DiMartino Booth, Big Boys, CRE, Money Strong, Fed Up

The Big Boys of Summer

Do you feel it in the air? Is summer out of reach?

Many of us came of age, or thought we did, the first time we heard Don Henley’s mega-hit The Boys of Summer, released in October 1984. But can a song be reincarnated to mean even more? Can one brush with destiny change everything? This week more than any other, it’s right and true to look back and answer that question in the affirmative.

For those of us in New York 16 years ago, September 12th and 13th stretched on for many more than the 24 hours the clock conveyed. It wasn’t until the early morning hours of the 14th, when Dick Grasso announced the New York Stock Exchange would remain closed through the weekend, that many of us were released, on many levels. Walking the beach that weekend, looking for signs in the sand, Henley’s mournful song stopped me in my tracks. “Those days are gone forever” forever took on new meaning.

An old friend dropped me a line recently. His none-too-subtle message reminded me yet again of Henley’s song, but in yet a different way. It would appear the innocent boys of summer have departed the investing world as well, leaving in their stead conditions in which only “big boys” should engage, his words. Though this market veteran has been around long enough to know most asset classes are vulnerable, the article he shared spoke specifically to tail risks building in ccommercial real estate  (CRE), which we’ll get to in relatively short order.

Longtime readers of these weeklies know the two asset classes I foresee investors will grapple with the most in the next recession are high grade corporate bonds and apartments. The math and logic backing this warning are simple as they most resemble that which supported the explosion of subprime mortgage issuance during its heyday. Accept credit quality as a given, so long as it brandishes an investment grade rating, and green light record levels of issuance at just about any price. No, this will not end well.

But what about other CRE subsectors? After all, rent declines throughout the three most recent recessions were the deepest in office and industrial markets. Multifamily, meanwhile, was the least distressed sector. Retail is a unique case in point:  rent declines were near nonexistent during the 2001 recession, but worse than office and on par with industrials during the Great Recession thanks to pricing pressures accelerating the rise of ecommerce.

Since then, things have gotten mighty interesting in what has, by all accounts, been the lesser manipulated of the two types of domestic real estate markets. Hint: it isn’t housing. The Federal Reserve’s misguided policies and interest rate suppression tactics are manifest in residential real estate, where Morgan Stanley figures prices have recovered 90 percent of their peak-to-trough values (‘Peak’ is defined as 2007-2008 highs, while ‘trough’ reflects 2009-2010 lows).

As for CRE, it’s recouped nearly double that of residential – peak-to-trough prices are up 168 percent. Critically, these are the ‘headline’ figures that catalyze concerns among the superficialists. But it’s the subsectors that serve up the real smokin’ hot spice factor. A quick perusal of the nearby table highlights how haywire things have become in multifamily, which we already know, and about which you should consider yourself amply forewarned.

But look just beneath manic multifamily and you see that in any other world, what’s happened in major market and central business district (CBD) office properties would be garnering plenty of angst if not for apartments hogging the overvaluation limelight. And that’s purely through the prism of price behavior.

Factor in what’s driven those price gains and you really start to get worried. We’re talking the zero interest rate policy that the Fed has facilitated. At the extreme, we’re talking about $60 billion in 2015 CRE sales…in Manhattan alone, a record high and 14 percent above 2007’s prior peak.

Lending standards, of course, played their part and dutifully tanked, hitting their most lenient laxity in mid-2015. Foreign investors, in this cycle more than any predecessor, clocked record transaction volumes, which topped out at 18 percent in late 2015.

This highly favorable dynamic was most visible in capitalization, or cap rates, which is the net operating income of any given property divided by its price. The less in the way of income a buyer is willing to accept for a given price, the lower the cap rate. In 2015, cap rates sank to lower levels than they did at their 2007 lows. Valuations were, in other words, at unprecedented peaks, with the key word being ‘were.’

