Landmark Links October 7th – Urban Legend

urban-legend

Lead Story…  Chances are that you’ve heard tales about alligators living in the NY sewers, Coca Cola’s magical ability to dissolve teeth overnight, that Elvis Presley is still alive and in witness protection, or even the old  Weekly World News standby of a bat child found living in a cave. These urban legends and others like them have spawned a virtual cottage industry of cable TV shows and websites seeking to either prove or debunk their claims.  Likewise, if you’ve attended development industry conferences in the past 4 years or so, you’ve probably heard some variation of the following on a capital panel: “There is too much money chasing too few deals.”   It’s been repeated so frequently through the past few years that the concept of “too much money chasing too few deals” is almost universally accepted as truth in the residential development industry.  However, just like tooth-dissolving cola, it falls apart under further scrutiny when discussing for-sale residential real estate development.  When viewed from 30,000 feet, the previous sentences probably looks crazy.  Many private equity funds, hedge funds, etc have raised money to invest into housing development.  However, it’s not the amount of money raised that’s been problematic in recent years.  Instead it’s that the type of money available is often a poor fit for projects in need of financing in today’s relatively stable housing market.

In the years before the housing bubble and subsequent bust, private home builders typically utilized bank debt and pension fund capital to build subdivisions and master-planned communities.  The debt component was readily available and attractively structured and pension fund capital had relatively long investment horizons and reasonable return expectations when compared to opportunity fund money which was typically used for entitlement projects and other, more risky ventures.  It wasn’t unusual back then to have decent sized private builders in California build and sell several hundred homes a year or more.  With a couple of notable exceptions, they were not going to compete with public home builders when it came to cost of funds.  However, they were still substantial players in the market and were able to build at decent levels of production while often delivering higher quality homes than their public competitors.  This all changed when the housing market crashed.  Banks reduced exposure to the home building and development space by a substantial amount, as did pension funds.  Some left the space entirely.

At the same time that pension funds and banks were pulling back, opportunity funds ramped up their fundraising in order to capitalize on the carnage that the Great Recession wrought on land values.  They offered their prospective investors high-octane returns that would be realized when they bought trophy properties at bargain-basement prices in a distressed environment, to develop or sell as the market began to recover.  This capital was and is well suited for opportunistic investments brought on by a market crash – thus the label opportunity fund.  What it isn’t a great fit for is investing in home builder and land development deals in a stable market.  In reality, the window to buy distressed assets wasn’t quite as long as many had anticipated and the doldrums of 2010-2011 quickly gave way to a run-up in transactions and land values in late 2012 into early 2014.  All of which brings us to where we are today: a stable market with tight inventories where there is a ton of capital that has been raised – but very little of that capital has a return profile that fits where it is needed most: lot manufacturing and production home building.  There are several reasons that this is happening:

  1. Unrealistic Investor Returns in a Stable Market – As stated above, much of the capital that has been raised to deploy for home building and land development in the market today is much better suited for a distressed market than a stable one.  However, there is something bigger at play: equity funds are targeting the same mid-20% IRR returns with the 10-year Treasury yielding 1.75% that they were when the 10-year was yielding 5%.  All returns are relative, meaning that, in real terms, today’s targeted returns are actually substantially richer than they were when the 10-year was substantially higher.  This has more to do with fundraising and marketing than anything else.  Funds are reluctant to pitch investors at the returns they are likely to achieve (mid to high teens) since their competitors will still promise mid-20%s, meaning that they won’t be able to raise capital, even if the underwriting that they are using to get to those returns is aggressive BS.
  2. Private Builders Get Squeezed Leading to Less Competition – In order to offer high returns to investors in a lower return environment, funds need to grab a bigger piece of a smaller pie, leaving less for builders and developers.  Typically, this means putting steep minimum multiple hurdles in their waterfalls.  Ironically, minimum equity multiples are incredibly short sighted as it encourages builders to push prices rather than absorption since the multiple hurdle is almost always substantially higher than the IRR hurdle, leading to longer sell out periods.  As if that isn’t enough, the few bank lenders left in the space are typically quite conservative and require a full persona guarantee.  So if you are a builder, you now have to put up 10% of the equity or more in order to get a deal done and put your balance sheet on the line to finance it and you’re getting a smaller piece of the returns.  Eventually, you have to wonder what the point is.  This is a huge reason that there are very few decent sized private builders left – in many cases the reward simply isn’t worth the risk.
  3. Lack of Debt Capital Resulting in Broken Deal Structures – Many land deals purchased during the aforementioned 2012-2014 run-up were bought under the assumption that either debt would be available to improve lots or public builders would purchase paper lots.  Fast forward to 2016 and the public builders still don’t have much of an appetite for paper lots nor is there debt readily available for horizontal development.  That means that the owner is either going to need to sell for a substantially lower number than they had in their proforma (sometimes even a loss), or improve the lots themselves by raising additional equity.  As a result, many of the sites that were bought in 2013 with a business plan to entitle and flip are effectively underwater.  Mind you that home prices have almost universally INCREASED during this time frame but a lack of reasonably-priced development debt or public home builders with an appetite for paper lots has caused a stealth land correction of sorts that has been playing out for months.
  4. No Investor Appetite for Long Duration Deals – Ask an opportunity fund investor what they fear most and you will probably hear something about getting stuck in a multi-cycle development project.  High octane capital needs to get in and out relatively quickly in order to make the out-sized returns promised to investors.  Many opportunity funds are of the mindset that we are getting late in the cycle since prices have risen so substantially from the bottom despite the fact that housing starts in key production markets haven’t picked up much and inventory is still bumping along near record lows.  Many funds have been looking to trim project duration in an effort to ensure that they are out when the cycle inevitably turns.  As a result, there are some incredible opportunities out there that require capital to execute a 5-7 year business plan that no one will touch due to duration.  We have seen several of these sort of projects where sponsorship is strong and land basis is very attractive due to a lack of bidders.  However, it’s incredibly challenging to find capital that is willing to go out that far, even if the returns are exceptional.  This short-term mentality has left a large hole in the market for anything but bite-sized infill deals.

