From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street Journal

The long lost shopping mall?

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Common wisdom holds that the shopping mall is on life support.  I venture into maybe one or two a year, and my most recent ventures weren’t very encouraging.  Two recent Wall Street Journal articles illustrate the complexity of repurposing.

First, in a January 24th article by Ester Fung, “Mall Owners Rush to Get Out of the Mall Business”, the Journal notes that even the big-names in the biz are making use of strategic default to get rid of underwater properties.  Citing data from Morningstar, the story detailed that from January to November 314 loans secured by retail property were liquidated, totaling about $3.5 billion.  According to the story, these liquidations resulted in losses of $1.68 billion. Washington Prime, CBL and Simon have all sent properties back to lenders in recent months.  Ironically, these big players have seen no dings to their credit ratings, and the equity market in fact views these put-backs as evidence of financial discipline.  On the downside, surrounding properties, such as out-parcels and other nearby retailers, such as restaurants, that depend on spillover from the mall, are suffering from the loss of shopper attraction.

One alternative to strategic default is a revamping of the real estate itself.  This often includes attracting a new or new type of anchor tenant or demolishing the mall entirely to make way for offices or apartments.  Unfortunately, as detailed in a February 14 WSJ piece by Suzanne Kapner, existing tenants often have covenants or restrictions standing in the way of such revamping.  In “Race to Revamp Shopping Malls Takes a Nasty Turn”, Ms. Kapner outlines how many department stores want to protect existing parking or existing exclusivity through “reciprocal easement agreements”.  For example, large swaths of unused parking space have value for repositioning.  However, as Gar Herring, chief executive of the MGHerring Group, a regional mall developer, put it, “But if you want to put a snow cone shack in a parking space furthest from the mall, you need the agreement of every department-store anchor.”  Currently, for example, Sears is suing a mall developer in Florida to prevent it from adding a Dicks Sporting Goods as an anchor. Lord & Taylor filed suite in 2013 to stop a Maryland mall’s demolition to make way for offices, residential properties and a hotel.  The retailer claimed violated an agreement signed in 1975 that prevents the landlord from making changes to the property without its consent.

The shopping mall is three different things.  From a consumer perspective, it’s a place of gathering and  consumption.  Indeed, the loss of the shopping mall, which replaced Main Street, has sociological implications as well.  Does Amazon.com now become a place of gathering as well as consumption?  That’s an interesting subject for another day.  Second, from a business perspective, the mall is a bundle of contracts, and sorting through those contracts will keep lawyers and real estate experts busy for some years to come.  Finally, a shopping mall may be, in some circumstances, a valuable piece of real estate.  Repositioning that real estate, either as retail with different tenants and focus, or as something other than retail, will be an interesting story in the coming years.

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

Real Estate Marketing Focus

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I’ve observed over the years that real estate investors, developers, and such try to aim for the “middle”.  It’s a defensive strategy.  Lots of community shopping centers got built before the recession hit, not because they were hot or trendy or even hugely profitable, but because they were generally considered to be “safe”.  The same was true with single family subdivisions, all of which looked pretty much alike by 2006.  Lots of “average” apartments were built, Class B to B+ office buildings (some of which marketed themselves at Class A, but could get away with that only because of demand), and plain, vanilla warehouses were added to the real estate stock.

Now that we’re (hopefully!) coming out of a recession, it may be a good time to dust off some basic truths about business in general as it applies to real estate.  Sure, there’s a very strong temptation to rush to the middle again, and in the case of apartments (for which there is a demonstrably strong demand right now), that may not be a bad idea.  Nonetheless, I recall one of the great pieces of advice from Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: “average” firms achieve mediocre results.  The same is frequently true in real estate.

Case in point — there was a great article on page B1 of the Wall Street Journal yesterday titled “The Malaise Afflicting America’s Malls”. by WSJ’s Kris Hudson.  (There’s a link to the on-line version of the article on the WSJ Blog.)  Using Denver, Colorado, as an example, they note how the “high end” mall (Cherry Creek Shopping Center), with such tenants as Tiffany and Neiman Marcus is enjoying sales of $760/SF.  At the other end of the spectrum, Belmar and the Town Center at Aurora are suffering with $300/SF sales from lower-end tenants.  Other malls in Denver are shut-down or being demolished and redeveloped.  For SOME consumers and SOME kinds of products, in-person shopping is still the normal.  It’s hard to imagine buying a truck load of lumber from Home Depot on-line (and Home Depot has done very well the past few years), although even they have a well-functioning web presence for a variety of non-urgent, easily shipped items.

