Landmark Links June 23rd – Don’t Get High on Your Own Supply

Stoned Cat

Lead Story… Today I want to address one of the most annoying hot takes currently making the rounds in the financial blogosphere: the idea that today’s housing supply is not in fact all that low.  The rationale goes something like this: monthly housing supply is actually higher today than it was in 2005 at the height of the housing bubble, therefore the market isn’t really as tight as is being reported  As the chart below shows, this is indeed the case, at least on the surface.  Supply in 2005 ranged between 4.3 and 4.9 months.  Today, it sits at 5.7 months.  However, this statement is also a gross oversimplification of what is really going on in the market.

fredgraph (2).png

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

So, given the above chart why do I have an issue with the way that supply is being characterized?  First off, there are two components to supply: sales rate and the number of units available.  Let’s say that there are 100 homes available in a city at any given time and there are an average of 20 homes sold a month (this includes new and existing inventory).  In that case, the 100 homes would equal 5 months of supply.  Now lets assume that a recession hits and that sales rate drops in half to 10 homes a month.  In that case, the supply balloons to 10 months even though the actual units of supply didn’t increase at all.  While months of supply was lower in 2005, the total number of units being sold was much higher than it is today, making the market more susceptible to a demand-crushing downturn than it is in 2017.  Now, let’s take a look at both new and existing home sales:

Source: Calculated Risk

As we stand today, existing home sales have recovered some but new home sales are still way, way off from where they were in 2005.  Back then, there were 7,072,000 existing homes and 1,280,000 new homes that sold for a total of 8,352,000 or 696,000 per month.  For 2017, we are on track to sell 5,570,000 existing homes and only 569,000 new homes for 6,139,000 in total or 511,583 home sales per month.  That means that there are a projected 26.4% less home sales for annualized 2017 than there were in 2005.  In other words, 2005 had a lot more physical inventory (much of which was coming from new homes that were adding to the total housing stock) and required many more buyers to achieve it’s low supply than what we need today.  That being said, there is even more to this story.

Population

Source: Trading Economics

First off, let’s consider population.  The population of the United States was roughly 295 million people in 2005.  Today, it’s roughly 325 million.  It’s increased 10.2% in the years in between, meaning that the difference between the number of home sales in 2005 and 2017 annualized is actually substantially larger when adjusting for the increased population size since a larger population has more people to house.  Side note: some of this has been blunted by the home ownership rate falling from 69% in 2005 to 63.6% today but the number of actual homeowners is still higher today than it was back then even when taking this into account.

demographics

Source: Calculated Risk

Next, we go back to my favorite chart from Calculated Risk.  Notice how the primary household formation demographic of 30-39 years old was bottoming out in 2005 but on the rise today?  This suggests to me that there are more potential buyers on the proverbial sidelines today than there were in 2005 since there are more households being formed, meaning that additional supply can be absorbed in a way that it couldn’t back then.  These are likely people who either can’t afford a home or aren’t ready to buy yet.  However, despite the whole “young people will be renters for life” media narrative, most every study done on the subject show that Millennials do indeed want to own homes at some point.

MCAI 3

Source: Mortgage Bankers Association

Finally, consider the issue of credit availability.  The chart above, combined with the demographics chart suggest that the 2005 market was tapped out.  Prime household formation demographics were waning and credit availability was off the charts.  Anyone who was a potential home buyer was already in the market since financing was easy and the demographic headwind limited household formation.  Compare that to today when credit is still very difficult to come by on a relative basis and we have a demographic tailwind.  In other words, there is room for credit easing today while it had nowhere to go but tighter in 2005.

Although the months of supply was lower in 2005, the number of homes on the market was much greater and actual units of inventory were expanding at a quicker rate due to booming new home starts.  As such, number of sales required to keep months of inventory suppressed was much higher as well.  2017 is a very different story.  It has been characterized by a relatively low number of sales (especially when adjusting for population growth) and far fewer properties on the market.  As such, a recession would likely have a substantially smaller impact on months of inventory than what happened in 2007/2008 when inventory shot up above 12 months as credit vanished and so did prospective buyers.  I’m not writing any of this to suggest that parts of the housing market aren’t un-affordable and getting worse as interest rates rise.  Instead, I’m merely suggesting that the supply situation is much tighter than the monthly supply metrics suggest and very difficult to compare to the wild days of 2005.

Economy

Downswing?  Amazon has at least one Fed official rethinking the idea of widespread technology-induced disinflation.

Upside Surprise? Federal employment and income tax withholding data indicate that wage gains are more substantial that currently being reported.

Hitting Pause?  The Fed is unlikely to raise rates in September as weak personal consumption measures become a cause for concern.

Commercial

Win / Win: Yes, the online retail boom means more robots but it provides more jobs for humans as well.

Residential

Child’s Play: Think that home prices in the US are insane?  Canada’s housing boom makes even the housing bubble of the aughts look tame by comparison.

Don’t Call it a Comeback: Adjustable rate mortgages, long considered a villain of the housing crash, are making a comeback.

Defying Gravity: US home sales are picking up despite low supply.

Profiles

New Age: Sprawling business empires like GE were supposed to be relics of a bygone era.  However, the conglomerate is still alive and well in 2017 and it looks a lot like Amazon.

Taking Aim: Goldman Sachs is starting to go after the fintech industry startups that have been encroaching on it’s turf.

Survival of the Fittest: As Amazon continues to devour the retail universe, Goldman Sachs takes a look at what can’t or won’t be bought online.

Chart of the Day

That’s expensive, eh?

Source: Bloomberg

WTF

Vegan Biological Weapon: I’ve found a bug worse than mosquitoes – one bite from the Lone Star Tick can make you allergic to meat.