If this actually were a  market with the aforementioned “too much capital for too few deals” we would expect to be seeing increasing transaction volume and increasing land prices as the supply of capital led to a seller’s market. However, neither of these are occurring in all but a select few markets (at least on the west coast).  Instead, we are seeing light (at best) land transaction volume.  In order for the land market to turn the corner, either  the public builders need to regain their appetite for buying paper lots and developing them or we need more sources of capital that are properly aligned with the projects that they are financing under normal market conditions.

Home building and land development can both provide great returns in a healthy market. However, trying to finance these ventures with little-to-no debt and opportunistic capital raised to buy distressed assets is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.  Does this sound like a market with too much capital to you?  Better keep searching for those sewer-dwelling gators.

Economy

Pay Up: A look at who pays the most for housing, healthcare, energy and groceries by state.

Lag Time: How the psychology of the Housing Bubble helps to explain today’s odd labor shortage.

Commercial

Office Space: Open office concepts are becoming a bit less open as many tenants build out more private space.

Residential

Delusional Narcissism: Celebrities really suck at selling homes, mostly because they dramatically overestimate the value of their fame on the house they are trying to sell.

Flattening Out: Residential construction spending was down again in August despite strong gains in multi-family.

The Pendulum: There is a fairly strong demographic argument that we are approaching “peak renter.”

Profiles

Clowning: The clown industry (yes, there is such a thing) is not happy about all of the creepy clown sightings occurring across the US. See Also: Penn State students lose their minds after creepy clown sighting.  And: Someone even started a Clown Lives Matter movement, complete with organized protests.

Useless: Robo-callers and internet scammers have turned the National Do Not Call List into one big joke.

Soul Crushing: The average white collar worker will spend 47,000 hours on work email over his or her career.

Scapegoat? Meet the whiz kid behind the sketchy Russian mirror trades that are causing Deutsche Banks whole bunch of trouble that it really doesn’t need right now.

Chart of the Day

slide1

WTF

Bite to Eat: Some lunatic threw an alligator through a Wendy’s drive thru window. Because, Florida.

Incestuous: A 68 year old man unwittingly married his 24 year old biological granddaughter. They don’t plan on getting divorced. Once again, because, Florida.

Crimes Against Humanity: Today’s video of the day is a bunch of adults beating the crap out each other in a massive brawl at a Chuck E Cheese in, you guessed it: Florida.  Kudos to the guy in the Eli Manning jersey who appears to have a much better arm than the real Eli Manning.  (h/t Ethan Schelin).

P.S.  I know that we spend a lot of time laughing at Florida’s expense on here. However, please keep Florida residents (including my parents) in your thoughts and prayers as they batten down the hatches to deal with Hurricane Matthew. Hopefully everyone will be ok so that they can get back to their goofy antics ASAP. 

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links October 7th – Urban Legend

Landmark Links September 2nd – Clueless

golden retriever

Lead Story… On Tuesday, I posted a piece about how construction unions actively undermined a measure that CA Governor Jerry Brown had presented to help solve California’s affordable housing crisis by making it easier to gain approval for residential projects that would provide a certain number of affordable units.  I have limited time to write today’s blog post but I want to revisit that story, which the WSJ reported on (they wrote about a similar proposal in NY as well that was nuked by the unions) because the utter absurdity of it is so mind boggling (highlights are mine):

For both measures, construction unions were key to the defeat, as they won over key allies with their argument that the government shouldn’t be aiding apartment development without also guaranteeing union-level wages. Unions, particularly in New York, have been facing a gradual erosion of their market share on residential developments, and now developers that a generation ago would have been union shops are able to fill jobs with nonunion workers, which can lower construction costs by an estimated 20%, according to New York-based Citizens Housing and Planning Council, a low-income housing group.

Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, said policies like the one pushed by Mr. Brown should allow construction workers to make a decent living “rather than drive those workers into the need of affordable housing itself.”

Allow me to clarify: the reason that the unions killed both deals was that NY and CA wouldn’t stipulate that all projects that fell under the proposals be built by union workers at a so called “prevailing wage” which is really just a fancy way of saying overpaying.  Notice in the passage highlighted above that the unions have lost market share in recent years.  I wonder why.  Could it possibly be that residential projects (especially in CA with it’s high impact fees) typically aren’t viable at “prevailing wage” standards?  Often, in residential developments, the only time that you see union labor being used are when a union pension fund provides the equity behind the project.  Otherwise we just don’t see it that often because numbers simply don’t work.  By the way, when a union pension fund provides the equity, they almost always have to take a substantially lower return in order to subsidize the above market “prevailing” wages paid for construction.

The real story here should be that unions are facing declining market share because they refuse to adapt.  Governor Brown’s proposal would have undoubtedly created more construction jobs in California, leading to more demand for labor and higher wages.  If construction labor unions were at all flexible in their compensation demands, many of those jobs could have gone to union  workers.  However, rather than trying to expand their ranks, which ironically would lead to more power, not less, construction unions have dug in their heels in an effort to preserve the unsustainable wage structure of existing members.  The rest of us pay the price since a proposal that would have provided a starting point for dealing with CA’s growing housing crisis is now toast.  Looks like the status quo of runaway housing cost wins again.

Economy

Looking Up: Federal income tax withholding data indicates that both wages and economic growth are on the rise.

(Skilled) Help Wanted: As skill requirements increase, more and more manufacturing jobs are going unfilled.

Commercial

Rise of the Machines: How CoStar is using spy planes to get an edge in tracking new development for rent projections.

Evolving: Some malls are starting to look a bit like theme parks as landlords try to cope with high vacancy from traditional tenants.

Residential

Closed for Business: Message to tech firms from Palo Alto’s anti-jobs mayor: go away.  See Also: Formerly middle class Palo Alto has gotten so expensive that not even techies can afford to live there anymore.  For example, someone is listing a 790sf studio for $1.3MM.  Turns out that the housing bubble of the aughts really didn’t mean much at all in Palo Alto:

Proof is in the Pudding: The next time someone tells you that adding units, including luxury ones to the housing stock doesn’t help affordability, direct them to these:

Exhibit A: Manhattan condo developers are offering discounts, concessions and perks in an effort to keep sales robust in the midst of a glut.

Exhibit B: How Brooklyn’s luxury apartment boom is turning into a rental glut.

Profiles

Hero: 40 years ago John Bogle of Vanguard was sick of Wall Street overcharging for shitty performance.  He did something about it and started the first index funds despite ridicule from his peers.  Today, index funds hold nearly $5 trillion in low fee assets while much higher fee investments languish. 

Hot Item: How the premium Yeti Cooler, also known as a “Redneck Rolex” became a prime target for thieves.

Get Off My Lawn: Baseball’s fan demographics keep getting older, raising the question: can a game with a 19th-century tempo survive in the age of instant gratification?

Chart of the Day

WTF

Funny, In a Sad Sort of Way: Rapper Tyga got his leased Ferrari repossessed while he was at the dealership shopping for a new Bentley.

In Soviet Russia… Vladimir Putin was arrested at a Florida grocery store on trespassing charges, because Florida. 

Seems Like a Reasonable Response: A Pennsylvania woman was arrested for biting her husband and stabbing him with scissors after she caught him drinking her beer.

Again, Seems Reasonable: Meet the father who destroyed his daughter’s car with heavy construction equipment after catching her in it with a boy.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links September 2nd – Clueless

