Landmark Links July 12th – We Know Nothing

sgt-schultz

Lead Story….  There is an old investment joke about Albert Einstein going to heaven that goes like this:

Einstein dies and goes to heaven only to be informed that his room is not yet ready. “I hope you will not mind waiting in a dormitory. We are very sorry, but it’s the best we can do and you will have to share the room with others” he is told by the doorman.

Einstein says that this is no problem at all and that there is no need to make such a great fuss. So the doorman leads him to the dorm. They enter and Albert is introduced to all of the present inhabitants. “See, Here is your first room mate. He has an IQ of 180!”
“Why that’s wonderful!” Says Albert. “We can discuss mathematics!”

“And here is your second room mate. His IQ is 150!”
“Why that’s wonderful!” Says Albert. “We can discuss physics!”

“And here is your third room mate. His IQ is 100!”
“That Wonderful! We can discuss the latest plays at the theater!”

Just then another man moves out to capture Albert’s hand and shake it. “I’m your last room mate and I’m sorry, but my IQ is only 80.”
Albert smiles back at him and says, “So, where do you think interest rates are headed?”

Believe it or not, there was a time that it was considered foolish to speculate as to the future direction of interest rates.  For better or worse, that time has clearly passed.  On a personal level I try to avoid interest rate projections whenever possible and nothing loses my attention quicker than a one sided statement like “interest rates have nowhere to go but up,”  which we’ve been inundated with for several years.  Why?  Simple: I HAVE NO IDEA WHERE INTEREST RATES ARE HEADED AND NEITHER DO YOU, so let’s not waste time on  something that’s complex to the level of being unknowable.  My preference is to look at interest rates (especially at the long end of the yield curve) as an indicator that tells us about the economy as opposed to something that fluctuates based on the whims of where economists, consultants, finance bloggers or even the Federal Reserve think that they ought to go.

Two weeks ago, I read a post on John Burns Real Estate Consulting’s typically-excellent Building Market Intelligence blog that suggested that finished lots could be substantially overvalued – as much as 26%!  The post is relatively short so I’ll post the entire thing here:

In 2013, finished lot values (shown in navy blue below) spiked back to mid-2005 values. Since then they have climbed modestly. Today’s low mortgage rates support the high lot values, but lots are 26% overpriced if rates were to rise back to a long-term norm of 6.0%.

BFLVI2

Methodology

To help our clients assess housing cycle risk, we calculate intrinsic finished lot values in 24 markets around the country and intrinsic home values in approximately 100 additional markets. Intrinsic values are those one would expect over a very long period. We assume that 6% is the normal mortgage rate over a long period like this. (6.45% is the median rate over the last 25 years.)

Valuation

Today’s finished lot values make sense in the current 4% mortgage rate environment (red line above) but won’t make sense if rates rise to 6% (green line above). Most home buyers are highly sensitive to mortgage rates, which is why the difference is so dramatic. The intrinsic valuations vary widely by market, too, with Dallas’s finished lots the most overvalued market in the country and Charlotte’s the most undervalued.

Conclusions

Our analysis, which includes interviewing brokers and running cash flows, concludes that finished lots are 3% underpriced nationally as long as rates remain where they are. If rates rise to 6%, finished lots would be overpriced by 26%. Our research subscribers get the detail for each market and the methodology.

Any regular reader of this blog knows that I have nothing but the utmost respect for the JBREC team and link to their posts regularly but I have some real issues with this analysis, not because they chose to apply a higher interest rate to stress land values but rather because I believe the methodology that they used to be flawed for several reasons:

  1. Flawed Scenario Analysis: I have absolutely no issue with scenario analysis and actually favor it as a means of establishing a range of values where variables can not be pinpointed.  We use it in almost every underwriting that we do.  However, they only ran one scenario here: rates rising.  What if rates fall?  Brexit, anyone?  Then what happens?  I would assume that finish lots would be undervalued if they did fall?
  2. Counterfactual: The Burns Intrinsic Finished Lot Value Index is based on a conterfactual.  In that regard, they are trying to take a condition that currently doesn’t exist in the market, change one variable and reach a conclusion based solely on that variable.  This may work great in a laboratory environment but doesn’t work so well when interest rates are completely intertwined with all other facets of the economy.  When it comes to finance, counterfacutals are challenging because they are garbage-in-garbage-out and you can make them say almost anything.  Want to make something look overpriced?  Just change an input and voila, you’ve just come up with a bear thesis.  Same thing goes for showing that an asset is undervalued.  In this case, the index is using a historic average that isn’t applicable to today’s economic conditions and then applying it across the board. Which leads us to my biggest beef:
  3. Oversimplification: The entire analysis is an exercise in oversimplification.  In their index, JBREC is implying that, since rates have averaged 6%+ over the past 25 years that they will return to that level.  At the time that the JBREC post was written, the 30-year mortgage rate was 3.56% (it’s substantially lower today).  That means that mortgage rates would need to rise 69% to get back to 6%, which, while steep is clearly not outside the realm of possibility – IF we have substantial economic growth. The problem that I have is that the index doesn’t take into account the economic conditions over the past 25 years that allowed for mortgage interest rates to average 6%.  The economy drives long-term rates, not the other way around.  Income and GDP growth would both need to be substantially higher as would the labor force participation rate (which is largely driven by demographics).  If these conditions were present, it would lead to the long end of the yield curve (upon which mortgages are typically priced) to rise – which could lead to 6% (or greater) mortgage rates due to inflation, which is currently nowhere to be found.  However, rising incomes would help to blunt the impact of rising interest rates when it comes to home, and by extension land affordability.  In other words, it’s fine to increase the assumed mortgage rate but only if you adjust the other complex economic variables necessary to achieve that rate, which constitute a far more complex analysis.  Otherwise you end up with a scenario that won’t happen because it can’t happen: interest rates do not function in a vacuum.  They don’t typically rise 69% without a substantial increase in inflation, meaning that 6% mortgage rates would not result in lots that are 26% overpriced because incomes would be rising as well.  It doesn’t appear from the JBREC post that they took income growth commensurate with that type of increase in long term rates into account.

Are lots overpriced today?  Perhaps they are but it has more to do with increased regulatory and development/construction costs and fees outpacing the rate of home price inflation than it does about mortgages being hypothetically 69% higher.  The reality of the current world economy is that deflation is everywhere, a VERY different dynamic from previous periods of economic expansion.  Negative interest rates are no longer a text book hypothetical and are becoming more prevalent around the world. For example, Switzerland’s bonds now yield negative all of the way out to 50-years. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers wrote an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post last week outlining four take-aways from today’s incredibly low interest rates that provide a bit more background as to why I have issues with JBREC’s index (highlights are mine):

First, with differences between countries, neutral real interest rates are likely close to zero going forward. Think about the U.S., where growth has been relatively robust by recent standards. Growth has averaged little more than potential for the last one, three or five years while the real Federal funds rate has been about -1 percent.  There is no good reason to think given sluggish investment expectations that the neutral rate will rise to be significantly positive in the foreseeable future. The situation is worse in other countries with more structural issues and slower labor-force growth. Substantial continued reductions in Fed estimates of the real neutral rate lie ahead.

Second, as counterintuitive as it is to central bankers who came of age when the inflation of the 1970s defined the central banking challenge, our problem today is insufficient inflation. In the U.S., Europe and Japan, markets are now expecting inflation that is below target even with full employment over the next 10 years. This is despite a 70 percent rise in the price of oil. Evidence from markets and some surveys suggests that inflation expectations are becoming unhinged to the downside. The policy challenge with respect to credibility is exactly the opposite of what it has been historically — it is to convince people that prices will rise at target rates in the future.  This is likely to require some combination of very tight markets and mechanisms that give confidence that during the best times, inflation will be allowed to exceed target levels so that over the long term, they can average target levels.

