June 12th, 2013
The S&P has upped the US. It has raised the outlook for US debt from “negative” to “stable” which some take as an indication that we are unlikely to see a ratings slide like the one in 2011 that took us from AAA to AA+ anytime soon. The agency cited a lower federal deficit, the willingness of the Fed to stimulate the economy some more, and a slightly improved political climate as reasons. S&P also estimates, citing Congressional Budget Office data, that federal debt held by the public will stabilize at 84 percent of GDP in the near future. Congressional Budget Office projected the U.S. deficit will shrink to $642 billion this year, from over $1 trillion the past four years. Much of this, of course can be attribute to the tax increases, along with the sequestration cuts that kicked in March 1.
One of the ironies of the credit downgrade is that it also abraded a little of Standard & Poor’s brand. According to Treasury officials, the firm made an error in estimating discretionary spending levels at $2 trillion higher than what the Congressional Budget Office estimated. After being alerted, S&P lowered its calculations by $2 trillion but pressed ahead with the downgrade which irked many in the Treasury department.
The question is, does it mean anything? Many maintain that S&P’s downgrade two years ago had no consequences for U.S. interest rates, the stock market or the value of the dollar. Taking a look at the real estate industry, we see the foreign investment in the US actually increased with the first half of 2013 posting $7.97 billion, a 25% jump over 2012– evidence that global capital still believes in the US as a safe haven for their money. According to the OECD, the US economy will grow 1.9% this year and 2.8% in 2014.
May 6th, 2013
Economists tell us that the reason the US is doing better than Europe is because of two things: our equity markets and our housing sector. And now comes the news that housing is posting its best numbers since 2006. The widely followed Case-Shiller indexes showed the price of single-family homes across 20 of the most important U.S. cities grew 9.3% in February, its fastest rate since May of 2006. Single family starts are expected to rise to 700,000 new homes (from 535,000 in 2012) and to 1 million in 2015.
All of this activity is, of course, being driven by all-cash investors looking for high returns (the Blackstone Group is reputedly spending $100 million a week buying homes). And homebuyers eager to lock in at record low interest rates who have very little to choose from. The reasons for short supply aren’t however related to the health of the market but because of the obverse. Home prices are still 29% to 30% off their mid-2006 peaks and monthly foreclosures are more than double what they were before the recession. Clearly, underwater homeowners and people who’ve seen some part of their equity vanish simply don’t want to take a loss so they’re waiting it out. As a result, we’re building more.
As housing price gains 23% per year in Phoenix; 17.6% in Las Vegas, and 16.5% in Atlanta, let us think carefully before we go on a building spree. We still have 1.1 million homes in some state of foreclosure and a shadow inventory that tops 2 million. It is important that we temper the current exuberance with a view to not flooding the market with excess inventory. The housing sector is critical to our recovery for two large reasons – the wealth effect which bolsters consumer spending and the fact that small to medium-sized businesses rely on home equity lines of credit to underwrite their businesses. True recovery can only happen with housing.
April 22nd, 2013
For those who have stressed the need for austerity and deficit reduction, who think that fiscal cliffs and sequestration are a good corrective to reckless spending, it may be helpful to consider what the IMF is saying. Lowering the outlook for U.S. growth to 1.9% from 2%, IMF Economic Counselor Olivier Blanchard called the U.S. spending cuts, known as the sequester, “the wrong way to proceed.” The U.S., he said, should impose less belt-tightening now, when the economy is still gaining its footing, and more in the future.
Take a look at Europe where the 17 countries using the euro currency remain in recession. Many are cutting spending sharply and raising taxes to slash mountainous debt, but the austerity strategies are stifling growth. The UK is expected to grow 0.7% this year and by 1.5% in 2014 and that’s better than France or Germany. During a recent trip to Europe, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew urged officials there to put more near-term emphasis on government spending to stimulate growth, as the U.S. did with its $800 billion stimulus from 2009 to 2011.
The IMF says next year will be better: 3% growth as the effects of the federal cutbacks fade and a housing rebound continues to bolster a strengthening private sector.
