Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hong Kong Revisited -- Risks Presented by Low Cap Rates



View of Hong Kong Central from Kowloon, November 2012

Returning to Hong Kong 18 months after my previous post, I found residential prices had increased 23% this year alone as of October, and 87% since 2007, causing the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (Hong Kong's central bank) to worry that “the disconnect between property prices and economic fundamentals” presents “macro-financial risks” to the Hong Kong economy.

Globalpropertyguide.com has reported rental property capitalization rates in Hong Kong have declined to a range between 2.2 and 3.6%, and as low as 2.13% in The Peak neighborhood, and The Economist has reported an estimate that Hong Kong homes are 69% overvalued when compared to the rental income that they can produce.

Ultra-low real estate capitalization rates in Asia, such as in Hong Kong, present a bubble that lasts only until interest rates return to normal levels. Hong Kong already has a history of these bursting bubbles, such as the office market in 2004, declining 30% the following year, or the residential market in the Asian Contagion of 1997, when average prices declined 63% from peak to trough.

The Hong Kong government has already taken measures to discourage speculation, such as lowering loan-to-value ratios on mortgages and imposing stamp duty taxes of 15% on home flippers and foreign buyers, but such measures also send signals that housing prices are still headed upwards.

A Barclay’s report this year shed some light, though, on the gain in housing prices, reporting that the proportion of investor-buyers increasing to 70% and that 60% of homeowners have no mortgage. This points the reason for the price gain in the direction of foreign buyers, particularly the Chinese mainland, who often do not occupy their Hong Kong homes but treat them as “safe haven” assets.

With home affordability in Hong Kong at historic lows, any events that call in to question Hong Kong’s “safe haven” status, such as an interest rate shock, could cause it to suffer the fate of most of the second home markets the world over, although there is always a need for a safe haven somewhere. London, New York and Dubai have been recent popular destinations for foreign buyers with this aim in mind.

Hong Kong benchmark interest rate history -- HK Monetary Authority
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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Perverse Executive Compensation Schemes Instigated the American Mortgage Crisis



Last month I had the opportunity to watch my former boss on trial. On December 7th, he and his two co-defendants were found liable by a jury for $168.1 million in damages to the FDIC (U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) for the failure of IndyMac Bank, the costliest failure to date for the FDIC, causing an estimated cost to taxpayers of $12.8 billion. This case was known as FDIC v. Van Dellen, Koon and Shellem. The basis of this lawsuit was that the defendants departed from safe and sound lending practices in order to score personal bonuses based on loan volume.

IndyMac executives Shellem and Koon


Eleven years ago I was the chief commercial appraiser for IndyMac Bank in Pasadena, California, reporting to the chief credit officer, Ken Shellem, who was one of the defendants in this case. I started my position there with the naïve expectation that this new bank wanted to follow all the rules. It took me 3 months to figure out that IndyMac was in the business of breaking rules to enrich its senior management, and this corruption led to the top of the organization, the Chairman of the Board, David Loeb.

Chairman David Loeb was best known as a co-founder of Countrywide Home Loans than in his other role as a Nevada land developer. While Federal Reserve Board Regulation O severely limits the amount of money that can be loaned to officers of a regulated institution, Mr. Loeb had found what he thought to be a loophole. He pushed through bank loans to developers who were buying his land in Nevada. As the chief commercial appraiser, I was told that I would be fired if I held up any appraisal supporting one of these land loans, and I was prohibited from ordering any appraisals. All appraisals were ordered by loan officers on sales commissions.

I worked mainly with the Bank’s Home Builders Division and was surprised to find that its own senior credit officer was on commission. As a result, there was no loan proposal that he didn’t like. After 3 months, it was made plain to me that my job was to approve every salesman-ordered appraisal report with a review report bearing my signature. This concerned me, because I found a few of the reports to be biased with false inspection reports, absurdly optimistic income projections, or appraised values well above the simultaneous purchase prices.

I tried to hold on to my job as long as possible without approving the fraudulent reports. I certainly did not want to be fired, but neither did I want to be prosecuted or sued some day for participating in loan fraud. It would be better to be unemployed. I was fired roughly 6 months after I started.

