From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Not a good sign….

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) tracks gross domestic product (GDP) both globally and by nation.  Their metrics are generally quite good.  They’ve downgraded the 2017 expectation to 2.1% from a prior forecast of 2.3%, in no small part to the abysmal 1.4% the U.S. turned in during the 1st quarter.  They’re currently projecting 2.1% for next year as well. This is a far cry from the 4% annual rate the Prez promised on the campaign trail, and the 3% he promised after taking office.

Admittedly, a president can’t be judged on the economics of his first year.  That said, a principal driver of the lousy 2018 forecast is the amazing lack of understanding this administration (and Congress, for that matter) has about the power of fiscal policy to drive the economy.  This lack of understanding can trace its roots to the early Reagan days and the GOP’s enamor with Milton Friedman.  The Chicago economists (and this is a wild oversimplification) preached monetary theory, holding that the entire economy was driven by the money supply, which could be improved with tax cuts.  This was in contrast to the Keynesians (and again, a wild oversimplification) who held that targeted fiscal policy was the order of the day.  Since the Kennedys were Keynesians (or at least Harvard graduates), then they had to be the enemy of all that was good.

Of course, many of us have been forecasting a recession for 2018 or so.  Why?  From a simple cyclical perspective, we’re long overdue.  My own thinking was that the Congress would enact a tighter budget which would be felt in the short-term, but that tax cuts wouldn’t be felt (if at all) until father out.  As it turns out, I was an optimist.  The budget cuts are draconian, and the tax cuts proposed will do nothing to add to consumption or investment.  (The former is patently obvious.  Give Bill Gates an extra million a year in tax cuts, and he’s not going to eat better or buy nicer clothes.  As for the investment side, money is already essentially free — overnight LIBOR is actually negative — and yet cash lays around on the sidelines looking for a new merger to fund.)

I’m presently not an optimist.  Neither are the economists at the IMF.  For a great synopsis of their report, read Rishi Iyengar’s report on CNN Money.

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 24, 2017 at 5:28 pm

WordPress v. Facebook

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Loyal readers will note that I’m frequently on Facebook and less frequently here.  You may have also noted (or not….) the very different tone of my two sets of writings.  My pure FB posts are generally either my (fairly strident) political views or mental meanderings about family, travel, restaurants, and bars.  In other words, normal stuff.  My blog posts lean to business, finance, and the economy, with a bent toward real estate.  By construct, the “voice” on this blog is different than the “voice” on FB.

Here’s where life gets interesting.  I had the honor last week to speak to a small audience at a luncheon at Seattle’s historic Rainier Club about the economy.  It’s quite impossible now-a-days to separate “economy” from “politics”, much as I might like to.  Calvin Coolidge, I believe, said that the “business of America is business”, and the current government in D.C. has adopted that mantra.  Sadly, the current government in D.C. appears to know quite little about mainstream business.  they know a bit about a few things, and almost nothing about most things.  That said, they’ve sold a bill-of-goods to many mainstream business folks.  I saw a truck heading into Seattle today with InfoWars and “Arrest Hillary” bumper stickers.  The driver was a bearded young man who appeared to be a hard working fellow.  He’s been sold on the notion that the government in D.C. is on his side now, and they’re going to make everything a lot better.  I’m waiting to see that.  I haven’t seen anything yet out of D.C. that suggests this government is representing anyone other than Russian bankers and the Koch brothers.

At my Rainier Club talk, a questioner — clearly a Trump supporter — commented that the benefit of the new administration was that they were dismantling onerous regulations which affect small business.  I reminded the questioner that I’m Chair of the Board of a business headquartered in Seattle, and that nearly all of our regulations are imposed by the City of Seattle and the State of Washington.  I further reminded him that these regulations make Seattle the sort of place where creative people wanted to live, and since my bread and butter is hiring creative people, I’m happy to put up with these regulations in order to hire creative folks.  I noted that Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser, Expeditors International, Expedia, Alaska Air, Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, the Russell Group, Symetra, F5 Networks, Paccar (who make Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks) and a host of other global companies were also willing to put up with these Washington State regulations in order to be able to tap into the brain trust that wants to live here.  Intriguingly, the most “regulated” cities and states in the nation tend to be homes to the most forward-thinking and growing businesses.  Indeed, New York and California have over 20% of the Fortune 500 headquarters, and the states which are generally the least regulated have no Fortune 500 or even Fortune 1000 companies (Montana, Maine, South Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia, New Mexico, and Alaska).  You go figure….

Kroger…. sigh….

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I truly like Kroger.  I do the largest portion of my “commodity” shopping there.  Friends and colleagues know of my constant battle with my weight, and sadly enough, Kroger (or their pacific northwest brand, Fred Meyer) is partly to blame.

That said, I’m very concerned with Kroger (and Fred Meyer) as brands, and by extension as users of big boxes of real estate and anchors of shopping centers.  Kroger’s stock hit a one-year high of $37.86 last July, and is today 40% lower at 22.82.  Admittedly, about 7 points of that loss came on the heels of Amazon’s announced acquisition of Whole Foods.  However, another 7 or 8 points came from slow drift over the last 11 months.  For the record, during the past 12 months, the S&P 500 (not the most aggressive benchmark, for sure) rose from 2000 to 2433 (today, 1pm EDT), for a gain of just under 22%.  Hence, Kroger has underperformed the S&P by 62%.  Ahem…. To put this in more meaningful terms, Kroger has lost about $14 Billion in shareholder wealth in 11 months.

