Landmark Links August 30th – Size Matters

Eggplant

Lead Story…  New homes have been getting larger for quite some time, since the end of the Great Recession to be exact.  Conventional wisdom had held that the size of homes would shrink after the Great Recession due to more focus on affordability and reduced financial capacity of buyers.  However, except for a brief blip in 2009 where new homes shrunk, it didn’t happen.  Instead, mortgage credit shut off for all but the most qualified buyers (read: wealthier) which pushed builders to focus on higher-end, larger homes where mortgage financing was available rather than smaller, entry level homes where mortgage financing was scarce.  This led to much hand wringing among urbanists and others that McMansions, which, in addition to being ugly are often bad investments would continue to be a dominant feature of the suburban American landscape.  The starter home market has been slow at best (McMansions make crappy starter homes for a whole bunch of reasons) and many astute housing market observers have noted that we need to see decreasing new home sizes in order for that market to emerge from it’s slump.  Fast forward to 2016 and it might finally be happening.  From CNBC:

For the first time since the recession, home size is shrinking. Median single-family square floor area fell from the first to the second quarter of this year by 73 feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and U.S. Census data. That may not sound like a lot, but it is a clear reversal in the trend of builders focusing on the higher-end buyer.

An increase in home size post-recession is normal, historically, as credit tightens and more wealthy buyers with more cash and better credit, rule the market. As with everything else in this unique housing cycle, however, the trend this time is more profound.

“This pattern was exacerbated during the current business cycle due to market weakness among first-time homebuyers,” wrote Robert Dietz, NAHB’s chief economist. “But the recent small declines in size indicate that this part of the cycle has ended and size should trend lower as builders add more entry-level homes into inventory.”

Sales of newly built homes jumped more than 12 percent in July compared to June, according to the Census, and the biggest increase was in homes priced in the mid to just below midrange. The median price of a new home sold in July fell 1 percent compared to July a year ago. Again, not a huge drop, but a reversal from the recent gains in new home prices.

“The majority of it is a question of affordability,” said Bob Youngentob, president of Maryland-based EYA, a builder concentrating largely in urban townhomes. “People want to stay in closer-in locations, at least from our experience, and closer-in locations tend to be more expensive from a land and development standpoint and so, the desire to be able to keep people in those locations is translating into smaller square footages and more efficient designs.”

This is undoubtedly a positive development in the market so long as the trend holds.  What makes it even more significant is that the internals or the numbers behind the size reduction are also very positive.  First off, new homes are getting smaller at a time when new home sales have risen to a level not seen since 2007, confirming that this isn’t a trend based on weak sales volume or diminished starts in select geographies that favor smaller units.  Second, home prices fell, albeit only by 1%.  Often times, falling prices are viewed as a negative.  However, in this case, they should be viewed positively since, along with shrinking new home size and increased new home sales, they imply that product mix is moving in a more affordable direction.  Size matters and the shrinkage that new homes are experiencing could be the best news for the US housing market in quite some time.

Economy

Much Ado About Nothing: This far, experts’ dire claims about economic calamity following the Brexit haven’t amounted to much at all in the real world.

Bottom Rising: Low paying industries are seeing the fastest wage growth in the US which has positive implications for everything from consumer spending to housing.  See Also: Laid off American workers are having a better go of it than they had been over the past few years.

Staying Away: The Fed’s dislike of negative interest rates is likely to make them an observer of the controversial monetary policy rather than an implementer.

Commercial

Cookie Cutter: How over regulation led to the ugliest feature of most American cities and towns – the strip mall.

LA’s New Skyline: How Chinese developers are transforming downtown LA, just as they did in cities in China.

Residential

Alternate Universe: Only in the bizarro-world of California land use politics would construction labor unions undermine a bill that would have created substantially more construction employment opportunities.

Dumbfounded: Suburban NIMBYs oppose any and all development then act puzzled about why Millennials don’t want to move to their communities.

Profiles

Consider The Source: How Jose Canseco went from baseball’s steroids king/whistle blower to Twitter’s favorite financial analyst.

There Goes the Neighborhood: There is a new startup in Silicon Valley called Legalist that relies on an algorithm to predict court cases and will fund your business-tort lawsuit in exchange for a portion of the judgement.

Worth Every Penny: In honor of National Dog Day last week, here is a breakdown of just how much we spend on our four-legged best friends.

