Archive for March, 2011

U.S. Census Bureau Fact or Fiction: 13 Percent Residential Vacancy Nationwide

Thanks to foreclosed homes sitting on the market and depressed sales prices and property values, it is getting harder to move homes for sale in many areas of the country. While many real estate investors are finding ways to work around this, traditional homeowners are, in many cases, giving up and moving on. As a result, last week the national vacancy rate for residential properties hit 13 percent last week – up nearly 1 percent from 2007. These numbers were reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. This means “more downward pressure on home prices,” says chief economist for Metrostudy, Brad Hunter, pessimistically, predicting that things are going to continue to get worse before they improve[1].
The vacancies are not evenly distributed, either. Maine leads the nation with 22.8 percent vacancy, but Vermont, Florida, Arizona and Alaska also have vacancy rates of 15 percent or higher. However, in many of these states second homes or vacation homes may be contributing to the appearance of high vacancy rates, and when these vacation homes are removed from the equation Florida, Arizona and Nevada top the list with vacancy rates around 10 percent.
This information was released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau last week. Many analysts complain that these types of surveys by the Census Bureau are misleading and alarmist since the studies do not distinguish between types of vacancies. “Someone is home, at least part of the year” in many of the homes that are counted vacant, points out Dan DeWitt, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times who wrote a scathing reprimand last Friday in response to these numbers, pointing out that the Census just asks participants to identify the property where they spend the most time and does not actually factor in vacation homes that are paid for and not delinquent or truly abandoned[2].
DeWitt roundly criticized reporting that “generously added to the percentage of empty houses and, well, didn’t do all they could to put the figure in perspective.” Do you think that this type of study is in any way useful to investors? Can any reporting on the housing market even be trusted?

Contributed by Bryan Ellis

Will The Recovery Will Be Bifurcated?

Big Lenders and Big Borrowers Will Be the First in Line as Credit Returns to the Economy.

These are the best of times for cash-rich borrowers and lenders, but they continue to be tough times for less well-funded borrowers and lenders. Just as the investment markets are bifurcated with top-notch properties in top-tier cities commanding escalating prices and lower tier properties and cities still fighting uphill climbs, so too does it appear that the capital markets are split between the haves and have-nots.

“There seems to be a dam that is keeping the flood of capital provided by the Federal Reserve from flowing to smaller real estate borrowers and properties,” said Chris Macke, senior real estate strategist for CoStar Group. “Expanding the recovery in commercial real estate hinges on breaking this dam.”

The split between cash-rich businesses and those in need of capital has set the stage for a bifurcated economy, with growing challenges for small- and medium-sized companies.

“Depending on where you stand, the debt maturity crunch ahead could either look like a crack in the pavement or the entrance to the Grand Canyon,” Deloitte LLP reported in a new paper this week entitled: A Tale of Two Capital Markets.

In it, lead researcher Dr. Ajit Kambil, research director, CFO Program, Deloitte United States, reported that cash is also unevenly distributed across industries, not just among companies within a particular sector. Unless the financial services industry lends or invests its cash in varied industries, companies outside of financial services could face potentially severe credit constraints.

Deloitte said the convergence of growing demand for debt with supply constraints has created a new normal in the capital markets. A more accurate descriptor would be two new normals – reflecting dramatic differences between cash-rich and cash-challenged companies. Competition for capital will most likely favor investment grade companies over non-investment grade companies as both seek to refinance debt obligations.

What is true across industries is also true within the commercial real estate industry, according to CoStar Group. Last September, CoStar’s Property & Portfolio Research (PPR) subsidiary “delved into how larger banks are much better positioned than smaller banks to “earn their way out” of the current cycle,” said Mark Fitzgerald, a CoStar debt strategist. “And as they recover, with life insurers in better shape as well, this contributes to the bifurcated market, as both of these sources of capital tend to lend on larger, coastal assets, whereas small banks are in worse shape, and this will hurt the recovery in secondary and tertiary markets.”

Since the downturn began, earnings for larger banks, while far from strong, have outperformed their smaller counterparts, CoStar reported. Perhaps the most important reason why this is so is the portfolio composition for larger institutions. The 20 largest banks hold 61% of all bank assets but are underexposed to commercial real estate loans. The bigger banks also have been more aggressive in taking write-downs.

CoStar’s Fitzgerald projected that large banks will “earn their way out” of the Recession in about two years, while regional and community banks could take two to four times as long.

