Landmark Links November 1st – Musical Chairs

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Lead Story…. I’ve spent quite a bit of space on this blog talking about segments of the real estate market that have been struggling of late.  From high end apartments and luxury condos in NY, SF and Miami to dying shopping malls in middle America, to struggling suburban office buildings, there’s been plenty to go around.  Today, I’m going to focus on a struggling segment that we haven’t paid much attention to: super high-end retail.  It seems that landlords at the extreme high end of the retail spectrum have been pushing rents like crazy lately, and now they are paying the price as even cream-of-the-crop retail tenants can’t afford it anymore.  Bloomberg ran a story that focused primarily on NY’s iconic 5th Avenue, home of the world’s most expensive retail rents.  From Bloomberg’s Sarah Mulholland:

Landlords on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue are sitting on a record amount of open space as retailers balk at committing to expensive new leases in one of the world’s most prestigious shopping districts.

The availability rate on the famed strip, home to Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany & Co.’s flagship store, jumped to 15.9 percent in the third quarter, up from about 10 percent a year earlier, according to Cushman & Wakefield Inc. The rate has climbed steadily this year, surpassing the prior peak of 11.3 percent, set in the fourth quarter of 2014.

The rise of empty storefronts isn’t limited to Fifth Avenue. It’s part of a Manhattan-wide space glut as retailers — buffeted by e-commerce, tepid demand for luxury goods and a strong dollar that’s eroded tourist spending — push back against rents that have soared to records. Leasing costs have increased in tandem with property values in the past five years, outpacing gains in merchandise sales and making it impossible for retailers to run profitable stores at many locations, according to Richard Hodos, a vice chairman at brokerage CBRE Group Inc.

If you’ve read up to this point, the solution seems simple: lower rents and occupancy will rise again.  Only it’s not so simple in a world where properties trade hands relatively frequently and every buyer needs to assume that they can push rents further than the last owner in order to make the numbers work at an ever-higher basis.  This is not an issue that is in any way unique to 5th Avenue, or retail space for that matter.  It happens in commercial real estate transactions everywhere in an upward-trending market.  However,retail in particular, especially the shopping mall space is proving to be a very difficult business as eCommerce continues to gain share and department store anchors continue to go dark putting many landlords underwater. The aspect of this story that is incredibly staggering is the astronomical rental numbers. Again, from Bloomberg’s Sarah Mulholland (emphasis mine):

On the stretch of Fifth Avenue from 49th to 60th streets, which commands the world’s highest rents, landlords are asking an average of $3,213 a square foot, up from $2,075 a square foot in 2011, Cushman data show. In the tourist-heavy Times Square area, rents stand at $2,104 a square foot after tripling over a four-year period.
The brokerage’s retail availability rate takes into account vacancies as well as stores occupied by merchants that plan to leave when their leases expire. Retailers that signed leases at high prices in the past several years and are seeking a tenant to sublease their space are also included, according to Steve Soutendijk, an executive director at Cushman.
“Tenants that signed at the absolute top of the market are looking to mitigate their exposure,” he said.

At this point, you are probably assuming that the rents referenced above are a typo.  I can assure you that they are very real.  And just how did they rise so quickly? Also, how much are they overvalued? Mulholland continues (emphasis mine):

Property trades are being based on achieving ever-higher rents, and nobody ever really looks at what retailers can afford to pay,” Hodos said. “In some cases, rents need to come down 30 percent or more for rents to be at levels where retailers are able to make sense of them again.”

It gets even worse if the project is levered since signing a lease below a certain amount could lead to negative cash flow or put the loan in default if debt service coverage is inadequate.  This is a great illustration of one of the worst aspects of real estate investment: garbage in, garbage out underwriting.  You can make an investment model hit a targeted valuation if you put enough inflation into a model.  However, in the real world tenants actually have to be willing to pay and those assumptions don’t work nearly as well as they did in the model. The result is that you end up with vacancy when no tenants are willing to pay above-market rent.  If the assumptions in the proforma are garbage, then the proforma will be garbage as well.  It doesn’t matter how good your analysis tools are if you don’t use them correctly.

