Landmark Links October 11th – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

USP NFL: CLEVELAND BROWNS AT BUFFALO BILLS S FBN USA NY

Lead Story… As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented action of calling on cities and counties to re-think their zoning laws.   This was a concerted effort to increase affordability and fight back against NIMBY’s who have successfully stopped development in some of America’s most productive cities.  The proposal is bold in that governors don’t often involve themselves in land use issues, let alone a sitting president.  However, the toolkit presented by the Administration is somewhat toothless because cities are ultimately still ultimately free to do as they please and they ultimately have control over local land use policy.

An additional way to achieve more density is actually quite straight forward: cash.  If the Federal Government really wants denser, more walkable mixed use development then they need to incentivize it by amending FHA rules that currently make it very difficult to build product that fits that description.  From The Washington Post (emphasis mine):

Main Street-style development — the “storefront on the first floor, apartments rented out above” style that forms the core of any older town’s historic center — is a residential building form that uses first-floor commercial space to serve community members and enliven a neighborhood. This low-rise density helps prop up the balance sheets of towns responsible for running utilities all the way out to suburban developments, as former city planner and engineer Charles Marohn has repeatedly demonstrated. It also keeps a constant set of the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs identified as necessary for safe streets; renters keep an ear out for burglars after business hours and shopkeepers keep the same at bay during the day. It is, in other words, the core of any successful town-building.

Yet for 80 years, Main Street development has been effectively driven from the market by the growth of federal housing policy hostile to mixed use. Ever since Herbert Hoover’s Commerce Department helped promote the spread of model zoning codes that physically separated people and their community institutions, the federal government has poured its energy and resources into encouraging the growth of widely dispersed single-family homes and large, centralized tower blocks. To this day, FHA standards for loans, which set the market for the entire private banking sector, prohibit any but the most minimal commercial property from being included in residential development. As a groundbreaking report by New York City’s Regional Plan Association found, these standards are “effectively disallowing most buildings with six stories or less.” And depending on the program, a building could have to reach to 17 stories before it is eligible for participation in the normal housing markets. Without the FHA’s blessing, projects are granted the “nonconforming” kiss of death unless their developers can persuade a local bank to write an entirely customized loan for them, one whose risk the bank would have to keep entirely on its own books.

These caps on commercial space and income should be raised to level the playing field for housing development and let small developers invest as much in their home towns as huge corporations will in big cities. Caps currently limited to 15 and 25 percent should be raised to more than 35 percent to legalize even just three- and four-story buildings. As small towns and secondary cities across the country seek to revitalize their downtowns to become more competitive job markets, unreformed financing restrictions act as an invisible barrier, suffocating local efforts to invest in smaller communities. And while the housing affordability crisis has reached the most acute levels in a handful of coastal cities like New York, San Francisco and Washington, the White House admits that “this problem is now being felt in smaller cities and non-coastal locations.”

The current financing restrictions make it so that the tail frequently wags the dog in mixed use residential construction.  Cities often want ground floor retail to be included to add to their tax base and  increase walkability but it’s incredibly difficult to finance.  Instead what happens, is the developer gets stuck trying to thread the needle between building just enough retail to appease the city but keeping it at a low enough percentage of the total project square footage to avoid the dreaded non-conforming label.  The end result is that functional retail space is sacrificed in order to comply with FHA rules.  So, rather than having a well-designed retail concept, you end up with small, non-functional retail components in all but the largest projects.  The space has little actual economic value except as a means to obtain financing.  By way of example, a project one block from our office was recently denied by Newport Beach’s city council due to a lack of ground floor retail.  No doubt that the developer was designing to the financing constraints but didn’t include enough retail to get the City on board.  The federal government took a step in the right direction earlier in the year by making it easier to finance condos.  This is the next logical step if they are serious about increasing density and making housing more affordable.  Time to put your money where your mouth is.

Economy

Meh: The September Jobs Report was sort of a dud.

Here to Stay?  I love this explanation from Bloomberg’s Noah Smith on why low interest rates don’t necessarily cause excessive risk taking:

What is it that allows rates to hover around zero indefinitely without causing investors to do bad things with cheap money? It depends on why rates are low in the first place. If money is cheap because central banks are using their powers to keep rates lower than what the market would bear on its own, it stands to reason that investors will take cheap money and invest it in riskier things than they otherwise would. But if rates are low because of natural forces in the economy, and central banks actually have little to do with it, then there’s no reason business people would be taking extra risk.

Crude Math: An agreed OPEC production cut has oil back above $50/barrel but large, recently discovered reserves are likely to create yet another glut in the not-too-distant future.

Commercial

Over the Hump?  Apartment rents fell for the first time in a very long time in the 3rd quarter.

Dumpster Fire: Bottom tier retailers Kmart and Sears are technically still in business but both stores are utter disasters.  Rating agencies just put Sears Holdings, the company that owns both on death watch and the only way that it’s keeping the lights on is by selling the best assets that it owns.  Part of the problem is that Sears Holdings still own or lease approximately 2,500 properties so this mess will be very difficult and time consuming to wind down.

Sears-map

Residential

Beneficiaries: Vancouver’s home sales are down 33% after they introduced a foreign buyer tax.  Seattle is likely to benefit.  See Also: New York is overtaking London as the #1 destination for international property investment thanks to Brexit.

White Knight?  Tech firms, often considered villains when it comes to housing issues in the Bay Area are now throwing their weight behind pro-development groups to push for more housing construction.  See Also: The housing shortage is going to start negatively impacting economic growth in California more seriously if something isn’t done.