As the economic recovery develops, CoStar Group projects that it will bring mixed blessings to CRE investors.

On the one hand, economic recovery enables banks to earn their way out faster, achieve better execution on poorly underwritten or nonperforming loans, and therefore sell distressed CRE assets at a faster pace.

On the other hand, such economic recovery minimizes the attractiveness of the distressed asset opportunity, as pricing is firmer and disposition of assets is likely to be at a controlled pace.

Furthermore, the modest pace at which banks return to health will minimize the amount of “fuel” (leverage) available to propel a robust rebound in asset values.

With limited leverage, borrower liquidity now also matters. And in that regard, big firms hold the edge. The 9,000 largest companies hold $9 trillion in cash reserves and that level of liquidity makes them more fundable.

An analysis of non-investment grade debt and changing credit spreads finds smaller companies are especially vulnerable to increasing spreads and volatility in credit markets. Differences in cost or difficulties in access to capital can be a key source of competitive disadvantage.

Deloitte research said that most non-investment grade debt is generally concentrated among small companies with market capitalization of less than $5 billion while larger companies’ debt is almost completely investment grade. For the most part, smaller companies tend to have lower credit ratings and company size is a key variable in credit ratings.

Deloitte research found that prior to the recession, companies in the aggregate were accumulating cash in excess of what they needed to grow. This was fortunate as many companies entered the recent recession with unprecedented amounts of cash on their balance sheets – allowing them the flexibility to navigate the worst of the credit crisis.

These cash reserves are unevenly distributed and mainly reside in the financial services industry, with about $2 trillion of cash outside financial services. Unless this cash is deployed to refinance companies, there is a potential deficit in refinancing non-financial service industry debt.

These are the best of times for cash-rich borrowers and lenders, but they continue to be tough times for less well-funded borrowers and lenders. Just as the investment markets are bifurcated with top-notch properties in top-tier cities commanding escalating prices and lower tier properties and cities still fighting uphill climbs, so too does it appear that the capital markets are split between the haves and have-nots.

“There seems to be a dam that is keeping the flood of capital provided by the Federal Reserve from flowing to smaller real estate borrowers and properties,” said Chris Macke, senior real estate strategist for CoStar Group. “Expanding the recovery in commercial real estate hinges on breaking this dam.”

The split between cash-rich businesses and those in need of capital has set the stage for a bifurcated economy, with growing challenges for small- and medium-sized companies.

“Depending on where you stand, the debt maturity crunch ahead could either look like a crack in the pavement or the entrance to the Grand Canyon,” Deloitte LLP reported in a new paper this week entitled: A Tale of Two Capital Markets.

In it, lead researcher Dr. Ajit Kambil, research director, CFO Program, Deloitte United States, reported that cash is also unevenly distributed across industries, not just among companies within a particular sector. Unless the financial services industry lends or invests its cash in varied industries, companies outside of financial services could face potentially severe credit constraints.

Deloitte said the convergence of growing demand for debt with supply constraints has created a new normal in the capital markets. A more accurate descriptor would be two new normals – reflecting dramatic differences between cash-rich and cash-challenged companies. Competition for capital will most likely favor investment grade companies over non-investment grade companies as both seek to refinance debt obligations.

What is true across industries is also true within the commercial real estate industry, according to CoStar Group. Last September, CoStar’s Property & Portfolio Research (PPR) subsidiary “delved into how larger banks are much better positioned than smaller banks to “earn their way out” of the current cycle,” said Mark Fitzgerald, a CoStar debt strategist. “And as they recover, with life insurers in better shape as well, this contributes to the bifurcated market, as both of these sources of capital tend to lend on larger, coastal assets, whereas small banks are in worse shape, and this will hurt the recovery in secondary and tertiary markets.”

Since the downturn began, earnings for larger banks, while far from strong, have outperformed their smaller counterparts, CoStar reported. Perhaps the most important reason why this is so is the portfolio composition for larger institutions. The 20 largest banks hold 61% of all bank assets but are underexposed to commercial real estate loans. The bigger banks also have been more aggressive in taking write-downs.

CoStar’s Fitzgerald projected that large banks will “earn their way out” of the Recession in about two years, while regional and community banks could take two to four times as long.

As the economic recovery develops, CoStar Group projects that it will bring mixed blessings to CRE investors.

On the one hand, economic recovery enables banks to earn their way out faster, achieve better execution on poorly underwritten or nonperforming loans, and therefore sell distressed CRE assets at a faster pace.