There’s an old saying about 5th Avenue being a safe haven real estate investment where you can’t lose money.  However, that simply isn’t true if you overpay by making such aggressive leasing assumptions that you can’t fill vacant spaces.  Trust me, you can lose plenty of money that way, especially when your entire business plan is predicated upon getting a tenant to pay you thousands of dollars a square foot.

Economy

Long in the Tooth? Yes, the current expansion cycle has been quite long but don’t assume that the next president will face a recession.

Shifting Playing Field: Workers with specialized skills, deep expertise or in-demand experience will be the big winners in the gig economy.  Everyone else?  Not so much.  See Also: While services sector booms, productivity gains remain elusive.

Residential

Choppy: US pending home sales rebounded in September after a disappointing August but inventory stayed tight.

Profiles

It Was the Best of Times. It Was the Worst of Times: Twitter as an app is absolutely indispensable.  Twitter as a business is absolute sh&t. See Also: How Instagram and Snapchat led to Twitter killing Vine.

Bet on It: Why Microsoft and Google could become the bookmakers of the future.

Seems Reasonable: A divorcing couple went to court to argue over who gets the Cubs tickets. See Also: How a pirated television station turned the Central American nation of Belize into Cubs fans.

Chart of the Day

I live in an area with extremely high rents but this is unreal

WTF

Busted: Roses are red, someone got laid, parrot outs husband for cheating with maid.

Desperate: Lonely men are increasingly turning to digital assistants like Siri for love and ‘sexually explicit’ chat.

But First, Let Me Take a Selfie: Drunk driving Texas A&M student takes naked selfie, runs into police car.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links November 1st – Musical Chairs

Landmark Links October 21 – Dense Hypocrisy

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Lead Story… There is little that I enjoy more than reading (or writing) about the hypocrisy of self-important celebrities.  However, one of my primary rules for writing this blog is to avoid politics – unless it’s land use politics (or water politics).  As such, I haven’t had the opportunity to write much about celebrity hypocrisy, despite frequent gnawing temptation to do so.  Today’s blog will be different.

At this point in his career, Leonardo DiCaprio is almost as well known for his environmental activism as he is for his acting, or, for that matter the number of supermodels that he’s slept with.  This is despite the fact that his anti-fossil fuel stance is frequently juxtaposed against his high-rolling lifestyle of flying around the world on carbon-spewing private jets and spending his vacations on yachts rented or borrowed from oil sheikhs, all of which is evidenced by his massive carbon footprint.    However, the above examples may not even be his most egregious examples of hypocrisy since they only deal with his individual actions and lifestyle.  His views on land use politics are far more disturbing and far more destructive from an environmental prospective.

So, now we come to the land use part of this story.  It’s not a controversial notion that the best thing that a city can do to cut down on pollution is build more density in it’s core as higher density in urban centers leads to less automobile use, which leads to less carbon emissions.  If residents are located closer together, there is less need to transport people and goods over further distances.  Therefore energy use is reduced, as well as water usage for that matter since higher density typically means less large lawns to water.  This is roughly as objectionable as someone making an argument that water is wet or that orange juice tastes like oranges.  So, imagine my surprise (end sarcasm here) when I recently read a story on Curbed LA about how self-styled environmental crusader Leonard DiCaprio (among other celebrity “activists”) had signed onto an anti-development campaign known as the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative demanding the following:  From Curbed LA  (emphasis mine):

(1) Direct officials to halt amendment of the City’s General Plan in small bits and pieces for individual real estate developer projects, and

(2) Require the City Planning Commission to systematically review and update the City’s community plans and make all zoning code provisions and projects consistent with the City’s General Plan, and

(3) Place City employees directly in charge of preparation of environmental review of major development projects, and

(4) For a limited time, impose a construction moratorium for projects approved by the City that increased some types of density until officials can complete review and update of community plans or 24 months, whichever occurs first.

This list of demands was presented to Mayor Eric Garcetti.  The group claims that they have enough signatures to get their measure on the ballot should Garcetti not submit to their demands.  This is NIMBYism, plain and simple.  There is just no other way to describe it  From Curbed LA (emphasis mine):

So, quite literally, the single best thing that a city can do for the planet is locate destinations—houses, jobs, grocery stores, schools—closer together so its residents expend less time, less money, and fewer fossil fuels traveling among them.

