Is this a cure for coronavirus?

There are SO many things happening in the financial news and markets right now, it’s hard to focus on any one thing and say it’s the biggest story.

Obviously, the coronavirus panic is dominating headlines and airwaves everywhere.

And many of the other major stories such as stocks, bonds, interest rates, and oil prices all seem to be considered somehow a derivative of the coronavirus.

Of course, we just keep asking … what does all of this mean to real estate investors?

Two weeks ago, we posited interest rates would fall as investors piled into U.S Treasuries for both safety and speculation.

Of course, we were right … but not because we’re brilliant, but because it was SO obvious.  As Treasury yields collapsed, mortgage rates followed.

And because you never know how long these “sales” on cheap money are going to last, it’s a good idea to watch for clues … and then move quickly when opportunity presents itself.

The odds are the coronavirus scare will last months … but your uber-cheap mortgage can last for decades. Nice.

Last week, we dug a little deeper into the WHY behind collapsing rates after the Fed came out with an “emergency” rate cut.

Though billed as a preemptive strike to stop recession, most pundits viewed it as a lightly veiled attempt to calm traders and boost stock prices.

How’s that working out so far?

Of course, WAY before coronavirus, we’ve been pointing out …

… the financial system is fragile,

… the Fed’s intervention in the repo market is a potentially ominous sign,

… and gold could be flashing a “bridge is out” warning even as the U.S. economy is hurtling down the highway at a decent clip.

In other words, the coronavirus might not be a cause, just a catalyst.

Which brings us to the theme of today’s muse …

Insulation matters. And when the climate is extreme, people who don’t have it, want it.

Right now, MANY people are discovering their portfolios are naked and exposed to the extreme hots and colds of publicly traded financial markets.

Equity investors are experiencing nauseating drops and dizzying bounces … all within an overall trend which is flirting with becoming the mother of all bears.

Income investors are watching yields collapse 30-50% from already anemic levels. Savers and income investors were already suffering. Now it’s torturous.

When yields aren’t enough to live on, you have no choice but to consume equity.

And it’s hard to ride the equity roller coaster back up if you to get off at the bottom to eat.

It’s like a starving farmer who eats his seed corn has nothing to plant for food in the future. He eats now but is doomed in the long term. Equity consumption is suicidal.

So while the coronavirus might threaten your physical health, the vast majority of people who catch it will survive and go on to thrive.

But the effects of the panic on fragile financial markets are definitely making paper asset investors’ portfolios sick … and recovery could take a LOT longer.

Of course, most real estate investors are doing what they often do when these things happen … much popcorn, watch the fireworks, and cash rent checks.

Sure, if the storm is bad enough, it can blow your insulated, brick real estate portfolio over too.

But compared to the poor folks living in straw portfolios built only for sunshine, real estate looks pretty darn secure.

So it’s no surprise, that even the mainstream financial media are pointing out the safety features of real estate … at least what they think is real estate …

Don’t Panic – Buy REITs
Forbes, 3/9/20

These are the safest and highest dividend-yielding REITs as the coronavirus spreads, BofA says
– MarketWatch, 3/7/20

REITs And Bonds Rose Last Weeks As Global Stocks Fell
Seeking Alpha, 3/10/20

Of course, REITs are still publicly traded stocks … essentially a mutual fund collection of individual properties all put into one fund and offered in the Wall Street casinos.

So, while real estate is attractive in times like these, REITs are still subject to Wall Street volatility …

REITs fall in February amid broader market sell-off
Institutional Real Estate, 3/10/20

Perhaps obviously, the further you are away from Wall Street, the more insulated you are from insane volatility.

Of course, as a real estate investor, YOU already know this. That’s why you read commentaries like this, and probably don’t have much exposure to Wall Street.

But remember there are MANY MILLIONS of people who haven’t discovered real estate investing … yet. Or only think of it as Flip This House.