NIMBY Awards: The Bay Area Metropolitan Observer put together a list of their top 10 Bay Area NIMBY moments of 2016.  It would be funnier if it wasn’t so sad.

Profiles

Payday: Everyone’s favorite sexting app, also known as Snapchat is working on an IPO rumored to value the tech firm at $25 billion.

GTL is Cancelled: Tougher regulations and taxes are hitting tanning salons hard and there are 30% less of them than there were in 2008.

Chart of the Day

NIMBYs gone wild: LA Edition

Greg Morrow Capacity Graph

Source: Greg Morrow of UCLA

WTF

Best Excuse Ever: A Canadian pole vaulter who tested positive for cocaine just days before the Rio Olympics and nearly didn’t get to attend claimed that it happened because he made out with a girl that he met on Craigslist.

Wings (and Heads), Beer, Sports: Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook ordered some food at Buffalo Wild Wings and received a deep fried chicken head on his plate.

People of Walmart: Walmart was selling a shirt on it’s website that said: “I’d Rather Be Snorting Cocaine off a Hooker’s Ass.”  Sadly, it was taken down once management realized what was going on.

Bad Idea: Entering a Florida Walmart is a bad idea in the best of times.  Doing it before a major hurricane when people are stocking up is just asking for trouble as you’ll see in the video of the day.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links October 11th – Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Landmark Links August 26th – Transition

Bruce JennerLead Story… Two particularly troublesome issues in the US real estate market are the need for more affordable housing and figuring out what to do with vacant malls and other underutilized retail sites.  The Westminster Arcade in Providence Rhode Island, the oldest mall in the US offers an interesting solution: converting un-used portions of malls to micro apartments:

As more people turn to the internet to buy what they need, shopping malls across the country are closing their doors. But one historic mall has found a creative way to re-purpose its former retail space: America’s first shopping mall, the Westminster Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island, has now been turned into micro lofts, offering people the chance to truly live inside a piece of history.

The Westminster Arcade opened in 1892, introducing the English-style indoor shopping experience to the United States. But in recent years, like so many other retail locations across the U.S., the mall had fallen on hard times. Despite undergoing a renovation, the space ultimately closed its doors in 2008 due to economic reasons.

But instead of being demolished, developers decided to give the mall a second life. The first floor is still being rented out as commercial space, but the top two floors have been turned into micro apartments. And the 38 units, which range in size from 225 to 300 square feet, are designed to accommodate the growing masses cramming into Rhode Island’s urban areas.

So far, residents are generally young professionals who don’t have much stuff, and so don’t mind living in such cramped quarters. Rent starts at $550 a month, and there’s already a waiting list of those eager to move into the “cozy” spaces.

This seems like an efficient way to kill two birds with one stone.  It’s relatively cost effective to build out the residential units since the structure is already there and just needs to be converted in order to transition to mixed use (I’m assuming that there are some issues with plumbing capacity so it may not work everywhere), meaning that rents can be on the low side for smaller units.  This is where the demand is anyway at a time when most new multi-family projects are expensive luxury product.  In addition, the upper-floor renters provide foot traffic to sustain the ground floor retail that now doesn’t need to rely on department stores.  To take it a step further, the department store spaces can be re-purposed for medical uses – which would fit perfectly if the apartment units were targeted towards seniors – or self storage which would be in high demand for residents of micro-units.  On the surface, it seems like a win-win.  Anyone out there have any thoughts as to why this wouldn’t work?

Economy

Still Holding Up: Despite some hiccups,  the underlying trend shows people are getting jobs, earning more money, and then spending some of those funds, meaning that the economy is still headed in the right direction.

Dirty Secret: There’s one part of central banking that central bankers often don’t like to talk about – their inflation targets are completely arbitrary.

The Old Fashion Way: How to get and stay rich in Europe – inherit money for 700 years.

Residential

Facepalm: The mayor of Palo Alto would prefer to see less job growth rather than more housing in order to “solve” his city’s housing crisis.  I guess when you buy a house for $490k in 1994 and it’s now worth $4mm, it’s difficult to see past the economic self interest in keeping housing scarce.

Rebuttal: I was going to write a rebuttal to the piece that I posted on Tuesday about the non-NIMBY argument for restrictive zoning but ran out of time.  Preston Cooper at Economics 21 did a better job than I would have anyway.  Long story short, it eventually results in the country looking like something moderately resembling The Hunger Games.

Imagine That: The 15% foreign buyer tax in Vancouver that we have posted about previously is already throwing ice water all over the already-cooling housing market there.  See Also: The white hot Seattle market is showing some early signs of cooling a bit. (h/t Scott Cameron)

Priorities: Apartment hunters are increasingly selecting units based on convenience for a very important family member: the dog.  As a self-professed crazy dog person I totally relate to this.

Profiles

Valuable Commodity: The fascinating story of how Instant Ramen Noodles overtook tobacco to become the black market currency of choice in America’s prisons (hint – the food there is really, really bad and getting worse).

Color Coordination: Great Britain decided that it was a good idea to give all of their Olympic athletes identical red suitcases which led to a hysterical epic FAIL upon their return to Heathrow after the closing ceremonies.

LOL: Looks like someone may have leaked the top secret recipe for KFC’s fried chicken.

Chart of the Day

Consider this your daily reminder that houses in CA are incredibly expensive

WTF

Friday Quiz: See if you can figure out whether or not some really arcane sports were ever actually in the Olympics.

Darwin Award Attempt: If you feel the need to jump from rooftop to rooftop to impress your date than you probably shouldn’t be dating.

Fight!  Watch a group of women beat the crap out of each other in a Chicago Walmart.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 26th – Transition

Landmark Links August 19th – Ramparts!!!

