The role of housing in economic growth …

Some people think housing is a driver of economic growth.  But that doesn’t make sense to us.

Sure, a robust housing market creates a lot of jobs from construction all the way back through the supply chain.

But housing itself is a by-product of prosperity, not a creator of it.  After all, who buys a house first … and then gets a job?  It’s the other way around.

So we think housing is not a leading indicator, but a trailing indicator.

With that said, in addition to reflecting economic prosperity, housing definitely plays a role in driving economic activity.  But not in the way most people think.

So let’s take a look …

Economic activity isn’t about asset values.  It’s about velocity … transactions … how fast money is flowing through society.  That’s why they call it currency.

But it isn’t really money that’s flowing.  It’s credit. It’s a subtle, but important difference because you can’t create money from nothing.  Only credit.

If you’re not familiar with the VERY important difference between money and credit, you should strongly consider investing in the Future of Money and Wealth video series …

… because G. Edward Griffin (author of The Creature from Jekyll Island) does an amazing job of explaining it all in an easy to understand way.

The fundamental principle to understand is that a loan is an asset to a bank.

When a bank makes a loan, they effectively create “money” from nothing by issuing credit.

Obviously, the biggest loans in most people’s lives are mortgages on houses.  So that means banks are creating LOTS of “money” by extending credit.

Meanwhile, governments issue bonds, which are simply humungous, glorified IOUs … like a mortgage.  Except the collateral isn’t a house … it’s the citizens’ earnings.

And when the mother of all banks, the Federal Reserve, buys government bonds, they are effectively creating “money” by issuing credit.

Now when all this “money” gets into the financial system it pushes asset prices up.  But not evenly.  And no one know for sure where it will all end up.

If lots of the new “money” goes into bonds, bond prices go UP and interest rates go DOWN.  There was a LOT of that going on over the last decade.

Similarly, if it goes into stocks, then stock prices go up.  There was a lot of that over the last decade also.

One big driver of rising stock prices has been corporations pigging out on cheap debt and then using the proceeds to buy back their own stock.

But remember, this isn’t economic activity … it’s just inflation of asset prices.  So it’s a mistake to think a rising stock prices means a booming economy.

In fact, “stagflation” occurs when prices go up, but economic activity is slow.

And just last week, former Fed chair Alan Greenspan said he sees stagflation coming to an economy near you.

At the same time, fellow former chair Janet Yellen is warning of excessive corporate debt.  We were just talking about that in our last commentary.

Funny.  Neither Greenspan or Yellen has said anything about the Fed going insolvent.  Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Meanwhile, Fannie Mae’s economics team recently announced their prediction of slowing economic activity in 2019.

And just so you don’t think they’re merely jumping on the bandwagon, Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan predicted this in his Future of Money and Wealth presentation on our last Investor Summit at Sea™.

All this to say, there are some notable experts saying the economy could be in for some headwinds in 2019.

So back to housing and its role in goosing economic activity …

Anyone paying attention knows housing prices have bounced back nicely from their 2008 debacle.

And almost everyone who bought early in this last run-up has built up gobs of equity.  Good job.

Unsurprisingly, consumer confidencecash-out refinances, and consumer spending all surged in 2018 … as households became equity rich … and then tapped that equity to SPEND.

In other words, credit flowed through housing to consumer spending which drove a lot of economic activity.

So it’s not housing construction that’s a leading indicator … it’s rising prices and equity.

But as housing price appreciation slows … it’s no surprise consumer confidence is dipping too.

Remember, consumers are usually the last ones to realize what’s coming.

So again, it’s the flow of credit into home prices and equity … and then the flow of credit through home equity to consumers … and then from consumers into the economy … that be a leading indicator of what’s coming down the line.

There’s one more nuance to consider …

As we’ve been pointing out for the last few months, there are LOTS of reasons to think more money is heading into real estate.

A combination of the best tax breaksOpportunity Zones, and nervous stock investors fleeing Wall Street in record numbers to seek a safer haven in housing … all could have real estate setting up for a nice run.

But be cautious.

Because if Alan Greenspan is right about stagflation … rising prices without rising real wages and economic activity …

… then real estate PRICES could rise from big money seeking safety … while the rents you use to control the property could be under pressure.

Consider RentCafe’s recent year end report, which found the most popular things renters searched for in 2018 were “cheap” and “studio.”

So as we’ve been suggesting for quite some time …

… it’s probably safer to focus on affordable markets and product types… using long-term fixed financing … and focusing on solid cash-flows to position your portfolio to ride out a slow-down.

We’re not saying there will be slow down.  But others are.

And it’s better to be prepared and not have a slow-down, than to have a slow-down and not be prepared.

And remember … asset prices and economic activity are NOT one and the same.

Until next time … good investing!

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2/21/10: Commercial Property Update – Woes, Recovery & Opportunity

Many people think that the residential real estate crisis and its impact on banks and the secondary mortgage market have set the table for an even bigger implosion in commercial real estate.  But if you believe that opportunities often come dressed as problems wearing work clothes, maybe that isn’t so bad.

In studio today to take a look at the State of Union in commercial real estate are:

  • Your President and host, Robert Helms
  • Co-host and teleprompter operator, Russell Gray
  • Our Speaker of the House, the Godfather of Real Estate, Bob Helms

With so much focus on the residential real estate and mortgage markets, which is of much greater interest to the main street consumer and news outlets which cater to them, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the commercial side of real estate.  Many observers think that there are dark days head for commercial properties, but what are the current trends?  More importantly, where are the best opportunities today and in the future?

