REITs vs. Your Home

Many people don’t have an investment allocation to real estate investment trusts (“REITs”) because they believe they already have “enough” exposure to “real estate” through ownership of their home. REITs and your home are very different asset classes with very different characteristics. REITs invest primarily in commercial real estate, which is any non-residential property used for commercial profit-making purposes. Your home is an investment in residential real estate, which is a type of property, containing either a single-family or multifamily structure, which is available for occupation and non-business purposes.

Performance

Over the past 20 years publicly-traded REITs have returned an annualized 11.23% total return and homes have returned 3.47%, or just a little more than inflation. Over these 20 years, REITs returned more than 7x (740%) while homes didn’t quite double (98%). Publicly-traded REITs have been one of the top performing asset classes and homes have been one of the worst over the past 20 years.

Fig1_REITs_vs_Homes_08-2016

There are many differences between REITs and your home that contribute to this notable difference in performance. The largest contributor is that commercial real estate can generate positive cash flows but the residential home you live in cannot. By living in your home, you are effectively consuming the market rate rent that your home might have procured. If you forgo rent, as you do by living in your home, the return profile changes to be basically little more than an inflation hedge.  Performance of real estate follows the following formula: Total Return = price change + rent collected

Fig2_TBL-REITvsHome_080116

Diversification

With your home, 100% of the asset is in one property type and in one geographic market – this is concentration in its purist form, the opposite of diversification. On the other hand, with publicly-traded REITs, investors can choose from dozens of property types (including, but not limited to, specialized real estate sectors such as data centers, cell phone towers, casinos, medical research labs, infrastructure, prisons, ski areas, etc.) across any market in the U.S. and most major markets in the world. The opportunity for diversification in publicly-traded REITs vastly exceeds that of a single home.

Liquidity

Homes are relatively illiquid compared to public REITs that can be traded every day the stock market is open and settle to cash virtually immediately. This is in stark contrast to the home market, which may be illiquid for months, seasons, or even years, and can take months to settle to cash.

Transaction Costs

Transacting a home is much more costly than transacting in publicly-traded REITs. When you sell a home, the typical transaction cost is more than 6% of the home’s sale price (for perspective, based on data from the last 20 years as shown in the Total Return chart above, this is equal to about five years’ worth of your home’s price appreciation after inflation). In contrast, it costs little more than pocket change to trade shares of a public REIT ($7.95 per trade at Fidelity[1] and $4.95 per trade at Scottrade[2]).

Flexibility

Home ownership is not flexible. The entry price for a home is typically six-figures and you can’t really buy or sell a percentage of a home – it is binary: either you are in all the way or you are completely out. With publicly-traded REITs you can buy almost any amount you wish in single share increments (typically $20-$50/share) on the stock market. With public REITs you can trim, add or change a position in almost any amount on almost any day.

Supply & Demand

Perhaps the single most impactful factor that undermines home price appreciation is the ability of developers to add new product to the market. In our opinion, homes are the type of real estate most likely to be oversupplied because we believe they are the cheapest, smallest, quickest and least complicated real estate product type to build. AACA also believes that whenever the cost to build new homes is below the current market value of existing homes, builders will build new homes, which could create a price ceiling on the appreciation of your home. Additionally, in recessions, construction costs (materials and labor costs) decrease, which makes building new homes less expensive and creates additional new supply. This combination of factors could dampen your home’s price rebound out of a recession relative to public REITs, as shown in the historical graph below.

Volatility

Let’s look at volatility of publicly-traded REITs and homes. Below is a graph of the past 10 years, which includes the financial crisis. Since public REITs trade on the stock market, the share price of these REITs are subject to fluctuation in the stock market and as such experience volatility. However, we would argue the underlying physical real estate owned by the REITs can’t be much different in volatility than your physical home. The difference is that your home isn’t bought and sold every day and marked to that market price. That being said, in the graph below we see that homes sold off -32.81% and public REITs sold off -58.89% in the financial crisis. However, looking at a longer period of time, homes captured 56% of the downside and 8% of the upside of public REITs over the past 10 years – homes have been asymmetrical to the downside. And public REITs have since gone on to return 105.17% over the past 10 years while homes have returned 8.56% in that same time period.

