Lessons from a legendary billionaire real estate investor …

Even if you’re a die-hard cash flow investor … more intent on collecting properties than flipping them … it’s still important to pay attention to market cycles.

After all, though you might not plan to “sell high”, it’s sure nice to “buy low”.

Besides, “buy and hold” doesn’t mean you’re not harvesting equity when conditions are ripe … which is usually closer to a cycle top.

So, what is a “cycle”? Why do cycles happen? And what do they look like?

Maybe obviously, cycles are the ups and downs of prices or economic activity. And they always seem so obvious when charted after the fact.

Of course, cycles are hard to see when you’re buried in the weeds of the here and now. That’s why it’s smart to listen to seasoned investors.

Economic cycles … those sometimes severe and shocking ups and downs … happen for a complex variety of reasons … but are rooted in a fundamental pattern of action and over-reaction.

Think of it like a car fishtailing on an icy road …

It starts with a sudden acceleration or braking. Then a cascade of exaggerated actions and reactions take place … with lags in between … as both driver and vehicle strive to find an equilibrium and get back in sync.

Skilled and experienced drivers keep their emotions in check …

… calmly making proven moderate adjustments to quickly regain control and get the vehicle pointed safely in the right direction.

Of course, that’s just one car and one driver.

In a professional race, it’s a cohort of highly skilled drivers. In your daily commute, it’s a diverse collection of amateurs.

In financial markets, there’s an eclectic mob of professional investors, politicians, bankers, business executives, and upper-middle-class workers …

… all subject to greed, fear, and ego.

It’s amazing there aren’t bigger market wrecks more often.

The tell-tale sign of a cycle top is when everyone has piled in … and the prevailing belief is the good times will never end. But then they do.

Professionals recognize this and get out of the way and wait.

There’s an old investing adage attributed to some fellow named Rothschild …

“The time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.”

Hmmm. Makes you wonder how much money you’d make if you could find a way to trigger such a bloodletting? But that’s a discussion for another day …

For mere mortals like us, it’s simply a matter of watching events unfold … and getting in position to move in when others are moving out.

Of course, you don’t want to “catch a falling knife” … another investing adage which refers to buying a failing investment.

So just because everyone’s selling doesn’t necessarily mean you should be buying. Sometimes there’s a reason an asset goes “no bid”.

Cheap doesn’t mean bargain. There’s no guarantee that something cheap won’t go to zero.

Of course, with tangible assets like real estate, the “zero” scenario is less likely.

Still … when leverage is involved, equity can most definitely go to zero … even if the property doesn’t.

How do you know the difference between an opportunity and a trap?

For clues, we watch smart, seasoned investors like Sam Zell. Fortunately, Sam’s come out of his shell, so he’s appearing more often in media to share his immense wisdom.

So, when we saw this headline pop up, we took time to listen to what mega-billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell has to say …

Sam Zell Says He’s Buying Distressed Oil Assets During the Slowdown
Bloomberg, 11/14/19

What’s nice is there’s a video and you can hear it straight from Sam himself.

Like most brilliant people, he says a lot in a few words. You can watch for yourself, but in short, Sam sees TEMPORARY distress in oil assets. And that’s a GOOD thing.

Now we’re not saying you should invest in oil, although there are some compelling reasons to consider it right now.

But oil is a sector where Sam Zell sees opportunity. However, the lessons are less about oil and more about how Sam recognizes and reacts to market conditions.

Here are some of our key takeaways from Sam Zell’s comments …

Look ahead and anticipate the next boom or bust … and react NOW, not after the fact. In other words, be proactive and get in front of opportunity as it develops.

Always pay attention to the supply and demand factor.

This is a common theme any time Sam Zell talks about how he evaluates opportunity. When supply and demand get out of sync, prices can rise or fall disproportionately. This “gap” creates attractive buying or selling opportunities.

Zell obviously doesn’t think demand for oil is going anywhere soon, even though there’s a temporary over-supply driving prices down.

It’s these “low” oil prices that are creating issues for oil producers … and creating opportunity for investors like Zell.

That’s because, as we’ve noted before, there’s a lot of debt in the oil sector which was put in place when prices were higher.

And just like a real estate investor levering up a property during peak rents … when rental rates fall, debt can go bad fast … creating an urgent demand for cash.

Cash is king in a crisis.

It seems obvious. But it’s hard to sit on “idle” cash when everything’s booming. Yet legendary investor Warren Buffet is sitting on over $120 billion cash right now. Maybe there’s a reason.

Real assets cash flow.

Zell mentions he doesn’t lend. He buys assets. And if you listen carefully, he talks about how cash strapped oil producers are selling cash flow. That’s what Zell appears to be buying.

There are probably many more lessons. Sam’s a fun guy to study. Unlike Buffet, Sam Zell is fundamentally a real estate guy.

And as we learned from Ken McElroy in the wake of the 2008 downturn, the energy sector … and oil in particular … is a huge and important driver of economic strength in several U.S. markets.

So for that reason alone, oil is a sector real estate investors should watch. Right now, oil is energy, and energy is fundamental to all economic activity.

Meanwhile, remember that in both up cycles and down cycles, there are ALWAYS opportunities in real estate.

That’s because every regional market, neighborhood, and individual property is unique … there’s often a lot of room to negotiate a profitable win-win …

…and there’s much a smart investor can do to proactively add value without needing to depend on unpredictable external factors.

We think it’s safe to say that demand for real estate, like oil, is probably not going away anytime soon … no matter what’s going on in politics or trade.

Just be careful to use financial structures you can live within both up and down cycles.