So this morning, I took time out of my nasty, busy schedule to listen to Kroger’s CEO, Rodney McMullen, interviewed on CNBC.  I was underwhelmed, to say the least.  He basically wanted to defend their current modus operandi, and bragged about their cheese department (which, I will admit, is quite good).  Arguably, when one loses $14 Billion in shareholder wealth in 11 months, perhaps one should have a “Plan B” to discuss on CNBC.

From a real estate perspective, Kroger and its other brands (e.g. — Fred Meyer) run 2,778 grocery stores in the U.S.  At about 50,000 square feet each, that’s roughly 140 million square feet of real estate (not counting 786 convenience stores, 37 food processing facilities, 1,360 supermarket fuel centers, and such and so forth).  Further, most of these stores are anchors for community shopping centers.  Lose the grocery anchor, and the entire shopping center becomes a dust bowl pretty quickly.

A long time ago, In Search of Excellence established that businesses “in the middle” of a market are doomed to failure.  You can make money at the top of the market (Whole Foods) or at the bottom (WalMart Super Centers) but not in the middle.  Profit margins in grocery have always been razor thin.  I can think of a dozen business scenarios that make sense for Amazon and Whole Foods, not the least is the fact that Whole Foods, geographically, is well positioned to serve as distribution centers for the sort of “top of the market” customers who would order groceries from Amazon.  I would love to see where Kroger thinks its market lies, but I’m going to guess that everyone in the grocery biz who is not chasing the top of the market will be in a race for the bottom of the market.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 27, 2017 at 9:27 am

PWC’s Quarterly CRE Review

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PwC’s quarterly commercial real estate review just hit my desk.  I have a particular affinity for this survey-based review — it was founded about 30 years ago by Peter Korpacz, MAI, an alumni of the Real Estate Counseling Group of America and an acquaintance of mine.  PwC took it over a few years ago, and have done wonderfully with it.

The entire report, at 106 pages, is far too robust for a simple summary.  However, a key metric is the review of capitalization rate changes by property type (e.g. — warehouse, apartments) and offices by region (e.g. — Manhattan, DC, San Francisco).  A cap rate, of course, is the ratio of a property’s net operating income to its sales price.  Declining cap rates on a broad front can indicate the onset of a recession, but differential cap rate changes (rising in one market, declining in another) may suggest differing sector views by real estate investors.  By property type, this is what we appear to have today.

For example, warehouse cap rates currently average 5.27% nationally, but this represents a decline by 10 basis points just in the 2nd quarter.  Generally, this points to a favorable view of warehouses by investors — they’re willing to pay a bit more for each dollar of prospective income.  Conversely, offices in the central business district saw increases of 13 basis points, suggesting a softening of CBD office prospects.

Across various regions of the country, offices in general (both CBD and others) showed either no change or declines in cap rates, with the biggest cap rate declines occurring in Phoenix and Philadelphia.  Only Denver and Atlanta showed increases in office cap rates.

Overall, investors expect cap rates to hold steady or increase over the coming six months.  Indeed, only among CBD offices and power centers was there any sentiment for cap rate decreases.  100% of investors expect net lease properties to show cap rate increases in the coming 6 months, which portends value softening in that property sector.

We’ve used the nasty “R” word (ahem… “recession”) on occasion here at Greenfield, and PwC seems to agree with us.  They expect that the office sector will peak by the end of this year, and a large number of metro areas are expected to move into contraction during 2018 and 2019.  They expect 61% of cities in their survey to show retail property recession by the end of this year, but with some limited exceptions (Austin and Charleston).

Industrial properties, on the other hand, should fare well, with only Houston headed for recession during 2017.  They also expect 15 other markets, including Los Angeles and Atlanta, to face industrial recession by the end of this year.  Further, a large supply of industrial property is expected to come to market during the near term, suggesting an industrial over-supply for the next four years.

One bright spot is multi-family, which continues to “benefit from the unaffordability of single family homes”.  Two markets need to play catch-up (Charlotte and Denver) but other markets should fare well, with 40% of markets headed for expansion.

Demand & Supply

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I just read a nice piece by Deloitte’s Robert T. O’Brien, their Global and U.S. Real Estate and Construction Leader, titled Commercial Real Estate Outlook 2017.  It’s far too interesting and too packed with info to summarize here, so have a glance for yourself.  However, I’ll point out a couple of things I believe stand out in his analysis.

First, homebuilders are under pressure due to what he calls the “demand-supply dichotomy.”  I’ve been concerned about this for a while.  During the recession — which admittedly was several years ago — big chunks of the housing infrastructure collapsed, including acquisition-development-construction (ADC) finance, skilled labor, permanent finance securitization, and local government permitting capabilities.  As such, we now actually have a bit of a housing shortage in hot areas (think “Seattle”).  Mr. O’Brien worries that homebuilders’ financial projections may be dampened.  I’m a bit more concerned with the upward price pressure on houses, which could put us back in a bubble situation.  Deloitte believes interest rates hikes by the FED may temper some of the demand side.