I noted recently that some private book sellers are actually doing well in this market, and have partnered with Amazon to have a global presence.  (We buy a LOT of books at Casa d’Kilpatrick, and nearly all of them come from private booksellers VIA Amazon’s web site.)  On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine buying couture fashion over the web.  Intriguingly, Blue Nile, the internet-based jeweler, notes that their web-sales sales last year (leading up to Christmas) were great at the both ends of the spectrum, but lousy in the middle.   Stores like Dollar General, who aim for a segment of the market below Wal Mart, have done quite well in this recession (the stock has nearly doubled in price in the past two years).  Ironically, Wal Mart, which is increasingly being viewed as a middle-market generalist retailer, hasn’t fared as well.  Target, which seems to aim for the middle of the middle of the middle, has seen it’s stock price flat as a pancake for the past two years, and Sears, the butt of so many Tim Allen jokes, is trading at about half of where it was two years ago.  These lessons are being lost on some retail developers, but being heeded by others.  Guess who will come out on top?

So, who needs offices, warehouses, and other commercial real estate?  Businesses at the top, middle, or bottom?  If we follow the adages of Peters and Waterman, we’ll expect the best growth — and hence the most sustained rents — at the top and bottom of the spectrum.  (Indeed, even in apartments, one might build a great case that the best demand today is at the low end and high end).  However, we’re willing to bet that developers will aim for the middle, as always.

Lehman back in the news

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This is really an update to my recent post about BofA and Sam Zell’s acquisition of Archstone (http://wp.me/pqerO-7k).  As it turns out, the remnants of Lehman had HOPED to do an IPO on Archstone, something that BofA and Barclays had opposed.  Now, with Zell’s acquisition of BofA’s share, he has both put a stake in the heart of that hope, but also set a value for the assets at about $16 Billion.  Given the convoluted ownership structure of Archstone, Zell has a veto over any of Lehman’s restructuring plans.

Elliott Brown and Robbie Whelan have a great piece on this in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal.  (http://tinyurl.com/749ffa4).  Zell wants all of Archstone, and with Equity Residential would be America’s largest apartment landlord, with stakes in more than 190,000 units.  Technically, Lehman could block Zell’s offer by coming up with the cash, and they’ve been talking with both Blackstone and Brookfield.   However, part of Lehman’s accounting was a valuation of Archstone’s management and “brand” at around $1 Billion.  With Zell already owning Equity Residential, that brand value is negligible to him.  In short, Zell is in a fairly strong bargaining position to get what he wants.

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 4, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Housing Finance — Take 2

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Again, from the Wall Street Journal, we find reasons for concern. The “Ahead of the Tape” column in today’s Journal, we find an excellent — but troubling — article by Kelly Evans titled “Economy Needs a Borrower of Last Resort.” It really follows my theme from yesterday, and I couldn’t agree more.

Graph courtesy The Wall Street Journal

The first line of the article says it all: “A lack of funds isn’t hampering the U.S. Economy right now. It is a lack of demand for them.” The FED has been pumping billions into the money supply by buying bonds from banks. In a healthy economy, this should drive up the money supply by a multiple of the face amount bought. Why? An old equation from Econ 101 called the “Velocity of Money.” When I was teaching, I explained (or tried to, for the C students) that when the FED injects money into banks, the banks loan it out. The borrowers in turn buy stuff and the money goes back into the banks, minus a little. That happens several times over. Thus, a dollar of money “injection” by the FED should usually result in at least $2 of net M2 money creation.

Imagine a dollar (or a hundred thousand dollars) injected into the system which is loaned to a family buying a new home. They pay the builder, who deposits the money in the bank (actually, paying off the construction loan) and then that money can be loaned back into the system. Some of it bleeds off into taxes, exports, and such, with each iteration of the deposit-and-loan cycle, but still, the money cycles thru the system. Since each subsequent deposit and loan doesn’t happen instantly, there is a little bit of a lag. Nonetheless, over a short period of time, the system should work. The math behind this is called the “Cambridge Velocity Equation” and it’s been known to economists for hundreds of years.

So, since November, the FED has purchased $684 Billion in bonds, which SHOULD have resulted in trillions of dollars in new money creation. Instead, M2 (the abbreviation for the money supply, defined as all of the cash, bank deposits, and money market funds in the system) has only increased by $326 Billion, suggesting that the velocity of money is about 0.5. Note that it SHOULD be 2 or 3 or more in a vibrant economy. This means that for every dollar injected into the system by the FED, half of it has dissipated.