We start out by taking a look at the sales and pricing trends in retail real estate.  What affect is the soft economy and subdued consumer spending having on retail occupancies, rents and cap rates?  Will money be available to purchase and refinance these properties?  Will there be buyers?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Sticking with the discussion of concerns about the availability of funding, we delve into a discussion of what’s happening in multi-family where government subsidized money has been plentiful.  With the pressure on Fannie Mae, will multi-family residential funding remain available?  What if it dries up?

Another side effect of a soft economy is financially weak or insolvent tenants.  Are commercial tenants starting to walk away from leases like homeowners are walking on upside down mortgages?  And how likely are they to accept rent increases?  It seems to be a tenant’s market right now.

Now there are lots of facets to commercial real estate and we can’t possibly cover them all in one show, so we decided to wrap up with some talk about office – and what’s happening to vacancy and rental rates in today’s “jobless” recovery.  If that isn’t an oxymoron, it should be.  It’s like saying “reliable copier”.

Of course, we can’t talk about all the challenges without remembering that problems often bring with opportunity – for those willing to think independently and outside the box.  As always, there are no magic formulas or one-size-fits-all solutions.  Challenging markets require courage, creativity and the kind of capital that comes as much from time, talent and relationships as it does from credit lines and cash deposits.  The good news is that when the going gets tough, most of the competition goes off and follows the herd to “greener” pastures.  If you believe the real estate “grass” will grow again, then it might be a good time to stake out some new territory.

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In the Mood for Equity? – Part 1 of 2

It’s funny how when the economy stinks and all the news is doom and gloom, people suddenly become interested in economics and politics.

“It’s the economy, stupid.”

When everything’s good, people go about their business and don’t worry too much about what’s happening on Wall Street or in Washington.  The Real Estate Guys audience has actually grown over the last two years, even through real estate investing fell off the hot list of things to do.  We think it’s because people are concerned and many are downright scared.  They’re looking for insights to help them understand what’s happening – and what’s coming.

One of the things the talking heads say is very important is consumer confidence.  The theory is that when people are confident, they spend money.  When people spend money, businesses make profits, hire more people; they buy more equipment, supplies, etc – and even give out raises!  Then people become even more confident and spend more money and the cycle builds…until something comes along to burst the bubble.  Ahhhh, those pesky bubbles!

When the bubble bursts the consumer confidence cycle does a u-turn and the whole cycle works in reverse.  People stop spending; businesses lose sales and profits, and cut back on people, supplies and plans to expand.  No raises are given.  People become less confident, spend less money and the downward spiral continues…until something comes along to turn that cycle around.

Don’t you wish you knew what those “somethings” that break the cycles are?  Us too.  But we don’t.  We’re not sure anyone does.  Even though “experts” like to talk all about the reasons behind the phenomenon (and all have different opinions, so don’t be shocked if you can’t find a consensus), the smartest investors we’ve met have simply accepted that these “mood swings” which drive business cycles are one of life’s great mysteries.  They happen.  Just accept it and act accordingly.  Our observation is that faith in the certainty of the cycle is one of the keys to investor confidence.

Important distinction: “investor” confidence is different than “consumer” confidence.  Investors are confident in the certainly of the cycles.  Consumers are confident in results once they’re reported.  Investors get in ahead of the next wave up.  Consumers wait until the results are in and then get in.  Investors get out ahead of the next wave down.  Consumers wait until the results are in and then get out.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how it works out for each.  One buys low and sells high.  The other buys high and sells low.  It takes substantial emotional fortitude to “buy the dips” – especially in a market as fickle as publicly traded stocks.  It also takes courage to stop buying or to diligently shop for the right deal, especially when everyone around is racing to buy anything because all they see is sunshine!  Seasons change and so do markets.

Right now, the world is fixated on the economic cycle.  Underneath that, stock investors watch stock market cycles.  Some on a daily basis!  Others watch currencies and commodities like gold and oil.  Those are all exciting.  They move pretty fast, there’s lots of data and opinions readily available, and they’re easy to trade.   That’s why those markets move fast.

Real estate is more boring.  The most meaningful data is highly localized, so there isn’t as much information easily accessible.  And we all know how challenging a real estate transaction can be, so “easy to trade” will never apply to real estate except when talking about publicly traded REITs.  Over the last 8 years, we’ve witnessed one of the most dramatic and extreme cycles in the modern history of real estate.  From 2001 to 2006 we saw a substantial and rapid (by real estate standards) run-up in values as prices went far over the trend line.  Over the last 3 years we’ve watched arguably the most precipitous fall off in values since the Great Depression.  But that process took 8 years!  That’s a very slow cycle when you compare it to almost every other type of asset class.  In fact, the cycle is so long that many people don’t even think about it as a cycle.  It’s like watching a glacier and trying to think of it as landslide. It is, but it doesn’t seem like it.

Nonetheless, when you think it through, it’s most logical to conclude that real estate isn’t dead.  Real estate isn’t going out of style.  More people, not less, are coming in the future.  People’s need for real estate to live in, work in, farm on and recreate to isn’t going anywhere.  There will always be demand for real estate.  And if there’s money in the economy, sooner or later it will find it’s way into real estate -when the mood is right.  So logic dictates that this current price suppression is part of a cycle even though it doesn’t feel like it.  The glacier doesn’t appear to be moving.

So the question is:  Are you an investor or a consumer?  Do you have faith in the cycle or are you waiting for results?  Is your mantra “think and do” or “wait and see”? The answers to those questions will affect the actions you take and where you are in 10 or 20 years relative to the cycle.  If the cycle is real, then real estate could easily be worth much more in 20 years than it is right now.  Will you?

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll take a look at why income property is one of the safest ways to buy “dips” and maximize your upside, while substantially reducing your downside.