Lightening_Caddyshack2

Lead Story…  In the all-time classic 1980 comedy Caddyshack, obnoxious condo developer Al Czervik, played by Rodney Dangerfield opines that:

“…golf courses and cemeteries are the biggest wastes of prime real estate.”

He was onto something.  It’s been well documented in the years since the Great Recession that golf courses are, by and large a terrible investment that almost never make money – often losing a lot instead.  In fact over 800 courses have closed over the past decade as a result of no longer being financially viable.  So, imagine my surprise when I saw a feature article in Bloomberg earlier this week about how shuttered golf course clubhouses have developed the strange behavior of spontaneously catching on fire:

The dark clouds rolled in over Phoenix’s Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course in 2013, when its owner declared that the costs of keeping it open had outstripped what he was collecting in green fees.

Wilson Gee, a California businessman, shuttered the golf course, erected barbed-wire fences, and began looking for a buyer, telling reporters the land would never be a working golf course again. Homeowners, complaining he was turning the course into an eyesore in order to win approval to redevelop it into single-family homes, sued to reopen it. Gee shanked his first attempt to sell it in 2014, when one homebuilder walked away from a deal, but last year found a buyer in a Denver-based developer.

Then one night in February, the dark clouds turned to smoke, and a fire caved in the clubhouse roof.

It’s a local story, defined by conditions peculiar to Ahwatukee, a community of about 80,000 separated from downtown Phoenix by a collection of 2,500-foot peaks known as South Mountain. But the dynamics that bred the deadlock between the struggling golf course’s owner and its aggrieved neighbors are mirrored in communities across the country.

More than 800 golf courses have closed nationwide in the last decade, as operators grapple with declining interest in the sport and a glut of competition. Many of those shuttered courses were built on land proscribed from redevelopment by local zoning codes seeking to preserve open space—or, as with Ahwatukee, by deed restrictions intended to protect homeowners who had paid a premium to live near a golf course.

That leaves some golf course owners with the real estate equivalent of an unplayable lie: They can’t make money running the course, and they can’t recoup their investment by selling it.

“If you open a restaurant in a strip mall and you fail, you close shop and move on,” said Jay Karen, chief executive officer of the National Golf Course Owners Association. But for golf course owners, it’s much harder to pull the plug on a failing business; as courses fall into disuse, they become suburban zombies—not quite dead, yet far from alive.

“Nobody’s tracking what’s happening to the land,” Karen said.

Therein lies the problem: developers went on a golf course building spree back in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Back then, Tiger Woods was bursting onto the scene and golf was seen as a potentially lucrative investment as millions of Baby Boomers approached retirement which would undoubtedly be filled with more time spent on the links than ever.  When master planned communities were built, developers sold course-fronting homes for large premiums.  Fast forward to 2016 and the golf industry is dying a slow death.  Millennials, by and large have neither the time nor the money to play the game, causing a dramatic decline in club revenues and Nike has dropped out of the golf business as a whole as has Dicks Sporting Goods. In fact, participation is down a whopping 20% since 2003.  More from Bloomberg:

In April, fire ripped through the clubhouse at a shuttered western Kentucky golf course that had been the center of a lawsuit, burning through the afternoon until the roof collapsed over smoldering beams. On New Year’s Day, a former volunteer firefighter lit a small fire outside the vacant clubhouse of a closed 9-hole course outside Orlando, then returned three days later to spark a larger blaze, with the help of a can of paint thinner he had found there. And in September 2015, a fire reduced the 10,000-square-foot clubhouse at an abandoned golf course in Bakersfield, Calif., to only a few charred beams.

For John Rhoads, a homeowner in Sparks, Nev., a clubhouse fire at his local course, D’Andrea Golf Club, was both insult and injury. In 2012, its owner had asked members of the local homeowner association to pay an additional $28 a month for course upkeep, Rhoads said. The homeowners demurred, the course was shuttered, and the clubhouse became a magnet for vandals, who posted graffiti on its stucco walls and eventually burned it down. Now Rhoads worries that the owner is making an end run around the homeowner association to convert half of the course into new homes and a winery.

“This used to be one of the nicest golf courses in Reno-Sparks,” he said. Now? “Our property values are already down $25,000 a home.”

So what do you do with a shuttered golf course that has become blighted and attracts vandals and crime?  Developers would love to buy up courses and develop housing on them while dedicating a portion of the site for community agricultural use or park space as the sites are often prime develop-able parcels.  There’s just one problem: homeowners, especially those fronting the course want none of it being that they paid premiums for golf course frontage homes.  The last thing they want is a new neighbor in place of an old fairway.  This leads to an impasse between homeowners and course owners and almost no one is blinking.  Again from Bloomberg (emphasis is mine):

In the face of declining interest and competition driven by oversupply, course owners have gone searching for ways out. Some have donated golf course land to nature trusts and local parks, taking a tax break in return for preserving the open space. Others have inked deals with homebuilders—though those deals are often contingent on winning approval from homeowner associations or local governments.

“I’m hard-pressed to think of many cases where there isn’t a higher or better use than a golf course for the site,” said Jeff Woolson, managing director of the golf and resort group at CBRE Group. “The only clear exception would be Augusta, Ga.”—the hallowed, Bobby Jones-designed course that hosts the Masters tournament each year.

Whatever happens to the shuttered courses, two things are for certain:

  1. We aren’t going to see many golf courses get developed any time soon
  2. The biggest winners will be lawyers who handle the inevitable litigation between desperate course owners and irate homeowners

By the way, does that last quote from Jeff Woolson from CBRE sound a bit familiar?  While I can’t speak to cemeteries, it turns out that Rodney/Al was a visionary after all.