Fig3_REITs_vs_Homes_08-2016

Final Thoughts

We believe you should think of your home first and foremost as the place you and your family live and second as an inflation hedge for your invested principal – nothing more than that. You should not think of your home as an investment in real estate (as history shows there has been almost no meaningful return after inflation). Publicly-traded REITs and your home are very different asset classes with very different characteristics.

But what if I rent my home out?

But what if I buy a home and rent it out? That would be good, right? Sure, you will grab the warranted rent (assuming you can find a good renter), but you may also be the one grabbing a plunger to fix the toilet on Christmas Eve when your renter calls. Also, you still need a place to live so you will presumably either be buying or renting a home to live in. Additionally, it is probably unlikely that you can rent one house as efficiently as a public REIT that has professional leasing, revenue optimization software, economies of scale, expert experience, market knowledge and real-time industry data. Lastly, if you want to buy a home and rent it out, there are several publicly-traded REITs that do that.

[1] https://www.fidelity.com/trading/commissions-and-margin-rates?s_tnt=76947:8:0

[2] http://welcome.tradeking.com/scottrade-comparison/?engine=google&campaign=ckws+-+scottrade+-+phrase&adgroup=scottrade+-+phrase&network=g&device=c&model=&keyword=scottrade&matchtype=p&position=1t2&adid=112556498471&ADTRK=sgo+ckws+-+scottrade+-+phrase+-+scottrade+-+phrase&gclid=CjwKEAjw5cG8BRDQj_CNh9nwxTUSJAAHdX3fPoZt6xE0DtdNphAY9XH6vkU3v3Kz-Yvhl8TO8_aeGRoCNW_w_wcB

The Wave of Private Capital Behind Public REITs

Flush with record levels of cash, many private capital real estate managers are buying up publicly traded real estate investment trusts (“REITs”) to take advantage of the gap between public REITs and private real estate valuations.  Historically, commercial real estate in the private market has usually transacted at, or near, fair value (or else the property doesn’t trade), while shares of REITs often trade at a discount or premium to their underlying net asset value (“NAV”) in the public markets.  This is because REIT share prices fluctuate in the public stock market while the underlying real estate NAV remains relatively constant (in the same way private real estate’s NAVs do).

Most of the REITs recently acquired by private capital have been trading at a material discount price to NAV in the public market; however, when these discounted REITs are acquired, it is at a price closer to NAV.  These REIT acquisitions have been readily agreed to because they can create value for the private capital (who may get institutional-quality real estate relatively quickly, easily, and less expensively) and for the REIT shareholders (who may get a nice return from the substantial share price increase from the pre-deal share price).  This activity of private capital buying beat-up REITs can effectively create a put option for the holders of the publicly traded REITs – if the price drops enough, the REIT may be taken out closer to NAV, and certainly at a premium to the discounted pre-deal share price.  In addition to creating a price floor for individual REITs, this buying activity can also create a supporting tailwind bid for the entire REIT asset class.

  • The current market cap of domestic public REITs is about $1 trillion[1]; the total value of underlying real estate assets is about $1.5 trillion, assuming 33% leverage, which is typical for public REITs[2].
  • As of 6/30/15, private real estate managers had a record $249 billion[3] in unspent capital commitments (this is equal to about 25% of the total public REIT market cap!). Private capital typically employs meaningfully greater levels of leverage than REITs do, which only further increases its REIT-buying power.
  • It is generally faster, easier, and less costly for private capital real estate managers to buy public REITs than private real estate.
    • Private capital can buy a large REIT portfolio in one bite.  For example, Excel Trust was recently acquired by Blackstone for approximately $2 billion.  The Excel Trust portfolio included 38 retail shopping center properties across 18 states.  If Blackstone had to buy these properties in one-off transactions, they would have had to travel to every property, conduct  their own data gathering and due diligence, review and audit financials and every lease contract, and successfully create and close potentially 38 separate deals with 38 different parties.  It is much easier, faster and less expensive for Blackstone to buy an institutional quality portfolio, already equipped with GAAP accounting, lease abstracts, financial audits, and publicly available granular property level data, in one fell swoop.  Not only are transactional costs less, but it may be getting it at an arguably cheaper price.
  • In the past year, a number of REITs have been purchased by private capital, including but not limited to the following list:

TBL_Blog_REIT_072816v2_sansStockColumn

Investors sometimes pose the question, “Why buy the goods when you can buy the store?” In effect, private capital is answering that question by buying discounted REITS instead of individual properties. Expect this trend to continue as long as REITS trade at material discounts to their NAVs and as long as private capital is looking for ways to deploy nearly $250 billion in unspent capital commitments.

[1] https://www.reit.com/data-research/data/industry-snapshot

[2] https://www.reit.com/data-research/data/industry-snapshot

[3] http://www.pionline.com/article/20150907/PRINT/309079983/managers-snap-up-market-battered-reits

 

A Different Liquidity Trap

Liquidity has its dangers. The evidence is fairly clear that humans (and that category includes most investors) tend to make economic decisions that are not in their best interest. Liquidity, as it turns out, can enable this irrational behavior.

Let me back up. Behavioral finance is a young science that uses psychology to understand irrational thinking. A well-known experiment in the field gives a good illustration of the phenomenon. Imagine you could save $7 on a $25 pen by traveling 15 minutes away to a discount store. When asked, most people say they would be willing to do that. But they would not be willing to travel 15 minutes to the same discount store to save $7 on a $488 suit.

“What’s going on here?” asks Dan Ariely in his bestseller, Predictably Irrational. Saving $7 should mean the same to the consumer regardless of the item being purchased. The problem, he says, is relativity. Wrongly, most of us see a $7 savings on a $25 pen as somehow worth more than a $7 savings on the $488 suit. Yet, the return on investment of the time spent is the same, having nothing to do with what is being purchased.

It’s not just social scientists who are poring over evidence of our irrational behavior. Dalbar, the Boston firm that evaluates the financial services industry, has been studying money flows in and out of mutual funds for 30 years, and concludes that investors can be their own worst enemy. They tend to make bad decisions at critical points, in both up and down markets. The worst case was October 2008 when equity investors lost 24.21% while the S&P 500 Index lost 16.80%. The second biggest underperformance gap took place in March 2000, when the S&P surged 9.78% but investors took home only 3.72%.

Dalbar’s studies show a substantial spread between returns of funds and the returns of the investors in those funds, primarily related to timing of investments.  Philip Maymin of New York University and Gregg Fisher of the investment management firm Gerstein Fisher, wrote a more academic piece a few years back that reached similar conclusions. Their title says it all: “Past Performance is Indicative of Future Beliefs.”

Which brings me back to the subject of liquidity. The ability to convert any asset into cash immediately and easily sounds like a perfect goal for investors. In 2008, the opposite happened as liquidity decreased for every asset except cash and short-term Treasury bills. The experience was not easily forgotten. In fact, behavioral finance tells us that investors remember losses more vividly than gains, even if their gains are greater. Investors reasonably concluded that step one in avoiding similar losses required staying liquid.

It’s no surprise that liquid alternative mutual funds experienced a 22% annual growth in assets (excluding commodity funds) between 2010 and 2014, versus 12% for mutual fund industry overall.  Investors were also looking for potentially higher, risk-adjusted returns, of course, but that goal had to include liquidity.

As the above referenced studies suggest, though, the liquidity “trap” can come at a cost, behaviorally speaking. The ease with which the average mutual fund investor has been able to buy and sell securities does not always turn out to be an advantage.

Does that mean investors should protect themselves from themselves by allocating assets to illiquid investments?  It’s a question more will be asking as private equity, considered one of the least liquid of investment alternatives, makes its way to the retail market.