I blew the whistle to the regulators (OTS), and shortly afterwards there were some personnel changes at IndyMac, including the sudden retirement of Chairman Loeb and the termination of the COO and Senior Credit Officer of the Home Builders Division. Loeb died five months later, the Kenneth Lay of the banking industry. Most of the ringleaders kept their jobs, however, including the defendants named above.

I launched a wrongful termination lawsuit against the bank and two of the same defendants named above – Ken Shellem, my boss and chief credit officer, and Richard Koon, the chief loan sales officer, who worked hard to persuade the bank to fire me. At a court-ordered mediation the case was “settled to the mutual satisfaction of both parties.” A non-disclosure agreement prevents me from saying more.

The problem with the whole mortgage industry

In the mortgage industry meltdown of 2007-2008 it could be asked why so many of the best and brightest financial minds were so wrong again so soon after the savings and loan fiasco of two decades ago?

It’s the compensation

One explanation is that financial executives were gaming the system in response to unsound executive compensation systems commonly used by public companies.

Earnings can often be booked at loan origination, regardless of loan soundness. During the good times, these unsound loans can be sold off to sit in mortgage pools or portfolios as ticking time bombs, to be dealt with long after the senior executives have received their bonuses and exercised their stock options. Many mortgage industry executives succumbed to such a compelling enrichment scheme.

IndyMac Bank and Washington Mutual


Two of the largest savings and loan institutions in the U.S., IndyMac and Washington Mutual, were respectively seized by the FDIC in July and September of 2008.

Both were fast-growers who were rewarded by Wall Street with high price-earnings multiples and soaring stock prices. Those in the mortgage lending business know, however, that such rapid growth is inconsistent with prudent lending.

Many mortgage-lending institutions rewarded their CEOs and COOs with incentive-based compensation that dwarfed their annual base salaries and encouraged them to do whatever was necessary to increase the stock prices of those institutions. Stock prices moved in tandem with reported earnings.

IndyMac CEO Mike Perry, for instance, had an annual salary of one million dollars per year, but his incentive-based compensation (bonuses and stock options) was many times as high. Perry earned over $32 million by selling IndyMac stock from 2003 to 2007, in addition to performance bonuses which were typically 75 to 100% of his base salary.

An IndyMac press release on September 22, 2006, “IndyMac Signs Long-Term Contract with High-Performing CEO, Michael Perry,” plainly explains the radical difference in future (year 2007) compensation to Perry under various scenarios, with his total compensation limited to $1,250,000 for EPS growth of less than 5%, but compensation of $8,943,000 for EPS growth of 17%. With a compensation structure like this, it was no wonder why rapid growth was pursued at all costs. Making and selling unsound loans would be the easiest way of meeting such a financial goal.

Kerry Killinger, CEO of Washington Mutual (WAMU), was also paid a base salary of $1,000,000 in Washington Mutual’s last full year of existence, and he was incentivized with stock options that brought his total pay package to more than $14 million. The New York Times reported that he received $38.2 million in performance pay ($7.6 million in cash and the remainder in stock) between 2005 and 2008. WAMU”s mortgage-related losses of $8 billion in 2007 and 2008 wiped out all of its earnings in 2005 and 2006.

World Savings

As reported on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, Herb and Marion Sandler safely and soundly managed World Savings for years before finally succumbing to such temptation, receiving millions of dollars in the sale of their doomed institution to Wachovia Bank, so badly damaged that the federal government had to force its sale to Wells Fargo.

Fannie Mae

Franklin Raines, the CEO at Fannie Mae, received $52 million in compensation between 1999 and 2004, with $32 million from an incentive plan generating big bonuses for Fannie Mae achieving certain performance yardsticks, such as 15% annual growth in earnings. Mr. Raines was accused of falsifying the reported earnings to gain his bonuses and was therefore terminated, leading to a $9 billion profit restatement covering years 2001-2004.

These CEOs have faced multiple lawsuits, some of which have not yet been resolved. Mike Perry, IndyMac CEO, settled with the FDIC (last week) and the SEC and faces class action lawsuits from investors.