Economy

Rise of the Machines: How China’s factories are increasingly reliant on robots as their workforce shrinks.

Bursting Bubbles: Sorry, John Oliver but subprime auto loans, while likely predatory in some cases, are not the second coming of the U.S. mortgage crisis.

Commercial

They’re Baaaack: After a brief respite earlier this year, Apartment REITs are buying properties again which is a sign of health for the sector.

Residential

Blame Game: The City of Vancouver is blaming foreign buyers for the crazy run-up in it’s housing market and has even gone so far as to enact a 15% tax on foreign purchases in a effort to keep foreign buyers away.  However, a new report by Paul Ashworth of UK based research firm Capital Economics says that foreigners aren’t the primary issue and rather blames irresponsible lending.

Imagine That: Only 13% of households in San Francisco can afford to buy a median priced home.  Ironically, that’s actually substantially better than 9 years ago when only 8% could afford to purchase a house.

Profiles

People of Walmart: Walmart has a major crime problem and it’s driving police crazy.  This story has it all: shootings, stabbings, kidnappings and hostage situations.  However, my favorite episode is the one where police found a meth lab in a large drain pipe under a Walmart parking lot in upstate NY.

Hero: Meet the 102 year old woman who credits her longevity to drinking.

Pants on Fire: Ryan Lochte may be a great athlete but he is also a massive, massive douchebag.

Chart of the Day

WTF

Monkey Business: Video of the day twofer:

  1. Watch a monkey wearing a diaper get in a fight with a Walmart employee in a parking lot.
  2. Watch a baboon in a zoo goes berserk when a little girl taunts it and flings it’s poop at her face.

How to Avoid the Gulag: Shockingly, North Korea is the most efficient country at winning medals at the Rio Olympics.  Let that sink in.

Must Be the Pleats: Meet the Olympic pole vaulter who missed out on a medal because of his…..um pole.  He now claims it was a wardrobe malfunction.  Let me just go on the record to say that I would have handled this ENTIRELY differently had I been in his position.

Ohio = Florida of the Rust Belt: A man from Ohio was arrested for having sex with a red van on Tuesday on the side of a public road.  Sentences like this are what make The Smoking Gun the finest news site in the world: “The victim was parked at the time, cops say.”

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 19th – Ramparts!!!

Landmark Links July 29th – Taking Out the Trash

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Lead Story… Regulatory changes are rapidly leading to the demise of one of the seedier portions of the real estate industry: Non-Traded REITs.  I’ve written about Non-Traded REITs a couple of times before.  For those of you not familiar with the product, Investopedia defines a Non-Traded REIT as (emphasis mine):

A form of real estate investment method that is designed to reduce or eliminate tax while providing returns on real estate. A non-traded REIT does not trade on a securities exchange, and because of this it is quite illiquid for long periods of time. Front-end fees can be as much as 15%, much higher than a traded REIT due to its limited secondary market.

Basically, it’s exactly like a traded REIT, only far less liquid and with much, much, much higher fees.  This definition doesn’t even get into the other myriad of above-market management fees that the Non-Traded REIT companies charge their investors.  If you can’t already tell, I’m no fan of this “asset class”…or really any other that exists mostly to enrich sponsors and sales people at the expense of unwitting investors.  That’s why I was incredibly pleased to find an article earlier this week in Investment News entitled Nontraded REIT sales fall off a cliff as industry struggles to adapt outlining how regulator changes have crippled the third-tier brokerages that traditionally fed capital to Non-Traded REITs.  This is not a business with a bright future:

Sales of nontraded real estate investment trusts, the high-commission alternative investments sold primarily by independent broker-dealers, have fallen off a cliff.

Heading into 2016 facing a number of hurdles, namely a flurry of legal and regulatory changes that would quickly impact how brokers sell them, the nontraded REIT industry’s worst fears have come true.

Over the first five months of the year, sales of full-commission REITs, which typically carry a 7% payout to the adviser and 3% commission to the broker-dealer the adviser works for, have dropped a staggering 70.5% when compared with the same period a year earlier, according to Robert A. Stanger & Co. Inc., an investment bank that focuses on nontraded REITs.

Their recent sharp drop in sales is part of a longer cycle. The amount of equity raised, or total sales of nontraded REITs, has been sinking by about $5 billion a year since 2013, when sales hit a high watermark of nearly $20 billion.

Times have changed dramatically. Stanger estimates total nontraded REIT sales in 2016 will reach between $5 billion and $6 billion, or roughly 25% of their level in 2013. That year, former nontraded REIT czar Nicholas Schorsch and his firm, American Realty Capital, were at their zenith, and broker-dealers fattened their bottom lines from REIT commission dollars.

All that has changed as sales of nontraded REITs at independent broker-dealers have dried up. Industry bellwether LPL Financial said in its first-quarter earnings release that commission revenue from alternative investments, the lion’s share of which comes from nontraded REITs, was just $7.8 million, a staggering decline of 86.7% when compared with the first quarter of 2015.

Other broker-dealers are reporting similar results. Sales of nontraded REITs at Geneos Wealth Management are down 60% to 65% year to date, according to Dean Rager, the firm’s senior vice president.

So, what led to fundraising for an investment product like this tanking?  Two new regulations.  The first one, from FINRA introduced a new rule whereby brokers selling illiquid investments need to make pricing transparent.  Seems reasonable.  The second, which will come into effect early next year will introduce a fiduciary standard for brokers working with client retirement accounts as opposed to the lower “suitability” standard currently being used.  Also seems quite reasonable.  The result is a nearly impossible fundraising environment when:

  1. Brokers have to show clients that the fees that they would pay are exorbitant (and there is no way that a broker would sell Non-Traded REIT shares without the high fees); and
  2. There is no chance that a broker can recommend an investment where a return of over 17% must be achieved just in order to break even by offsetting the 10% broker fee and up-to 5% upfront fee to the Non-Traded REIT sponsor.