He believes private equity fundraising will decline this year, “…as managers focus on deploying existing funds.”  He believes managers will face increasing competition looking for good investments.  I would add that new managers or managers with a new story to tell will find 2017 a bit easier for fundraising than 2016.

O’Brien also sees slowing in the commercial construction arena, and so slugging financial performance for engineering and construction firms.  REITs should do well, though, albeit with continued portfolio repositioning.

Deloitte sees GDP growing about 2.5% this year and unemployment below 5%, which is in line with metrics we see here at Greenfield.  They also see several things disrupting the economy both this year and in out years.  The “collaborative economy” will certainly have implications for the way new start-ups use and lease commercial real estate.  The internet is rapidly disintermediating brokerage and leasing services, with implications for traditional brokers.  A shortage of talent in the STEM area and other shifts in the way millennials view the workplace have implications for location strategies.  Speed and mode of retail delivery — the “last mile” disruptions of Amazon — are still being sorted out.

Trump’s Tax “Reform”

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Mark Twain is usually — and incorrectly — quoted with the phrase “No man and his money are safe while Congress is in session.  (The actually quote goes to 19th century NY politico Gideon Tucker, but I digress.)  There’s little to be said, in general, about TheDonald’s proposals yesterday, simply because there’s little substance to analyze.  However, I’m old enough to remember the last tax overhaul, in the early stages of the Reagan administration, and perhaps I can offer a few observations.  I’ll limit my mental meanderings to real estate for now.

First, the Reagan tax re-hab (the 1986 Tax Act) was a disaster for real estate investing, particularly at the individual, atomistic investor level.  One of the “loopholes” to be cured was the elimination of deductibility of passive losses on real estate investments.  The real estate community reluctantly supported the tax act, in trade for increases in the deductibility of home mortgage interest and a guarantee that passive losses on then-existing real estate deals would be grandfathered.  Indeed, in the run-up to passage, there was a flurry of investing (by Main Street USA folks — the kind of folks who still, amazingly, support Trump) in just such “grandfathered” investments.  At the last minute, the grandfathering was removed, costing Main Street USA investors tons of alternative minimum tax payments on now-sour investments.  Some pundits suggest that this grandfathering-revocation, alone, led to the downfall of the Savings and Loan industry, but that excuse is a bit to simplistic.  It did, however, shut down the time share industry for a while.

Today, according to news reports, single family residences are enjoying record demand (which may or may not be good news).  The hottest market is among first-time buyers, and the demand is greatest among starter homes.  The Trump proposals would double the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly.  While, on the surface this seems like a good idea, it will drastically shrink the number of tax payers who itemize mortgage interest and property taxes.  In short, for the biggest tranche of homebuyers, the biggest differentiation between ownership and renting would be effectively removed.  As a guy who invests in rental property, that’s nice, but the home building industry won’t react well.

Otherwise, I don’t see lowering the marginal tax rate on corporations as having much of an effect on real estate investing.  For one, most of those projects are either done thru tax-advantaged REITs or thru other pass-thru entities, like partnerships and LLCs.  Even if it did, the demand / supply of investment grade real estate depends on other factors, and slight changes in the tax rate may have an impact on the debt/equity mix, but not on the aggregate output of new commercial construction.  The ONE area most affected will be low income housing, which is funding in no small part by tax credits.  The value of those credits will be slashed, requiring a complete re-thinking in the finance side of low income housing.  The last time such a tax cut went into effect, it was a real mess for low income housing.

If I was the government, and I wanted to create good paying construction jobs, I’d embark on a long-term infrastructure redevelopment plan.  That would probably require actually raising tax rates a bit, but would have marvelous returns on investment for middle America.  But that’s just me….

Thus Spoke Janet

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Yeah, who else tried to slug their way thru Thus Spoke Zarathustra back in their halcyon days?  Now that the storms of autumn breath over my career, I find the pronouncements of Janet Yellen every bit as obtuse as Nietzsche.

I’ll try to make it simple. CNBC had an excellent piece this afternoon.  If you borrow money, you’re going to pay more.  If you invest in debt instruments, you’re not going to get paid more.  Simple?

So what does this mean for real estate?  I’ll posit a few axioms.

  1.  If you have a home equity loan and a first mortgage, and you have positive equity, you need to rush to your friendly banker and refinance all that into a fixed rate loan before happy hour this evening.
  2. If you’ve been planning to buy a house with a loan (as most people do) then yesterday was the day.  Today maybe.  Tomorrow… eh…..
  3. If you can invest in rental property, look for “equity positive” locations.  These are cities with solid economics, but the cost of construction is disconnected to the local rental rates.  Existing rental houses sell for a discount to new construction.  Buy all you can grab.
  4. There are three different explanations for the shape of the yield curve — rational expectations, debt stratification, and liquidity preference.  Today, liquidity preference trumps the other three.

Written by johnkilpatrick

March 15, 2017 at 1:08 pm