Renowned law professor and former regulator William Black has recently made similar comments as follows:
 
Widespread appraisal fraud by mortgage lenders optimizes accounting control fraud.  The fraud “recipe” for a mortgage lender (purchaser) has four “ingredients.”
  1. Grow like crazy by
  2. Making (purchasing) really crappy loans at a premium yield (interest rate) while
  3. Employing extreme leverage (very high debt to equity ratios), and
  4. Providing only grossly inadequate allowances for loan and lease losses (ALLL)
George Akerlof and Paul Romer wrote a famous article in 1993 entitled “Looting: The Economic Underworld of for Profit.”  They agreed with the central finding of competent financial regulators and white-collar criminologists: following this recipe produces a “sure thing.”  More precisely, following the recipe produces three sure things.  The lender (purchaser) will report record (albeit fictional) profits in the near term, the controlling officers will promptly be made wealthy by modern executive compensation schemes, and the lender (purchaser) will suffer severe losses in the longer term. 
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

The “Colonias” at the Mexico-Texas Border



Colonia in Cameron County, Texas

While working on an assignment near Brownsville, Texas, which was a proposed subdivision with no entitlements or development plan, it reminded me of a different type of illegal subdivision which has been a scourge in the Texas Rio Grande Valley.











The word “colonia” has an often undesirable connotation in Texas, unlike other areas of Latin America, where it generally refers to suburbs or other human settlements. In Texas it refers to illegal residential subdivisions lacking the basic utilities (water and sewage treatment) needed for human habitation. Residents also sometimes have to poach electricity from the closest power line, as often done in India. These colonias are some of the poorest communities in the U.S. (60% of households earn less than $1600 per month and average household size is 4.1) and are estimated to contain as many as 500,000 residents in Texas. A University of Texas study indicates their greatest prevalence in the border counties of Webb (Laredo) and Maverick (Eagle Pass) and the Central Texas counties of Travis (Austin) and Bastrop.

Photo from P.A. Lassiter
http://palassiter.wordpress.com/travel-photos/colonias/

When one crosses north from Mexico to Texas, the landscape and culture have a less defined boundary than the border itself, as the Texas border is porous and the border fence has unguarded openings for vehicles (although vehicles can’t cross the Rio Grande at those points). Extended families sometimes live on both sides of the border and cross freely, and the vast majority of residents on the immediate Texas side of the border are ethnically Mexican.

Texas governments have traditionally had a laissez-faire (“anything goes”) attitude towards real estate development. There are no zoning laws governing land outside city limits, and even the city of Houston has no zoning code.

Some unscrupulous land developers have previously taken advantage of this laxity by subdividing rural land, building or allowing substandard housing on it, and failing to install water or sewers. This was done illegally, and per Texas Local Government Code section 232, all residential subdivisions must now be approved by county government and show that they have water and wastewater removal prior to development. Lack of zoning is not the same as having approval to build. The law allows almost any piece of rural land to be subdivided and developed, but the development has to meet local standards, which include water and sanitation.

Because these communities live outside the conventions of the modern American financial system, colonia residents cannot obtain mortgage financing for their land or homes. Instead, their home purchases are typically financed through “contracts for deed” issued by the original property owner as “pay-to-own” contracts, and are often informal and handwritten, charging interest rates as high as 20% per year. This leaves homeowners without proper title to their properties, not being recorded in official land registries, and burdens homeowners with tremendous risk that they cannot claim or sell their ownership rights.

In 1995, the Texas state government was becoming increasingly concerned about living conditions and exploitation of poor homeowners in colonias and enacted legislation to discourage “contract for deed” transactions and assure that all residents have water, sanitation, and electricity. This will prevent future colonias from being developed, but has not necessarily corrected existing colonias, as there has been no budget for enforcement.