Of course, true real estate investing is about using low cost, long-term debt to acquire passive income and generous tax breaks …

… and enjoying superior cash-on-cash yields (compared to bonds), while benefiting from long term inflation … insulated from short term deflation.

Real estate is slow, boring, and STABLE. And right now, stable is sexy.

As we’ve said before, you’re not seeing headlines announcing rents have collapsed 50% in the last 90 days because of coronavirus. That’s short-term deflation.

And ten years from now, when this current panic and its ramifications have joined all the other freak-outs of the last 100 years in the dust bin of history … do you think it’s more likely rents and real estate values will be up … or down?

History says “up” in dollar terms … because the dollar has a 100+ year history of losing value against REAL assets.

And most of what’s going on right now … more printing, more debt, more deficits … is BAD for the dollar in the long term.

Sure, most people can’t escape the temptation to gamble. “Buy low, sell high” brainwashing makes it nearly impossible to resist Wall Street volatility.

But SOME people … especially more seasoned folks … will decide the Wall Street roller coaster is more nauseating than intoxicating … and they’ll want off.

So while we’re concerned about the coronavirus panic and its near term effects on the economy and the financial system …

…. we’re SUPER EXCITED about the lessons being learned by Main Street Americans.

Because when more of Main Street gets back to real investing … in real assets and cash flow …

… it could create a big flow of funds out of Wall Street into Main Street … where the real wealth comes from and belongs.

Last time we looked, there’s usually BIG opportunity when money starts moving. The key is to put yourself in a good position to help facilitate it.

So whether you choose to borrow lots of money flowing into bonds and acquire properties in your own account …

… or you decide to start a syndication business to raise private equity to pair with abundant and cheap debt …

… this isn’t a time to be hiding under your sheets with a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Yes, be careful and stay healthy.

But keep your eye on the long-term big picture. It’s easy to get lost in the hype and miss big opportunities that grow out of the chaos.

Home-building bust … good, bad, or ugly?

One reason we write is because very little mainstream financial commentary addresses the unique needs of real estate investors.

Most financial pundits think of real estate merely in terms of home prices, home builder stocks, and maybe real estate investment trusts (REITs).

Their preferred investment strategy is buy-low-sell-high … usually based on divining things wholly outside an investor’s control.

It’s more like gambling than investing.  They even call their positions “bets”.

Of course, the buy-low-sell-high trading mentality encourages the churning of holdings … which generates commissions and short-term capital gain taxes.

That’s nice for Wall Street firms and the government which protects them, but not so much for Main Street investors trying to build reliable retirement income.

And if you watch the financial news, you’ll notice any discussion of yields and earning is generally in the context of their impact on share prices.  So back again to the buy-low-sell-high mentality.

But long-term income-property real estate investors look at the world VERY differently than the players and pundits of Wall Street.

For real estate investors, it’s all about acquiring streams of cash flow …

… collecting contracts (leases) with people and businesses who work every day and send us a piece of their production.  It’s a beautiful thing.

And even though we LOVE equity … we know REAL equity growth is driven by cash flow.  More cash flow equals more equity.

Of course, the purpose of equity is to acquire more cash flow.  Managed properly, they feed each other.  It’s a virtuous cycle of compounding wealth.

Best of all, with real estate, many of the factors affecting cash flow are very much within the control of the investor.

With that said, we still watch mainstream financial news for clues about what’s happening with the financial system, geo-politics, and macro-economics …

… and we carefully consider how those higher-level factors can directly impact Main Street investors.

So when the June new housing stats came out, here are some of the headlines that popped up in our news feed …

Weak Housing Starts Hurt Homebuilder Stocks
– Barron’s, 7/18/18

Housing Permits Soften, Starts Plummet
– Mortgage News Daily, 7/18/18

Slump in London House-Building Weighs on UK Housing Starts – U.S. News & World Report, 7/25/18

There are lots more, but you get the idea.  Pretty gloomy.

But these stories are just clues in the news.  We still need to figure out why it’s happening, what it means, and how it affects Main Street real estate investors.

