Sam Zell: Pandemic to Permanently Scar Economy

Billionaire Sam Zell, known for buying distressed real estate, said the coronavirus pandemic will impact the economy the same way the Great Depression did 80 years ago, with lasting changes in human behavior that will negatively impact many business models. This according to a recent interview with Bloomberg.

Zell said, “We’re all going to be permanently scarred by having lived through this,” adding that he expects some degree of social distancing and working from home to endure, possibly for years.

“How soon will anybody get on an airplane? How soon will anybody stay in a hotel? How soon will anybody go to a mall? That fact that these places may be open doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be doing business.”

Zell disagrees with “the conventional wisdom that big cities like New York are doomed and warehouses are the smartest bet in commercial real estate.” Nor does he see any compelling acquisition opportunities at present (a la Warren Buffett): “Buyers are looking at a very different world expecting to see significant discounts.”

The current shutdown, in Zell’s view, will only exacerbate what he viewed as an oversupply problem stemming from the U.S. construction boom before the pandemic struck: “Just like we won’t see a lot of retailers reopen,” he argued, “I think we’ll see a lot of hotels that basically can’t reopen.”

According to Zell, “Bankruptcies are what you need to clear markets and what you need to end recessions and dips. The fact that there’s a lot more distressed players today will help clear the market, but it also means that there aren’t anywhere near as many opportunities as there were in the past.”