Landmark Links June 28th – Tank Commander

Byron-Scott-Driving-The-Lakers-Tank

Lead Story…  We spend a lot of time talking about the San Francisco housing markets and rightfully so: it’s a microcosm of all that is wrong with restrictive zoning in closed access US cities and the poster child for NIMBY obstructionism.  As such, San Francisco has managed to overshadow another North American market that is incredibly expensive and getting worse: Vancouver, BC  Year-over year, Vancouver’s benchmark housing index is up 30% to just under $900k while single family detached house prices increased a whopping 40% to $1.374MM (in US dollars) in a city where median household income is around $67k in US dollars – San Francisco is in the $82k range.  So how does an MSA with such a low median household income (one of the lowest of major Canadian cities) end up with a median home price that is among the highest? 1) Massive levels of housing demand from wealthy foreign investors, especially from China; and 2) Highly restrictive zoning that makes it difficult to add enough housing units to satisfy  that demand.  One critical distinction between SF and Vancouver is that much of Vancouver’s foreign purchases appear to be for investment purposes only while SF real estate has clearly benefited from the tech boom and it’s highly compensated workforce.  This, combined with the inability to build enough new units for residents, is leaving Vancouver with empty units that transact for nosebleed prices.  The increase in value was so extreme last year that at least one mathematician estimated that the rising land value of single family homes accounted for more than the entire employment income in the City of Vancouver and now over 90% of detached houses there are worth over $1MM.

Foreign buyers have come under increasing scrutiny of late for the impact that they are having on the worlds most expensive real estate markets.  Some of it is justified.  For example, the US Treasury department now requires that title insurance companies report the people behind shell companies on all-cash purchases over a certain level in NY and Miami in order to curtail money laundering.  Others like Great Britain, which increased the stamp duty on second home purchases by 3% and raised taxes on more expensive homes in an effort to drive down demand.  Few places though, have considered responding as harshly as Vancouver, which is considering a tax on vacant homes.    From the South China Morning Post:

Vancouver’s mayor Gregor Robertson says he is considering the introduction of a tax on empty homes, amid a roiling debate in the city about the role of Chinese money and offshore investors in North America’s most unaffordable real estate market.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Tuesday, Robertson said he was “looking at new regulation and a carrot-and-stick approach to making sure that houses aren’t empty in Vancouver,” including a tax on vacant homes. “If you’re not using your property – either living in it or renting it out – then you have to pay more tax. Because effectively it’s a business holding, and should be taxed accordingly.”

There is a very substantial difference between adding to transaction costs or requiring ownership disclosures, as the US and Britain are doing and what Vancouver’s mayor proposed here.  The steps taken by the US and Britain either increase transaction costs or regulatory paperwork in an effort to slow demand from a certain buying segment.  The Vancouver proposal takes a very different approach: it would actually increase the holding cost of foreign-owned (but unoccupied) real estate by imposing a different tax structure.  This isn’t limited to the purchase transaction, instead its a recurring annual cost.  More from the South China Morning Post:

A tax targeting vacant properties was proposed by dozens of economists in January.The BC Housing Affordability Fund, which has been pitched to both the City and British Columbia provincial government, would impose a 1.5 per cent annual tax (based on home price) on owners who either left homes vacant or had “limited economic or social ties to Canada”.

BCHAF proponent Tom Davidoff, an economist at the University of British Columbia, said it was unclear if Robertson’s remarks on Tuesday referred to his group’s proposal. “We talked to the city and they gave us a good listen,” he said.

“I would hope that any vacancy tax would cover the bigger issue here which is not paying taxes here and not being a landlord [either],” said Davidoff, whose group’s proposal would also tax people who under-utilised properties as a “pied-a-terre”, and those whose primary breadwinner paid little or no income tax in Canada – so-called “astronaut families”.

This strikes me as the quickest way to cause an exodus of foreign capital from a given real estate market because, unlike the US and British solutions, it would not just apply to new purchases.  It is also rife with the potential for unintended consequences.  For example, who is to say if a property is under-utilized?  Who actually gets to make that distinction and is there a hard and fast rule that could be applied.  If you were a foreign (or domestic for that matter) investor or homeowner who had a house there and you knew that costs were about to go up a proposed 1.5% a year based on home price (not unsubstantial on a million dollar home) would you hang around to see how it was implemented?  This type of tax could send foreign investors rushing towards the exit before a glut of supply hits the market as investors seek friendlier locales in which to invest.  At least it appears as if cooler heads are prevailing at the provincial and national level.  Again from the South China Morning Post:

Both Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and BC Premier Christy Clark have said they worry that taking steps to curtail foreign ownership in Vancouver could imperil the equity of existing owners.

I hope that Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Clark’s logic prevails as this would be an incredibly dumb way to tank a real estate market and the collateral economic damage done to existing homeowners would be all too real.  In all of the talk about how to bring Vancover’s prices under control, it seems as if no one (or at least very few people) are proposing a real solution: relaxing restrictive zoning codes so that more units could be built to meet demand.  Ultimately, that’s the only way to avoid what some are now calling a bubble.  Rather, we get more of the same convoluted restrictions, subsidies and taxes that don’t solve the actual problem and often do more harm than good.  The Vancouver mayor’s proposal is a tanking strategy that would make even the shittiest NBA team blush. Let’s that American cities with a large number of foreign investors don’t follow the example.