Since peaking, quarterly transaction volumes have slumped to around $100 billion from late 2015’s briskest pace, when sales hit $160 billion. In the meantime, standards have tightened for eight consecutive quarters and foreign investors’ share of transaction volumes has declined to 13 percent. And finally, as has been broadcast widely, the Fed has been in a tightening mode.

What happens when the favorable dynamic that drove cap rates into the ground reverses? The only answer is rents will have to increase to justify keeping cap rates down.

Some caveats to the caveats. Financial conditions are actually easing as sabre rattling, DC stagnation and Mother Nature collude to suppress interest rates. And while sales volumes are well off their peaks, they did recover somewhat in the second quarter and are down just five percent over 2016 levels.

It should be added that Chinese investors would rather have their cash escape to our fair shores; they just can’t get past the state-imposed controls put in place to staunch capital flight. The Saudis and other crude-export-dependent countries would also prefer to have the resources to keep investing were it not for that sticking point of the lowly price of that sticky fluid they pump out of the ground. In all, Middle Eastern investment is down 73 percent over last year; Saudi investment in particular has crashed by 96 percent.

And so, you have sellers thinking their still- nosebleed prices could be validated and buyers thinking recent trends will deteriorate further and thus refusing to budge. That brings us to where we are today – a virtual standoff.

To bring the extreme back into the picture to prove a point, CRE volumes in Manhattan are expected to end the year at $19.8 billion, matching levels last seen in the dark year of 2008. Not surprisingly, expectations for commercial leasing and the future rental market in New York both hit four year-lows in the second quarter.

The good news is the froth coming out of the market should reintroduce rationale among owners. Let’s just say that’s not exactly how the outcome appears to be evolving, which brings us to that article referenced at the outset, the one that disturbed and inspired at the same time.

The Bloomberg article is easy enough to Google, which you should: “NYC Landlords That Can’t Find Buyers Turn to Borrowing Instead.”

The gist of it speaks to the intersection of easy financial conditions not being reflective of the Fed being in a tightening mode, which actually speaks to the disconnect plaguing many asset classes. As it pertains specifically to CRE, think in terms of how cash-out refinancings increased investor losses in securities backed by subprime mortgages way back when.

Recall it wasn’t until John Thain attached a price tag of 22-cents-on-the-dollar to Mother Merrill’s subprime book that anyone truly knew the Street value of the toxic waste. Though things are certainly not nearly so bad, it is the spirit of owners’ behavior that resonates.

This from Bloomberg, per CBRE: “In a building where building sales are few and far between, it can be challenging to find a comparable transaction to get a reading on prices for an appraisal. There are other ways to calculate a property’s value, but it’s impossible to account for changes on a real-time basis.” (Let their painfully diplomatic wording plant its own seed next time you’re contemplating going long or short CRE on a macro level.)

Pardon the digression. Back to the matter at hand of what exactly entrapped owners should do? Why not seek out buyers for your property and simultaneously take out a mortgage on the property. That way you’re effectively refinancing at an inflated value, what my old friend who’d just as well stay in the private domain for, like, ever, terms the “perfect crime in CRE,” assuming you’ve cordoned said property into its own little LLC.

“If things go well, the property value goes up, no harm, no foul,” he observed. “If the market tanks, you hand the keys to the lender, but you still have the cash from the recapitalization.”

Let’s be clear, we’re not talking traditional lenders here. Indeed, second quarter originations fell two percent for life insurers and a steep 21 percent for commercial banks. The flip side is they rose by 26 percent for government sponsored enterprises and an eye-watering 126 percent for commercial mortgage backed securities.

For the record, retail was the only sector to see a decline in quarterly originations, so that’s something. As for multifamily, Morgan Stanley warns that, “investors are more willing to purchase and lenders more willing to finance, resulting in less deleveraging.” Cue the understatement considering the Bloomberg story referred specifically to apartment landlords though the cash-out contagion is sure to spread to other overvalued sectors by yesterday.