I Give Up: Mattel revealed dad bod and man-bun Ken dolls this week because, hipsters.

LOL: I have a headline of the year candidate – Psychic hit by car inside restaurant says he didn’t see it coming.

Sign of the Times: Colleges in China are offering courses on how to go viral on the internet.  And here I thought that American college students were the absolute worst.

Feel Good Story of the Day: Canibal killer finds love in prison.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 23rd – Don’t Get High on Your Own Supply

Landmark Links June 20th – Imminent Threat

Cecilia-Wessels-photo-man-mowing-lawn-during-tornado-640x480

Lead Story…. I was about to start writing this blog post about something else and then this came across my iPhone on Friday: Amazon to Buy Whole Foods in $13.7 Billion Cash Deal.  The news ripped through grocery stocks like tornado and sent them plummeting as reality set in that Amazon is getting into the grocery business and they are getting in now.

Source: Fox News

Regular readers of this blog are probably aware by this point that retail disruption via technology in general and the Amazon effect in particular have long been fascinations of mine.  I’ve been an Amazon Prime subscriber for years and have been using Amazon Fresh – their fledgling grocery delivery service that is only available in a handful of states – for a bit more than a year.  If you have young children and don’t at least have Prime, you might as well be living in the dark ages.  I suspect like many others, my wife and I became slowly hooked on Amazon’s convenience and pricing until suddenly we woke up one day and realized that we couldn’t live without free two day delivery on pretty much anything that we could ever want.  As huge of a player as Amazon is now, this latest acquisition is a game changer.  Today, I’m going to explain why.

For most of my adult life, there has been a prevailing sentiment in the financial world that the legacy players in the grocery business were in trouble.  However, their main threat wasn’t Amazon but Walmart.  The behemoth from Arkansas had devoured smaller retail competitors by opening up big box locations with lower prices and more selection than mom and pop stores could ever offer.  The result was that Walmart effectively killed Main Street USA by offering better selection at a cheaper price.  Walmart got into the grocery  business in the late 1980s and was far and away the dominant force by the early 2000s. However, although Walmart is still the proverbial 800 lb gorilla, they have struggled to gain traction in upscale market segments and have been losing market share in recent years.  Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods sets the stage for a battle between the eCommerce giant and Walmart for supremacy in the grocery space.  The two have been encroaching on each other’s turf for a while now with Walmart moving into eCommerce and Amazon into brick and mortar.  This feels a bit like the beginning of the end for a lot of legacy players caught in between the two giants.

Amazon has a couple of advantages upfront.  First off, they have mastered both last mile distribution and branding in a way that Walmart has not.  While upscale consumers look down their noses at Walmart, the same cannot be said of Amazon.  Buying a well known upscale brand like Whole Foods as a way to get into the brick and mortar grocery business is not going to hurt this image.

There were two things about the transaction that really stood out to me:

  1. Amazon rarely buys high profile existing brands.  When they see a space that they want to be in, they typically invest heavily to build it out organically rather than buying a legacy competitor.  The only other time that they did something similar to this was purchasing online shoe retailer Zappos which was a fraction of the size of Whole Foods. In fact, this would be Amazon’s largest acquisition by over $12.7 billion.
  2. The transaction was air-tight. How did this not get leaked?  This will be a merger of two incredibly high profile brands.  Almost the entire hedge fund and investment bank set shops at Whole Foods and subscribes to Prime yet nothing leaked about the two companies even being in conversations.  This is sort of amazing in and of itself

The Amazon/Whole Foods deal dominated the financial news on Friday in a way that I haven’t seen for an acquisition announcement.  However, if you step back and think about it, grocers are far from a sexy business.  They have low margins and inventory that goes bad quickly.  The space is also very competitive and highly site specific – being on the wrong side a the road for home-bound commuters can be death for a grocer.  Also, Whole Foods was struggling.  It had been well documented that the grocer had sliding sales as other competitors entered the organic space that it used to dominate at cheaper price points.  So, why did Amazon pay up for them?  I have a few ideas:

  1. Location is everything.  Whole Foods is well known for their rigorous site selection.  Their +/- 460 stores are in some of the most coveted and upscale locations in the US.  This presents a distribution opportunity for Amazon – a company obsessed with last mile delivery.  They are not only purchasing those 460 stores, they are also purchasing the ability to transform them into distribution hubs for other products that they sell outside of groceries.  This is a great real estate play for Amazon to establish a brick and mortar beachhead in upscale neighborhoods.
  2. Amazon understands volume.  As previously stated, grocers do not typically have great margins.  They do however, drive an incredible amount of foot traffic when compared with other retailers.  Grocers are one of the few retail experiences that we take part in each an every week.  We may not go clothes shopping or go out to eat on a weekly basis but nearly every American goes to the grocery store and does so in high frequency.  This makes a highly trafficked grocery store a potential goldmine for a retailer that relies on high volume like Amazon who already does cross selling and low margin volume retailing better than anyone else.
  3. Name Brand.  Despite recent struggles, Whole Foods is still a very well regarded brand – especially among the affluent demographic that Amazon covets.  Buying an outfit like Whole Foods gives Amazon a foothold in the industry that they can build on without having to re-brand a larger legacy grocer without the name cache of Whole Foods.
  4. Marginal Moves: Despite the recent struggles, Whole Foods has substantially fatter margins than other grocers. Amazon is accustomed to thin margins.  Don’t be surprised to see post-acquisition Whole Foods drop prices in order to drive competitors out of the organic grocery space.

It wouldn’t surprise me if another grocer threw their hat into the ring to increase the price of this acquisition.  It’s highly doubtful that anyone could ultimately beat out Amazon’s bid but there are many competitors who would love to make them pay up as Amazon’s entry into the space becomes a matter of survival.  In fact, Whole Foods is trading above the level of Amazon’s bid in expectation of a bidding war.

