The BCREA Commercial Leading Indicator (CLI) was down sharply in the first quarter of 2020 from 134.2 to 123.2, reflecting the slowdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to the same time last year, the index was down by 4.8 per cent.
The pandemic-induced shutdown of the economy in the last two weeks of the first quarter of 2020 had a notable impact on the CLI, turning all components negative. On the economic activity component, manufacturing sales led the decline. On the employment component, a fall in key commercial real estate sector jobs was the primary driver. Meanwhile, the financial component had the largest negative impact on the CLI, as REIT prices tumbled and risk spreads widened in March. The underlying trend in the CLI was relatively flat in the previous six quarters, but has taken a sudden downward turn due to the pandemic. This suggests that going forward, the environment for commercial real estate activity in the province will be weak as the economy gradually re-opens, and temporarily unemployed individuals slowly return to work.
BC's economy was beginning to slow in the last quarter of 2019, but the rate of slowing was exacerbated by the pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. A fall in manufacturing sales of both durable and nondurable goods were the main drag on economic activity. Also contributing to the drag, but to a lesser extent, were lower wholesale trade sales in motor vehicles, and building material and supplies. Meanwhile, although growth in retail sales was positive in the first two months of 2020, it was not enough to offset the 10 per cent monthly decline in March, as retail stores across the province were shut down halfway through the month due to the pandemic.
Employment growth in key commercial real estate sectors such as finance, insurance, real estate and leasing was negative for the first time since the summer of 2018, down by about 13,500 jobs in the first quarter. Additionally, manufacturing employment fell by about 1,830 jobs from the previous quarter.
The CLI's financial component was negative in the first quarter of 2020 as growing fears of the potential impact of the pandemic resulted in a full market meltdown in late February, sending equity markets into free fall and government bond yields plummeting. However, private borrowing costs rose sharply due to elevated risk premiums, causing a tightening of credit conditions.