Notably, the Morgan Stanley data did not elaborate on the behavior of the most go-go cowboys in the land of lending, that is, private equity (PE). Disregard for a moment, as difficult as it is, the near trillion-dollar pile of dry powder PE sits atop. Ruminate rather on the quarter of that pile earmarked for real estate, some $255 billion, a record if there ever was one.

The beat looks set to go on and on. According to Canaccord Genuity’s Brian Reynolds, in the five-week period through mid-August, pensions directed an incremental $9 billion into some form of private equity fund. A few tasty offerings illustrate a particular penchant for that hard asset which, by the way, has become one of retirees’ most crowded trades, as you, but not they, can see:

  •   Boca Raton Police and Fire Pension allocated $10 million into distressed real estate fund
  •   Vermont state pension $30 million into value-added real estate fund
  •   Illinois Municipal Pension put $75 million into a value-added real estate fund
  •   Wisconsin state pension sank $395 million into real estate funds
  •   Kansas Public Employees’ Pension allocated $50 million to a real estate fund

And that’s just pensions. All manner of investors continue to herd into the divine diversification on offer with PE funds. As for the founders of PE funds, they’re taking buyouts and getting the heck out, at least according to the Wall Street Journal. Lovely.

“A majority of aggressive CRE recap deals are with real estate funds chasing yield,” my friend further added. “Banks can’t touch their rate and terms, so big boy rules apply.” Lovelier.

In the event you think some egregious omission has taken place, safe assured, the $300 billion in hurricane damages will indeed make a different kind of impact. But no one is sure how prominent that role will be just yet.

What can be said of Houston in particular is nearly a fifth of office space in the city stood vacant as of June while 11 million square feet were free for sublease pre-Harvey, the most since at least 1998. Oh, and the vintage of loans with the greatest exposure? That would be 2015.  For any of you vultures out there, can you please get back to me with a stronger word than ‘emptor’ to put after ‘Caveat ______” before you go off half-cocked?

In the meantime, this chart from Hoya Capital Real Estate highlights office real estate investment trusts (REITs) that have largely been given a pass vis-à-vis their brethren in the battered retail (mall) and massed multifamily spaces. You’ll note one REIT found its niche in low quality properties in Houston.



Don Henley’s song reminds us that we can never look back. Perhaps it’s best to then look forward, knowing that time as we know it often compresses and that any summer can come to an abrupt end. With any luck, unforeseen events make us stronger in the end. As investors, the best we can do is be positioned for the likely and unlikely outcomes, those that arrive after even the big boys of summer have gone.


The Italian Job

The Italian Job

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

That one line, spoken on the big screen by Michael Caine was crowned, according to a 2003 Daily Telegraph survey, Britain’s favorite one-liner of film. That kind of staying power is remarkable considering The Italian Job, the original that is, was released in 1969, two years before Mark Wahlberg, who portrayed Caine’s character, Charlie Croker, in the movie’s 2003 remake, made his 1971 debut.

As for the film’s American version and one-liners, the crown for favorite was won when Charlie’s 2003 on-screen nemesis Steve taunted: “You blew the best thing you had going for you. You blew the element of surprise.” Charlie’s reaction? A knock-out punch followed seamlessly by the understated comeback, “Surprised?”

The element of surprise was on full display in the hours and days that followed Britain’s voters’ decisive move to Leave the EU. The Brexit referendum succeeded in blowing off a different set of doors, leaving taunting politicians and policymakers alike flat-footed, with a whole new fear, that of contagion, beginning to the south in Italy. Might the Italians pull of a Job of their own, following Great Britain’s lead in stealing back their own country?

The hope, stated diplomatically by Gluskin Sheff’s inimitable David Rosenberg, a dear friend, is that Brexit will prove to be a, “wakeup call for the long-awaited fundamental changes with regards to the EU – make it more democratic and make it less bureaucratic and embark on immigration rules that do not sacrifice regional security.”