We’ve already seen what Amazon and other online retailers have done to the malls despite still being just north of 12% (but quickly rising) of the total non-food services retail market.

The result has been struggling big box stores, soaring vacancies and plunging property values.  The grocers may not be able to avoid this fate but I doubt that they are going to go down without a fight.  By some estimates, Amazon is now going to be one of the five largest grocers within a year of the Whole Foods deal closing.  They are going to be in a position to wreak absolute havoc on the space and weak grocers or owners of poorly positioned grocery anchored centers can’t be sleeping too well tonight.  The ongoing disruption of the mall and big box models have been painful for the retail sector to say the least.  Grocers have now officially been served notice and pharmacies could be next.  The only things that I’m certain of when it comes to retail in the US is that we still have way too much of it and it will look very, very different about 10 years from now.

Economy 

Pancaked: Yes, the yield curve is still flattening but that does not necessarily mean that it’s going to invert.

Letdown: The temperature of the US economy is running quite a bit cooler than economists had expected.

Low Expectations: Investors appear to be coming to the conclusion that oil prices are going to stay low as OPEC production cuts fail to work.

Commercial

Make it Rain: China’s real estate investors are now on a $200 billion global spending spree.

Residential

Dark Cloud: The continuing hedge fund shakeout means that no one can sell their mansions in previously high-flying Greenwich.

Get Out of Here: The Bay Area’s sky high cost of living is fueling a housing boom in Sacramento.

Out in the Cold: The housing recovery has skipped over poorer regions of the US while values soar along the coasts.

Profiles

End of the Line: Amazon’s Whole Food acquisition could lead to a bunch of cashiers getting laid off.

Not Even Close: Those who say that tech companies today are in a bubble reminiscent of the late 1990s clearly didn’t live through the tech bubble of the late 90s.

Get In Line: Meet the entrepreneur who started a business by standing in long lines for hire waiting for everything from iPhones to tickets to food.

Chart of the Day

The Agony of Defeat: Cavs fans had an interesting way of dealing with their NBA Finals Loss. (side note: I had a bunch of economic charts that I wanted to use but none was nearly as entertaining as this).

Source: Busted Coverage

WTF

If at First You Don’t Succeed: A daredevil who made history in 2003 as the first person to to over Niagara Falls with no protection and survive tried it again last week.  It went poorly.

A Picture is Worth A  Thousand Words: This mugshot of a man who traded meth for a stolen Chrysler looks exactly like what you would think someone who traded meth for a stolen car would look like.

When in Rome: A woman killed an attacking rabid raccoon with her bare hands because, Maine.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 20th – Imminent Threat

Landmark Links June 16th – Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Lead Story…. Wikipedia defines a Company Town as:

a place where practically all stores and housing are owned by the one company that is also the main employer. Company towns are often planned with a suite of amenities such as stores, churches, schools, markets and recreation facilities.

The best examples of company towns have had high ideals; but many have been regarded as paternalistic or exploitative. Others developed more or less in unplanned fashion, such as Summit Hill, Pennsylvania, one of the oldest, which began as a LC&N Co. mining camp and mine site nine miles from the nearest outside road.

There was a time in American history where company towns were quite normal and that time was back before advent of the 30 year mortgage when most Americans couldn’t afford a home. These towns were typically built and managed by companies in extractive industries (coal, metal mines, lumber, etc) which were often located in rural areas. Building a town with living accommodations and amenities solved the issue of housing a large number of people in regions that had little infrastructure save for the large extraction companies themselves.  It also had the ancillary benefit of giving a company more control over it’s workforce.  Company towns were fairly commonplace in the 1800s but began to disappear in the early 1900s as growing affluence and the rise of the automobile allowed for more mobility.

The notion of the company town has become little more than an entry in the history books.  However, it could be on it’s way back thanks to the nation’s most innovative but also most expensive and chronically under-supplied regions from a housing standpoint: the Bay Area.  The average Alphabet (Google parent company) employee makes somewhere between $80k and $200k per year in annual salary (two important caveats: first this is nationwide – not just the Bay Area which is likely higher, second there are typically benefits and stock compensation on top of this).  However, even Google’s highly paid, highly educated workforce is struggling to find housing in the Bay Area.  Laura Kusisto of the Wall Street Journal wrote a story earlier this week about how the tech giant is looking to a creative solution – modular homes – to address it’s employees housing woes.  From the WSJ (emphasis mine):

The Mountain View, Calif., company is finalizing an order to buy 300 apartment units from Factory OS, a modular-home startup, in a building likely to serve as short-term housing for Google employees, according to executives from both companies.

The expected value of the deal is $25 million to $30 million, according to Rick Holliday, founder and chief executive of Factory OS. It would be the first order for the company.

Modular-building technology, essentially factory-built homes that are pieced together onsite, could help reduce the cost of construction in the Bay Area by 20% to 50%, experts said.

“Anything that can help us to move forward with a greater knowledge of how we can produce housing more effectively is something we’re interested in,” said John Igoe, director of design and construction at Google. “We absolutely are confident that it will work. Hopefully it doesn’t become false bravado.”

To be sure, modular-building companies in places like California and New York have failed over the years, and the approval process can be just as difficult if not more so, because the technology is still developing. And so far, the cost savings haven’t been as big as developers have hoped, though experts predict costs will come down sharply as the industry evolves.

I find it rather interesting that a modern day tech juggernaut is turning back the clock to employer-owned housing to solve a shortage that is now plaguing highly compensated employees.  For those of you who don’t reside in a crazy, supply constrained market things really have gotten this bad.  There is no small irony that some of the best paid employees on earth are going to be relying on a housing arrangement that was initially created as a means to shelter (and potentially take advantage of) poor laborers.

