Landmark Links August 12th – Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

kids making a mess

Lead Story… In a profoundly disappointing but not remotely surprising story, labor, environmental and tenant advocacy groups have effectively nuked CA Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to streamline approvals for housing developments, imperiling it’s chances of passing through the legislature this year.  Brown’s plan essentially would have allowed development “as of right” so long as it conformed with underlying zoning and allowed for a certain number of affordable units.  This would have effectively subverted the veritable maze of discretionary approvals currently required in some municipalities.  First, construction union leaders threw a hissy fit because the plan didn’t include enough goodies and hand outs for union labor to buy – I mean win – their support.  Next, environmental groups (Side Note: in California, the term “environmental group” is nothing more than a euphemism for  NIMBY) opposed the plan because they don’t want anything built under any circumstances ever if it’s anywhere near the expensive – and often developer-hostile neighborhoods where they reside and Brown’s plan would effectively take away a major lever of control – discretionary approval – that they have held in the development approval process.  Third, some renter advocacy groups joined in with the construction unions and environmentalists because they apparently aren’t all that sharp and don’t realize that they are being bamboozled into opposing something that would ultimately lead to lower rents which would benefit them the most.  i guess that no good deed goes unpunished.  From the LA Times:

Labor and environmental groups say they are done negotiating over Gov. Jerry Brown’s housing plan – LA Times

“After several meetings without an agreement on a variety of requested changes, we believe it is time to focus on real affordable housing solutions that don’t directly undermine local voices and place communities and our environment at risk,” said a statement from the State Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club and Tenants Together, who are among a coalition of more than 60 groups who joined to oppose the governor’s housing proposal.

Cesar Diaz, the legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council, confirmed that the coalition would not participate in further discussions over the plan.

“This needs much more time and a policy-vetting process,” Diaz said.

Yes, this is depressing but it isn’t at all surprising to anyone who has spent any time in a field related to development in CA.  Any time that someone makes a proposal that attempts to fix out badly broken housing system, existing stake holders dig in their heels and do anything in their power to stop it.  This, as today’s headline suggests is why we can’t have nice things in California – namely an affordable and moderately functional housing market.

Today I’d like to present a counter example to illustrate what a functional housing market looks like.  There is a major global city that is fully built out with a population of over 13 million (far larger than any city in CA).  This city is a major global finance and trade hub.  It is land constrained and effectively fully built out, yet housing prices haven’t budged in nearly 20 years.  The city that I’m referring to is Tokyo and Robin Harding of the Finacial Times published a very important story about how regulation impacts housing cost called Why Tokyo is the land of rising home construction but not prices last week.  First off, I want make something clear.  The Japanese respect property rights to a level that’s almost inconceivable in California.  According to Takahiko Noguchi, a regional planning head in Tokyo:

“There is no legal restraint on demolishing a building.  People have the right to use their land so basically neighbouring people have no right to stop development.”

In other words, Tokyo has become the anti-coastal California where housing supply is created to meet demand without mountains of red tape and shrieking NIMBY obstructionists.  The outcome has been so dramatic that it’s a bit shocking to those that don’t live there.  From the FT (highlights are mine):

Here is a startling fact: in 2014 there were 142,417 housing starts in the city of Tokyo (population 13.3m, no empty land), more than the 83,657 housing permits issued in the state of California (population 38.7m), or the 137,010 houses started in the entire country of England (population 54.3m).

Tokyo’s steady construction is linked to a still more startling fact. In contrast to the enormous house price booms that have distorted western cities — setting young against old, redistributing wealth to the already wealthy, and denying others the chance to move to where the good jobs are — the cost of property in Japan’s capital has hardly budged.

This is not the result of a falling population. Japan has experienced the same “return to the city” wave as other nations. In Minato ward — a desirable 20 sq km slice of central Tokyo — the population is up 66 per cent over the past 20 years, from 145,000 to 241,000, an increase of about 100,000 residents.

In the 121 sq km of San Francisco, the population grew by about the same number over 20 years, from 746,000 to 865,000 — a rise of 16 per cent. Yet whereas the price of a home in San Francisco and London has increased 231 per cent and 441 per cent respectively, Minato ward has absorbed its population boom with price rises of just 45 per cent, much of which came after the Bank of Japan launched its big monetary stimulus in 2013.

In Tokyo there are no boring conversations about house prices because they have not changed much. Whether to buy or rent is not a life-changing decision. Rather, Japan delivers to its people a steadily improving standard, location and volume of house.

