Landmark Links June 24th – Follow the Money

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Lead Story…. Urban Dictionary (my go to source for all things slang) defines a tiger mom as:

“A mother who is overly strict with her child in order to foster an academically competitive spirit.  This form of upbringing is intended to direct a child towards financially successful careers at the potential risk of feeling emotionally unfulfilled and/or socially inept.”

Just my opinion, but it sounds like a rather terrible way to grow up.  I’ve always assumed that children who were raised in such an environment would be the ones most likely to end up driving the porcelain bus in a dorm bathroom once they go to college and finally obtained their first taste of freedom from overbearing parents.  However, there is a relatively new trend where tiger moms, typically from China are following their children to college to ensure that their offspring’s hard work doesn’t get flushed down the drain in a torrent of booze and late night parties. From The Economist (h/t Jeff Condon):

EVERYONE knows that Chinese students are flooding American campuses. Less widely known is that their mothers are coming, too. Last year 394,669 pupils from China were studying at American universities, secondary and primary schools, the largest contingent of all international students. Increasingly their parents are moving in with them, buying local properties or investing at least $500,000 in businesses to try to qualify for a green card.

The tiger mums usually come to America alone, leaving their husbands behind. “When I wasn’t here, my son would survive on instant noodles and energy drinks for several days without eating fruit or vegetables,” says Wenxue Hu, mother of a masters student studying applied mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania. She gave up her job as a corporate finance director in Shenzhen to cook for him in Philadelphia. Through a local church she met other Chinese tiger mums, most of whom entered with a tourist visa that allows them to stay up to six months each time. New Haven, Connecticut now boasts a “Yale Chinese grandparents’ village”, with 15 residents. The old folk live under the same roof as their children, mostly PhD and post-doctoral students at Yale who are too busy to take care of their own offspring.

On one hand, I suppose this keeps kids more focused on school helps to make good on the massive investment the college represents.  On the other, college is supposed to be the time when young people strike out on their own, make mistakes and learn from them – rather than continuing to live under the thumb of their mothers.  As you can probably imagine, this is having a massive impact on housing markets in markets around top universities.  Again, from The Economist (highlights mine):

Last year China became the largest source of foreign property investment in America, pouring in $28.6 billion. Roughly 70% of inquiries from the Chinese indicated that education was the chief motive, says Matthew Moore, president of the American division of http://www.juwai.com, a Chinese international-property website. In Chicago estate agents anticipate more Chinese parents buying expensive condominiums. In Irvine, California, about 70-80% of buyers of new-builds are Chinese parents whose children attend, or plan to attend, nearby colleges, says Peggy Fong Chen, the CEO of ReMax Omega Irvine. Other college towns such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and Dallas, see a similar trend.

The Irvine statistic surprised me a bit.  Irvine has long been a hot spot for Chinese buyers and much of that demand has been driven by it’s phenomenal schools.  However, I’d always assumed that the demand was driven more by it’s public schools than surrounding colleges such as UC Irvine.  Then again, UCI’s student body is 46.2% Asian and 11.7% international with a student body of around 24,500 undergrads and 5,500 graduates so it’s not hard to see how this could drive demand for housing if there are 3,500 foreign students at UCI and even a small percentage have parents who move with them and buy a home. According to The Economist, buying a house can make good financial sense, as well as  cultural sense for a Chinese investor/parent:

For the rising middle class in China, parking their wealth overseas also makes good business sense. The near-bubble in housing prices at home and the depreciation of the yuan have made them nervous, so diversification becomes pressing. As property prices shoot up in some college towns, more Chinese buyers are drawn in, says Susan Wachter, a real-estate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Ownership, rather than renting, becomes more attractive, because their children can rent extra bedrooms to classmates to cover utility and tax bills, while also being able to benefit from future price rises.  Some tiger mums also try to help their children get married by making the down-payment or even meeting the full cost. In Chinese culture, owning a property gives a sense of security and helps to attract a spouse.

Coming out of the Great Recession, there has been no better housing bet than going where the Chinese investors want to be.  If their buying demand is really being dictated by higher education, I would imagine that this is a trend that could continue for quite a while, especially given the ever-rising cost of college at top schools and the growing number of newly-wealthy people in China that can afford it.

Economy

Say What? Every now and then, Jose Canseco emerges from his steroid-induced coma, pulls a needle out of his butt and goes on Twitter to impart his wisdom of all things finance – which I try to cover here whenever possible.  This week our roid-addled friend opined on the Brexit vote and the it was everything that you would expect financial advice from Jose Canseco to be. Update: UK citizens declined Jose’s advice and voted to leave the EU.  Market chaos this morning and Jose declined offers to go on air with both Bloomberg and Yahoo finance because they wouldn’t pay him (I’m not making this up. You NEED to follow him on Twitter). 

The Whole Story: We often hear about how the top 1% of Americans is doing dramatically better than everyone else.  While that is true it misses a larger point: the upper middle class (defined as any household earning $100,000 to $350,000 for a family of three) is growing rapidly as well.  According to a new study from the Urban Institute:

“The size of the upper middle class grew from 12.9 percent of the population in 1979 to 29.4 percent in 2014. In terms of shares of total income, the middle class controlled a bit more than 46 percent of all incomes in 1979, while the upper middle class and rich controlled 30 percent. By 2014, the rich and upper middle class controlled 63 percent of all incomes, while the middle class share had shrunk to 26 percent.”

This goes a long way towards explaining why the luxury segment of the housing market has done so much better than lower segments in recent years.  If you don’t have time to read the full report, the Wall Street Journal put together an excellent summary.

70 is the New 65: According to PIMCO, demographics support rates staying lower for longer.  See Also: The yield curve is nearing its cycle low.

Commercial

Sea Change: Someday we are going to talk about department stores the way that our parents talk about switch board operators.  They are being eaten alive by internet retailers.  Great news for class-A distribution warehouse space.  Not so great news for retail.  I could go on but this chart from Bloomberg tells the story better than I can:

Residential

Non-Starter: When is a starter home not a starter home?  When no one can afford it.  Yes, inventory is extremely low nationwide but in some markets buyers are dropping at a quicker pace than inventory is, leading to softening prices.  From Trulia:

One might think that falling starter home inventory over the past year would cause starter home prices to rise, and for the most part, that’s what has happened in most markets. In places like Portland, Dallas, and Colorado Springs, Colo., large decreases in starter home inventory has led to double-digit increases in starter home prices. However, price movements aren’t just determined by changes in supply (inventory) – they’re also affected by the number of home buyers actively bidding on homes. In fact, in 20 of the 74 markets where starter inventory has dropped, demand has fallen at faster pace and so prices have fallen.

For example, starter home inventory has fallen by about 20% of the past year in both Columbia, S.C., and Charleston, S.C., but starter home prices have actually fallen in these markets by 0.8% and 5%, respectively. And these two cities aren’t outliers – 18 others large metros that have experienced a drop in inventory have also seen price drops, including New York, Kansas City, and Montgomery County-Bucks County-Chester County, Pa.

Don’t get too excited though if you’re a prospective homebuyer.  Trulia found that affordability is still getting worse in many of the hottest markets:

Starter homes continue to experience the largest drops in inventory over the past year, followed closely by trade-up homes. While starter home buyers in California have seen some of the largest decreases in affordability, those in central Florida are non-California metros in the West are starting to feel their pain. But a fall in inventory for trade-up and premium homes is occurring at a time when demand for those homes is rising, so those buyers are feeling a tighter pinch than starter home buyers in markets where demand has fallen enough to keep prices from rising.

 

Profiles

Unintended Consequences: Rule 34 states that: “If it exists, there is porn of it – no exceptions.”  As skeevy and disturbing as that sounds, it’s been scientifically proven to be pretty much true.  There is a corollary to Rule 34 that if you provide free wifi, it will be used to watch porn.  This should be obvious by 2016 unless you are incredibly naive, which the City of NY apparently is.  The city announced an initiative earlier this year to convert former payphones in Times Square to wifi-enabled screens to provide free internet to citizens.  But well-meaning project went horribly wrong when homeless men figured out that they could use the ill-conceived devices to stream porn in public.  For those of you unaware of the history of Times Square, it used to be a haven for peep shows and seedy adult video stores until it was cleaned up back in the 90s, thanks mainly to then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.  From the NY Post (for whom this story was tailor-made):

“I used to come here in the ’70s, and I remember thinking Times Square was as skeezy as you could get, but I was wrong,” said former New Yorker Richard Herzberg, 61, who now lives in Dallas, Texas.

