California screaming …

In August 1971, President Richard Nixon went on national television and shocked the world by defaulting on the gold-backed dollar system created at Bretton Woods in 1945.

Up to that point, dollars were essentially coupons for real money … gold. Foreign dollar holders could turn in their dollars and walk away with gold at $35 per ounce.

Nixon repudiated that deal without warning, promising it was only a “temporary” measure. That was over 48 years ago … and the world is still waiting.

It reminds us of Ben Bernanke’s promise that quantitative easing was only temporary. Yet, here we are 10 years later and it’s still here.

Yes, we know Jerome Powell doesn’t want to call it QE. Most people forget Ben Bernanke didn’t want to call the original QE “QE” either.

So Nixon tried to take the edge off the gold default by saying it’s only temporary, but he knew the world would react by dumping dollars … crashing the dollar and causing prices to rise.

If that’s confusing, just think of dollars like stocks. When something happens to trigger people to sell, the price falls.

When the dollar falls, it takes more dollars to buy the same products. That’s called inflation. And it hurts people who do business in the falling currency.

So while foreigners were upset about Uncle Sam’s broken promise, those paying attention could sell their dollars quickly and buy gold in the open market.

American citizens were not so fortunate.

That’s because back then it was still illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold. And the government had already taken all the silver out of the coins in 1965.

So even if Americans were smart enough to know what was happening, the best escape routes were blocked. Real money wasn’t readily available to them.

Being aware the American voter would be facing rising prices and falling purchasing power headed into the 1972 election cycle, Nixon attempted to stop inflation by executive order.

In fact, at the same time he defaulted on the gold standard, Nixon also ordered a national freeze on prices and wages.

You read that right.

In the United States of America, the land of the free, bastion of free market capitalism …

… by executive decree, and without warning, it became immediately illegal for a private business owner to raise prices on a customer or increase wages to an employee.

Of course, it didn’t work.

In fact, as discovered through his now infamous penchant for tape recording everything, it’s well-documented Nixon knew it wouldn’t work when he did it.

On February 22, 1971 in a recorded conversation with his Secretary of the Treasury, Nixon said,

“ The difficulty with wage-price controls and a wage board as you well know is that the God damned things will not work.”

“I know the reasons, you do it for cosmetic reasons good God! But this is too early for cosmetic reasons.”

But by August 12, 1971, the Secretary of the Treasury apparently convinced Nixon the time had arrived to put lipstick on the pig …

To the average person in this country this wage and price freeze–to him means you mean business. You’re gonna stop this inflation. You’re gonna try to get control of this economy. …If you take all of these actions … you’re not going to have anybody…left out to be critical of you.

In other words, it was all political theater to pander to pundits and voters. It doesn’t matter if it works … or if you even think it can. It only matters that you’re seen trying.

So just 3 days later, Nixon went on TV and pulled the trigger.

What does all this have to do with YOUR real estate investing?

Maybe more than you think. History often has valuable lessons for those who take the time to reflect on it.

You may have heard … California just enacted state-wide rent control.

California’s not the first to do this … Oregon holds that “honor”, having enacted their own version of state-wide rent control last February.

Of course, this is a governmental policy, so any discussion of it runs the risk of turning political and divisive.

But it doesn’t matter whether you or we agree or disagree with the spirit or letter of the law. That’s irrelevant.

The rent control laws are here like them or not, so the more germane discussion is about what rent control on this scale might mean for real estate investors … regardless of political stripe.

Now if you think none of this matters to you because you have no intention of investing in California or Oregon … think again.

Because even though each state’s law is different, the motives are similar … to “do something” (or at least appear to be trying) to address growing homelessness presumably created because “rent is too damn high.”

If this way of thinking catches on (and it seems to be), state-wide rent control could be coming to a market near you.

And like California, rent control laws could be RETROACTIVE.

Think about that.

Let’s say you’re a value-add real estate investor and you find an older, run-down, poorly managed property in a decent area.

You put together a plan and invest generously to improve the property to the benefit of the tenants and the neighborhood, expecting to earn higher rents for a better product.

But AFTER you make your investment, the government decides to make it illegal for you to raise the rents to your projections. And it’s retroactive.