Third, in a world where interest rates over horizons of more than a generation are far lower than even pessimistic projections of growth, traditional thinking about debt sustainability needs to be discarded.  In the U.S., the U.K., the Euro area and Japan, the real cost of even 30-year debt will be negative or negligible if inflation targets are achieved. Indeed, the conditions Brad DeLong and I setout in 2012 for expansionary fiscal policy to pay for itself are much more easily satisfied today than they were at that time.

Fourth, the traditional suite of structural policies to promote flexibility are not especially likely to be successful in the current environment, though some structural policy approaches such as removal of restrictions on investment are still desirable.  Indeed, in the presence of chronic excess supply, structural reform has the risk of spurring disinflation rather than contributing to a necessary increase in inflation.  There is, in fact, a case for strengthening entitlement benefits so as to promote current demand. The key point is that the traditional OECD-type recommendations cannot be right as both a response to inflationary pressures and deflationary pressures. They were more right historically than they are today.

What I like about the Summers analysis is that it looks as interest rates as a barometer of the economy and inflation (or disinflation in this case) rather than try to predict their future trajectory.  So when will we see inflation (leading to an increase in long-term rates)?  At risk of sounding like I’m making a projection – after trashing the practice for several paragraphs – it will be when we stop hearing the constant refrain of investors “searching for yield.”  In an environment where there is strong real economic growth, fixed income investments are less attractive because inflation eats away at returns and investors turn to growth strategies as a way to benefit from said inflation.  I have no clue when/if this will occur but you can be certain that it will coincide with robust real economic growth that could make the JBREC index assumption of 6% mortgage rates a reality once again.

Economy: Recent non-farm payroll reports have looked as if they were pulled from a random number generator. Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture is spot on in explaining why no one individual NFP report should be taken too seriously (but the trend should be):

The month’s data for June 2016 was a very robust 287,000 following last month’s very punk 38,000 for May 2016. The unemployment rate ticked up 0.2 to 4.9 percent in June — offsetting the drop last month by the same amount. The phrase “Assume its noise” should be foremost in your thoughts as you read the BLS release.

Also, those 35,000 striking Verizon workers muddied the water both months, but if you have the a PhD. in applied mathematics, you might be able to perform the arithmetic functions of ADD 35,000 to MAY and SUBTRACT 35,000 to June — it should not throw you too much.

Let me remind readers (again) that the monthly employment situation report has a margin of error of 100,000 jobs. So last month could very likely have been as high as 173k (38 + 35 + 100) and this months could very likely be as low as 152k (287 – 35 – 100). If you understand this simple math, you should be able to understand why I insist on noting the actual BLS official monthly number ain’t all that.

Everything Old is New Again: Forget about the Brexit.  Graphic Detail, The Economist’s excellent infographic blog gives us a closer look at the Amexit (h/t Elizabeth DeWitt):

Commercial 

Ejected: Mall owners are pushing out department stores in favor of specialty retailers.  See Also: How malls can survive in the age of Amazon.

Profiles

Fad: Hipsters with nothing better to do are obsessed with new “augmented reality” game Pokemon Go where they search for Pokemon characters in the real  world. Nintendo, which created the game saw it’s stock surge nearly 25% on Monday adding a cool $7.5 BILLION to it’s market capitalization on a day when there was virtually no other news that would have moved the stock.  However criminals are taking advantage of players as easy marks and one player in Wyoming found a human corpse while searching for a Pokemon.  IMO, this is the lamest thing since adults were collecting Beanie Babies for hundreds of dollars.  That being said, anything that led to this meme can’t be all that bad:

Chart of the Day

WTF

Assault with Extra Pepperoni : A North Carolina couple is facing charges after assaulting each other with pizza rolls.  Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words clearly had the two mug shots in this article in mind (h/t Bhavani Vajrakarur).

Walk of Shame: An intoxicated thief in Tennessee was caught in bed with a scantily clad mannequin that he stole from a Hustler store.  He claimed that he thought it was a Pokemon.

LOL: Women are using Tinder to con desperate men into doing chores because guys are complete suckers if we think there is even a slight chance of getting laid.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links July 12th – We Know Nothing

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