Posts tagged ‘real estate’

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX).  Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold.  With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.

Seesaw Success

While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.

 

While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD,  or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Getting Distressed can be a Beach

It was just another 65 degree winter day on the sunny shores of Huntington Beach at the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit (March 1st through 3rd) when I entered the conference premises. Before digging into the minutiae of the distressed markets, a broad set of industry experts spoke to a diverse crowd including, pension fund managers, consultants, and hedge fund managers at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. The tone was somewhat restrained given the gargantuan price rebounds and tightening spreads (the premium paid on credit instruments above government securities) in the credit markets, nonetheless the tenor was fairly upbeat thanks to opportunities emanating from the still larger than average historical spreads.

Topics varied, but several speakers gave their views on the financial crisis, macroeconomic outlooks, general debt/credit trends, and areas of distressed credit opportunity. Like investors across all asset classes, many professionals tried to put the puzzle pieces together over the last few years, in order to provide a clearer outlook for the future of distressed markets. To put the addressable market in context, James Perry, Conference Chair and Investment Officer at the San Bernadino County Employees Retirement Association, described the opportunity set as a $2.5 trillion non-investment grade market, with $250-$400 billion in less liquid securities. Typically distressed securities consist of investments like bonds, bank debt, and/or CLOs (collateralized loan obligations), which frequently carry CCC or lower ratings from agencies such as Standard & Poors, Moodys, and Fitch.

As mentioned previously, since the audience came from a diverse set of constituencies, a broad set of topics and themes were presented:

  • Beta Bounce is Gone:  The collapse of debt prices and massive widening of debt spreads in 2008 and 2009 have improved dramatically over the last twelve months, meaning the low hanging fruit has already been picked for the most part. Last year was the finest hour for distressed investors because price dislocations caused by factors such as forced selling, technical idiosyncracies, and credit downgrades created a large host of compelling prospects. For many companies, long-term business fundamentals were little changed by the liquidity crunch. As anecdotal evidence for the death of the beta bounce, one speaker observed CLOs  trading at  30-35 cents during the March 2009 lows. Those same CLOs are now trading at about 80 cents. Simple math tells us, by definition, there is less upside to par (the bond principal value = 100 cents on dollar).
  • Distressed Defaults: Default rates are expected to rise in the coming months and years because of record credit issuance in the 2006-2007 timeframe. The glut of questionable buy-outs completed at the peak of the financial markets driven by private equity and other entities has created a sizeable inventory of debt that has a higher than average chance of becoming distressed. One panel member explained that CCC credit ratings experience a 40% default within 5 years, meaning the worst is ahead of us. The artificially depressed 4-7% current default rates are now expected to rise, but below the 12% default rate encountered in 2009.
  • Wall of Maturities:  Although the outlook for distressed investments look pretty attractive for the next few years, a majority of professionals speaking on the topic felt a wave of $1 trillion in maturities would roll through the market in the 2012-2014, leading to the escalating default rates mentioned above. CLOs related to many of the previously mentioned ill-timed buyouts will be a significant component of the pending debt wall. Whether the banks will bite the bullet and allow borrowers to extend maturities is still an  open topic of debate.
  • Mid Market Sweet Spot: Larger profitable companies are having little trouble tapping the financial markets to access capital at reasonable rates. With limited capital made available for middle market companies, there are plenty of opportunistic investments to sift through. With the banks generally hoarding capital and not lending, distressed debt investments are currently offering yields in the mid-to-high teens. Borrowers are effectively beggars, so they cannot be choosers. The investor, on the other hand, is currently in a much stronger position to negotiate first lien secured positions on the debt, which allows a “Plan B,” if the underlying company defaults. Theoretically, investors defaulting into an ownership position can potentially generate higher returns due forced restructuring and management of company operations. Of course, managing the day-to-day operations of many companies is much easier said than done.
  • Is Diversification Dead? This question is relevant to all investors but was primarily directed at the fiduciaries responsible for managing and overseeing pension funds. The simultaneous collapse of prices across asset classes during the financial crisis has professionals in a tizzy. Several diversification attacks were directed at David Swensen’s strategy (see Super Swensen article) implemented at Yale’s endowment. Although Swensen’s approach covered a broad swath of alternative investments, the strategy was attacked as merely diversified across illiquid equity asset classes – not a good place to be at the beginning of 2008 and 2009. The basic rebuttal to the “diversification is dead mantra” came in the form of a rhetorical question: “What better alternative is there to diversification?” One other participant was quick to point out that asset allocation drives 85% of portfolio performance.
  • Transparency & Regulation:  In a post-Bernie Madoff world, even attending hedge fund managers conceded a certain amount of adequate transparency is necessary to make informed decisions. Understanding the strategy and where the returns are coming from is critical component of hiring and maintaining an investment manager.  
  • Distressed Real Estate Mixed Bag:   Surprisingly, the prices and cap rates (see my article on real estate and stocks) on quality properties has not dramatically changed from a few years ago, meaning some areas of the real estate market appear to be less appealing . Better opportunities are generally more tenant specific and require a healthy dosage of creativity to make the deal economics work. Adjunct professor from Columbia University, Michael G. Clark, had a sobering view with respect to the residential real estate market home ownership rates, which he continues to see declining from a peak of 70% to 62% (currently 67%) over time. Clark sees a slow digestion process occurring in the housing market as banks use improved profits to shore up reserves and slowly bleed off toxic assets.  He believes job security/mobility, financing, and immigration demographics are a few reasons we will witness a large increase in renters in coming periods. Also driving home ownership down is the increased density of youngsters living at home post-graduation. Clark pointed out the 20% of 26-year olds currently living at home with their parents, a marked increase from times past.