The IMF had been calling the global recovery “two-speed,” with emerging markets growing strongly and advanced economies weaker. Now, it says, it’s a three-speed recovery, with a growing divide between a strengthening U.S. and a still floundering Eurozone.
April 8th, 2013
On the latest episode of The Alter Group Podcast on Real Estate, Charles Krawitz used his 25 years of experience in financing of thousands of transactions, and the sale of highly distressed loans and REO assets to give us an inside look at the recovery of the banking sector. Banks now hold 49% of all commercial real estate debt and mortgage originations for the sector spiked 24% last year.
According to Charles, larger and regional banks which were saddled with distressed assets after 2007 have worked through their backlog of delinquent loans and are winding down the special assets groups tasked with dealing with problem notes and REO assets. Now, banks are once again seeing prospects in multifamily, medical office and grocery-anchored retail.
He spells out the trends of lending with banks doing full-recourse 75% loan-to-values but with shorter terms – interim or bridge loans rolling into a 3-5 year mini-perm. On the other hand life insurance companies, which are doing more originations than before the recession, are doing 3-20 year loans with 60% LTVs. Conduits which topped $40 billion in 2012, are doing 10 year loans (albeit with a preference for institutional-grade assets, higher-credit borrowers, significant equity).
Beyond lending from their balance sheets, banks are also procuring capital on behalf of their clients from sources such as the GSA, life insurance and the CMBS. According to Charles, being a third-party solutions provider to clients is one of the new frontiers for regional and larger banks.
To hear Charles Krawitz on the Banking Bounceback, listen to the latest episode of the AlterNow Podcasts.
February 25th, 2013
You’ve heard about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates trying to get their fellow billionaires to give away half their money to charity? Well, now their challenge is resonating outside the United States. Twelve new magnates have joined the Buffett-Gates “Giving Pledge” bringing the total to 102.
Who are they? Richard Branson, the Virgin Airlines eccentric; David Sainsbury, the super market tycoon; Hasso Plattner, German founder of SAP, the software giant; Victor Pinchuk, a Ukrainian ; Vladimir Potanin, a nickel mining magnate. There are two Africans now on the list – Mo Ibrahim, a mobile phone billionaire who previously spoinsored a cash prize for retired African leaders who did a good job in office; and Patrice Motsepe, a South African mining boss.Joining them is one Malaysian, Tan Chee Yioun, and one Indian, Azim Premji, a technology tycoon. According to Forbes, there were 1223 billionaires on the planet in 2012. Surprisingly, Buffett and Gates could find no takers in some of the world’s fastest growing economies – Mexico, Brazil or China.
What about giving overall? No question — the recession has put a hot on giving. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 50 donors committed a total of $7.4-billion to charity in 2012. The median gift was $49.6-million, down significantly from 2007’s high of $74.7-million.Most of the money went to big, elite institutions. Seventy-two percent of the dollars pledged supported higher education, arts and culture, hospitals, and private foundations. One encouraging sign is that younger billionaires are joining the ranks of the world’s most munificent people: Among the five top philanthropists last year, three were couples under 40. The youngest was Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook co-founder, who is 28, and his 27-year-old wife, Priscilla Chan.
January 23rd, 2013
President Obama was inaugurated for his second term — the 44th president — a day after he took his oath on the constitutionally required date at the White House. The crowd was smaller, the weather throughout most of the nation was biting cold, and the message was hope chilled with the experience and weariness of a drawn-out recession. Out of the lofty rhetoric and perfunctory promises, we looked for themes that point to the tenor of an Obama second term.
The President started his speech with a historical framing of the event (“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people”) before weaving in the architecture of the Obama doctrine – of government activism, of infrastructure improvement, his belief in the transformative power of education and an enlarged notion of citizenship.
It is interesting to compare Obama’s tone with the addresses of his predecessors: President Reagan declared an end to the era of big government and President Clinton signaled a move into a new century. Using phrases like “our generation’s task” Obama pronounced “a decade of war” as “now ending”. Much of the latter half of the speech used the Obama language of renewal to posit a third way, between FDR and Reagan, of individualism and collectivism. “Seize it together”, “the broad shoulders of a rising middle class”, were followed by raising the promise of a little girl rising out of poverty with the help of a social safety net. This signaled a new level of inclusiveness for an inaugural address (“ We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few” ) with reference to “our gay brothers and sisters”. Most memorably, he referred to “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” a threading of social movements that drew the gay community, women and African Americans into a common civil rights narrative.