Rosenberg’s concerns on security are more than justified in the case of Italy. According to the Italian Coast Guards’ latest tally, the 3,324 migrants rescued June 26 brought the total rescued in just four days to 10,000. Four days! Calm seas have triggered fresh waves of migrants, bringing the total thus far this year to 66,000. The forecast calls for 10,000 more to arrive every week until year’s end. Some 300,000 in total for 2016. The ease with which migrants can cross the seas to Italy means that country takes in 13 to 14 times more than Turkey and Greece. Is it any wonder Italians are exhausted?

At a Brussels Summit, EU leaders were urged to “speed up and increase” the return of migrants deemed to not be bona-fide refugees. In actuality, many making the crossing are simply looking for economic opportunity rather than escaping any real danger. Estimates vary, but only between six and 19 percent of those ordered back to their home countries actually leave. It is patently apparent that the EU does not have sufficient measures in place to combat the problem on behalf of its disgruntled member nations, and must become much more vigilant in its approach.

As economically and culturally debilitating as the migrant crisis has become, it’s critical to take a step back from this particular issue to understand the depth of Italy’s economic plight. The reality is, there’s something greater than just poorly managed migration underlying the unrest in Italy and its EU neighbors.

While the migrant crisis clearly played into Brexit, the vote revealed much deeper anxieties driven by a very visible fact of British life, especially life after the financial crisis. The briefest of visits to the City of London, its streets lined with chauffeured Mercedes, offers ample prima facie evidence of what so many Brits know in their bones – that the distance between “them” and “the rest of us” has grown since the crisis broke.

The average Brit knows they didn’t wake up yesterday ripe to pillory the “elite,” a word that’s crept back into the vernacular like a slowly spreading disease. But they do know they’re not among those who have risen to the creamy top in recent years but have rather been demoted to the ranks of those left behind.

The fairy tale of the wealth effect, that what is good for those at the top of the pecking order is good for the masses, is apparently an international phenomenon. The one saving grace on this count is the British never succumbed to pressure to join single currency. That, however, is certainly not the case for the beleaguered Italians.

Back in the summer of 2012, when Greece appeared poised to leave the EU and escape the euro currency via devaluation of the drachma, Merrill Lynch released a report ranking the countries who stood the most to gain economically from dropping the euro. Can you guess who came in at the top spot?

More than any of its peers, the Italian economy has suffered since joining the euro in 1999. Since 2007, its economy has contracted by 10 percent and suffered not one, not two, but three recessions. Competitive export-led growth has been deeply impaired by virtue of Italy’s being effectively yoked to the massive German economy.

Despite the rise of China, Germany has been able to maintain its top three ranking among world exporters. The secret weapon? That would be the euro. In 1998, the year before Germany switched to the euro, the country exported $540 billion. By 2015, that figure had swelled to $1.3 trillion. Italy’s exports have also grown, but not nearly as robustly, coming in last year at $459 billion compared to $242 billion the year before it joined the euro.

Just as it once was the case with China, Germany benefits from its relatively weak currency. If Germany was not tethered to its weaker-economy neighbors and was still on the Deutsche Mark, it would have a significantly stronger currency and substantially lower exports due to the price of its exports being much more expensive for world markets.

Back in 2011, UBS put pencil to paper and figured that losing the common currency would trigger an immediate effective tax increase for the average German citizen of about €7,000 and between €3,500 to €4,000 euros every single year going forward. By contrast, swallowing half the debt of Greece, Ireland and Portugal at that time would have generated a little over €1,000 tab per citizen. Now you see why bailing out is so easy to do, though the Germans do put on a great show of irritation at having to foot such bills. But let’s be honest. Consider the alternative.

Reverse that effect and, with all else being equal, you begin to appreciate why Italy’s exports have become relatively more expensive, burdened as they are with a more expensive currency than they would have had. Consider that globalization had already done a number on the country’s once magnificent industrial base when Italy opted into the euro and left the lire behind. Since then, the country’s industrial capacity has been further decimated, shrinking by 15 percent. To take but one example, in 2007, Italy manufactured 24 million appliances; by 2012 it had declined to 13 million.