Japan
So how, exactly did this come about?  Some of us remember tales of the runaway Tokyo real estate market and subsequent crash in the 80s during the great Japanese boom and subsequent bust.  It may seem odd that a place that produced such an epic real estate boom and subsequent bust would be home to a stable, efficient real estate market.  Again, from the FT:
“During the 1980s Japan had a spectacular speculative house price bubble that was even worse than in London and New York during the same period, and various Japanese economists were decrying the planning and zoning systems as having been a major contributor by reducing supply,” says André Sorensen, a geography professor at the University of Toronto, who has written extensively on planning in Japan.
But, indirectly, it was the bubble that laid foundations for future housing across the centre of Tokyo, says Hiro Ichikawa, who advises developer Mori Building. When it burst, developers were left with expensively assembled office sites for which there was no longer any demand.
As bad loans to developers brought Japan’s financial system to the brink of collapse in the 1990s, the government relaxed development rules, culminating in the Urban Renaissance Law of 2002, which made it easier to rezone land. Office sites were repurposed for new housing. “To help the economy recover from the bubble, the country eased regulation on urban development,” says Ichikawa. “If it hadn’t been for the bubble, Tokyo would be in the same situation as London or San Francisco.”
Hallways and public areas were excluded from the calculated size of apartment buildings, letting them grow much higher within existing zoning, while a proposal now under debate would allow owners to rebuild bigger if they knock down blocks built to old earthquake standards.
All of this law flows from the national government, and freedom to demolish and rebuild means landowners can quickly take advantage. “The city planning law and the building law are set nationally — even small details are written in national law,” says Okata. “Local government has almost no power over development.”
Note that this is not all that dissimilar from the proposal that Gov Brown made where the State of CA would set policy from the top down since cities have shown absolutely no inclination to get their shit together when it comes to housing policy.  When the Japanese crisis hit, policy makers did something that those in the US have been unable and unwilling to do: liberalize development regulation to spur economic growth – which also led to a subsequent dramatic slowing in housing costs due to a pickup in efficiency.  Remember the Tokyo example next time someone makes an economically illiterate statement that building more market rate won’t make housing more affordable.  Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Japanese policy makers understand this, Californians apparently don’t.  The simple fact is that coastal CA cities will not get housing costs under control until they start doing things differently, much like Japan did in the midst of their economic crisis.

Economy

Debt Decision: Plunging interest rates have lowered the cost of borrowing over long time periods, making it appealing for the government to roll short term debt into longer term maturities.  See Also: It’s never been cheaper for cities and states to borrow money so why are they so reluctant?

Opposite Result: There is early evidence that negative interest rates are actually encouraging savings, rather than discouraging it as central bankers had hoped.

Pendulum Swing: In the never-ending tug of war between labor and capital, labor is gaining an upper hand as the job market tightens.

Residential

Landmark in the News: Landmark’s own Tom Farrell had a prominent quote in a feature Wall Street Journal article entitled  Lopsided Housing Rebound Leaves Millions of People Out in the Cold.  : The whole piece is well worth a read:

Tom Farrell, director of business development for Landmark Capital Advisors, which counsels investors on real-estate projects, said risk appetite is low, particularly outside core markets.

“We’re often saying ’You all want to be in the same spot, and you’re tripping over each other,” he said. “It’s just difficult to get people out to those secondary markets.”

Profiles

Early Exit: Startups are opting to sell rather than IPO as investors look to cash out early.

The Rise and Fall: How Yahoo went from tech powerhouse to also-ran and why Verizon bought it.

Chart of the Day

WTF

Headline of the Week: It’s hard to beat Subway rider smokes crack and strips naked before shocked witnesses on No. 3 train when it comes to news headlines.  Especially when said headline includes pictures (before the guy took his clothes off, thankfully).

Swipe Right: Judging by usage numbers and the 450,000 condoms provided to athletes, Tinder and the Olympic Village are a perfect match.

FAIL: Man tries to light house on fire in broad daylight but lights self on fire instead.  To make matters worse, the whole thing was caught on a security camera including the hysterical part where he tries to put it out.

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links August 12th – Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Landmark Links July 29th – Taking Out the Trash

Funny-Garbage-Bin-Fun-And-Education-28-320x240

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 19th – One Size Fits All?

one-size-fits-all-rubber-duck

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economy

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

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

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

Commercial 

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

Residential

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

Profiles

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

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

Chart of the Day

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

(Click to enlarge)

WTF

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

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

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

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

Visit us at Landmarkcapitaladvisors.com

Landmark Links July 19th – One Size Fits All?