Economy

Tailwind: Per Calculated Risk, the largest population cohorts in the US are now 20-24 and 25-29 which is positive for the economy in general and housing in particular as young people begin to form households.

Brexit Breakdown: By now you probably know that UK residents voted to leave the EU, sending stock prices down the toilet around the globe and spurring demand for safe haven assets like treasuries and gold.  The betting markets got this one dead wrong as did pollsters and most government officials.  Despite the crazy market response, nothing will really change from a trade standpoint in the near-term and there is already a movement underway to try to reverse the referendum.  Either way, nothing is going to happen until this fall when British PM David Cameron resigns.  Here’s a quick roundup of what people far more knowledgeable than I are saying:

Tyler Cowen on why the Brexit happened and what it means.

George Soros on the future of Europe and why it might have more issues than Britain.

Gabriel Roth on why the actual Brexit might not ever actually happen

The BBC on the high likelihood of another Scottish independence vote as a result of the Brexit outcome.

See Also: S&P and Fitch downgrade UK credit rating.

Best House on a Bad Block: The US economy looks likely to weather the Brexit storm even if it puts the Fed on hold for a while longer.

Commercial

 

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner: How US REITs could benefit from the Brexit.

Residential

Scraping the Bottom: Brexit panic has pushed interest rates to record lows and mortgage rates are following and they could be headed even lower.

Profiles

Trade of the Century: The story of how George Soros’ Quantum Fund made trade of the century by breaking the British pound is especially fascinating today in light of recent world events.

Green Monsters: Avocado theft is on the rise.

Please Make it Stop: Enough with the stupid Millennial surveys already.

Chart of the Day

The US Demographic Tailwind

Population: Largest 5-Year Cohorts by Year
Largest
Cohorts
2010 2015 2020 2030
1 45 to 49 years 20 to 24 years 25 to 29 years 35 to 39 years
2 50 to 54 years 25 to 29 years 30 to 34 years 40 to 44 years
3 15 to 19 years 50 to 54 years 35 to 39 years 30 to 34 years
4 20 to 24 years 55 to 59 years Under 5 years 25 to 29 years
5 25 to 29 years 30 to 34 years 55 to 59 years 5 to 9 years
6 40 to 44 years 15 to 19 years 20 to 24 years 10 to 14 years
7 10 to 14 years 45 to 49 years 5 to 9 years Under 5 years
8 5 to 9 years 10 to 14 years 60 to 64 years 15 to 19 years
9 Under 5 years 5 to 9 years 15 to 19 years 20 to 24 years
10 35 to 39 years 35 to 39 years 10 to 14 years 45 to 49 years
11 30 to 34 years 40 to 44 years 50 to 54 years 50 to 54 years

Source: Calculated Risk

WTF

Video of the Day / Attempted Darwin Award:  It’s exceedingly rare that an attempted Darwin Award gets caught on video.  This past weekend, two morons attempted to surf a 20 + foot swell at The Wedge in Newport Beach on a rental jet ski despite being warned repeatedly by lifeguards to stay away.  It went horribly wrong with the jet ski ending up on top of the Newport Jetty before nearly sinking while getting swept out to sea as Newport’s lifeguards and local Wedge veterans saved the riders from their own epic stupidity.  No word on whether or not they got their deposit back.  Looks like it’s time to add some more chlorine to the gene pool.

Can You Spot the Irony? A man named Ronald McDonald was shot outside a Sonic in New York.

I’d Rather Eat My Shoe: Burger King recently introduced something called Mac N’ Cheetos.  The race to the bottom for the American fast food industry continues with no end in sight.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 28th – Tank Commander

Landmark Links June 7th – Super Size Me

supersizeme

Lead Story…. Much like our waistlines, America’s new houses are expanding.  According to the US Census Bureau, the median size of a new single-family house last year was 2,467sf, the largest on record.  Many pundits predicted the demise of the much-maligned “McMansion” once the housing crash hit.  Clearly that prediction has been less than prescient.  According to the Wall Street Journal:

Homes are 61% larger than the median from 40 years earlier and 11% larger than a decade earlier.

One particularly interesting aspect of this trend is that it has been happening while American families are actually getting smaller, not larger.  It’s not just the size of new houses either.  The components that are going into those new homes are changing as well. More from the WSJ:

“McMansion” may not be a popular term post-housing bust. But American homes have not only been getting larger, they’re also including more bathrooms and amenities such as air conditioning. Some 93% of new houses had air conditioning in 2015 compared with 46% in 1975. About 96% of new homes last year had at least two bathrooms versus 60% four decades earlier.

That may go some way toward explaining rising prices. The median sales price of a new home was $296,400 last year, according to Census, a new high. Even when adjusted for inflation, new-home prices hit a record last year.