“This is as skeezy as Times Square could get. I mean, in the old days there was plenty of porn, but you could only see it behind closed doors. So at least there was that level of modesty.”

To their credit the city responded by installing filters (which will likely be compromised any day now).  As you can imagine the homeless guys weren’t too happy about losing access to their free porn:

“I was watching porn on one of them things on, like, Saturday,” said a homeless man who identified himself as Hakeem, 44.

“Then on, like, Monday or Tuesday, all of a sudden I couldn’t,” he added.

“Once word got around, it stopped. It sucks, man. It was great.”

Looks like the NYC homeless population will have to find their porn elsewhere for the time being.

Mad Money, Questionable Ethics: Multiple studies have shown that Jim Cramer’s stock picks basically suck and don’t come close to beating the S&P – while taking substantially more risk, yet he continues to use his CNBC show as an infomercial to promote his $59.95/month stock picking service.

Of Buggy Whips and Floppy Disks: Apple is indicating that headphone jacks are on the way out.

Chart of the Day

Growth of Upper Middle Class

 

WTF

I Wonder What He Had For Lunch: A Swedish soccer player was ejected from a game recently for ripping a fart.  I know that soccer players are notorious for being drama queens but this feud between the ref and player over whether it was intentional or not is next level (h/t Tom Farrell):

The referee explained himself. “I perceived it as deliberate provocation,” Kako said, adding that he’d once given a player a yellow for peeing by the field as well. “He did it on purpose and it was inappropriate. Therefore, he received a yellow card.”

Ljungkvist then re-litigated the matter to Aftonbladet, which definitely is a newspaper. “To provoke anyone with a fart is not particularly smart or normal,” he said. “It’s nonsense – I just broke wind and got a red card. I spoke to the referee afterwards, I was annoyed, but there were no bad words. I just said he was a buffoon.”

Follow Friday: Every now and then I stumble across a must-follow Instagram or Twitter account.  City Subway Creatures (@subwaycreatures), an account that posts pictures of the odd folks who ride the NYC subway system is one such account.  Follow them today.  You won’t regret it unless you don’t have a sense of humor or are easily offended – then don’t both.

Indecent Exposure: Meet the inmate who stripped naked and ran into a court room in the middle of a trial to yell: “Court is back in session“!  He is now facing additional charges.

Special Delivery: Meet the Wyoming man who was arrested for going door-to-door selling cocaine and meth. When asked for comment, he replied “it wasn’t going to sell itself.”

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 24th – Follow the Money

Landmark Links June 17th – WTF

Caddyshackfisher

Lead Story….  Generally, I try to keep this blog focused on national and regional real estate and economic issues (and strange news out of the swamps of Florida).  Ever so often though, a local story comes up that illustrates the bat-shit-crazy nature of entitlement and real estate development in coastal California and the discretionary gauntlet that developers must run in order to get a project approved.  Today is one of those days.

There is a property in Costa Mesa near our office called the Autoplex Strip Mall.  It’s an older project that was built back in the 1950s or 1960s (I’m guessing) that has several automotive repair shops, small restaurants and gyms as tenants.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge to say the least.  It’s also at the foot of the John Wayne Airport runway. Seriously, planes are taking off over your head and the runway ends right across the road.  I want to be upfront about three things here: 1) I know one of the owners well but have actually never discussed this project with him (I first became aware of it about a week ago when a tenant was handing out flyers – we’ll get to that later); 2) One of the sandwich shops in the center is a Landmark favorite and we go there at least twice a week – we do not want to see it go; and 3) Landmark is not involved in current or future financing of the property at this time.