Colonias may undergo similar life cycles to conventional neighborhoods, starting simple and uncrowded, than densifying to horrific proportions, and then finally being recognized and brought under the control of local authorities and even provided with modern infrastructure. The top 2 photos are colonias I saw in Cameron County, which has made progress in getting colonias under control. I searched in vain in Cameron County for a horrificly overcrowded colonia, so I turned to another blogger for the third photo, one of many on her own blog.
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Waterfront Land Appraisal in Puerto Rico



This was a 1000+acre combination of fee simple (freehold) and leasehold interests in land around a scenic bay in Puerto Rico, and the lease agreement also had an option to purchase. A developer was acquiring these interests for an already approved project to build hotels, villas, and a cruise ship port. This mixture of interests meant that I had three tasks to do:

1. Determine the market value of the fee simple parcel, whose purchase price had been set in year 2000,
2. Determine the market rental rate for the remaining parcels and compare to the contractual rental rate to determine if there is a positive leasehold value, and
3. Determine if the option price was above or below market value in order to determine if the option had any value.

In my background check on the borrower, I found that he had pled guilty a year ago to a criminal charge of mortgage fraud and was also being sued by the FDIC. This became troubling to me as he required a quick closing on the loan and was using an unknown escrow company, yet had no signed, valid contracts as of my visit or several days afterward. What was also suspicious was that the price kept on changing with each new contract version he sent, all of which were in MSWord and easily alterable.

The ground lease was to another unaffiliated LLC who was supposedly going to assign its interest to the borrower after the lease was signed, but despite my requests, I never received a document of this assignment of leasehold interest. Moreover, the lease had a clause which rendered it null and void if anyone in the tenant’s company had had a criminal conviction.


The fee simple parcel had an abandoned sugar mill, and there was no environmental report to inform me about possible contaminants. Common sugar mill contaminants include bagasse (from boiler fuel), pesticides from the sugar liquid and residue, and metal oxides from the rotting of the structures. This site had an estimated 50,000 tons of scrap metal, much of it rusting, placing iron and zinc oxides into the soil.


The bay’s water was as turbid as New York Harbor and unlike the clear blue water one would normally expect in the Caribbean. The problem was agricultural runoff from the farms upstream, making the bay very silty, compounded by incoming wave action from the Caribbean Sea. The waterfront of the fee simple site, moreover, consisted mainly of bulkhead and mangroves, making it unsuitable for a beach. Beaches are one of the principal attractions of Caribbean resorts.

Moreover, the bay’s maximum depth was only 29 feet, whereas most cruise ships have drafts (distance from waterline to bottom of keel) of more than 25 feet and need another 6 feet of depth for clearance. The bay would have to be dredged first and periodically thereafter until the continuing river silt deposits were under control.

Sales of large parcels of entitled land had not occurred in several years in this part of Puerto Rico, but a look at listings of property for sale indicated asking prices below the sales prices of several years ago. An adjacent, waterview parcel entitled for 100 hotel rooms and 50 villas is listed for sale at just $35,000 per acre or $10,000 per UBV (“unidad basica de vivienda” or “unidad de vivienda basica”, meaning “basic housing unit”, a unit of measure uniquely created by the Reglamento de Zonificacion de Puerto Rico, the zoning regulation for Puerto Rico). One UBV is equivalent to a 3-bedroom dwelling. A 2-bedroom dwelling counts for .8 UBV. A one-bedroom dwelling counts for .6 UBV, and a hotel room counts for .4 UBV.)

The purchase option was based on a price close to $100,000 per UBV, ten times as high as the neighboring property, so the purchase option was considered to have no value.

Because the ground rent was in steps leading up to a stabilized rent equivalent to 8% of the purchase option price, and no ground leases were found as high as 8% of value, the leasehold interest itself was also considered to have no value.

The only parcel that was considered to have value was the fee simple brownfield parcel, so there was insufficient collateral to support the large development loan requested by the borrower. Furthermore, he never showed the ratified, valid contracts that would show that he was really closing these transactions (with my client's funds) on the day he specified, with his chosen escrow company. (I always advise my clients to use nationally known escrow companies.) I suspected a scam.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Real Estate Purchase Contract Scams


The appraisal textbooks don’t mention these, so I will.  Real estate purchase contracts are often constructed to mislead lenders and appraisers.  Various ruses are used to inflate stated purchase prices above market value, with the hope of tricking an appraiser into valuing a property at above market value and tricking a lender into offering a loan at an unsafe loan-to-value ratio. Many borrowers don't want to inject cash equity into a deal if they have the ability to purchase with "no money down".