Chart of the Day

Mom’s basement is a really popular address in New Jersey

Source: Curbed

WTF

No I Will Not Make Out With You: A Mexican teen died from a blood clot that resulted from a hickey that his girlfriend gave him.

Bad News: A new study finds that reading on the toilet is bad for you.  Just like that, my reading location for much of Landmark Links’ content became an occupational hazard.

Priorities: An 18 year old girl who escaped from an Australian correctional facility messaged police via Facebook to ask them to use a better picture of her than the mug shot that they posted.  She even provided a picture that she wanted them to use.  Of course, police were then able to track her phone and arrested her soon after.

Video of the Day: A video taped melee on a NY subway that resulted from a crazy woman getting on a packed subway with a bucket full of hundreds of crickets and worms that she was trying to sell made me laugh so hard that I cried. And yes, I’m aware that this probably makes me a terrible person.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 30th – Size Matters

Landmark Links August 16th – Out of Balance

Usain Bolt

Lead Story… They say that demographics are destiny and by 2030, 56 countries will have more people aged 65 and above than children under 15.  By 2075, there will be more people 65 and older than children under 15 worldwide.  This is the result of two developments that have been taking place in developed countries for decades: 1) People are waiting longer to have kids and then having fewer of them; and 2) People are living longer.

The implications of this demographic imbalance in a world with an ever-growing pension bill are huge.  From Bloomberg:

While the prospect of longer lives is a good thing, problems arise when a shrinking work force cannot foot the pension bill. Several decades ago, you could have had about 10 workers per retiree, but that could shrink to the point where in Italy,  for example, you had three workers per retiree. While the political choices are unsavory — increase taxes or cut benefits — governments are running out of time to act.

As partially outlined above, the potential solutions are relatively straightforward, if difficult:

  1. People in developed countries need to start having more kids.
  2. Retirement ages need to increase substantially since people are living much longer.
  3. Benefits need to get slashed or begin at a substantially older age since pension plans were not designed to support people who live as long as they do today while retirement ages stay the same as they were decades ago.

Option one is a trend that likely won’t reverse for a whole bunch financial and cultural reasons so I’m guessing that the solution will have to come from two or three or some combination thereof, both of which are politically toxic in today’s global political climate.  Or we could just bury our heads in the sand, pretend that the problem doesn’t exist and continue to borrow money to bridge the gap.  On the plus side, at least interest rates are really low……

Economy

Confidence Inspiring: Federal Reserve officials are beginning to question accepted wisdom about what actually causes inflation.

Vultures Circling: PE funds have now raised over $100 billion to buy oil assets that no one else wants.

Pay the Toll: German Banks are now charging depositors to hold deposits as negative rates take a toll.  I’ve said this before and I’ll repeat now: there is no way that this isn’t deflationary.

Commercial

Let’s Make a Deal: Lease incentives are becoming a major feature of the San Francisco apartment market for the first time since 2009.  See Also: as rental supply grows, landlords negotiate.

Residential

Confidence Game: Home builders are becoming more optimistic about the market for single family homes as the supply of existing homes continues to tighten which they believe will lead to more starts.  One word of caution here: in this cycle, with it’s emphasis on proximity to cities, existing homes typically have a large advantage over new homes in that they are both less expensive and have location advantages.  See Also: Calculated Risk says that the slow, sluggish housing recovery is still on track.

Profiles

Plenty of Blame to Go Around: California’s gas prices are sky high compared to the rest of the US.  Stringent environmental regulation is partly to blame but that’s only part of the story.

Life Lessons: An old friend of mine, Charlie Buckingham recently competed in sailing at the Rio Olympics in the Laser Class.  Charlie finished 11th out of 46, missing out the the medal race on a tiebreaker.  It was a strong finish against the best sailors in the world in arguably the toughest Olympic sailing class, although I know that he had been aiming higher.  He penned an excellent short piece about what he learned on his Olympic journey for Sailing World Magazine.  The article is ostensibly about sailing but extremely applicable to life in general.  Here’s a quick excerpt but I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing:

Plan to be flexible
Sailboat ­races are in a constant state of flux. The fleet changes positions around you, the wind shifts and changes velocity, and you need to keep your own boat moving as fast as possible at all times. All of this makes it hard to plan the perfect approach in ­advance. Detailed plans can even give a false sense of security, causing one to ignore the present. Have the outcome in mind, but be open and ready to adapt to what is thrown at you during the race.

