From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Posts Tagged ‘Real Estate Development

Corporate Investment — Much ado about…. something

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I can’t believe it’s been a month since I posted — I’ve been traveling almost constantly the past few weeks, and between that and the elections, my dance card has been fairly full.

The trigger for day’s post was an article in the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “Investment Falls off a Cliff”, with obvious homage to the impending fiscal cliff.  I don’t want to minimize the danger of the “FC”, and in fact all bets are really off if the worst case scenarios come to pass.  Here at Greenfield, we don’t really believe Congress and the White House will both fail to blink.  Nonetheless, “keeping your powder dry” is always good advise in perilous times.

I’d like to comment on two things, though.  First, while direction of corporate investment isn’t good, it’s not quite “double dipping” just yet.  Indeed, one might argue that the current downswing in investment is nothing more than seasonal backing-and-filling.

courtesy, Wall Street Journal

Note that after coming out of the recession, overall investment spending took a brief respite in early 2011, as well.  Of course, equipment and software appear to continue healthy, but structures are dragging the overall index down.  Part of this can be explained by the relaxation of the apartment construction surge that we saw over the past several quarters.  Many analysts now believe the demand-overhand in apartments is close to saturation (or at least satisfaction) and this sort of slow-down is neither unusual nor unhealthy.  Note that the NFIB optimism survey is still trending upward, although the Business Roundtable CEO survey (which surveys heads of larger firms than the NFIB does) had turned downward.  I suspect that’s a rebound effect — small businesses are still clawing their way out of the recession, and are less affected by what may happen if the FC becomes reality.  The larger firms were the first to enjoy the fruits of the recovery, and would be the worst hurt by tax increases and the FC cutbacks (particularly in defense).  Nonetheless, both of these sentiment measures are well off their 2009 bottoms.  Consumer sentiment, which ultimately drives much of this, is as good as its been since before the recession.

Second, I’m concerned about the negativity spreading to real estate.  Note that real estate investment comes in three flavors — development, capital gains, and income.  The downturn in investment has SOMEWHAT negative implications for the first.  Real estate developers will have to be more careful in a slow-down environment, but that’s been true throughout this recovery.  Financing is difficult, even in the “hot” apartment market, and so admittedly the commercial real estate developers may be in for a tough run.  (Residential development, on the other hand, is rebounding nicely.)  Capital gains is a “long game” anyway.  Certainly the tax changes which seem inevitable in 2013 and beyond have negative implications for the buy-and-sell crowd, but the returns to those who can hold thru cyclical downturns have always been healthy even after tax considerations.

Real estate income (primarily REITs) may actually be benefitted by a slight retrenchment in development.  If and as the economy continues to rebound, offices, warehouses, and shopping malls continue to fill up.  Lack of new supply (from a cyclical downturn in development) benefits the sort of existing structures which are typically part of a REIT portfolio.  As always, investors will be benefitted from looking at good managers with top-drawer properties and a history of increasing FFO.

Written by johnkilpatrick

November 21, 2012 at 10:35 am

REIT Development Pipeline

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On June 28, Fitch Rating Services issued a report on the REIT development pipeline that has generated a bit of discussion in the real estate community.  Fitch’s emphasis was on the lack of development — with some noteworthy exceptions — and how this has “not a meaningful” implication for REIT credit risk.  However, the topic is important from a fundamental perspective, and deserves a bit more discussion.

Historically, REITs weren’t in the development business.  REITs are a tax vehicle, and to maintain that status, they’re supposed to collect rents and pay 95% of those rents out to shareholders (well, that’s a gross oversimplification, but let’s go with it).  As such, REITs enjoy preferential tax status, and have usually enjoyed excellent leverage.  REITs have some significant limitations on the proportion of profits which are supposed to come from business enterprises, capital gains, and such, and can lose their preferential tax status if these other items exceed a certain threshold.

During hot and heavy times (let’s say, pre-2007), REITs are hit with a triple-whammy.  First, they depreciate existing properties, and need that depreciation to shelter income (and thus exceed the 95% threshold, which they usually do and which investors expect).  Second, they were loathe to sell fully depreciated properties in order to buy new ones, because the huge capital gains from sales would impact the preferential tax status.  Finally, developers were demanding large premiums — income producing buildings were selling for amazing multiples which barely made sense (that’s called a “bubble”, folks).

The good news for a REIT was that if they developed their own properties, the development profits could be kept in-house, and there would be no fatal tax recognitions.  Depreciation expenses stayed high, and they could thus pay-out higher and higher funds from operations to shareholders.  It was a win-win.  The only downside, of course, was that development activities were considered risky, and so the credit rating agencies kept a close eye on these practices.  However, REITs were typically less leveraged than other ownership vehicles, to the riskiness was usually minimal.

A tthe peak, in 2007, the REIT universe had an aggregate investment of 7.6% of undepreciated assets in the development pipeline, or a total of $34 Billion.  By March 31, 2012 (the cut-off for data in the Fitch report) that had collapsed to 2.7%., and indeed over a third of that is in the fundamentally sound apartment market.

Fitch summarizes the market as “fairly muted”, and says that “By and large, companies have not ramped up development pipelines,” according to Steven Marks, managing director at Fitch in a follow-up interview to Globe Street.  “It is really growth via acquisitions and organic cash flows from existing portfolios.”

The report also noted that over the past 10 years, REIT development activities have had a high correlation with U.S. GDP changes.  Thus, improvements in U.S. GDP would signal development opportunities for REITs, but continued stagnation in the U.S. GDP suggests that REITs will continue to remain quiet on the development front.

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 16, 2012 at 8:10 am