I’ve pointed out several times recently how the construction industry in the US is woefully inefficient and has failed to incorporate modern technology.  Modular construction is one potential solution and this is hopefully a step in the right direction.  I have serious doubts that Google’s company town model is the way to go but I am encouraged to see that a tech giant is investing a substantial amount of money that could help to bring the still-developing technology into the mainstream.

Economy

Disconnect: The Federal Reserve raised rates another quarter point this week despite slowing inflation and sluggish economic data, calling the slowdown transitory.  See Also: Either the Federal Reserve is wrong or the bond market is wrong because they both can’t be right.

Disincentives: America is the land opportunity but are we encouraging the wrong kind of entrepreneurship?

Meh: How minimal corporate pricing power, lackluster productivity growth and an aging workforce undercut employers’ ability to increase wages, complicating the Fed’s plans.

Commercial

Slowing: Commercial real estate owners paid off maturing loans at a slower rate in May as they found it harder to refinance their buildings

Residential

This Ends in Tears: Subprime is making a comeback but not many brokers are still around who remember how to put together a subprime loan.  IMO, regulations have over-corrected and there is definitely a place for lending to people with less than stellar credit.  That being said, if you don’t see the problem with the passage below, kindly remove your head from your ass and come back to read the rest later:

“I knew a mortgage was a loan for a house,” said Mr. Boyd, who was recruited by his boss, Jon Maddux, after selling him a Calvin Klein suit at a local outdoor mall. “I came in just a blank slate.”

Before he co-founded Drop Mortgage, the parent company of FundLoans, in 2014, Mr. Maddux ran the website YouWalkAway.com between 2008 and 2012. The site charged homeowners on the brink of foreclosure $995 to learn how to leave their debt behind.

Moving Out: Immigration is not enough to stem the exodus from US cities.  But See: Developers lure buyers to cites, even as prices stall.

Profiles

Bargain Basement: Amazon is pushing into Walmart’s turf by slashing the price of Prime membership by almost 50% for people on federal welfare.

Rise of the Machines: Human stock investors are going extinct as stock picking by people drops to only 10% of trading volume.

Pop: Last summer, Pokemon go was the fad that peaked hard and then vanished.  This summer, it looks like it’s going to be fidget spinners.

Drama: This story about the Big Short War between Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb and Carl Icahn over Herbalife makes hedge fund titans sound like a bunch of vindictive teenagers.

Chart of the Day

WTF

How is This Possible?  A brawl at a Waffle House led to the arrest of five female relatives and it didn’t happen in Florida.

Aspiring Cereal Killer: A northern California man was arrested after shooting another man with a flare gun shell stuffed with Rice Krispies.

I Give Up: A new survey from The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy found that 48% of respondents aren’t sure where chocolate milk comes from and 7% of respondents think that it only comes from brown cows.  These were adults.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 16th – Back to the Future

Landmark Links June 13th – Pretty Much Useless

Useless

Lead Story…

There are basically three types of economic sentiment indicators:

  1. Mostly Useful – I put the NAHB Homebuilder Survey in this category.  When builders are confident, it typically means that they have purchased lots or are in the market to buy lots.  It’s typically a pretty good gauge of where housing starts are headed.  However, there are some potential issues with methodology that I’ve pointed out before that make it less reliable than it used to be.
  2. Mostly Useful But for the Wrong Reasons – The Investor’s intelligence Survey is a classic example of this.  It’s a survey of financial newsletters that asks how bullish or how bearish they writers are on the stock market.  However, it’s often a contrarian indicator when respondents are extremely bearish or extremely bullish and often foretells a market move against the herd.
  3. Mostly Useless – I consider the housing question in the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey to be in this category.  Today, I’ll explain why.

Recently, The University of Michigan published it’s Consumer Sentiment Survey for May. It’s a survey of Americans and one of the questions is intended to determine whether or not they feel that it’s a good time to buy or sell a house.  The most recent survey showed a 6-year low among those who think it’s a good time to buy a house, while those who said it was a good time to sell were at a 12-year high.  Cue the inevitable financial media hyperventilating.  Danielle DiMartino Booth of Bloomberg interpreted this survey as confirmation that we are now in a buyers’ market in an article entitled The Housing Moment Investors Dread Is Here (emphasis mine):

The May University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment survey showed a six-year low among those who think it’s a good time to buy a house and a 12-year high among those who say it’s a good time to sell. Disparities of this breadth tend to coincide with break points and that’s just where we’ve landed in the cycle.

The beginning of May officially marked the advent of a buyers’ market, defined simply as sellers outnumbering buyers by a wide enough margin to trigger falling prices. Yes, it’s the moment buyers have been waiting for. It is also the moment private equity investors, those who’ve crowded out natural buyers, have been dreading.

So, if the above is true, one should easily reach the conclusion that home owners are listing their homes in droves, pushing up inventory and keeping a lid on prices.  However, out here in the real world, exactly the opposite is happening: prices are rising and inventory continues to fall.  How can the survey be so wrong?  I would suggest that it’s not a sample size error or people being dishonest about whether or not they want to buy or sell.  Rather, the question of whether or not someone thinks it’s a good time to buy or sell is a highly nuanced.  Kudos to the economists at Fannie Fannie Mae whose National Housing Survey resulted in nearly identical data  as the University of Michigan survey but came to a completely different conclusion due to real world observations: a strong sellers’ market (emphasis mine):

“High home prices have led many consumers to give us the first clear indication we’ve seen in the National Housing Survey’s seven-year history that they think it’s now a seller’s market,” said Doug Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae. “However, we continue to see a lack of housing supply as many potential sellers are unwilling or unable to put their homes on the market, perhaps due in part to concerns over finding an affordable replacement home. Prospective home buyers are likely to face continued home price increases as long as housing supply remains tight.”

Bingo.  Housing is a unique asset in that it represents a form of shelter, investment and consumption at the same time.  If someone prefers to sell as stock, bond or other investment, there is always a ready alternative: cash.  However, it someone sells a house they then have to find another place to live.  When both the rental and for-sale markets are characterized by a lack of available units, this is problematic.  Sure, the house that you purchased a few years ago may be worth substantially more than it is now.  In a vacuum, it may be a great time to ring the register, sell it and make a profit.  However, in the real world, you now have enter into a competitive market and pay up for another home or rental.  In a place like California this is doubly bad because the tax basis in your new home will likely be higher than it was in your old home.  If you only look at the sentiment data, you would conclude that we are in a buyers’ market but the conditions in the real world are much, much different.

The same concept applies in a bad market.  From 2007 – 2013, almost no one thought it was a good idea to sell a home, according to the index (see chart of the day).  It should stand to reason then that inventory would be low.  However, the market was flooded with inventory because people didn’t have a choice and were forced to sell due to personal circumstances, as shown in the chart below.  Again, the sentiment data was basically useless.

When looking at any sentiment index or survey it’s important to remember that life doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  The questions that surveys attempt to answer are often multi-layered and far more complex that what is actually being asked.  Models and indexes tend to show the world as a place where everything is black and white.  The real world is a far more nuanced and complex place.  Sometimes what is going on in real life is the exact opposite of what the model or survey suggests.

Economy

Because I Said So: The Fed is likely to raise rates this month despite falling inflation primarily because they already said that they would do so.  So much for flexibility.

Diminishing Returns: With low yields and rich equity valuations, the biggest problem that investors today face is the prospect of low future returns.

Not What It Seems: American household debt has risen to record levels.  On the surface, this looks bad.  However, income has risen even more.

Commercial

Dragged Down: America’s dying malls are weighing down retailers as they continue to slide.

Tough Going: It’s really, really difficult to raise capital if you’re a new real estate fund manager right now.

Residential

Flipper: Home flipping loan volume is now at a 9-year high as developers cash in on low inventory.

Not How It’s Supposed to Work: Oakland should be building 870 affordable units a year.  Last year they only built 40 resulting in hundreds of senior citizens waiting in line for a shot at the subsidized housing wait list last week.  Just an unfortunate reminder that there are real life consequences to not building enough housing.

Profiles

I Would Actually Try This: Despite my intense dislike of vegans and all of the crap that they spew I will try the Impossible Burger once it’s available.

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say: Sam Panopoulos, the inventor of the Hawaiian Pizza, (who was Canadian and of Greek ancestry, by the way) a monstrous creation made with pineapple rather than decent toppings passed away last week.  So, if you like terrible toppings on your pizza, go get a slice in honor of him.

RIP: Adam West passed away this weekend.  Apparently he was Batman in the streets and Wilt Chamberlain in the sheets.

Unintended Consequences: Ultra-low rates fuel booming business for guarding cash in Japan.

Chart of the Day

Source: The Wall Street Journal

WTF

The Crappiest Place on Earth: A flock of geese shit all over a crowd of 17 people at Disneyland last week, resulting in a hazmat response when it was initially reported that someone had thrown human feces.  Welcome to 2017.

Bad Kitty: A bobcat broke into a New Jersey house and trapped a mother and her two young children in a bathroom for an hour until police arrived. This is how it begins….

When You Gotta Eat: A Texas woman called 911 to complain that a fast food restaurant took too long to get delivered at her local McDonalds.  She went home hungry.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 13th – Pretty Much Useless

Landmark Links June 9 – Headed in the Wrong Direction

Wrong Way1

Lead Story…  Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I’ve been geeking out over the past couple of weeks on articles about how inefficient the American construction industry has become .  I recently read an opinion piece by Bloomberg’s Noah Smith that looked for reasons why this is so (emphasis mine):

There is reason to suspect that high U.S. costs are part of a deeper problem. For example, construction seems to take a lot longer in the U.S. than in other countries. In China, a 30-story building can be completed in only 15 days. In Japan, giant sinkholes get fully repaired in one week. Even in the U.S. of a century ago, construction was pretty fast — the Empire State Building went up in 410 days.

Yet today, it takes the U.S. many years to spend the money that Congress allocates for infrastructure. New buildings seem to linger half-built for months or years, with construction workers often nowhere to be found. Subways can take decades. Even in the private sector, there are problems — productivity in the homebuilding sector has fallen in recent decades.

That suggests that U.S. costs are high due to general inefficiency — inefficient project management, an inefficient government contracting process, and inefficient regulation. It suggests that construction, like health care or asset management or education, is an area where Americans have simply ponied up more and more cash over the years while ignoring the fact that they were getting less and less for their money. To fix the problems choking U.S. construction, reformers are going to have to go through the system and rip out the inefficiencies root and branch.

First off, I have to confess that I had no idea that the Empire State Building was finished that quickly (I’m not going to comment on China because 15 days seems sketchy and China building standards are, shall we say loose).  By way of comparison, the Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, which isn’t that much larger than the Empire State Building took a whopping 7 years to complete once ground was broken and technology today is far, far beyond where it was back in 1930.  Also, the quality of workmanship in the Empire State Building is quite impressive – as anyone who has been there can attest, it’s not as if they were cutting corners.  To take this a step further, it takes over a year (nearly the same amount of time to build a 100 + story tower in the 1930s) to build a 3 story custom house in my hometown of Newport Beach.  Side note: I only wish that statement was hyperbole.  If this isn’t indicative of the structural inefficiencies Smith mentioned in the passage above, I don’t know what is.  Smith concluded:

The U.S. construction sector is sick, and the disease must be diagnosed. Otherwise, infrastructure debates will continue to seesaw between those who are willing to spend too much and those who are willing to let the system crumble because it costs too much to repair.