If this industry is going to survive, it will need to change substantially, meaning lower fees and far more transparency.  The thing is that, at a certain point, there is basically no reason for it to exist since investors can always buy far more liquid Traded REITs.  The good news is that would-be investors are far less likely to be taken to the cleaners.  The other good news is that there are other real estate alternatives with a far better alignment of interest between investor and sponsor that will likely to be the beneficiary of capital that would have otherwise gone into Non-Traded REITs.  Good riddance.

Economy

Yield Curve Update: The yield curve continues to contract.  However, unlike in past cycles, it may not be signalling a recession and instead a response to the international hunt for yield spurred on by negative interest rates and foreign economic chaos.  Either way, it doesn’t give the Federal Reserve much latitude.

And You Think We’re Bad: The incredible story of how Italian banks used high pressure sales to entice Italian households to load up on their risky subordinate debt during the financial crisis, imperiling their economy today.

Residential

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things (or Affordable Housing): …..At least not in San Francisco.  A proposed housing development in the Mission district lost 85 percent of it’s unit count at planning commission, shrinking it from 26 new units to only 4.  The reason: Planning Commission decided that it wanted to preserve the auto body shop that currently resides on the site.  Ironically, the same people opposed to this project will continue to shed crocodile tears about how San Francisco has become un-affordable due to a complete lack of common sense or economic literacy.

Crickets: The lack of affordable housing in the US should be a major campaign issue but neither party seems to want to touch it.

Rocket Fuel: Bay Area private bank lenders are offering wealthy techies 0% down mortgages with low interest rates to buy homes up to $2mm, fueling concern about both bubbles and growing inequality.

Profiles

What’s in a Name?  Lenders are continuing their age-old practice of re-branding loans to high risk borrowers.  B&C lending became stigmatized so they re-branded it “subprime.”  After “subprime” blew up, they started calling it “near-prime.”  When near-near prime doesn’t go well, get ready for not-quite-prime.

The Tortoise and the Hare: Video games that are immediate mega-hits often flame out almost as quickly.  I’m looking at you, Pokemon Go.

The Machine that Builds The Machine: Take a tour through Tesla’s 5.8 million square foot Gifafactory Sparks, Nevada.

Follow Friday: If you’re on Twitter check out @DPRK_News  It’s a satirical North Korean news feed and one of the funniest things I’ve seen.  Here’s a couple of sample tweets:

 

Chart of the Day

This warms my cold heart.

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WTF

Born to Ride: Watch a Walmart customer on a Rascal Scooter rob a store an then get away after ramming an employee into a dumpster with his trusty steed.  When you see what the employees and customers who tried to stop him look like, the fact that he escaped on a Rascal Scooter will make more sense.

Worse Than Tofu: Cockroach milk could be the superfood that the world has been waiting for.  No, this is not from The Onion.

Entrepreneurial Drive: Drug dealers in Rio are selling Olympics branded cocaine to take advantage of their city hosting the games.  Who says there is no economic benefit to hosting the Olympics?

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links July 29th – Taking Out the Trash

Landmark Links July 8th – The Plunge

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First things first: Hayden Charlotte Deermount was born at 11:14am on July 5th weighing 7lbs and 13 oz. Baby Hayden and Mrs Links are both doing great! This is also Hayden’s fist blog post in a way since I wrote almost the entire thing with her sleeping on my lap….

Lead Story… Commercial real estate investors are rushing for the exits in British property funds as post-Brexit uncertainty about the future of London as a global financial center is on the rise. Withdrawals have been halted in several funds and the Pound is now at a 31 year low (and this could just be the beginning for the embattled currency). The situation could get worse before it gets better. The biggest beneficiary will likely be the US commercial real estate market which could see even further cap rate compression (yes, seriously). See Also: RBS and Lloyds have the most exposure to UK commercial real estate and could have issues if it continues to tank. 

Economy

Much Ado About Nothing? Pro Brexit politicians are dropping like flies adding to uncertainty.  Tyler Cowan of Marginal Revolution lays out 7 possible Brexit scenarios. The spoiler here is that there is a very strong argument that Brexit will not ever actually happen. See Also: Brexit fears have set a scenario in motion the could bring the yield on the benchmark 10-year US treasury note plunging to 1%.

Sea Change: Great infographic from the US Census Bureau shows just how much the “typical” 30-year old has changed from 1975 to 2015.  The difference is stark to say the least.

Commercial

Imagine That: Plateauing rents in the luxury apartment space have some developers putting new developments on hold as they acknowledge that trees can’t grow to the sky. Imagine that: housing cost inflation slows when you add more units.  Shocking. See Also: LA rents were flat from May to June according to Apartment List.

Residential

Not From The Onion: A Seattle house deemed “too dangerous to enter” sold for $427,000 after an insane bidding war with 41 offers after it listed for $200k. Perhaps the craziest part of this is that $427k for a tear down in a good neighborhood in coastal California sounds like a steal. Consider it today’s reminder that affordability is relative in local markets.

Not A Lot Remaining: Lot supply is still incredibly tight in the western US and at its lowest level since 1997.

Refi Boom: Plunging interest rates sent refinances soaring to an 18-month high even though mortgage rate spreads over the 10-year treasury are still high.

Profiles

LOL: Snapchat’s army of loyal teenage users aren’t happy that their parents are starting to use the app.

