Housing: Green Shoots Turning to Golden Trunks?

August 31, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

Tree Trunk

The doom and gloomers say the “green shoots” are actually “yellow weeds” and turn a blind eye to the positive (or less negative) economic data. The unemployment rate declined marginally last month to 9.4%, and GDP rates are expected to turn positive in the current quarter. Even so, the nay-sayers like Nouriel Roubini, Marc Faber, and Nassim Taleb still believe worse days lie ahead. Recent comments from a steely industry veteran may point to maturing “golden trunks” rather than younger, greener varieties.

Normally I do not expend too much energy on a single quarter of data relating to a stock I do not own, however comments coming from Bob Toll, founding CEO of Toll Brothers Inc. (dating back to 1967) caught my fancy. Besides the invaluable perspective he provides on the industry, he is in the unique position to explain the spending dynamics covering the higher-end demographic area. Toll Brothers is the largest luxury home builder in the U.S., operating in 21 states spanning the North, South, Mid-Atlantic, and West regions.

Although counterintuitive to many of the current news headlines, here is what Mr. Toll had to regarding Tolls’ recent quarterly earnings data and the state of the U.S. housing market:

• “Although our industry continues to face significant challenges, we are encouraged by the increase in number of net contracts signed this quarter. This marks the first time in sixteen quarters (4 years) dating back to fiscal year ’05’s fourth quarter that our net contracts exceeded the prior year same quarter. (The Results) also marked the first quarterly sequential unit increase in our backlog in more than three years.”

• “Price is no longer the overwhelmingly dominant factor. It appears that those taking this step today have more confidence than one year ago.”

• “As the supply of unsold housing inventory shrinks nationwide, and if consumer confidence continues to improve, we should see stronger demands. It has already positively impacted our pricing power as we are reducing incentives in many markets.”

• “Fiscal year ’09’s third quarter cancellation rate, current quarter cancellations divided by current quarter’s signed contracts, was 8.5% versus 19.4% in fiscal year ’08’s third quarter. This was our lowest cancellation rate since the second quarter of fiscal year ’06 and is approaching our historic average of approximately 7% since going public.”

• “There’s a better feeling about jobs, a better feeling about the economy. Six months ago …we were all scared that the end was near…So I think we’ve just got a better market now and if things continue to improve, I think the market will continue to improve.”

• “(Traffic data) is certainly more than anecdotal information. You’re getting these averages from 235 approximately communities, 250 communities, so that’s a pretty good indicator of where the market is right now.”

• “The number of weeks of improvement that we have had as I said in the monologue, are certainly more than anecdotal. You’re talking about a whole lot of communities in 40, 50 markets and 20, 22 states. So we’re getting pretty deep information.”

 

Certainly Mr. Toll’s responses should be taken with a grain of salt. CEOs comments are generally overoptimistic and the economy is clearly not out of the woods yet. Having said that, for those that have followed Mr. Toll’s comments over the last few years, know that he did not always sugar-coat the weak results on the way down. Just six months ago, Mr. Toll said this: “We have not yet seen a pickup in activity at our communities,” and to combat pricing pressures the company offered a multitude of promotions, including a 3.99% mortgage rate to buyers.

The sustainability of the positive housing trends is unclear, but the signs are encouraging – especially since government stimulus cannot be directly responsible (i.e., no $8,000 new home-buyer credits for homes in the $700,000 price range) for awaking the housing bear from a four-year hibernation. The passage of time will determine whether Toll’s improving assessment of housing fundamentals will deteriorate into “yellow weeds” or flourish into a “golden trunk.”

Watch Extended Interview of CEO Bob Toll (Post Q3 2009 Conference Call)

Sidoxia Capital Management and its clients did not have any position in TOL at the time the article was published. No information accessed through the “Investing Caffeine” website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision.

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