I wholeheartedly agree.  We can’t solve a problem that we don’t even fully understand.  I suspect that the culprit here is incremental changes to the way that we develop and construct over time that have been championed by strong constituencies (corporations, labor unions, utilities, etc) and eventually became the norm.  The inefficiencies have now calcified to the point that it’s nearly impossible for incremental reforms to make a difference.  Constituencies are now so well-entrenched that pretty much any effort to truly diagnose the problem gets written off as being agenda driven.  That needs to stop but probably won’t any time soon.

Economy

Depressing: Drug related deaths are soaring in America, shedding light on both the opioid epidemic and the reason that so many people remain out of work in a multi-year recovery.

Trouble Ahead?  After bingeing on credit for a half decade, U.S. consumers may finally be feeling the beginning of the hangover.

The World’s $100 Trillion Dollar Question: Why is inflation still so low across the globe?  Hint: look at demographics in the world’s leading economies.  See Also: Adults in wealthy nations do not expect their children to earn more than they do.

Commercial

This Seems Obvious: New data shows that performance on construction loans is much more sensitive to the economic cycle than the performance for commercial real estate debt backed by income-producing properties.

It’s All About Who You Know: Banking relationships are even more important as the multifamily market tightens according to PNC.

Residential

Enough Already: Repeat after me if you have any knowledge of basic laws of supply and demand – luxury development is not to blame for San Francisco’s (or anywhere else’s) affordability crisis.

Profiles

Hipsters Gonna Hipster: Millennials are increasingly taking relatively low-paying old-timey jobs such as butchers, barbers and bartenders primarily because 1) They are now considered to be cool again; and 2) Their parents are still subsiding them.

Staying Power: After an epic, record setting winter, there is still 8 feet of snow left in parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in June.  Looks like Mammoth is going to stay open daily into August.

What A Mess: Post-bankruptcy Puerto Rico is a complete dumpster fire.

Chart of the Day

WTF

You Might Have a Problem If: The emergence of the ‘pornosexual‘: internet users who shun sex with real people.  And then we wonder why population growth sucks in first world countries.

Mother of the Year: A mother let a snake bite her daughter while posting a live feed to Facebook because, Florida.

Extra Toppings: An Alabama cop found a metal bolt in his Arby’s roast beef sandwich after taking a bite.  The sandwich was promptly taken to a lab for testing where it was determined that it was the healthiest part of the meal.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 9 – Headed in the Wrong Direction

Landmark Links June 6th – Outdated

funny_mcdonaldsdrivethroughhorseandcart_thumb

Lead Story…. One constant throughout human history has been the increasing reliance on technological innovation in order to drive productivity.  From agriculture to manufacturing to software and technology, machines have gradually taken over jobs that people used to do as a means of adding efficiency and scale.  This has generally increased quality of living but has also often resulted in job losses – at least initially.  As a result, it has led to no small amount of push back starting with the Luddites smashing mills in early 1800s England out of fear that said machines would render human labor obsolete.  This concern continues today over such technologies as driverless cars and trucks, automated food service and eCommerce delivery that increasingly utilize robots rather than human beings.  However, there is one industry that has proven largely resistant to the robotic revolution: construction.  Daniel Gross of Strategy + Business posted an article last week that pondered why (emphasis mine):

Home construction is one of America’s bedrock industries. After being laid low during the housing bust and the Great Recession, America’s homebuilding complex is back on its feet. Housing starts have been rising (pdf). Yet homebuilders complain that a shortage of workers is impairing their ability to keep building. The usual solution for industries facing labor shortages is to apply technology — reengineer business processes so that a home can be built with less human labor. But the reality is that in the U.S., at least, home construction seems to be remarkably resistant to technological improvements. Anybody who has ever conducted a frustratingly slow remodeling project can sense this intuitively. But there is data to support it.

So, why is construction so resistant to advances in technology when other industries adopt it so seamlessly? According to Gross, the highly unique nature of most construction in the US has a lot to do with it (emphasis mine):

Well, there is something unique about housing. Typically, home construction activity is custom work — remodeling, renovation, teardowns replaced by a single home, maybe a few homes built on a cul-de-sac. And it is difficult to gain economies of scale — or to automate processes — when every job, or close to every job, is unique. If every T-shirt were made to order — different sizes, styles, cuts, fabric — it would be very hard to get a $3 T-shirt. Think about the sheer, overwhelming amount of choice people have when building a home: gravel or asphalt in the driveway, 500 different shingle styles to choose from, gas or electric heating, landscaping, appliances, bathrooms, and windows. To be sure, there are plenty of planned developments and apartment buildings built in the U.S. But even here there is a great variation from project to project, and within projects.

In addition, there are important differences between home manufacturing and, say, car or appliance manufacturing. Factories create their own artificial environments that are conducive to the task at hand: The whole structure is designed for the optimal flow of people and materials, and these factories can run around the clock stamping out hundreds, thousands, or millions of units of the exact same product. As a result, operators can systematically experiment with and apply technology, tweaks, and improvements to make the process run more efficiently. Voila! Productivity gains!

But with housing, by definition, the manufacturer often has very little control over the environment in which it operates. And so it has to operate slowly and carefully. Workers may be remodeling a kitchen while the family is living there — which means they have to tread lightly. Builders often put up a new house on a street filled with homes, which means they have to be careful about not disturbing the neighbors, or messing up the infrastructure. In many areas, you can’t do construction work on the weekends, at night, or in the early morning hours. Bad weather also interferes.