Out of Touch: Microsoft’s attempts at intern outreach are a perfect example of what happens when your grandparents try to be “hip.”
Chart of the Day


WTF

Brawl-Mart: 30 person brawl in an upstate NY Walmart that included baseball bats and a 17 year old throwing a can of food at a 52 year olds head resulted in several arrests. Nothing about this story is remotely shocking or even newsworthy except that it didn’t happen on Black Friday.

Can You Move that Plane So I Can Get a Better Shot? Idiots are increasingly putting pilots and firefighters at risk by flying drones over wildfires in an effort to get “cool” Instagram photos.  One drone almost collided with a plane late last month in Utah leading to the grounding of all firefighting planes during a blaze.

Ok Then: The brother of deceased former Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar is asking Nexflix for a portion of the profits from the next season of Narcos, a show based on Escobar’s life. Doubt it will work but I suppose that the logic here is that If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links July 8th – The Plunge

Landmark Links June 21st – Worth the Investment?

bluto3

Welcome to summer!  Fortunately, we avoided the apocalypse that a crackpot astrologer (redundant) predicted last night when the full moon coincided with the summer solstice.  I know you’re all as relieved as I am.  Now, on to the news:

Lead Story… I recently read two studies that came out in the last week or so that appear contradictory, at least on the surface.  First off, the National Association of Realtors and SALT published a survey that strongly suggests that student debt is holding back the housing market:

Seventy-one percent of non-homeowners with debts from student loans said the burden of those monthly payments was keeping them from buying a home. More than half said it would likely continue do so for more than five years, according to a new study by the National Association of Realtors and SALT, a consumer literacy program provided by nonprofit American Student Assistance.

Second, John Burns Real Estate Consulting posted a story on their blog about rising college graduation rates are contributing to income inequality:

Rising college graduation rates, particularly for women, have significantly contributed to a greater share of high-income households. Among married couples, 23% now both graduated from college—a percentage that has steadily risen for decades. When both spouses went to college and work, household incomes at the top rise!

Consumer spending data provides strong support to the JBREC hypothesis of college education contributing to income inequality:

So which one is it?  Is college debt holding graduates back and not allowing them to take place in the “American Dream” of owning their own home or is the rising percentage of couples where both have a college education (and probably a bunch of student debt) leading to out-sized earnings for a percentage of the population?  I would contend that it’s both.  First off, we need to distinguish between cost and return.  Yes, college is expensive – arguably too expensive seeing as it’s cost has far outrun inflation for a long period of time.  However, if we are making the case, as the Realtor study is that college debt is holding back the housing market then we have to ask a simple question: what, is the alternative?  That’s where the problem lies.  Sure there are tech founders that didn’t graduate college only to become billionaires but they are extreme outliers, pure originals that can’t be replicated.  If they weren’t outliers, by definition they would never be able to earn that type of out-sized return.  Unfortunately, not everyone is able to change the world, even if they all got a trophy in youth soccer.  If a student isn’t independently wealthy enough to not take on debt (a proposition similar to winning the lottery – pure luck), the alternative is not to go to college.  Statistically speaking, that is a horrible bet.  This piece of Study.com sums it up perfectly:

Considering the high cost of a college education, potential students may question whether the expected earnings after graduation outweigh the possible debt incurred from student loans. In 2002, the Census Bureau looked at lifetime earnings of employees with bachelor’s degrees and those without for 1999: non-degree holders could expect to earn 75% less than bachelor’s degree holders, who could expect to earn $2.7 million over their lifetimes. However, since 1999, bachelor’s degree holders can now expect to make 84% more than high school graduates.

As the above numbers, and the JBREC study show, college is becoming more and more of a necessity to get ahead in the modern world.  If you want to join the middle or especially upper-middle class, a high school degree is not going to get you there (unless of course you happen to be the aforementioned tech genius/ future billionaire).  Yes, the debt is a necessary evil with an important caveat: not all colleges or all majors within a college are created equally and that’s where I believe that studies like the NAR one are in error: they overly generalize a very complex issue.

The seventy one percent referenced in the NAR study is an eye-popping number but there are a few issues with the way that the study was conducted: 1) There is a no segmentation (at least none was provided in what they published).  For example, the results aren’t sorted based on whether the respondent attended a 4-year college, a 2-year junior college or a for-profit college let alone what their course of study was.  2) There is no differentiation made between those that received a college degree and those that took out loans but did not complete a degree.  It’s easy to see where this is problematic.  I highly doubt that student debt is as large of an issue for an engineering grad from a top school as it is for a someone who dropped out of a for-profit college before receiving a degree.  Alas, we don’t know from this study since the data wasn’t provided.

Yes, the rate of increase in the cost of a college degree in recent decades has been massive.  However, if looked at strictly from an economic standpoint, the yield on investment is still quite good, IF you graduate AND and chose a major that will get you somewhere other than flipping burgers or spending your time at political rallies asking for debt forgiveness (yes, I know that was a cheap shot).  The primary reason is that the baseline for comparison: a high school degree provides little if any earning power even when debt is taken into account.  Like it or not, many jobs that previously required only a high school degree now require college.  So when will college cost begin to moderate?  IMO, it’s when the return on investment no longer justifies the outlay.  You can already see this happening in for-profit schools which have proven over time to be a poor investment for students which is why their stock performance has been utter crap.  As a further illustration, here are the 25 colleges with the best Return on Investment and the 25 colleges with the worst ROI.

