The Disappearing Middle

Recent reports from the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the U.S. middle class is getting squeezed.  Shocker.  Thank you, Captain Obvious. We were hoping the disappearing middle referred to our beer bellies, but no such luck. 😉

Of course, our good friend Robert Kiyosaki has been saying for years that the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and the middle class will get squeezed.  So if you’ve been paying attention, the report from the Census Bureau isn’t a surprise.

The big question is:  what are you going to do about it?

If you’re in the middle class and you’re feeling the squeeze, it may be time to make the leap from employee to entrepreneur.  Yes, it’s hard work.  But so is being poor.  If you’re reading a blog like this, you’re probably already committed to being successful, so we won’t waste time preaching to the choir.

So let’s talk about what a disappearing U.S. middle class means to you as a real estate investor.

In the Clues in the News segments of our Mentoring Club meetings, one of the things we watch for is what “the big dogs” are doing when faced with market shifts. And it isn’t just real estate investors we watch.  It can be fund managers or corporations.  We can learn from anyone who’s watching the economy and managing cash, cash flow, debt and equity.

We saw an article in the Wall Street Journal, As Middle Class Shrinks, P&G Marketing Aims High and Low, that talked about how big corporations are shifting to an “hourglass” marketing strategy.  (When it comes to hourglasses and figures, we understand getting excited…but marketing?  We must be getting old.)

You can read the article yourself, but the point here is that big corporations are making major adjustments to their businesses to adapt to a disappearing U.S. middle class.  Similarly, is there anything a real estate investor should be doing to adjust to the new American reality?

Here are some things to consider:

People will move to where there are jobs.  Duh.  The million dollar question is where in America are their jobs?  If you’ve been watching the Presidential debates, you’ve been hearing about all the jobs in Texas.  Dumb luck or great leadership, it’s no surprise that more people and businesses are moving to Texas than moving out.

People and businesses will move to where it’s cheaper.  State income taxes take a big bite out of most budgets, so look for good investment areas in a no tax (there’s only seven) or low tax state.  Two of our favorites right now are Tennessee and Texas.  Businesses also look for low cost land, a big labor pool (population), and nearby educational institutions.

People will move down before they move away.  They have families and friends and don’t want to leave them.  As the affluent fall down the food chain,  prices will likely soften in the affluent areas, while demand will increase for lower priced properties near those affluent areas.  Watch what’s happening in whatever markets you’re investing in.  Talk to property managers, real estate agents, local resident (it’s amazing what you can learn in a coffee shop!) and the Chamber of Commerce.  Which sub-markets are people and businesses moving away from and to?  As in all investing, the trend is your friend.

Pick markets carefully with “geographically linked” economies.  That is, industries that must be located in the region and can’t be easily moved, if at all.  It’s also important that those industries be permanent (you don’t want to buy all the houses next to video cassette manufacturing plant).

Two great examples of permanent and geographically linked industries are commodities (like oil, gas, lumber, etc.) and distribution.  It might be easy to move a widget manufacturing plant to China or Mexico, but you can’t move mining or farming offshore.  Those jobs have to stay in the area – and those commodities are always in demand.

Similarly, moving boxes from point A to point B is a logistical operation.  Even if the U.S. is poor, there will still be 300+ million people who need food, clothes, household products, etc.  All that stuff might be made in China or Mexico, but it’s moving through the U.S., so those distribution jobs are linked to the real estate.  And it’s not just location, but huge and expensive infrastructure like airports, roads and railways.  Two cities that come to mind are Dallas and Memphis.

Now if the U.S. shakes off the doldrums and comes roaring back to economic life, any market that’s sound in a tough economy will only be more sound in a great economy.  Either way, you win. 🙂