First off, the fact that single family homes are getting bigger says as much about increasing land and permitting costs as it does about consumer demand for larger homes – the builders are building what they have to based on the cost of land and other inputs rather than strictly what consumers want.  This helps to explain why new home sales have been sluggish coming out of the housing bust. Building a larger, more expensive house is one way to overcome the ever-higher drag of land, permits, impact fees and regulatory costs.  Public builder CEOs have been saying this for some time, the latest of which was Lennar’s Stuart Miller who spoke about builders’ inability to produce low-cost new homes at a conference last week:

“This is a tough market condition. We have seen the market recover since the downturn, but the recovery has been slow, steady and in a pretty tight band.  When you start with a high land basis [cost] it’s very hard to end up with a purchase price that the first-time buyer finds affordable.”

All that being said, the fact that new homes are now coming with features that entry level houses never had in previous eras does say a lot about consumer demand and points to a simple but oft-overlooked fact: part of the reason that its so difficult to build an entry level home is that what we consider entry level has changed…a lot.  Bathrooms and kitchens are by far the most expensive rooms to construct.  Believe it or not, there was a time that an entry level home didn’t come complete with a master suite, several bathrooms, quartz kitchen counters and stainless appliances.  When you start adding extra bathrooms, higher-finish kitchens, air conditioning, etc costs rise quickly, making it very difficult to produce a home that entry level buyers can afford.  More bathrooms and larger homes are not favorable trends if we want more entry level product.

Economy

Hold Your Nose: Last week’s jobs report pretty much sucked and is making it substantially less likely that a rate hike is imminent this summer.

Blame Game: Low interest rates are supposed to stimulate the economy by making investment cheaper.  Their impact has been muted at best this cycle and the two of the culprits may be dividends and stock buybacks.

Muted Impact: Low oil prices really haven’t provided the economic boost that they were supposed to.

Commercial

Hitting the Road: Sky high rents have tech firms are looking at markets outside of San Francisco in order to cut costs as VC funding wanes.

Residential

Pacman: Today’s must read is a thought-provoking piece from Connor Sen on why housing is about to eat the US economy.  Here’s an excerpt of his conclusions but you really ought to read the whole thing (highlights are mine):

-The economic shortfall in the US right now is mostly on the housing side. Because of how important housing is to the US economy, this is why 4.7% headline unemployment doesn’t feel like full employment.

-Construction employment as a share of total employment is likely going to rise at least another 0.4% to get to a level of 5% in this cycle.

-At the current level of employment, this means we need another 550,000-600,000 construction workers.

-Construction unemployment is already near record lows.

-Demographic trends in the US – an aging workforce, a workforce that’s growing more educated, the changing mix of immigration towards Asian knowledge workers rather than Hispanic blue collar workers (29% of construction workers are Hispanic) – all act as headwinds towards finding more construction workers.

-From a labor slack standpoint, the pool of potential construction workers is probably well-represented by unemployed men under the age of 55. To get back to late ‘90s levels of male unemployment (from a level standpoint, not an unemployment % standpoint), we would need essentially every single male unemployed worker who finds a job in the coming years to go into construction. This doesn’t take into account skill, desire, education level, geography, etc.

If we had to find 500,000 construction workers tomorrow, from a math standpoint it would be impossible. The slack isn’t there. But this isn’t the way things work in the real world. Time and market forces allow for adjustments. So here’s what that means:

-Over time, as construction employers become more aggressive they will bid away workers from similar fields – agriculture, oil & mining extraction, manufacturing. New entrants to goods-producing fields will be drawn overwhelming to construction, so as workers quit or retire from agriculture/oil/manufacturing-related industries it will create increasing scarcities in those industries.

-Goods-producing/blue collar workers will increasingly bleed from the Midwest/Northeast to the faster-growing southeast and west coast, where increasing numbers of construction jobs will be. This will put more and more of a strain on Midwest/Northeast goods-producing firms.

-With construction-friendly immigration flows not being what they were, the globalization solution will be to move ever more numbers of agricultural/manufacturing activity overseas to free up their domestic workers for construction. Neither California farm owners nor Midwest voters and governments will be happy about this.

-Construction wages/costs going up will mean higher housing/real estate costs for households and firms, leaving less of a spending pie available for the rest of the economy. If you’re spending an extra 3% of your pay on housing that’s taking business from a grocery store or a movie theater or Amazon.

-Capital will flow increasingly towards the housing sector, starving other sectors of capital. If construction can’t achieve productivity gains then labor shortages in other sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, entry level services/fast food) will mean more and more incentives to automate labor-intensive tasks to free up those workers to work in construction.

