(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After a week of increasingly troubling trade headlines, one thing you may not have expected to wake up to this Monday morning was a nearly $20 billion bet on the flow of goods.
Blackstone Group LP announced late Sunday that it’s buying $18.7 billion of U.S. warehouse assets from Singapore’s GLP Pte. The deal is the capstone of a string of logistics-related real estate investments by Blackstone including the $7.6 billion purchase of Gramercy Property Trust and the $1.8 billion takeover of the Canyon Industrial Portfolio last year. E-commerce warehouses are a rare bright spot in supply-chain infrastructure as President Donald Trump’s multi-faceted trade war threatens to upend complex sourcing networks and stifle global growth. The rise of Amazon.com Inc. has forced rival retailers to adapt to its business model and find ways to speed delivery to consumers’ doorsteps in two days or less.
Blackstone’s warehouse real-estate investments are mostly concentrated in the U.S., in a sign that the safest bets right now are those closest to home. International waters are particularly fraught right now for logistics companies. Global air cargo traffic fell 4.7 percent in April from a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association. FedEx Corp.’s $4.4 billion acquisition of TNT Express NV was meant to capitalize on a global e-commerce boom, but it’s instead been a dud amid weak overseas sales and escalating integration costs. The carrier is now also under investigation for reportedly misrouting packages meant to be delivered to telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co.’s offices in Asia, errors for which the company has apologized. Chinese state media have portrayed the investigation as a warning of what kind of retaliation may ensue if the trade war continues to escalate and Trump follows through with a proposed ban on sales of U.S. equipment to Huawei.
E-commerce sales in the U.S. are unlikely to be immune from the fallout of an escalated trade war. Trump’s threat to extend tariffs to an additional $325 billion or so of Chinese imports would ensnare a wide swath of consumer goods. Retailers traditionally have much slimmer profit margins than the manufacturers that have borne the brunt of the trade war so far and many have already said they will need to pass on the higher costs to consumers via price increases.
But even if consumer demand overall softens, the shift to e-commerce should continue unabated. Department of Commerce data released earlier this month showed U.S. e-commerce sales increased 3.6% percent in the first quarter relative to the final three months of 2018, even as total retail sales were relatively unchanged. For all the focus on Amazon's rise, e-commerce still only accounts for about 10% of all retail sales in the U.S., in a sign that many more companies will need to invest in warehouses as they rework their business for the Internet age.
Warehouses are hardly the sexiest investment. There’s something rather quaint about the idea that what are essentially football-field sized packing and sorting facilities are the hottest real-estate investment right now. But amid an uncertain economic backdrop, that may be one of the safest places for Blackstone to park its money.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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