The NAR study is factually correct: every dollar of additional debt that you take on be it student or otherwise will indeed make it more difficult to qualify for a mortgage. However, if one graduates with a worthwhile degree, that debt should still be a good investment over time and make the borrower more likely to be able to purchase a house than the alternative of not taking 0n debt by not attending college at all.  It’s a shame that the NAR data didn’t include a further breakdown because it would have made for a far more interesting story than the shocking 71% number.  It’s almost as if they had an agenda here….

Economy

What Gives?  Gregory Mankiw of New York Times on five possible reasons for our sluggish economy.

Cream of the Crap: The US economy is doing great….compared with pretty much everywhere else.  See Also: Swiss government debt now has a negative yield all the way out to 33 years, which makes even Japan look good in comparison.

The Fed Who Cried Wolf: The Federal Reserve has spent the last few months saber-rattling about imminent interest rate hikes only to backtrack at their monthly meetings.  The act is getting old and they are now at risk of losing investor faith in their policy rate path.

Demographics Are Destiny: This animated demographics chart from Calculated Risk is almost mesmerizing to look at.

Commercial

Refi Madness: America’s malls have been on the ropes for quite some time and would have plenty of issues even if they were not leveraged at all.  Unfortunately for their owners, they have billions in debt coming due.

Storm Clouds: PIMCO sees a potential downturn in the next 12-months for U.S. commercial real estate as tightened regulations, a wall of debt maturities and property sales by publicly traded landlords take their toll.

Residential

It’s Complicated : Morgan Housel of the Motley Fool is one of the best financial writers in the world.  He has also long been a critic of the concept of a home as an investment.  Recently he and his wife bought their first home after they started having kids.  I think this assessment of the complicated nature of the home buying process and it’s impact on transaction fees is spot on:

I consider myself reasonably astute in personal finance, because it’s so much of what I write about for a living. But I can’t count how many times I had to stop, realize something confused me, and spend an hour of research to understand what I was about to sign. After going through our loan documents I sent at lest 10 emails to the bank with various forms of, “What’s this?” What is this?” “WHAT IS THIS?”

Even with a realtor, home buyers need to be amateur lawyers to fully understand what they’re doing. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people for whom finance is already a daunting topic. And that’s most people.

This probably explains why transaction fees are still high. When you combine emotion with legalese, the path of least resistance is to just sign your name without considering what you’re doing. I had a few moments of, “They wouldn’t be offering me this if it wasn’t in my best interest” only to stop, want to slap myself, and keep researching.

For a Price: Multi-family landlord’s are offering free rent as a concession in San Francisco as a flood of units finally hit the market but you can’t get it unless you can afford a luxury apartment (h/t Jeff Condon).  See Also: San Francisco’s housing mania may finally have reached it’s limit.  And: Luxury housing demand appears to be on the wane.

Profiles

Hero: Meet the hacker who is fighting ISIS by spamming their Twitter accounts with porn.

Worker’s Paradise: Venezuela’s descent into failed state status where citizens fight in the streets for food is even worse when you consider that, based on it’s vast natural resources it should be one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Bird Hunting: After Microsoft purchased Linkedin, the next question in Silicon Valley is who will buy perpetually-struggling Twitter.

Chart of the Day

A couple of fascinating graphics from JBREC.  It amazes me that still only 23% of the married population consists of couples who both have degrees.

share of married couples with college degree

percent of adults with bachelor's degree

WTF

What a Gas: Activists are planning a “Fart-In” at Hillary Clinton’s DNC acceptance speech this summer in Philadelphia (h/t Steve Sims).

All the Rage: England’s newest fitness craze known as Tantrum Club involves screaming obscenities and popping balloons with bad words written on them while stomping on bubble wrap.  This is right up there with the Shake Weight when it comes to dumb workout fads.

Keeping up with the Floridians: An obese naked man was videotaped relieving himself outside of a Georgia Waffle House in broad daylight.  When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Florida replied “see, it’s not only us.”

Boom: A group of arsonists set off fireworks in a Walmart in Phoenix leading to the building needing to be evacuated.  Fortunately, someone had the good sense to videotape it.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links June 21st – Worth the Investment?

Landmark Links April 26th – Disconnect

Disconect

Lead Story… Goldman Sachs published a research note last week that CNBC posted some excerpts of, making the case that the construction labor shortage isn’t to blame for the sluggish home builder performance:

“Our analysis of payroll growth and wage inflation data suggests that labor shortages may not be to blame for the mediocre level of housing activity,” Goldman Sachs analysts wrote in a report this week. “We find that, on the one hand, the construction sector has experienced the largest job growth over the past year.”

Construction growth has led all other sectors at 5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but average hourly earnings in construction gained only 2.2 percent over the past year, which is about the national average.

“Economics 101 would suggest that, if labor shortages did in fact exist, upward pressure on wages would be more pronounced and payroll growth would be anemic,” the report said. “Therefore, the evidence from the industry-level employment and wage data does not support the existence of labor shortages in the construction sector.”

Goldman instead pointed to permitting delays and land scarcity as the culprits, citing a report from JBREC’s Jody Kahn that we posted earlier this month:

A survey of 100 builders nationwide by John Burns Real Estate Consulting backs that thesis. They asked about costs that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and found high levels of builder frustration, not just from labor, but from cost overruns stemming from new regulations for house erosion control, energy codes and fire sprinklers. They also cited understaffed planning and permit offices as well as utility company delays.

“New regulations to protect the environment and to shore up local city finances have made it extremely difficult for home builders to build affordable homes,” the Burns analysts wrote. “Now, more than ever, the demand for affordable entry-level housing will need to be met by the resale market, since new homes have become permanently more expensive to build. We were overwhelmed by the reply as well as the builders’ level of frustration.”