The President remains an extraordinary orator, his voice rising and dipping in pitch and volume, the meter of his delivery tightening and then relaxing throughout the speech. No matter what side of the political spectrum one finds oneself, there is no question that the occasion of the American inauguration remains significant in human history. We are second only to England in terms of the number of consecutive peaceful transitions of power. This remains a supreme achievement at a time when the right to vote remains contested in so much of the world. Inaugural day is a nod to the legacy of our union and a pledge to the future.
January 4th, 2013
Like a good 30’s serial, Congress seems to enjoy brinkmanship and 11th hour rescues. And it was historic. For the first time in 20 years, Republicans voted to raise income taxes (the last time was when George H.W. Bush broke his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge). The Senate’s “fiscal cliff” bill passed 257-167. The Bush-era tax cuts will expire for people making $450,000 and up on earned and investment income. They will see their top rate go back to where it was during the Clinton era – from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. The deal also delays implementation of the sequester – $110 billion in automatic spending cuts set to begin Jan. 2—by two months. Ultimately, it comes down to gamesmanship and how the issues poll. Higher taxes on the middle class poll badly for Republicans as opposed to refusing to raise the debt ceiling. That’s why Republicans fared better in August of 2011 during the debt ceiling talks than in January of 2013.
Not that the Democrats won a clear victory. Left-leaning house and senate members decried the deal for sparing people earning between $250,000 and $450,000 from higher taxes. And the administration faces three new cliffs in short order – when the sequester comes back in two months; followed by a new debt ceiling deadline and expiration of the continuing budget resolution at the end of March. We are now in an era of cliffhangers.
One clear winner is Joe Biden who burnished credentials as a wily tactician and a master of backroom deals. After the Obama-Boehner impasse, it was Biden and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell who made the deal happen (by a landslide 89-8 vote). With Biden set to lead the campaign for gun control, it seems clear that the administration sees him as their chief negotiator.
All told, the fiscal-cliff deal produces $620 billion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Stay tuned.
January 4th, 2013
With the Bush era tax cuts on capital gains poised to expire at the end of the year, the investment sales market went on a tear in the 4th quarter. According to CoStar, total deals were up 46% from the same time a year ago based on transaction data through Dec. 31, according to Brian Kerschner, real estate economist for Property and Portfolio Research (PPR), CoStar’s analytics and forecasting company.
Not surprisingly, it was small-cap deals — assets most likely to be sold by owners hoping to mitigate the tax consequences of a sale – that really spiked, increasing in volume by 77% in the fourth quarter. Large-cap deals typically have less exposure to capital gains because they tend to involve REITs and pension funds which are tax advantaged investors.
The maximum rate for long-term capital gains had been 15% for individuals earning up to $85,650 a year or families earning up to $142,700. If we had gone over the cliff, the rate would have jumped to 20%.
Deals that closed in the waning days of 2012 included the following:
- Amazon.com had the blockbuster of the year: It paid $1.16 billion for its Seattle headquarters, encompassing 11 buildings totaling 1.8 million square feet.
- Cupertino, CA-based Mission West Properties, Inc. sold all of its real estate assets for about $1.3 billion in two separate transactions
- Dexus Property Group sold the majority of its U.S. industrial portfolio for $561 million as part of its strategy to exit the U.S. market by April, reallocating proceeds from offshore property sales to core Australian properties, CEO Darren Steinberg said. The sale of 26 of Dexus’ 27 American properties was achieved at a significant premium to their book value.
Incidentally, the same logic applied to the residential market. New York, for example, saw an extraordinary 2,598 home sales in the last three months of 2012 — the highest for a Manhattan fourth quarter in at least 25 years.
Under the terms of the fiscal-cliff deal reached Tuesday, capital-gains taxes increased only for annual incomes over $400,000 for individuals and $450,000 for households. They will pay a new capital gains tax rate of 23.8%.