Because sites are typically small, construction has to take place in discrete, linear stages. Here, the industry’s historic mode of operating via small, specialized subcontractors also plays a role in limiting productivity gains. You call in one team to excavate the foundation. Then, when they’re finished, the concrete pourers arrive. Next, the framers do their thing. Later come the roofers, the plumbers, and the electricians. Each has to work sequentially to a large degree — so a single delay with a single trade, or poor coordination between trades, can throw the schedule off.

Of course, it’s hard to reap significant gains in productivity if you don’t use modern technology to its fullest. And, here, again, home construction seems rooted in an analog phase. Workers show up to job sites with specs and blueprints printed out on paper. In my experience, the preferred mode of communication on construction sites is yelling or talking on walkie-talkies or the phone. Although some mechanized equipment is used, and although some builders are experimenting with prefabricated efforts, a significant part of the work is done on-site and with human hands.

The irony is that this all seems to work quite well for the construction industry. And that may explain some of the complacency homebuilders seem to demonstrate when it comes to automation and efficiency. When the market is generally expanding, as it is now, and homebuilders are able to make profits by doing business as usual, there isn’t much impetus for change — especially when they can’t be disrupted by cheaper, more efficient foreign competition. Despite the complaints about worker shortages and the lack of productivity growth, the National Association of Home Builders sentiment index is near a record high.

It sure doesn’t look like robots will be taking construction jobs any time soon.

Economy

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: Despite a ton of angst about the economy, there is a very solid case that we won’t see a recession until at least 2020.

Endless Supply: Deep Sea oil drilling is getting less expensive.  Add this to OPEC’s growing list of woes.  See Also: This is what the demise of oil looks like.

Yield Curve Update: It’s still flattening out even as the Fed (likely) continues to increase short term rates.

Residential

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Several prominent mayors and governors have been very vocal in their opposition to President Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.  However, there is a very easy way to accomplish their climate goals even without Washington on board: allow for more high density housing in urban cores by allowing more density and streamlining approvals.  Of course, it is highly unlikely to happen because, NIMBYs.  See Also: San Francisco’s Sierra Club is a bastion of faux environmentalism.

Stuck in the Mud: Why the sales side of the real estate market has been so resistant to cost-saving technology.…and why that’s ripe for a change.  See Also: Realtors are losing their minds over Zillow’s new Instant Offers feature claiming that it will hurt home owners.  Color me skeptical.

Profiles

The Guru: This LA Times profile of John Burns is excellent.

Stop Digging: From harassment lawsuits to hemorrhaging cash to several bouts of terrible PR, Uber can’t seem to get out of it’s own way.

Chart of the Day

Refinance origination volume was off 45% from Q4 2016 to Q1 2017

Source: Black Knight via Calculated Risk

WTF

Amazin’: A creepy, dead-eyed mascot with a giant baseball for a head flipped off fans at a baseball game because, the Mets.

This Made My Year: Watch morbidly obese failed football coach twins Rex and Rob Ryan get caught on film fighting random townies in a Nashville Bar.  This is a perfect illustration of why these two slobs can’t get a job in the NFL anymore.

Seems Legit: An Australian cosmetics company is now selling a type of snake venom as an alternative to Botox.

Pork Fried Battery: A woman was arrested for assaulting her ex-boyfriend with a plate of pork fried rice because, Florida.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 6th – Outdated

Landmark Links June 2nd – Something Doesn’t Add Up

Dog predator

Lead Story…. There’s an old joke about the food service industry that doesn’t appear to be attributed to anyone in particular and goes something like this:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the restaurant business? 

A: Start with a large fortune.

Sure, it’s more than a bit of hyperbole but the point gets across: it’s really, really difficult to make money in the restaurant business.  Your food has to be consistently good, customers are notoriously fickle with ever-changing tastes, margins are often razor-thin, inventory is perishable and one bad review or health issue can can bring down your entire business.  Challenges aside, in recent years restaurants have been viewed as a savior of sorts for the struggling retail sector.  The logic goes something like this: eCommerce is increasingly eating into the profits of brick and mortar retailers which is putting the large department and big box stores that acted as a primary draw to shopping centers under pressure.  Food is one of the few areas that seems to be immune to Amazon and its cohorts and the so-called  Good Food Revival Movement has led to clusters of hip restaurants in cities across the US that attract foodies and other “influencers” in droves.  Therefore, restaurants are replacing department and big box stores as primary draws to retail centers and down areas.

Relying on a highly volatile industry with low profit margins and traditionally high rates of failure to prop up an entire class of real estate may not be the best strategy but this is what it has come to for beleaguered retail landlords.  In investigating the restaurant boom, journalist Kevin Alexander penned a three-part series about the modern restaurant industry for Thrillist late last year and concluded that the industry is in a bubble (emphasis mine):