Tinfoil Hats: Believe it or not, there are still people who believe that the earth is flat and think that there is a massive conspiracy to cover it up.  Mic.com published a feature article last week that took a deep look at this and other kooky conspiracy theories.  It’s as entertaining as it is bizarre.

Chart of the Day

WTF

Hell NO: Burger King is coming out with a hamburger-burrito hybrid called a Whopperito featuring the same disgusting, artificially smoke-flavored beef found in a Whopper.  The race to the bottom by fast food restaurants continues unabated.

A Sucker Born Every Minute: Sketchy bootleg LA celebrity tour buses are lying about where stars live and causing serious and frightening issues for homeowners when stalkers show up at their homes.

Video of the Day: I could watch this video of a Pittsburgh Pirates fan going for a foul ball and ending up with a plate full on nachos on his face all day.

Brilliant Disguise: A man in China tried to smuggle his pet turtle through airline security by disguising it as a hamburger.  He was busted when security agents noticed “odd protrusions” sticking out of a hamburger in his bag.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 16th – Out of Balance

Landmark Links July 19th – One Size Fits All?

one-size-fits-all-rubber-duck

Lead Story…. Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller wrote a piece in the NY Times this weekend titled: Why Land and Homes Actually Tend to Be Disappointing Investments that caught my eye.  In the article, Professor Shiller discusses both farmland and residential land and makes a case they are both subpar investments over time (highlights are mine):

Over the century from 1915 to 2015, though, the real value of American farmland (deflated by the Consumer Price Index) increased only 3.1 times, according to the Department of Agriculture. That comes to an average increase of only 1.1 percent a year — and with a growing population, that’s barely enough to keep per capita real land value unchanged.

According to my own data (relying on the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, which I helped create), real home prices rose even more slowly over the same period — a total increase of 1.8 times, which comes to an average of only 0.6 percent a year.What all that amounts to is that neither farmland nor housing has been a great place to invest money over the long term.

To put this in perspective, note that the real gross domestic product in the United States grew 15.5 times — or, on average, 3.2 percent a year — from 1929, the year official G.D.P. numbers began to be kept, to 2015. That’s a much higher growth rate than for real estate. But why?  For home prices, a good part of the answer comes from supply and demand. As prices rise, companies build more houses and the supply floods the market, keeping prices down.  

The supply response to increasing demand may help explain why real home prices nationwide fell 35 percent from 2006 to 2012 (and even more in some cities). Investment in residential structures in the United States was at near-record levels as a percentage of G.D.P. just before the price declines. Prices have been rebounding since then — and so has construction of new houses.

 

While the idea of supply and demand balancing out the housing market makes perfect sense from a textbook economic perspective, it quickly falls apart when you take into account the most local of all factors that has quite possibly the largest impact on both land and home prices: politics.  Essentially, there are two primary restrictions to developing more residential units.  The first is geographical.  This includes mountains, bodies of water and scarcity of available water resources for new units.  The second is political.  This includes restrictive zoning, discretionary approval rights, etc.

Shiller’s analysis is perfect for markets with little to no geographical restrictions and even fewer political restrictions.  For example, land and home prices are incredibly stable in a place like Houston, Texas where new homes can be added quickly.  However, it fits poorly in coastal California which is hemmed in by mountains and the pacific ocean, has incredibly restrictive zoning and a populace with political leanings typically hostile to new development.  I was a bit surprised that Shiller wrote this piece as he knows what I just wrote better than anyone.  In fact, the Case Shiller Index that bears his name tracks housing prices in individual cities and backs up what I just wrote.  For example, look no further than the difference between the Case Shiller Chicago Index (the don’t track Houston) and the Case Shiller San Francisco Index to see how land use restrictions can lead to explosive moves in asset pricing when coupled with real economic growth.

Shiller goes on to explain how adding density keeps land and housing prices stable over time (highlights are mine):

Of course, underneath every home is a piece of land. Although that is typically only a bit of former farmland, it is often in an urban or suburban area, where a plot of land tends to cost much more than in the country.

Sometimes that little piece of land dominates the value of the home, particularly in dense urban areas. But if we are to understand long-term trends, we need to realize what land represents, even in Manhattan or Silicon Valley or any booming area. People in such places usually aren’t buying land for its own sake but for the myriad services that housing provides. A home is not just a place to sleep and store clothing and keepsakes. It can be a place that is convenient to a stimulating place of work, good schools and entertainment and, indeed, part of an entire human community.