Traditionally, private equity has been available to institutional investors or high net worth individuals—accredited investors–who could meet the high minimums and who could afford to lock up a portion of their assets for years. Private equity mutual funds now coming to market (full disclosure: our firm, Altegris, offers one) give a broader group of investors access with characteristics similar to mutual funds.  But, importantly, they do not offer daily liquidity. Thus managers of these private equity funds can ignore the market’s demand for instant performance and untimely withdrawals.  They can focus intensely on investments that generally take more time and potentially more effort to work.

Of course, private equity funds haven’t marketed themselves as a safeguard against irrational behavior. It’s their track record that has attracted university endowments, foundations, pension funds and wealthy investors. To wit, in the 25 years through September 2015, the Cambridge U.S. Private Equity index returned 13.4% annually compared with 9.9% for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index, according to Cambridge Associates.

We have just passed the seven-year anniversary of the bull market, making this the third longest rally in history.  When the rally ends, behavioral finance studies suggest many investors, trapped by the ability to sell, will sell at the bottom and fail to get back in as the market recovers. We have already seen that in the increased volatility experienced over the last 12 months. Illiquidity might prevent you from doing just that.

This requires a very close look at what one’s liquidity requirements really are, which, of course, depends on one’s investment goals. That 3.5% illiquidity premium, as measured by the performance of the Cambridge Associates Index vs. the S&P 500, can compound into some large numbers for a child’s education or a different kind of retirement if it is maintained.

Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future results. This applies to both the liquid and illiquid markets. The odds are that we are in for a five to ten-year period of a “Warren Buffet market,” with lower GDP results, lower equity returns and greater dispersion. As Buffett recently observed, investors should be on the lookout any time the market value exceeds the value of GDP.

With a potentially lower return from the traditional markets, meeting an investor’s financial goals today does require a fresh look at allocations and some real discussions about the liquidity trap.

 

A version of this article was originally published on ThinkAdvisor here: http://www.thinkadvisor.com/2016/05/25/a-different-liquidity-trap

The End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End (Redux): Written Commentary

For those of you who did not have the time to watch the video on this topic, below is a more complete text of what I had to say:

  1. Tragedies in Orlando and in England by themselves are difficult to comprehend and clearly represent elements of extremism that indicate some “permission” to behave at the raw end of emotions. This has on the margin an impact on the US elections and the Brexit vote. The next few days may tell us what direction this pushes voters’ thought process.
  2. This adds to the near-term elements of uncertainty. But, what happens if the first event, the Brexit vote, is REMAIN as opposed to EXIT? This removes an element of uncertainty against a backdrop of central banks already having provided liquidity to deal with a negative vote. This reminds me a little bit of Y2K. If the vote is EXIT we may already be set up for that. If it is REMAIN we have a lot of “excess liquidity” in the system.
  3. In the meantime, while economic data, as always, is mixed globally—in the US, with the exception of some of the employment numbers which we can’t ignore, other numbers could be said to support Fed action: Core CPI is up 2.2%, year-over-year unemployment claims remain low, wages and housing seems to be fixed, GDP may surprise, and wages are up not just in the US but elsewhere, up 10% in China, about 2% in Europe, and even up in Japan.

All this would support rate increases by the Fed, but as I said in a recent video, it may wait for the July employment report which isn’t available until first week in August. Why July? We are seeing major shifts in hiring, firing and exit patterns in the employment rolls. If nothing else, this makes it very difficult to “seasonally-adjust” (SA) any reported numbers. We had a reported seasonally-adjusted number for May of +38,000. As one can see in the tables below, 651,000 not-seasonally-adjusted (NSA) persons actually joined the payroll, which is well below the 900,000 number for May, 2015. YTD, the total employment numbers SA and NSA are 748,000 and 476,000 respectively. This compares to final numbers for 2015 for the same period of 1,033,000 and 881,000.