I agree with what they are saying to an extent as the construction labor shortage Isnt the sole culprit, but first we have to put things in context.  Yes, we are rebounding but it’s from a very low level when it comes to construction employment:

The CNBC story made two important clarifications: 1) The labor shortage is a much bigger deal on the west coast (most of our clients would agree); and 2) The construction industry has failed miserably when it comes to to attracting younger workers and is stuck with an aging workforce (again, our clients have verified this):

There is a labor crunch, though, in some parts of the country, more so in the West, as a considerable number of the construction workers who left during the recession still have yet to return.

The average age of a construction worker today is far higher than it was during the housing boom, Michelle Meyer, deputy head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global Research, said Tuesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” Builders need to attract younger workers, but they seem, so far at least, unwilling or unable to pay them more.

IMHO, there are a number of issues conspiring to make this a very difficult environment for builders and developers.  Permitting delays, a lack of developable lots, low affordability, more stringent mortgage underwriting, people forming households later in life, labor shortages, high costs, lack of development financing, almost no new entry level product, etc.  Builders could probably overcome a couple of these but add them up together and you have the perfect storm for a relatively moribund home building recovery.  This sluggishness is leading to capital market pessimism.  Meyers Research noted last week that their investor round table is expecting a downturn in land in the not-too-distant future which is causing them to proceed cautiously:

  • The train may arrive early: While a national economic recession is still on the horizon, the recession is now expected within the next two years, which makes investing in a residential land opportunity more interesting.

  • Possible repricing ahead: In fact, some groups are suggesting that land will be “on sale” within the next 6-18 months. Widespread distress is not expected, but neither are decreasing home prices. It’s simply an expectation that some return-based land owners may be experiencing deal fatigue and be willing to accept a modest return rather than endure another cycle.

  • “Multiple” Opportunities: Some of the larger, more patient capital sources are expecting this to be an attractive buy opportunity where they can “play for the multiple”. The challenge is that few of these investors are looking to develop land. The heavy capital requirements of land development are not justifiable today and banks remain tepid toward land development. It is not a stretch to expect the for-sale market to remain under-supplied, or at least not oversupplied, for a protracted period. This condition surely will reduce the risk of capital loss for patient investors but make things challenging for home builders who need land as their most basic raw material.

At some point this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where lots fall in value due to a dearth of capital availability where investors pull back to wait for a better entry point.  This couldn’t be more different than the 2007-2008 scenario where there was plenty of lot and home supply that weighed on the market heavily once subprime lending (and demand from marginal buyers) vaporized.  No, in this case homes could actually keep going up in value, getting less affordable while new construction continues to slow and land development grinds to a halt.  Why?  Because people are still forming households and there is still demand that will likely continue to outstrip supply of development slows further.

Private equity investors made large investments in land coming out of the downturn, banking on a strong rebound when home values began to rise.  Many of them have been disappointed with the results and many portfolios haven’t hit expected returns despite home prices and lot prices generally rising.  This has mainly been due to the various headwinds facing development and home building that I mentioned above.  The prevailing view on Wall Street appears to be that land is overvalued but home prices may not be which is why Meyers sees the potential for land to go on sale while low supply keeps home prices elevated. Ironically, developers and their capital partners could have been spot on underwriting finished lot values and still under-performed due to permitting delays and cost inflation.  Developers and their equity partners are also struggling since home builders are now demanding finished lots whereas they were previously buying unimproved but mapped land and did their own improvements.  Improving lots is very capital intensive as mentioned in the Meyers report above and your average developer has a substantially higher cost of capital than a public home builder does.

I’m of the opinion that the correction has been underway since 2014 when builders essentially stopped buying paper lots in all but the most infill locations since underwritten returns on land improvement and horizontal construction are now higher (ask a west coast based land broker and they will likely confirm this). All told, we could be setting up for a somewhat bizarre scenario where land prices languish as development risk gets repriced while home prices stay firm or go higher.

Economy

Look at the Bright Side: As lucrative oil jobs dry up,  some workers are jumping ship to the growing solar energy sector.

Commercial

Just Speculating: Spec construction is on the rise as tenant demand continues to fuel the industrial sector.

Residential

There’s a Freeway Running Through the Yard: Buyers in high priced markets like Los Angeles will put up with a lot, including a home adjacent to the freeway to find something even moderately affordable. See Also: Home price surge stymies first time buyers.

Profiles

Keeping Up With the Googles: Traditional businesses are making their offices look like startups in a bid to appear “cool” to millennials.  However, what many of these traditional businesses run by 50 year old execs don’t grasp is that the appeal of the startup lies in the excitement of the concept, the culture and the idea that you are getting in on the ground floor….oh yeah, I almost forgot about the ability to participate in the upside if the company makes it big.  These are things that your typical advertising agency will never offer and nap pods, ping pong tables and hip office design in an old-school business are superficial and come off as pandering.

Better Off Just Dripping: The Dyson Airblade jet dryer is really bad for hygene. A new study shows that using one is akin to setting off a viral bomb in an already-disgusting public restroom.

Chart of the Day

The latest update of Bill McBride’s “Distressing Gap” doesn’t look to be closing anytime soon.

WTF

Makes Sense to Me: A woman in South Carolina crashed a car into a Walmart.  She claims that God told her to do it.

Video of the Day Twofer: Watching disgruntled construction workers battle it out on the street with heavy machinery is my new favorite pastime. (h/t Ian Sinderhoff)

The Law of Unintended Consequences: An animal rights activist group “freed” an ostrich from the circus.  It was promptly hit by a car and killed.  Turns out that ostriches aren’t well equipped to handle an urban environment in Germany.  Who would have though?

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links April 26th – Disconnect