These services have developed enormously over the last 100 years, changing the spatial and geographic dimensions of housing. There are vastly more highways and automobiles, telephones and various electronic connections, enabling people to leave center cities and still obtain the housing services they want. Thus, from a long-term perspective, these developments relieved a great deal of the upward pressure on home prices in cities.

Right now, there are some interesting developments in the supply of housing services that economize even further on urban land. We have recently seen interest in “micro-apartments,” which may be little more than 200 square feet but manage to squeeze in a kitchen, a bathroom and an entertainment center. For many people, this tiny space, with its proximity to like-minded people, interesting neighborhoods and restaurants, is preferable to living in a house in a far-flung suburb. Carrying this idea further, keepsakes can be kept in remote storage, maybe deliverable someday, on demand, with driverless cars. Already, rules are being changed in many cities, including New York, allowing the little apartments to be built and to accommodate many more people per acre of city land. These factors could lead to near-zero future demands on valuable urban land.

First off, micro-units are wonderful as a means to drive housing prices down for those wishing to live in a high-priced urban area IF AND ONLY IF YOU ARE ACTUALLY ABLE TO GET APPROVALS TO BUILD THEM.  Clearly Professor Shiller has not attempted to get such a micro-unit development approved in a wealthy, coastal region of California – say Orange County, for example.  If a developer were to propose such a thing in a high-priced neighborhood, he’d be run out of town on a rail or worse for even daring to bring it up.  This type of concept that works great in some places (cities without restrictive zoning and economics text books) and not at all in others (pretty much every major city on the west coast and a few on the east coast as well).  In addition, adding density typically results in INCREASING underlying land values rather than causing them to fall. Please note that I’m not disagreeing with Shiller as to the premise of his article from a strictly economic perspective (at least when it comes to homes – not necessarily land) only noting that politics MUST BE taken into account because they play such an out-sized role in some regions.

I am far from an uber-bull when it comes to housing prices.  Trees don’t grow to the sky and asset values can go up in a straight line for an extended period of time.  That line of thinking has been fully debunked by the debacle that was the housing crash and Great Recession.  IMO, one buys a house for stability and as a hedge against future rising rents, especially in supply constrained regions.  If you are looking at a house soley as a means of making a large return on investment, you are doing it wrong.  Unlike say tech stocks, housing is a necessity.  Therefore the only way to properly judge it as an investment is versus the alternative: renting.  You either do better over time as a renter or an owner depending largely on economic and political factors where you live.  All real estate is local and making broad generalizations about housing supply being able to meet demand regardless of location and political climate is next to impossible even for an economist as accomplished as Shiller.

Economy

Bass Ackwards: How negative interest rates have turned the world’s economy upside down.

Delay: Britain has now pushed the projected date of the Brexit back to 2019.  The odds of this thing actually occurring are falling by the day.

Reaching: Someone published a research note on Seeking Alpha theorizing that the Pokemon Go app will lead to higher oil prices.  Color me skeptical.

Commercial 

That Didn’t Take Long: WeWork is cutting it’s revenue forecast and its CEO is asking employees to change it’s “spending culture.”

Residential

Over the Falls: London luxury home sales are plunging post-Brexit.

Profiles

Class Act: Tim Duncan was the greatest basketball player of his generation – sorry Lakers fans but deep down you know its true and not all that close.  True to Duncan’s persona, he left quietly, shunning the typically season-long distraction/going away party that players of his caliber so often demand in the modern era.

Fading Away: Why golf is going the way to the three martini business lunch.

Chart of the Day

The condo development capital stack is becoming a convoluted mess as banks pull back (h/t Tom Farrell).

(Click to enlarge)

WTF

Such a Bummer: McDonalds has stopped allowing customers to stream porn on their free in-store wifi.  It will be interesting to watch how this impacts the bottom line as I’m pretty sure that the free porn was the only reason anyone still went to McDonalds.

Headline of the Year Contender: Woman Decapitated By Passing Train During Sex will be a difficult one to beat.  In a twist that should surprise no-one, this happened in Russia and she was drunk at the time.

Inevitable: Someone shot a gun at a couple of teenagers playing Pokemon Go. Did it happen in Florida? Of course it did.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links July 19th – One Size Fits All?