On the other hand, such economic recovery minimizes the attractiveness of the distressed asset opportunity, as pricing is firmer and disposition of assets is likely to be at a controlled pace.

Furthermore, the modest pace at which banks return to health will minimize the amount of “fuel” (leverage) available to propel a robust rebound in asset values.

With limited leverage, borrower liquidity now also matters. And in that regard, big firms hold the edge. The 9,000 largest companies hold $9 trillion in cash reserves and that level of liquidity makes them more fundable.

An analysis of non-investment grade debt and changing credit spreads finds smaller companies are especially vulnerable to increasing spreads and volatility in credit markets. Differences in cost or difficulties in access to capital can be a key source of competitive disadvantage.

Deloitte research said that most non-investment grade debt is generally concentrated among small companies with market capitalization of less than $5 billion while larger companies’ debt is almost completely investment grade. For the most part, smaller companies tend to have lower credit ratings and company size is a key variable in credit ratings.

Deloitte research found that prior to the recession, companies in the aggregate were accumulating cash in excess of what they needed to grow. This was fortunate as many companies entered the recent recession with unprecedented amounts of cash on their balance sheets – allowing them the flexibility to navigate the worst of the credit crisis.

These cash reserves are unevenly distributed and mainly reside in the financial services industry, with about $2 trillion of cash outside financial services. Unless this cash is deployed to refinance companies, there is a potential deficit in refinancing non-financial service industry debt.

Contributed
By Mark Heschmeyer

Is now the best time to buy Real Estate?

As any observer of the real estate market knows, property pricing remains in the dumps with most sales being either short sales or foreclosures and REO’s. While the economy in general appears to be recovering, real estate has been lagging behind. 2011 is projected to see increasing foreclosures as lenders clean-out their backlog of defaulted loans. Meanwhile, we’re just starting into dealing with upside down commercial properties. For this reason, many economists project we won’t really turn the corner on real estate recovery until 2014 at the earliest. So why might this be the best time to buy?

4 Top Reasons

1. Properties are undervalued – As reported in DSNews.com, based on the latest Case-Shiller

home price index, a study by Capital Economics shows that in the fourth quarter of 2010, housing was 21 percent undervalued when compared with disposable income per capital. Looking at data included in the index published by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the firm found that housing in Q4 was 15 percent undervalued as measured against individuals’ disposable income. Capital Economics says its results illustrate “housing is exceptionally undervalued,” and the gap is getting bigger. In its third quarter 2010 report, the research firm pegged the Case-Shiller index readings as 19 percent undervalued and the FHFA index as 14 percent below what would constitute a balanced housing value in relation to income. This downward pressure on prices will continue as the foreclosures clear out, opening the gap even further.

2. Financing Remains Very Affordable – On top of low prices, mortgage rates have fallen back a bit in recent weeks, leaving them even further below the 20-year average of 7 percent. Last week marked the third consecutive week that rates have continued to decline. A national survey conducted by Freddie Mac shows that the average 30-year fixed-rate has dropped to 4.87 percent, while the 15-year fixed-rate has slipped to 4.15 percent. When you wrap declining home prices and historically low mortgage rates together, Capital Economics says, “The incredibly favorable affordability and valuation environment is the housing market’s one big positive.”

3. Government Financial Support May be Ending – As my readers know, the future of FNMA

and Freddie Mac is in jeopardy. These Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSE’s) were originally created to provide a funding source for socially desirable but higher risk loans. When started, GSE’s provided funds for 30% of all loans. Today, that number is 90% and steps are being taken in Congress to get government out of the lending business or at least scale it back. Last week, Freddie Mac published a Memo that starting June 1st, they will no longer purchase loans with loan-to-value ratios of less than 5%. As these GSE’s retract from the marketplace, interest rates and down-payment requirements are likely to rise making home ownership less achievable.

4. Buy to Own or Invest, not to Flip – While there will always be opportunities for the

knowledgeable and diligent to make money flipping properties, declining prices and increasing loan costs will shrink the profit margins available as flippers find it harder to re-sell. In contrast, those who buy for their home or for rental investment will benefit from:
1) locking in the profit margin between current prices and actual value; and
2) potentially higher rental values as the ranks of renters swell with people who cannot obtain a loan to buy their own home.

All of the above factors indicate that right now may be the ideal time to buy real estate, not for quick profit but for the long-term stability and financial growth that real estate has historically provided as a part of your overall financial plans.

Contributed by:

Steve Beede
BPE Law Group