Big picture, there are those who think housing is a leading indicator of a healthy economy.  So when housing is doing well, it drives economic growth.

We’re not so sure.  It seems to us housing is a trailing indicator … a reflection of economic growth.

After all, who buys a house so they can get a job?  Buying a home is sign of economic success, not a creator of it … at least not for consumers.

So we think a weak housing market is a reflection of a weak home-buyer.

This begs the question … WHY is the home-buyer weak?

We tossed in the UK article to highlight this weak housing-start situation may not be reflective of issues at merely the local or even national level.

So even though real estate is LOCAL … certain factors affecting it are MACRO … perhaps even geo-political or systemic.

But because we’re news hawks at every level … local, macro, geo-political, and systemic … we’re aware of some of those potentially contributory factors.

But let’s start with the basic economic principle of supply and demand. 

And remember … we always break out “capacity to pay” from “demand” because it makes us focus on factors of affordability.

Think about it …

“Demand”  alone for housing is fairly universal.  Nearly everyone wants a home … a bigger home, a better home … so demand in terms of desirability is almost a given.

But just because someone WANTS a home doesn’t mean they can AFFORD one.  So much of housing demand pivots off of demand’s “capacity-to-pay”.

And then there’s inventory … of both houses (supply side) and people (demand side).

Generally speaking, the world is increasing in population, though not always in any given geographic area.  So it’s certainly possible for an area to lose population, and demand for housing along with it.  Think the fall of Detroit.

But because the slowdown in home-building appears to be occurring in diverse locations, we’ll toss out the notion it’s driven by a slump in the supply of people and a shrinking demand for homes.

We’ll assume there’s plenty of people who want housing.

Now on the housing supply side, we find another clue here …

U.S. home sales sag as prices race to record high
– Reuters, 7/23/18

“ … a persistent shortage of properties on the market drove house prices to a record high.”

Hmmmm … that’s weird.

Low inventory explains slow sales and higher prices.   But wouldn’t both of those things entice home-builders to build MORE … not less?

After all, if buyers are bidding prices UP, the opportunity to earn profits should entice builders to increase production to cash in.

Yet there’s a reportedly low supply of houses, and apparently strong demand reflected by rising prices … and for some reason home-builders are slowing down.

Again, the market’s natural reaction SHOULD be to increase supply … which then drives down prices … and makes housing more affordable to more people.

But that’s not happening.

We think it’s because it can’t.  After all, a home-builder can only drop prices so far before it’s no longer economical to build.

As we’ve discussed previously, one of the first casualties of tariffs was lumber costs.  Steel is another.  And of course, there’s the labor shortage driving up costs in residential construction.

To top it all off, there’s the well-publicized increases in interest and energy expenses … which add costs to almost everything.

So with nearly every component of cost on the rise, builders can only drop prices so far … then they either can’t build, or they need to charge more.

But charging more means buyers must be able to pay more …

Maybe when builders are looking at their market studies, they’re not seeing an increase in buyer’s capacity to pay.

When mortgage rates are going up faster than paychecks … and inflation, gas prices and tariffs squeeze consumers … it drags DOWN their capacity to pay more for housing.

So after digging deeper, it seems there’s some understandable logic to the slowdown in housing permits … in spite of low inventory and rising prices.

Is that bad?  It depends.

Remember .. when people can’t afford to buy, they need to rent … from YOU.

When housing crashed in 2008, it was a huge BOON to investors in affordable housing.  The demand for rentals went UP.  Many real estate investors made fortunes.

So the lesson remains … the flip-side of problems are opportunities when you’re aware and prepared.

Right now, in spite of reports of a booming economy and high consumer confidence, it may not translate quickly into a boom in home-buying or home-building.

That might make Wall Street worry, but for Main Street real estate investors focusing on affordable markets and product types …

… or specialized niches like residential-assisted living or resort property which cater to affluent people …

… there’s still a lot of opportunity to build reliable long term wealth through real estate. 

Until next time … good investing!


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