You made a plan and took a calculated risk based on the rules in place … and wham-o! The government changes the rules after the fact.

Ouch.

Call us crazy, but that doesn’t seem fair. At least Oregon “only” made their rent control effective immediately. California’s law is retroactive seven MONTHS.

We understand politicians are trying to pre-empt landlords from jacking up rents before rent control kicks in.

Of course, this reveals a paradigm of how politicians view landlords … as greedy takers looking for every opportunity to screw over their customers.

Funny, some people see politicians the same way … but we digress.

It’s painfully obvious these lawmakers don’t understand real estate investing.

While it’s true, the laws allow rents to rise a “generous” spread of 5-7% over the (artificially low) CPI.

Maybe this is okay for new or fully renovated properties. No cap ex needed.

But the law specifically targets properties over 15 years old … the very ones most likely to need substantial renovation.

Worse, the law does NOT make an exception for capital expenditures, so the limit on rental increases potentially caps the incentive to fix up old, ugly properties.

Will rent control create a greater divide between the nice and not-so-nice areas as existing properties are starved of cap ex?

History says it will. Time will tell if it’s different this time.

Meanwhile, it’s wise for real estate investors to pay attention to laws in places like Oregon and California … even though they may not apply to you … yet.

Because when you look at California, it seems like they got some of their ideas from Oregon. Like Hollywood, politicians tend to copy each other.

And because affordable housing is a national problem heading into a heated election year 

… it’s likely other states are looking at the “leadership” of California and Oregon … and could be considering a rent control law variation of their own.

The opportunity could be in the overt and implied exemptions …

… like mobile home parksresidential assisted livingself-storage and other niches outside the cross-hairs of perhaps well-meaning, but sometimes misguided politicians.

Remember, markets are dynamic, complex systems affected by fiscal, tax, monetary, and regulatory policy as much or more than local demographics and economics.

It’s smart to pay attention to ALL of it … and objectively evaluate how each factor might impact you and your portfolio.

The Pink Panther strikes again …

Old dudes like us have fond memories of beer-belly laughing out loud at the hysterical antics of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in the original Pink Panther movies.

If you’ve never seen them, check them out.  Two of the best are Return of the Pink Panther (1975) and Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978).

Clouseau is a bumbling idiot.  But through sheer dumb luck he always ends up succeeding … in unexpected ways as a result of unintended consequences.

The Senate’s recent hearings on housing reform remind us of Clouseau.

The purported goal of the Senate shindig is to gather a group of big-brained housing industry leaders and experts to find a solution to the affordable housing “crisis”. 

But … as this Forbes article opines, some perspectives aren’t part of the conversation … perhaps for a reason.

Of course, you may have a differing opinion and that’s fine.  We have our own opinion too.  But that’s not the purpose of today’s muse.

We simply watch what’s happening today and consider how best to capture opportunity or avoid loss based on where things are likely headed tomorrow.

In this case, it seems Uncle Sam is looking for ways to make housing affordable.  That’s a noble objective.  Go team.

There are really just three basic approaches.

One is to increase supply relative to demand.  When supply exceeds demand, prices to drop.  That’s how abundance and productivity create prosperity.  

After all, lower prices make things more affordable to more people, right?

That sounds reasonable.  But it also sounds a lot like deflation.

And when bankers are in the room … the kind who make home loans secured by the dollar value of the property … they FREAK at the idea of falling prices.

So you’re probably not getting sincere ideas from bankers about how to lower prices.

Then there are the builders … 

While builders LOVE the idea of building more houses, they also want to earn a profit.   Profitable building is easier when prices are higher, NOT lower.  So you can guess which direction the builders are leaning.

What about the wizards of Wall Street? 

These guys make money shuffling paper.   So they just want LOTS of paper (i.e., mortgage-backed securities) created, so they have more chips to play with in their casinos. 

And Wall Street knows falling prices frighten the lenders who make the paper possible.  So it’s a safe bet Wall Street votes with the bankers for higher prices.   

Even at the Main Street level, there’s not much motivation to push prices down in pursuit of truly affordable housing. 