Overall, I found the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit a very informative event, especially from an equity investor’s standpoint, since many stock jocks spend very little time exploring this part of the capital structure. Devoting a few days at the IMN sponsored event taught me that life does not have to be a beach if you mix some distress with a little sun, sand, and fun.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

March 3, 2010 at 2:14 am 3 comments

Metrics Mix-Up: Stocks and Real Estate Valuation

When it comes to making money, investors choose from a broad menu of investment categories, ranging all the way from baseball cards and wines to collectible cars and art. Two of the larger and more popular investment categories are stocks and real estate. Unfortunately for those poor souls (such as me) analyzing these two classes of assets, the stock and real estate investor bigwigs have not come together to create an integrated metric system. Much the same way the United States has chosen to go it alone on a proprietary customary unit measurement system with Burma and Liberia – choosing inches and feet over centimeters and meters. On the subject of stock and real estate valuation, investors and industry professionals have been stubbornly defiant in designing unique and cryptic terminology, despite sharing the exact same financial principles.

Who Cares About Real Estate?

Well, apparently everyone. Southern California doesn’t have a monopoly on real estate, but through my practice in Orange County, I find it difficult to not trip over real estate investors on a daily basis. I work in effectively what was “ground zero” of the subprime debacle and the commercial real estate pains continue to ripple through “the OC.”

Ramping up the real estate learning curve reminds me of my high school Spanish class – I understood enough Spanish to work my way through a Taco Bell menu but little else. In order to actually learn Spanish I had to completely immerse myself in the language, even if it meant continually speaking to my classmates in Spanish through my alias (Paco).

Real Estate Foundational Terms

Despite being a relative new resident in the Orange County area, engrossing myself in real estate hasn’t been much of a challenge. Over a brief period, my interactions and conversations taught me my financial degrees and credentials were just as applicable in the realty world as they were in the stock market world. While evaluating real estate valuation techniques, I discovered two new key terms:

1)      NOI (Net Operating Income): Unlike stock analysis, which uses “Net Income” as a core driver in determining an asset’s value, real estate relies on NOI. Net operating income is generally derived by calculating income before depreciation and interest expense. In finance, there are many versions of income. I’m sure there are more explanations, but two reasons behind the selection of NOI in real estate valuation over other metrics is due to the following: a) NOI may be used as a proxy for cash flow, which can be integral in many valuation techniques; and b) NOI is “capital structure neutral” if comparing multiple properties. Therefore, NOI allows an investor to compare varying properties on an apples-to-apples basis regardless of whether a property is massively leveraged or debt-free.

2)      Cap Rate (Capitalization Rate): This ratio is computed by taking the NOI and dividing it by a property’s initial cost (or value). In stock market language, you can think of a “cap rate” as an inverted P/E (Price – Earnings) ratio – an inverted P/E ratio has also been called the “earnings yield.” Complicating terminology matters is the interchangeable use of income and earnings in the investment world. In the case of the P/E ratio, the denominator generally used is “Net Income.”

A shortcoming to the cap rate ratio, in my view, is the failure to deduct taxes. Although comparability across properties may get muddied, if determining profit availability to investors is the main goal, then I think an adjusted NOI (subtracting taxes) would be a more useful proxy for valuation purposes. Tax benefits associated with REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) complicates the metric usage issue further.

The simplistic beauty of marrying NOI and a cap rate is that a crude valuation estimate can be constructed by merely blending these two metrics together. For example, a commercial real estate property generating $500,000 in NOI that applies a 5% cap rate to the property can arrive at a valuation estimate of $10,000,000 ($500,000/.05).

Similarities between Stocks & Real Estate

At the end of the day, the theoretical value of ANY asset can be calculated by taking the projected after-tax cash flows and discounting that stream back into today’s dollars – whether we are talking about a stock, bond, derivative, real estate property, or other asset. Both stock and real estate analysis use readily available income numbers and price ratios to estimate cash flows and valuations. Regrettably, since real estate and equity investors generally play in different leagues, the rules and language are different.