That’s how LA needs to think about density—as a long-term solution for climate change that will also deliver short-term social and economic benefits.

The problem with anti-density campaigns is that their boosters aren’t thinking about our city in a way that looks beyond what they see on their own block today.

Santa Monica’s anti-density measure, LV, is the most troubling, as it would require a citywide vote to approve any new structure over 32 feet. This would make it politically (and economically) difficult to erect buildings more than two stories tall in a prohibitively expensive city that already has limited room to grow, pushing workers farther and farther away from their jobs.

Again, as stated previously, the fact that increasing density in urban cores is good for the environment is not particularly controversial, nor is it an issue opposed by those on either the right or the left….until it happens near when they live.  In this case, it’s a matter of wealthy hypocrites who claim to be environmentalists trying to stop development because it happens to inconvenience their lifestyle a bit, despite the fact that the development would have a substantial positive impact on the environment that they claim to care so much about.  Again, from Curbed LA (emphasis mine):

Restricting building height and planning for cars goes against everything that environmental leaders and sustainability experts have been saying for decades: If you’re erecting a multi-use structure in a dense, transit-accessible neighborhood with centralized freight delivery systems, the environmental impact of that structure is lessened significantly over time.

Building a two-story building surrounded by a city-mandated parking lot on an extra wide street is not the worst thing you could do for the planet. The worst thing you could do for the planet is codify this kind of development into the land use and planning policies of your city to make building anything else impossible.

That’s why many cities and states are incentivizing dense, transit-accessible development as part of a larger climate-friendly mandate to not only decrease emissions, but also improve public health, clean the air, and slash energy costs.

My broader point here is that you can’t have it both ways.  This isn’t an issue where there is a credible case that increasing density in urban cores isn’t better for the environment than doing the opposite: incentivizing sprawl by making it impossible to build in urban areas.  You can’t be an environmental advocate only when it suits your personal interests and expect not to get called out on your hypocrisy, especially when you stake out as hard-line of a position as DiCaprio has.

Economy

Watching the Horizon: According to Bloomberg, odds are that the next financial crisis will come from depressed lenders, shadow banks or China.

Conscientious Uncoupling: How a massive surge in divorce rates in couples over 50 years old is forcing people to work longer and putting retirements at risk.

Commercial

Rise of the Machines: Industrial robots are driving some major changes in both warehouse design and workforce composition.

Residential

History Lesson: The New York Times published a fairly balanced history of the story behind the prop 13 tax revolt and it’s consequences.

Bad Rap: Luxury condos and apartments get a bad rap when it comes to the increasing cost of housing when restrictive zoning is more often the real culprit.

The Missing Middle: By continuing to focus primarily on housing prices in San Francisco and NY, the media is missing a bigger story – rentals are becoming un-affordable nation-wide for middle class families.

Profiles

What’s the Story?  HGTV has achieved something incredible: a bunch of hit shows with no serialized narrative drama that is the hallmark of the modern successful series.

Video Of the Day: Meet Rox Zee, the Boise State football team’s kickoff tee fetching Labrador Retriever.  In related news, I think that I just became a Boise State fan.

Troll So Hard: Twitter’s infamous army of anonymous trolls played a roll in Salesforce passing on offering to acquire the troubled social media platform.

Farm to Cart: Target is experimenting with so-called vertical farms where produce is grown in-store.

Chart of the Day

WTF

Political Metaphor: A Hillary Clinton tour bus was busted dumping human waste down a storm drain in an Atlanta suburb, resulting in a hazmat team getting dispatched to the site.  If you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, you are aware that this can end really, really terribly.  On a personal note, I can’t wait for this election season to end.

Revealing Protest: Porn actors (I never understood why they are all called stars) are picketing on the streets in Hollywood to protest a ballot proposition which would impose mandatory condom use for any adult video filmed in the state.  Los Angeles passed a similar law in 2012 that decimated the adult industry, causing permits to plunge from 480 in the year it was passed to just 25 last year.

Pack a Day: Meet Azalea, the chain smoking chimp who has become the star of North Korea’s new national zoo in Pyongyang.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links October 21 – Dense Hypocrisy

Landmark Links June 7th – Super Size Me

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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.

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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