Real estate agents (the largest trade association in North America) aren’t raving fans of low prices as the preferred path to affordability … despite their rhetoric.

After all, real estate agents promote buying a home as a great “investment”.  No one wants to make an “investment” that goes down.  So higher is better.

Last but not least, there’s Dick and Jane Homeowner (often registered voters) … whom are keenly aware of their castle’s current market value, even though they have no intent on selling.

Of course, it’s fine for the prices of cell phones and big screen TVs to fall, but not home sweet home.  God forbid.

Plus, its fun for Dick and Jane to use their home equity to reset credit lines with debt consolidation loans, or to augment the falling purchasing power of their incomes.

And everyone knows home equity ATMs only work when housing prices steadily RISE. 

So yes, home BUYERS want the house affordable when THEY buy it. But after that … home OWNERS want up, up, up.  Sorry, next generation.  Figure it out.

When we asked then-candidate Donald Trump for his plan for housing , he simply said … “Jobs”.  Presumably, good jobs with higher pay. 

Higher pay leads to the ability to make higher payments which leads to bigger mortgages (happy bankers, happy Wall Street) which leads to HIGHER prices.

So it’s just a wild guess … but we don’t think there’s a chance in a very hot place that there’s any serious motivation to make housing affordable.

Not if “affordable” means “less expensive”.

ALL the incentives are to make housing MORE EXPENSIVE … but ACCESSIBLE.  That means more, cheaper, and easier FINANCING. 

So even IF the PTB (Powers That Be … it only sounds like Politboro) sincerely believe more and cheaper financing makes things more “affordable” …

(Hey, it worked for college tuition … oh, wait …)

… like Inspector Clouseau, they’ll end up pushing housing prices up by “accident”.   

That’s what happens when you use debt to pull purchasing power from the future into the present.

But whatever the motives, they certainly have the tools to make it happen … 

… lower interest rates, easier lending guidelines, government (taxpayer) guarantees, tax breaks … and the Fed’s all-powerful printing press.

Yes, we know all that is what first inflated and then deflated the housing bubble last time.

But smart, disciplined investors made not only survived the implosion … they made millions from the re-inflation.

So while this may not be the time to speculate on a housing price boom in the short term …

… it’s arguably a great time to liquidate equity, streamline expenses, solidify leases, and prepare for the long game.

Because when Uncle Sam is working on making something “affordable”, it usually means that something is showing serious signs of slowing and needs a boost. 

Of course, when you find reasonable deals in relatively affordable markets and you have a GREAT boots-on-the-ground team, it’s also a great time to use cash flow real estate to stock up on cheap long-term debt.

Remember, real estate … even housing … isn’t an asset class. 

Every individual neighborhood and property is unique.  So while deals might be harder to find, they’re still out there.

And if the cash flow makes sense, you’ll weather the storm … warmed by the notion that everyone with power to influence policy will be voting for HIGHER prices year in and year out … forever. 

Of course, they might break the financial system or crash the dollar trying to do it … so it’s smart to be prepared for that too.

That’s why we like gold, oil, agriculture, and paid for properties in non-leveraged markets … including, and perhaps especially, in non-domestic markets.

Real assets like food, commodities and land tend to hold relative value when currencies struggle.

Gold and silver can almost always be easily converted into any currency … and are a useful way to store liquefied equity privately outside a fragile financial system or hostile jurisdiction.

And if the dollar continues its long-term slide relative to gold, a little gold might go a long way toward retiring dollar denominated debt (like a mortgage).

That’s where we think gold bugs and real estate bugs don’t understand each other.  We know.  We spend a lot of time with both.

Gold is great for reducing counter-party risk and hedging against a falling currency.  But gold doesn’t cash flow.

Real estate is great for using cheap long-term debt to create tax-free cash flow and long-term equity growth. But it isn’t liquid and it takes a long time to retire the debt.

But putting gold and leverage cash-flowing real estate in a falling currency environment together makes each much more powerful.

It takes time to get your mind around it … but we encourage you to dedicate a little of your financial education time and budget to learning more. 

Because once you understand how gold and real estate make each other better, you’ll probably be more excited about both.  We are. 

Until next time … good investing!


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