The American restaurant business is a bubble, and that bubble is bursting. I’ve arrived at this conclusion after spending a year traveling around the country and talking to chefs, restaurant owners, and other industry folk for this series. In part one, I talked about how the Good Food Revival Movement™ created colonies of similar, hip restaurants in cities all over the country. In the series’ second story, I discussed how a shortage of cooks — driven by a combination of the restaurant bubble, shifts in immigration, and a surge of millennials — is permanently altering the way a restaurant’s back of the house has to operate in order to survive.
This, the final story, is simple: I want you to understand why America’s Golden Age of Restaurants is coming to an end.
To do that I’m going to tell the story of the rise and fall of Matt Semmelhack and Mark Liberman’s AQ restaurant in San Francisco. But this story isn’t confined to SF. In Atlanta, D.B.A. Barbecue chef Matt Coggin told Thrillist about out-of-control personnel costs: “Too many restaurants have opened in the last two years,” he said. “There are not enough skilled hospitality workers to fill all of these restaurants. This has increased the cost for quality labor.” In New Orleans, I spoke with chef James Cullen (previously of Treo and Press Street Station) who talked at length about the glut of copycats: “If one guy opens a cool barbecue place and that’s successful, the next year we see five or six new cool barbecue places… We see it all the time here.”
Even Portland, the patient zero of the Good Food Revival Movement, isn’t safe. This year, chef Johanna Ware shut down universally lauded Smallwares, saying, “the restaurant world is so saturated nowadays and it requires so much extra work to keep yourself relevant.” And Pok Pok kingmaker Andy Ricker closed his noodle joint Sen Yai, citing “soaring rents, the rising minimum wage, and stereotypical ideas about ‘ethnic food’ as ‘cheap food'” in an interview with Portland Monthly. 
Rising labor costs, rent increases, a pandemic of similar restaurants, demanding customers unwilling to come to terms with higher prices — it’s the Perfect Restaurant Industry Storm. And even someone as optimistic as Ricker offers no comforting words about where we’re headed.
“These are tough issues that many restaurateurs may face in the very near future,” he says. “Closing now is preemptive.”

When looking at the broader economy, this makes a lot of sense.  Restaurants have three main cost inputs: food, rent and labor.  In some regards, restaurants actually benefited from the Great Recession.  High vacancy resulting from the real estate bust pushed rents down and persistently high unemployment and low labor force participation rates kept a lid on wages, especially at the low end which is the level at which the majority of restaurant workers are paid.  However, over the past few years rents have increased substantially and wages are finally starting to rise as well, putting pressure on the already skinny bottom line – and customers are generally not exhibiting any willingness to pay higher prices for the same food.  Couple that with more new restaurants opening and a labor pool that, in some cases isn’t deep enough to support it and you have a problem.  Alexander’s article goes into great detail about how cost pressures are driving restaurateurs towards either high end – fine dining or (relatively) affordable – food halls.  It’s a long article but absolutely worth the read.

So what made me think back to an article that I first read in December of last year?  Julie Jargon of the Wall Street Journal wrote a story this week entitled Going Out for Lunch Is a Dying Tradition that seemed to re-enforce Alexander’s theory about the restaurant industry being in trouble (emphasis mine)

The U.S. restaurant industry is in a funk. Blame it on lunch.

Americans made 433 million fewer trips to restaurants at lunchtime last year, resulting in roughly $3.2 billion in lost business for restaurants, according to market-research firm NPD Group Inc. It was the lowest level of lunch traffic in at least four decades.

While that loss in traffic is a 2% decline from 2015, it is a significant one-year drop for an industry that has traditionally relied on lunch and has had little or no growth for a decade.

This doesn’t seem like good news for a segment that is supposed to act as a draw for retail districts, does it? Part of the problem here is that services like Amazon Now and Uber Eats make it easier and cheaper for people to order in.  Another problem is price – groceries have actually gotten cheaper since 2015 while restaurants have gotten substantially more expensive – which is mostly attributable to the increases in labor and rent inputs mentioned above.  This is the worst case scenario for restaurants since it makes cooking at home relatively more attractive than eating out. More from the WSJ (emphasis mine):

The pain is spreading to suppliers. Meat giant Tyson Foods Inc. recently said a 29% drop in quarterly earnings was due partly to the decline in restaurant traffic.

“Consumers are buying fresh foods, from supermarkets, and eating them at home as a replacement for eating out,” Tyson Chief Executive Tom Hayes said.

The average price of a restaurant lunch has risen 19.5% to $7.59 since the recession, as rising labor costs pushed owners to raise menu prices—even as the cost of raw ingredients has fallen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. last year posted the longest stretch of falling grocery prices in more than 50 years.

Economy

Going Up: American credit scores are now at a record high as wounds from the Great Recession finally heal.  See Also: one of the most positive economic indicators is the increased willingness of employers to hire people with criminal records.

Coming Wave: Why (and how) China’s massive and growing number of senior citizens will change commerce as we know it.

Broken Clocks: I’ll say this for economists – they aren’t at all shy about predicting recessions.

Context: Tech stocks may seem expensive but today’s valuations are not even close to the absurd levels that they hit in the 1990s.

Commercial

It’s About Time: Clarification may finally be coming for the HVCRE rule which has caused chaos since it was introduced.

Residential

Raiding the Piggy Bank: Nearly half of all borrowers who refinanced their homes in the first quarter of 2017 opted to take cash out.  That’s a far cry from the 90% peak in 2006 but also well above the 12% trough in 2012.

False Premise: The biggest flaw in NIMBY opposition to so called “luxury housing” is the premise that constructing (or not constructing) those units has zero impact on older existing inventory – which is demonstrably untrue.

Mixed Impact: The Trump Administration’s proposed tax plan could hurt home values but help first time buyers.

Profiles

The Fix: Student debt now has substantially higher default rates than housing ever did even at the nadir of the financial crisis, and schools are perpetually raising prices with no exposure to the downside.  One way to fix it: make colleges at least partially accountable for defaults.

Just What We Need: The business of litigation finance is booming, which means more money to find lawsuits, resulting in……more lawsuits.

Chart of the Day

Better off staying in

WTF

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: A California woman sued Jelly Belly, claiming that they tricked her into believing that jelly beans do not contain sugar.  Anytime one of these frivolous cases gets thrown out, the plaintiff should be shipped off to GITMO to deter future would-be scammers.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: South Korea’s Customs Service announced that it had uncovered a 51-member smuggling ring who moved 2,348 kilograms of gold on flights by sticking it up their butts.

Exhibitionists: Two camels getting busy in the middle of a freeway caused a massive traffic jam because, Dubai.

Landmark Links – A candid look at the economy, real estate, and other things sometimes related.

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 2nd – Something Doesn’t Add Up