate interests” dominate in a local economy like Cleveland? Because, to a great extent, they are among the only ones left. Consider the local industries that were not as subject to roll-ups. Principal among these are real estate development, construction, and law. This means the local leadership of a community is now made up of executives in those industries, and they bring a very different world view versus the previous generation.
Consider the difference between a banker and a lawyer. Banks make money on the spread between what they pay for deposits or wholesale funding, and what they charge for loans. This means the CEO of a bank is making money while he plays golf at 3. He’s got a cash register back at the office that never stops ringing.
By contrast, lawyers get paid by the hour for work on specific matters and transactions. The law partner is only making money on the golf course if he is closing a deal. It’s similar between many other “operational” businesses that were previously prominent in communities, and the “transactional” businesses that are now often dominant.
Additionally, even where the hometown bank or company did not get bought out, it likely escaped that fate by getting big itself and making large numbers of acquisitions or otherwise expanding. This means those institutions are less dependent on the health of the particular local market they happen to be headquartered in than they are overall macroeconomic conditions. While no doubt they want the headquarters town to be successful, not least of which so they can effectively recruit talent, they can afford to take a portfolio view of local markets.
Not only has the drying up of local and regional operating businesses led to a business leadership community unbalanced in favor of transactionally oriented firms, the loss of those local and regional operating businesses robbed many of the transactional companies such as law and architecture firms of their principal local client base. Large national businesses employ national firms for advertising, law, architecture, etc. If they use local firms, it is in a subsidiary role. (Or, if a smaller firm is fortunate enough to land a contract, it is servicing a client on a national, not local basis).
Richard Florida described this in his Atlantic Monthly article on the financial crash. “As the manufacturing industry has shrunk, the local high-end services—finance, law, consulting—that it once supported have diminished as well, absorbed by bigger regional hubs and globally connected cities. In Chicago, for instance, the country’s 50 biggest law firms grew by 2,130 lawyers from 1984 to 2006, according to William Henderson and Arthur Alderson of Indiana University. Throughout the rest of the Midwest, these firms added a total of just 169 attorneys. Jones Day, founded in 1893 and today one of the country’s largest law firms, no longer considers its Cleveland office ‘headquarters’—that’s in Washington, D.C.—but rather its ‘founding office.'”
Where then is the source of transactions these firms can turn to in order to sustain their business? The public sector, of course.
I would hypothesize that many local transactionally oriented services companies have seen the public sector take on a greater share of billings than in the past. With the old school bankers and industrialists mostly out of the picture, the leadership in our communities consists increasingly of the political class and a business community dominated by transactional interests.
When you look at the composition of this group, it should come as no surprise that the publicly subsidized real estate development is the preferred civic strategy. Politicians get to cut ribbons. Cranes always look good on the skyline. Local architects, engineers, developers, and construction companies love it. And there is plenty of legal work to go around.
This is not to say these people are acting nefariously. And nor were old school bankers and industrialists always acting purely altruistically. Rather, the difference comes from the world view and “theory of change” that people steeped in transactionally oriented businesses bring with them.
With the current financial crisis, bigness, as a strategy, is out of favor for the moment. Also, the gimmicky financial transactions that underlie much of the crisis are calling the entire transactional model into question. There’s an increasing alarm at the precipitous decline of manufacturing, particularly the auto sector. And people are questioning whether we as a country can survive simply through services, or whether we need to revitalize the concept of the operational business and actually making things. Plus, real estate deals are tougher to get done because of tight credit, and it seems unlikely that the go-go days of recent years are coming back soon.
We’ll see where this leads. But if we see more local and regional scale operating businesses start to emerge again, then perhaps the urban development pendulum will start swinging the other direction again. In the meantime, large scale real estate development will likely continue to be preferred.