As the article points out, this is why the recovery has remained so anemic. I would posit that a big problem is in the home loan business, which is far weaker than merely “anemic” — it’s on life support with the undertaker waiting in the lobby.

Kelly Evans posits that the market needs a lender of last resort, which is exactly what I was saying yesterday. Unless and until the system starts turning into the skid, by fixing the totally busted mortgage market, a double-dip recession seems inevitable.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Housing — and today’s WSJ

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The front page of the Wall Street Journal today is plastered with the story of the continued problems with house prices, courtesy of info from the S&P-Case Shiller Index. I’ve commented on this several times before in this blog, but it bears further investigation.


Prior post-WWII real estate recessions (if we can call them that) have been quickly self-correcting. Stagnation in house prices lead to increased investment, as buyers look for deals and bankers need to make loans. As such, real estate recessions rarely have actual price declines, but instead are marked with volume slow-downs or price stagnation.

This recession is very different. Bankers are highly reluctant to make loans, in stark contrast to prior recession-exits. Regulatory problems, lack of bank capital, a doubling of REO portfolios, lack of cash from retail buyers, and a real fear (by both bankers and buyers) that collateral values will continue to decline puts the market in a continued downward spiral. To make matters worse, since many owner/sellers (particularly the most fragile ones — in the “zero down payment” starter homes) are themselves faced with economic travail and often the need to move to find work, the potential for further foreclosures down-the-road is very real, thus further driving down prices. Add to this the fact that a very big chuck of the U.S. economy is housing-related (contractors, developers, bankers, realtors, and many other intermediaries), it’s easy to see that a sustainable jobs market is hard to envision without “fixing” the housing problem.

We can re-examine the causes of this crisis over and over, but very few analysts are focused on the cure. Pilots are taught that when airplanes stall and go into a spin or a downward spiral, after “pulling the power” the pilot has to do something that’s rather counter-intuitive: point the nose downward and actually fly INTO the stall to get out of it. It’s like steering a car INTO the skid on an icy road. It’s very counter-intuitive, but it’s necessary. (The “black box” — it’s actually orange — recently recovered from the Air France 447 crash showed that the two very junior co-pilots who were at the controls when the plane went into a stall tried to pull BACK on the stick, when they should have pushed FORWARD. If they’d thought back to “Flying 101” they might be alive today.)

The “thing missing” from today’s market is the national policy in favor of affordable housing, which was manifested through Fannie-Mae and Freddie-Mac. Pulling the plug on the secondary market (which was at the core of the housing bubble) basically took our financial markets out of the housing business. Now that the price-bubble has bursts, our financial markets need to step back up to the plate and provide some liquidity. Admittedly, a “fixed” market will need to provide better risk-measures and possibly some hedging tools, but these are details that can be worked out once we get the plane flying again. I hate to say this — I’m generally a “free-market” kinda libertarian guy — but the government will need to step up to the plate as a guarantor of last resort…. and yes, I know the U.S. government is effectively broke. However, until it gets the housing market back on its feet, it’s going to stay broke. At some point, they need to steer the car into the skid.

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Second quickie from the WSJ

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On the same page (C-1), Nick Timiraos contributes “Critical Signs in Foreclosure Talks”. This is the followup to issues I discussed a few months ago regarding the botched foreclosure processes at many banks. Regulators had hoped to put in place a far-reaching settlement, to forestall many state Attorneys General from filing state suits which would put all of this in a variety of courtrooms (probably ultimately in a multi-district litigation in the Federal Courts, and from there… no one knows…). The regulators and the AG’s are on opposite sides, although both seem to agree that the banks need to be taken out back of the woodshed and given a good spanking.

I have zero sympathy for the banks — it’s one thing to create a high-speed mortgage assembly line, but even the auto makers have figured out how to keep track of the documentation on each car they make. Bankers (and the thousands of lawyers they employ) are supposed to be good at this stuff. If they can’t keep track of a $100,000 mortgage, how exactly do they keep track of a $100 checking account balance? (They do seem to be great at keeping track of every $1 I owe on my visa card.)

However, from a market perspective, this all has extremely serious implications. As I discussed some weeks ago, if the foreclosure log-jam isn’t fixed, the home credit market won’t get fixed either. Housing starts, existing home sales, and millions of jobs depend on straightening out this problem. Hence, this is not just a trivial argument about who gets to spank the bankers.

Written by johnkilpatrick

April 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm