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Sam Zell: U-Shaped Recovery Will Likely Begin In The Fall

Equity Commonwealth Chairman Sam Zell

Real estate mogul Sam Zell predicts the country should be on track for a U-shaped recovery with an upswing beginning this fall, over a year before he suspects a coronavirus vaccine will become available.

Zell — the architect of the modern real estate investment trust, who also invests in fossil fuels, hospitals and logistics — spoke about the economy amid the pandemic and what recovery may look like during a New York University Schack Institute of Real Estate webinar Wednesday. 

"At best, and most likely, we're going to see a U-shaped recovery," he said. "We've basically improved somewhat, I think we're going to have kind of a slow period improving toward the end of the year, that's very different from a radical V-shaped, 'Oh, we were hurt and now we're better.'" 

Zell, the founder of Equity Group Investments who Forbes estimates is worth roughly $4.7B, said that he anticipates a medical treatment will soon become available to decrease the severity of the virus. 

"If we got a vaccine in place a year and a half from now, I would consider that a success," Zell said on the webinar. “I think the goal must be the elimination of the word 'death' from the equation. In other words, we’ve gotta make this virus a bad flu, not a life-and-death situation."

Overall, the economy is faring better than perceived, he said, but he doesn't expect the unemployment rate to go below 10% by the end of the year. The unemployment rate was at 11.1% at the end of June, continuing a decline that began in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment peak amid the pandemic was in April, when the rate reached 14.4%, according to the Pew Research Center

“[Ten percent is] a pretty lousy number, but it’s a lot better than what we’ve been dealing with up until now,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in a depression, I don’t think that this is permanently damaging the United States beyond [repair] or anything like that.” 

Zell, a public speaker with a history of making remarks that have drawn sharp rebuke, has been predicting an imminent recession since 2015

In a distressed market, Zell said the key to turning an opportunistic profit isn’t investing in a particular asset class, it’s about investing in a good deal. 

“I might not be enthusiastic about hotels right now, but give me the right price and I can do the discount in my head and try to figure out if I’ll be alive when the discount returns,” he said. 

Transactions are slow because many buyers and sellers are not on the same page about how much a property is worth amid the pandemic, Zell said.

“I can tell you right now, there aren’t any transactions and there isn’t any price discovery,” he said. “The spread between what the owner thinks his property is worth and what the buyer thinks the property is worth is a percentage probably immense compared to previous periods.”