There will be further adjustments when the BLS adds the pluses and minuses from the data on another 20% of its 650,000 establishments as it completes the May survey over the next two months. Given the first seasonal-adjustment to 38,000, which is less than 6% of the NSA number, it wouldn’t take much to move the month into a negative number. The last time May was a negative number was in 2009 (-303,000 SA) when the NSA additions to the payroll that month were only +384,000. On the other hand, July could be an upside surprise. As one can see from the table for 2015, July is a big month for reduction in real payrolls. This is a result of reductions in the educational field and changing patterns in retailing. And, it is typically a big shutdown month for manufacturing entities to make changes to processes. Given that the industrial sector has become a smaller part of the makeup of the work force while more in-line changes are taking place, this number could surprise. How this gets translated into a seasonally-adjusted number is difficult to judge. It continues to amaze me that so much weight is put on this seasonally-adjusted number. Seasonal adjustments are difficult enough in a stable environment. When patterns of hiring, firing and exits from job participation are changing and the mix of services versus industrial continues to favor services, any single number has to be viewed with some circumspection, but has to be recognized. There are other numbers that give a better view of what is going on in the labor market as the Fed ponders.

TBL_Blog_OTM Change_Jan11-May16_032816

However, markets may anticipate and the excess liquidity will be put to work in a risk-on mode if the Brexit vote is Remain.

We will be paying attention to employment to determine if this is the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end—an expression I stole from Anatole Kaletsky at Gavekal. I think we are at the end of the beginning of what has been a strange cycle. There is more to come. In the meantime, my comfort level with fundamental analysis is low, while the more sophisticated trend followers are seeing movements that to me support a continuation of the cycle. These uncorrelated sets of strategies deserve some attention as well as less liquid strategies of those who can handle the illiquidity and take advantage of the time arbitrage that exists for those managers who do not have to deal with the needs of investors who fall into the liquidity trap—something I just wrote about in Think Advisor.

Commodities at a Crossroads

Our CEO, Jack Rivkin, recently revisited his thus far prescient view of economic issues facing “The Rest of the Americas.” There are several key drivers one should pay attention to when evaluating the Americas, most of which ultimately lead to the commodity markets.

From the Fed’s decision on interest rates (which is highly data dependent), currencies, the dependence of Chinese demand for commodity exports out of Canada and Latin American countries, and nearly ubiquitous political disharmony, commodities are at an inflection point. Here is why:

 

US Economic Data and the Fed
April retail sales were up 1.3%. Job creation is improving and wages are starting to improve as well. Economic data is getting better, but it’s not necessarily good enough for the Fed to take action. What are the possible scenarios and impacts on commodities?

  • Good Data: If we continue to see decent economic data, it could spur the Fed to raise interest rates at the upcoming meeting in June. An increase in the Fed Funds rate generally leads to strength in the US dollar (USD) relative to other currencies. Conventional wisdom stipulates that a strong USD is typically a negative for commodity markets; the two are negatively correlated since commodities are priced in USD. If the USD strengthens, commodities tend to suffer because it will take more dollars to buy the commodities. While that’s been true the majority of the time, it’s not always the case as one can see below:

Fig1of3_Charts_USD+CommoditiesCorrelation_051916

  • Great Data: That said, if the data out of the US is very positive—one could view this as a growth theme. In this case, the Fed will almost definitely raise rates in June; the USD will rise; but if the US is consuming more, spending more, and on an improved economic growth trajectory, that could spur increased demand, which could actually push commodity prices higher.
  • Bad Data: The last scenario is if the US data gets worse. We don’t think this is all that likely, but low inflation could make the Fed blink. Where we may see bad data is globally. With global markets more intertwined than ever, it would be bold for the Fed to ignore any further and significant global weakness. Moreover, the big Brexit vote shortly after the June Fed meeting could give Yellen pause, ultimately postponing a hike until July.

 

China
According to both the World Economic Forum and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), in 2015, China consumed “roughly an eighth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its gold, almost a third of its cotton and up to a half of all the major base metals.” In addition, as Jack pointed out in his Perspectives piece, China also produces about half the major base metals. One cannot discuss commodities without discussing China.