Now that we have that out of the way, the center has become financially unsustainable due to the decline of the auto tenants that dominate it, due in part to dealerships incentivising repair services and parts in house.  As such, the owner made the strategic decision around a year ago to process a zoning change and redevelop the property as self storage along with a food hall concept that I believe is modeled after 4th Street Market in Santa Ana.  The owner proposed a sustainable structure that would reduce traffic, improve curb appeal and make the property economically viable in the future.  They also gave the tenants advance notice last August rather than evicting them before the process as many landlords do when they are re-developing.  Groundbreaking wouldn’t happen until at least October, 2017.

On the surface, it looks like the owner did everything right:  he left the tenants in place to give them plenty of time to find a new locations, designed a sustainable, aesthetically pleasing building that provides amenities that the area needs, reduces traffic impact and is economically viable.  But doing things right doesn’t count for much when it comes to the bizarre and often borderline-capricious world of land entitlements in California.  As the Daily Pilot reported, the project lost a 4-1 vote at planning commission:

The Costa Mesa Planning Commission recommended Monday that the City Council deny a proposed 744-unit self-storage project, saying the developers should do more to soften the blow for business owners who would be displaced by the project.

Commissioners voted 4-1, with Chairman Robert Dickson dissenting, to advise the council to reject plans to demolish the 37,883-square-foot Autoplex strip mall at 375 Bristol St. and replace it with a two-story facility with about 98,800 square feet of storage space, plus a freestanding 5,000-square-foot food hall and a 1,200-square-foot management office.

A project getting shot down at the Planning Commission level is not newsworthy in and of itself.  It happens all the time.  In fact, Planning Commission merely makes a recommendation to the City Council and Council then gets the final vote on whether or not the project gets approved.  What is unusual here is why this proposal got shot down.  Again, from the Daily Pilot (highlights mine):

Commissioners repeatedly praised the project’s design but were concerned by the strident opposition of Autoplex tenants whose shops would face the wrecking ball if the proposal moves forward.

“I have a lot of trouble approving this project, not because there are deviations with it or because I think it generates traffic or that it’s too tall, but because I don’t think we’ve done enough good-faith efforts to deal with the ramifications of the project,” Commissioner Colin McCarthy said.

So the Planning Commission denied a project, not because it was poorly designed or didn’t fit the surrounding area but because they had concerns about the existing commercial tenants in a complex that isn’t economically viable.  Apparently the Costa Mesa Planning Commission missed the 8th grade civics class where property rights was discussed.  How did the tenants manage to put so much pressure on Planning Commission?  They put together an organized campaign and were handing out fliers to their customers asking them to write emails to the Commission in order to oppose the project.  I know this because I received one.  But it gets even worse.  Planning Commission actually asked project spokesman Paul Freeman whether relocation assistance had been considered for displaced businesses.  Mind you, this isn’t a situation where a developer is tearing down affordable apartments to build a new tower, displacing long-time residents who can’t afford new housing in the area.  These are commercial tenants operating for-profit businesses in a center that someone else owns that is becoming economically obsolete.  When asked for comment about relocation assistance, Mr. Freeman sounded understandably frustrated:

“We haven’t discussed that and I don’t know what precedent there is for that.  At the end of the day, what do we have? We have a property owner making a decision that the current business model is not sustainable. And what have we brought in? We’ve brought in a project that has less traffic, no variances. It increases the most popular uses, the food, and is a really beautiful building.”

In an added bit of absurdity, commissioners acknowledged that the property owners have a right to redevelop the property (at least they got that part right) but still held on to the notion that the tenants somehow come before that right.  In an email to the Daily Pilot, Mr Freeman wrote that it seemed that the property owners were being

“Effectively punished for doing the right thing. Rather than kick out the tenants immediately and go to the city with a plan to redevelop empty buildings, they chose to give years of notice and promise to pay in the event of early terminations.   The commissioners said they loved the project except they couldn’t support it owing to the tenants’ opposition, which commissioners took as a measure of the owners’ failure to do what they should have done to ‘work things out,’ I’ve rarely seen anything like it.”

 The moral of this story is that no good deed goes unpunished in the wacky world of California entitlements.  Ironically, the landlord would have been better off servicing the tenants with termination notices rather than letting them stay in place while entitlements were being processed, leaving them to effectively organize their opposition.  The leases between the Landlord and Tenant should govern the rights of each party, not Planning Commission which should stick to reviewing projects relative to zoning and design conformance with surrounding neighbors rather than sticking it’s nose where it clearly doesn’t belong.  Hopefully Costa Mesa City Council overturns this nonsense in short order.

Economy

Stuck in the Mud: As expected the Fed didn’t raise rates at their June meeting.  In addition, Janet Yellen acknowledged that the forces holding rates down may be around for a long time, causing the Fed to rethink the anticipated pace of future increases. The 10-Year US Treasury Bond is now at it’s lowest yield since 2012.  See Also: The German 10-Year bond yield dipped into negative territory for the first time on record this week which begs the question: is German government debt riding a bubble?

Wage Rage? Despite the latest blah jobs report, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s wage growth tracker is indicating that the labor market is tightening which should lead to higher wages.

Black Box: China’s 134 city commercial banks which hold 15% of the nation’s commercial banking assets are piling into opaque investment products as bad loans are increasing. This financial engineering could lead to catastrophe if credit quality continues to decline.

Residential

End Around: The California Environmental Quality Act or CEQA has long been utilized as a weapon against new development by NIMBY’s, environmentalists and extortionist attorneys.   But developers are fighting back.  Their newest weapon?  The ballot box.

Nowhere Near the Top: Real estate licensees boomed back in the bubble days.  As Calculated Risk shows, despite increasing prices, they are still way down (31.9% for agents and 11.8% for brokers) from the highs.

On the Ledge?  Luxury urban housing is one segment of the market that has performed quite well in this cycle.  According to Chapman University Economist Joel Kotkin, it was largely built on a myth: that wealthy retired Baby Boomers were going to move to urban markets in droves.  In reality, there has been more migration by Boomers to the suburbs than there has to the city even as the luxury urban pipeline continues to expand.  The buyers (and renters) of the luxury urban units are often wealthy foreign nationals, a source of demand that can change based on several factors including capital controls and currency fluctuation versus the dollar.  Foreign demand is waning and Kotkin believes that the luxury urban market will soon be on the ropes. Contra: How an influx of younger, wealthier residents has transformed US cities.

Profiles

Linked Up: Microsoft bought Linkedin for over $26 billion this week in a transaction that may have been more driven by Linkedin’s reliance on stock-based compensation of the than many realizee.  See Also: Why is Microsoft borrowing money to purchase Linkedin when it has $100 billion of cash on it’s balance sheet?  Taxes.

Shake Down Street Vendors: Street vending in NY was once a path to a better life for many immigrant entrepreneurs.  However, the black market for cart permits, spurred on by city over-regulation and limits to the number of permits issued can cost a vendor tens of thousands of dollars a year often traps would be entrepreneurs in a spiral of low wages that’s virtually impossible to escape.

Chart of the Day

WTF

He Who Smelt it Dealt It: A smelly fart in a Key West bar led to a brawl, because Florida. See Also: A Florida man’s flatulence in bed resulted in a can of pepper spray being discharged and the arrest of his wife.

Fairy Tale Romance: Meet the pig and kangaroo who have been carrying on an illicit affair on an Australian farm for more than a year.  I honestly can’t do this justice with words so I’m going to post a couple of pictures.

A Sydney student photographed a kangaroo and a pig getting intimate while on a research trip to the Northern Territory Mr Frazer said when the kangaroo was 'finished' the pig tried to jump on his back to 'reciprocate'

FAIL: A few years ago, villagers in Xianfeng, China brought in 73 of macaque monkeys to live there in order to increase tourism.  It didn’t work but the monkeys don’t seem to care.  Their numbers have multiplied to 600 and they have now overwhelmed the village, damaging crops and biting tourists.

That’s One Way to Deal with It: A New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to avoid escape his neighbors’ loud sex.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 17th – WTF