The lingo used for analyzing separate asset classes may be unique, but the math and fundamental examination are the same. The formula for learning real estate is similar to that of Spanish – you need to dive in and immerse yourself into the new language. If you don’t believe me, just ask Paco.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in YUM or any other security mentioned. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 27, 2010 at 1:34 am 3 comments

John Paulson and the “Gutsiest” Trade Ever

Although the pain and suffering of the 2008-09 financial crisis has been well documented and new books are continually coming out in droves, less covered are the winners who made a bonanza by predicting the collapse of the real estate and credit markets. Prizewinning Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman decided to record the fortunes made by hedge fund manager John Paulson in his book The Greatest Trade Ever (The Behind-the-Scenes story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History).

Paulson’s Cartoonish Cut

Zuckerman puts Paulson’s massive gains into perspective:

“Paulson’s winnings were so enormous they seemed unreal, even cartoonish. His firm, Paulson & Co., made $15 billion in 2007, a figure that topped the gross domestic products of Bolivia, Honduras, and  Paraguay…Paulson’s personal cut was nearly $4 billion…more than the earnings of J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods put together.”

 

As impressive as those gains were, Paulson added another $5 billion into his firm’s coffers and $2 billion into his personal wallet over 2008 and early 2009. 

There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are countless strategies used by the thousands of hedge fund managers looking to hit the jackpot like Paulson. John Paulson primarily made his multi-billion fortune thanks to his CDS positions (Credit Default Swaps), the same product that led to massive multi-billion bailouts and government support for various financial institutions.

Bigger Gamble than Perception

One surprising aspect I discovered from reading the book was the uncertainty surrounding Paulson’s negative real estate trade. Here’s how Zuckerman described the conviction level of John Paulson and Paolo Pelligrini (colleague) as it related to their CDS positions on subprime CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) debt:

“In truth, Paulson and Pellegrini still were unsure if their growing trade would ever pan out. They thought the CDOs and other risky mortgage debt would become worthless, Paulson says. ‘But we still didn’t know.’”

 

Often the trades that cause you to sweat the most tend to be the most profitable, and in this case, apparently the same principle held.

Disingenuous Dramatic License

Before Paulson made his billions, Zuckerman uses a little dramatic license in the book to characterize Paulson as a small fry manager, “Paulson now managed $1.5 billion, a figure that sounded like a lot to friends outside the business. But the firm was dwarfed by its many rivals.” Zuckerman goes on to call Paulson’s hedge fund “small potatoes.” I don’t have the industry statistics at my fingertips, but I’ll go out on a limb and make an educated guess that a $1.5 billion hedge fund has significantly more assets than the vast majority of hedge fund peers. Under the 2 and 20 model, I’m guessing the management fee alone of $30 million could cover Paulson’s food and shelter expenses. Before he struck the payload, the book also references the $100 million of his personal wealth he invested with the firm. I think John Paulson was doing just fine before he executed the “greatest trade.”

What Drove the Greatest Trade

Hind sight is always 20/20, but looking back, there was ample evidence of the real estate bubble forming. Fortunately for Paulson, he got the timing generally right too. Here are some of the factors leading to the great trade:

  • CDO Leverage in Subprime: By the end of 2006, the subprime loan market was relatively large at around $1.2 trillion (representing around 10% of the overall mortgage market). But thanks to the introduction of CDOs, there were more than $5 trillion of risky investments created from all the risky subprime loans.
  • Liars & Ninjas: “Liar Loans” loans based on stated income (using the honor system) and “ninja loans” (no income, no job, no assets) gained popularity and prevalence, which just led to more defaults and foreclosures in the mid-2000s.
  • No Down Payments: What’s more, by 2005, 24% of all mortgages were completed with no down payment, up from approximately 3% in 2001. The percentage of first-time home buyers with no down payment was even higher at 43%.

Overall, I give kudos to Gregory Zuckerman, who spent more than 50 hours with John Paulson, for bringing something so abstract and homogenous (a skeptical real estate trade) to life. Zuckerman does a superb job of adding spice to the Paulson story by introducing other narratives and characters, even if the story lines don’t blend together perfectly. After reading The Greatest Trade Ever I came away with a new found respect for Paulson’s multi-billion dollar gutsy trade. Now, Paulson has reloaded his gun and is targeting the U.S. dollar. If Paulson’s short dollar and long gold position works out, I’ll keep an eye out for his next book…The Greatest Trad-er Ever.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VNQ), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in companies mentioned. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm 8 comments

Housing: Green Shoots Turning to Golden Trunks?

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.

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

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