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 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