Add up the economic consequences and you begin to understand why Italian unemployment is running north of 12 percent while putting four-in-ten young Italians are out of work. To the Italians, if anyone’s managed to pull off a Job, it’s those smug Germans.

Three years ago, the Merrill report warned that Italy’s current account deficit would be an impediment to returning to the lire in that the deficit required foreign capital to keep current on its bills. Flash forward three years and Italy is running a current account surplus of 1.9 percent, a fairly recent phenomenon and more a reflection of its economic atrophy than a competitive trade position. Nevertheless, that is one obstacle to leaving the euro that’s disappeared.

That is not to say that Italy will be able to ride off into some glowing economic sunset. Italy’s banks are thought to be the Continent’s weakest. There are $408 billion in past due loans sitting on Italian bank balance sheets. Investors value these loans at 20-30 cents on the dollar if they are secured, and as little as 5 cents if they are unsecured while banks have marked them at between 50-65 cents on the dollar.

The yawning gap between market pricing and that of Italy’s banks is reminiscent of how unrealistically Lehman valued its loans before going under. Unicredit, Italy’s largest bank, has seen its stock price halved this year as investors worry its capital is insufficient to handle the Brexit fallout.

Leaving the EU and being unshackled from the euro could well lead to an Italian debt default, which is meaningful given Italy is the third largest sovereign debt market in the world. But local laws also provide plenty of leeway for the government to restructure its debts without triggering a default. The one thing that is not in doubt is that the lire would provide the Italians with the relief they have so desperately needed since joining the single currency.

On the flipside, the damage to Germany’s manufacturing sector could be sufficient to catalyze a Continental recession. Angela Merkel has probably lost considerable sleep being a unified Europe is her treasured baby. In all, Germany’s annual economic growth is boosted by a half-percentage point courtesy of its euro membership.

While there is no denying the economic challenges facing Italy, the potential for its exiting the EU was hugely increased by the Brexit. After all, some 58% of Italians were already calling for a referendum vote. If those voters are angry today, imagine how much angrier they will be if the Brexit throws Europe into a recession that Mario Draghi cannot effectively battle given that he already has his stimulus measures running full throttle.

Tellingly, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which has risen rapidly in power in recent months, has not called for a referendum to leave the EU, but rather to get rid of the euro. Beppe Grillo, the stand-up comedian who founded the party said the Brexit, “sanctions the failure of EU policies based on austerity and the selfishness of member States, which are incapable of being a community.” Yes, Stunad, it really is about the economy.

The shame is Italy is its own bureaucratic basket case with little rule of law (think Mafia, tax avoidance and the impossibility of legislating anything from theory into practice). Brexit has lowered the odds Matteo Renzi’s government will stand the test of time and last until October, the date by which his referendum to streamline Italy’s bloated government must be taken up by the Italian electorate.

Even if Renzi stands, Italy’s future in the EU looks to be at risk. The collapse in bank shares in the trading days following the Brexit has created an immediate crisis. Within 72 hours of the vote results, Italy was reported to be preparing a €40 billion rescue of its financial system. A direct recapitalization of the banks, funded by a special bond issue was on the table. But the Italians are also pleading for a moratorium of ‘bail-in’ rules and bondholder write-downs, both of which are prohibited under existing EU laws.

Hate to go out on any limbs here, but odds are pretty good that those rules will be relaxed, all things considered.

How on earth did things go so wrong? Could it be as simple as power-mongering and greed? To rob a line from the 2003 Italian Job, “There are two kinds of thieves in this world: The ones who steal to enrich their lives, and those who steal to define their lives.” Could it be that average working Italians, especially those who have been around for a good long while, feel as if they’ve been victims of both of the two kinds of theft, doubly wronged? “Basta!” their voices scream in defiance. Enough is enough!