“Software eating the world” implied that digital upstarts were going to create low cost solutions to take demand away from older, high cost analog firms. Amazon eating big box stores, Facebook eating print and TV. Demand was going to shift. “Housing eating the US economy” implies that housing is going to steal your inputs. They’re coming for your workers and capital on the supply side. It’s a different dynamic but a similar outcome – housing is poised to reassert itself as the main driver of the US economy.

Enhanced Sale: Homes listed at $100MM have been languishing on the market of late.  However, The Playboy Mansion, which had a listing price of $200MM was just purchased by Heff’s next door neighbor, a 32 year old financier who was involved in buying Hostess Brands out of bankruptcy when the Twinkie maker went belly up a few years back.

Profiles

Survival of the Fittest: It may seem hard to believe today but Google+ was viewed as an existential threat to Facebook when it launched in 2011.  Here’s the inside story of Mark Zuckerberg’s war to crush Google+ that sent Facebook on it’s current trajectory of web dominance.

@Trouble: Snapchat has now overtaken Twitter when it comes to average daily users.  See Also: Twitter has a major anonymous troll problem that’s holding it back and the solution comes with a huge price: a dramatic drop in daily users.

Rosetta Stone: theSkimm put together a list of acronyms so you can figure out what the hell your kids are actually talking about.

Chart of the Day

Houses are growing while households are shrinking.

 housing1
houses2
Source: AEI.org

WTF

Video of the Day: This parking lot brawl in the parking lot of a Canadian Costco is quite possibly the least Canadian thing I’ve ever seen, eh.

Subtle: A Chinese highway services company has started striping it’s parking lots with spaces specifically for women.  The spaces are 1.5x the size of a normal spot, framed in pink and market by an icon representing a skirt-wearing woman.  When pressed for a comment, the highway service company district manager responded:

“The bigger parking spaces are for women drivers whose driving skills are not superb,” Pan Tietong, the service area’s manager, told the newspaper. He said he had encountered female drivers who were unskilled at backing up into spots, and sometimes asked security guards to help them park.

The spots “are especially designed for women drivers,” he said. “It’s a humane measure.”

As much as I’d like to comment further on this “humane measure,” I’m going to refrain primarily because I have no interest in sleeping on the couch tonight.

Thin Crust Alimony Pizza: An Italian court ruled that alimony can be paid in pizza because Italy is awesome.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 7th – Super Size Me

Landmark Links April 26th – Disconnect

Disconect

Lead Story… Goldman Sachs published a research note last week that CNBC posted some excerpts of, making the case that the construction labor shortage isn’t to blame for the sluggish home builder performance:

“Our analysis of payroll growth and wage inflation data suggests that labor shortages may not be to blame for the mediocre level of housing activity,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a report this week. “We find that, on the one hand, the construction sector has experienced the largest job growth over the past year.”

Construction growth has led all other sectors at 5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but average hourly earnings in construction gained only 2.2 percent over the past year, which is about the national average.

“Economics 101 would suggest that, if labor shortages did in fact exist, upward pressure on wages would be more pronounced and payroll growth would be anemic,” the report said. “Therefore, the evidence from the industry-level employment and wage data does not support the existence of labor shortages in the construction sector.”

Goldman instead pointed to permitting delays and land scarcity as the culprits, citing a report from JBREC’s Jody Kahn that we posted earlier this month:

A survey of 100 builders nationwide by John Burns Real Estate Consulting backs that thesis. They asked about costs that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and found high levels of builder frustration, not just from labor, but from cost overruns stemming from new regulations for house erosion control, energy codes and fire sprinklers. They also cited understaffed planning and permit offices as well as utility company delays.

“New regulations to protect the environment and to shore up local city finances have made it extremely difficult for home builders to build affordable homes,” the Burns analysts wrote. “Now, more than ever, the demand for affordable entry-level housing will need to be met by the resale market, since new homes have become permanently more expensive to build. We were overwhelmed by the reply as well as the builders’ level of frustration.”

I agree with what they are saying to an extent as the construction labor shortage Isnt the sole culprit, but first we have to put things in context.  Yes, we are rebounding but it’s from a very low level when it comes to construction employment:

The CNBC story made two important clarifications: 1) The labor shortage is a much bigger deal on the west coast (most of our clients would agree); and 2) The construction industry has failed miserably when it comes to to attracting younger workers and is stuck with an aging workforce (again, our clients have verified this):

There is a labor crunch, though, in some parts of the country, more so in the West, as a considerable number of the construction workers who left during the recession still have yet to return.

The average age of a construction worker today is far higher than it was during the housing boom, Michelle Meyer, deputy head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research, said Tuesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Builders need to attract younger workers, but they seem, so far at least, unwilling or unable to pay them more.