Fig2of3_WorldEconForumGraphic_low-res

All eyes are on Chinese growth to continue fueling this impressive demand. Chinese growth is less than it was in prior years but their growth target remains between 6.5%-7.5%. While momentum has slowed, 6.5%-7.5% is not insignificant. To give some obvious context, the U.S. economy grew 0.5% on an annualized basis for the first quarter of 2016.

As Chinese demand for and production of commodities vacillates and its growth moderates, we could see more idiosyncratic Chinese market movements. For example, during September of 2015, China’s National Administration provided new standards for the use of aluminum cables. Aluminum is significantly cheaper than copper and China is rich in aluminum resources—substituting aluminum for copper allows for lower costs and less importing. Prior to September of last year, copper and aluminum prices moved fairly closely together. Since this time, however, we’ve seen more dispersion, periods in which aluminum rallied and copper declined. Thus demand may be increasing right now for base metals, but one may continue to see more substitution versus base metals moving in concert.

The remainder of 2016 should be interesting. If China backs off stimulus or increases local production, it could spell trouble for commodities given their significant share of commodity consumption. We tend to agree with the team from Gavekal Research, who recently stated the following:

 

 

“Since GDP growth in 1Q16 remained above the 6.5% target, it seems likely
that policymakers will now focus more on averting a major bubble and
dialing back leverage, than adding fresh stimulus. This is not to say that
the central bank will cause another interbank liquidity crunch, but it will instead
focus on keeping rates low and stable. Hence, do not expect more easing
policies in the next 3-6 months; after accelerating for the last year credit growth
is likely to stabilize at the current level.”

Gavekal Research, Chen Long, The Daily—“No More Easing Likely,” May 15, 2016;
http://research.gavekal.com/author/chen-long

 

If this is true, we may not see more stimulus from the Chinese central bank. Yet, a complete economic slowdown followed by stunted commodity demand seems unlikely.

Political Unrest
With the exception of Trudeau’s white knight status in Canada, much of the rest of the Americas’ leadership remains on shaky ground. Democracy in its raw form is coming to the USA, Rouseff is on her way out of Brazil, while Mauricio Macri is still sorting out the pieces in Argentina—and he’ll be doing that for a long time. Any perceived weakness in leadership could be viewed by investors as a sign of a weak economy. This too matters because as faith in these governments declines, so may their currency as we witnessed several times last year. For example, one of Brazil’s largest exports is coffee. A weak Brazilian real led to lower coffee prices. In fleeting moments of real strength, coffee rallied alongside.

Fig3of3_Charts_Brazil Real+CoffeePrices_051916

For countries that rely heavily on commodities for exports, a weak currency is not necessarily a positive. Therefore the impact of political unrest on commodities could make for a bumpy ride, at least in the short-term.

Commodities Now?

One may ask, is this a good time to get into commodities? The reality is, it depends on what sector, what commodity, and when. The question also assumes that investors only have the option to go long commodities. Imagine if you could have been short crude oil over the last two years? Our preference is to invest in strategies that can go long and short, such as trend following managed futures strategies. These strategies are systematic in nature with the goal of following price trends. If gold continues to rally, trend following systems will likely add more and more long gold exposure. In fact, most managers we follow are positioned long after gold’s rally this year. If the trend abates, these systems will typically reduce exposure and if the trend reverses strongly, these systems will follow the price trend in the other direction. Investing in systematic trend following strategies allows for long and short investing while taking out the discretionary judgement of trying to time these often volatile markets.

Commodities are indeed at a crossroads with some dispersion likely. Much of what can move individual commodity markets for the remainder of 2016 remains to be seen, as various other cross currents make it difficult to predict. In other words, even if we get Fed clarity, China and other variables could remain uncertain. Investors may want to look for trend following managed futures strategies that have the ability to follow commodity markets directionally once the fog clears.