IMHO, there are a number of issues conspiring to make this a very difficult environment for builders and developers.  Permitting delays, a lack of developable lots, low affordability, more stringent mortgage underwriting, people forming households later in life, labor shortages, high costs, lack of development financing, almost no new entry level product, etc.  Builders could probably overcome a couple of these but add them up together and you have the perfect storm for a relatively moribund home building recovery.  This sluggishness is leading to capital market pessimism.  Meyers Research noted last week that their investor round table is expecting a downturn in land in the not-too-distant future which is causing them to proceed cautiously:

  • The train may arrive early: While a national economic recession is still on the horizon, the recession is now expected within the next two years, which makes investing in a residential land opportunity more interesting.

  • Possible repricing ahead: In fact, some groups are suggesting that land will be “on sale” within the next 6-18 months. Widespread distress is not expected, but neither are decreasing home prices. It’s simply an expectation that some return-based land owners may be experiencing deal fatigue and be willing to accept a modest return rather than endure another cycle.

  • “Multiple” Opportunities: Some of the larger, more patient capital sources are expecting this to be an attractive buy opportunity where they can “play for the multiple”. The challenge is that few of these investors are looking to develop land. The heavy capital requirements of land development are not justifiable today and banks remain tepid toward land development. It is not a stretch to expect the for-sale market to remain under-supplied, or at least not oversupplied, for a protracted period. This condition surely will reduce the risk of capital loss for patient investors but make things challenging for home builders who need land as their most basic raw material.

At some point this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where lots fall in value due to a dearth of capital availability where investors pull back to wait for a better entry point.  This couldn’t be more different than the 2007-2008 scenario where there was plenty of lot and home supply that weighed on the market heavily once subprime lending (and demand from marginal buyers) vaporized.  No, in this case homes could actually keep going up in value, getting less affordable while new construction continues to slow and land development grinds to a halt.  Why?  Because people are still forming households and there is still demand that will likely continue to outstrip supply of development slows further.

Private equity investors made large investments in land coming out of the downturn, banking on a strong rebound when home values began to rise.  Many of them have been disappointed with the results and many portfolios haven’t hit expected returns despite home prices and lot prices generally rising.  This has mainly been due to the various headwinds facing development and home building that I mentioned above.  The prevailing view on Wall Street appears to be that land is overvalued but home prices may not be which is why Meyers sees the potential for land to go on sale while low supply keeps home prices elevated. Ironically, developers and their capital partners could have been spot on underwriting finished lot values and still under-performed due to permitting delays and cost inflation.  Developers and their equity partners are also struggling since home builders are now demanding finished lots whereas they were previously buying unimproved but mapped land and did their own improvements.  Improving lots is very capital intensive as mentioned in the Meyers report above and your average developer has a substantially higher cost of capital than a public home builder does.

I’m of the opinion that the correction has been underway since 2014 when builders essentially stopped buying paper lots in all but the most infill locations since underwritten returns on land improvement and horizontal construction are now higher (ask a west coast based land broker and they will likely confirm this). All told, we could be setting up for a somewhat bizarre scenario where land prices languish as development risk gets repriced while home prices stay firm or go higher.

Economy

Look at the Bright Side: As lucrative oil jobs dry up,  some workers are jumping ship to the growing solar energy sector.

Commercial

Just Speculating: Spec construction is on the rise as tenant demand continues to fuel the industrial sector.

Residential

There’s a Freeway Running Through the Yard: Buyers in high priced markets like Los Angeles will put up with a lot, including a home adjacent to the freeway to find something even moderately affordable. See Also: Home price surge stymies first time buyers.

Profiles

Keeping Up With the Googles: Traditional businesses are making their offices look like startups in a bid to appear “cool” to millennials.  However, what many of these traditional businesses run by 50 year old execs don’t grasp is that the appeal of the startup lies in the excitement of the concept, the culture and the idea that you are getting in on the ground floor….oh yeah, I almost forgot about the ability to participate in the upside if the company makes it big.  These are things that your typical advertising agency will never offer and nap pods, ping pong tables and hip office design in an old-school business are superficial and come off as pandering.

Better Off Just Dripping: The Dyson Airblade jet dryer is really bad for hygene. A new study shows that using one is akin to setting off a viral bomb in an already-disgusting public restroom.

Chart of the Day

The latest update of Bill McBride’s “Distressing Gap” doesn’t look to be closing anytime soon.

WTF

Makes Sense to Me: A woman in South Carolina crashed a car into a Walmart.  She claims that God told her to do it.

Video of the Day Twofer: Watching disgruntled construction workers battle it out on the street with heavy machinery is my new favorite pastime. (h/t Ian Sinderhoff)

The Law of Unintended Consequences: An animal rights activist group “freed” an ostrich from the circus.  It was promptly hit by a car and killed.  Turns out that ostriches aren’t well equipped to handle an urban environment in Germany.  Who would have though?

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links April 26th – Disconnect