What the buyer and seller are counting on is a phenomenon known as “anchor bias”, the tendency of appraisers to offer an appraised value identical to the purchase price. Various academic studies have indicated that this happens about 96 to 97% of the time, but I notice that some appraisers have been getting wiser lately.

Some ruses that I have recently seen include the following:

1. The “soft second” mortgage loan – forgivable seller financing used to inflate the contract purchase price.

My last appraisal assignment presented such a possibility.  It was an $8 million purchase contract which was contingent upon $4 million in first mortgage financing, supplemented by seller financing of $4 million.  The buyer would have no equity in the property, a situation that presents a high risk for loan default.

I suspected that the seller financing was a “soft second”, a seller concession disguised as a fake loan.  My suspicion was well supported by a contract purchase price which was $1.6 million above the listing price for a property that had been marketed for almost 3 years on LoopNet and updated only 8 days before.

Normally, the term “soft second” in the real estate industry refers to a legitimate second mortgage loan made at a below-market rate, perhaps subsidized by a government agency or a nonprofit entity.  In some cases, though, the seller financing is not meant to be paid back.  It is a price concession in disguise, meant to inflate a contract purchase price.

An appraiser cannot be sure the second mortgage is real or fake, so he must look for clues, the most obvious of which is that the purchase price is not supported by comparable sales or the purchase price is above the asking price.  The lack of equity contributed by the buyer should also make lenders and appraisers think twice.

One would think that some government agency or appraiser association would issue an “all points bulletin” on this deception, but this scam continues to this day.

2. Unsigned purchase agreements in draft form.

I have seen a proliferation of this trick in the last 2 years, and am currently witnessing it happen on a transaction in Puerto Rico.  The buyer just says that the purchase contract has not yet been finalized and submits his own version, usually in MSWord, with a different price.  Very simple, but these deceivers are counting on appraisers or lenders who will believe anything. 

Normally, an application for a purchase mortgage loan comes with an already-signed purchase agreement with contingencies for financing. Why and how could there be a closing without a definitive purchase agreement? An agreement that is not written is known to be not worth the paper it is written on. There is no reason for an appraiser to accept an unsigned, draft purchase agreement as a reliable indication of value.

3. The double escrow

This is when there are two purchase contracts for the same property.  The first purchase contract is the legitimate one, and once closed, the buyer can then sell at a higher price to an entity he controls in a different purchase contract that he will submit to lenders and appraisers.  The latter transaction, however, is a sham "pocket-to-pocket" transaction.

4. Secret partnerships and "transaction facilitators"

In one instance I met with the owners/sellers of swampland intended for development of a marina residential community. The buyer and sellers were old friends, but none had development experience. I was presented with three conflicting purchase contracts, and whenever the story keeps on changing, that is a good sign of deception. After four hours I asked Mr. Seller, who lived in a trailer on the property, where he would be moving to. He seemed surprised and responded, "I'm staying here, of courseI've got a lot of work to do!" which made it clear that he was part of the development team and this was not an arm's length transaction. I looked at his wife, whose facial expression said "How can my husband be so stupid?"

I discovered one company in Arizona that advertised "transaction facilitation" services. Step 1 is that the buyer forms a joint venture partnership with the transaction facilitator in buying the property in the guise of an LLC or Limited Partnership. Step 2 is the shell company (the LLC or LP) sells to the buyer again at a higher price in a sham transaction designed to trick a lender and maximize financing.
I encountered this company in a purchase loan application with a contract price which was twice market value.

Another type of "transaction facilitation" is those services which "rent" cash down payment money overnight to buyers while the purchase price is inflated to cover the amount of the phony down payment.  Law enforcement has been shutting down such operations in the United States.

5. The missing addendum

Sometimes the purchase contract has a dangling reference to an addendum that so conveniently gets separated from the contract. I am looking right now at a purchase contract with an asterisk by the stated sales price. Below the asterisk is the explanation: “*Sales Price is subject to adjustment based on Special Provision Addendum”. When I requested the missing Special Provision Addendum, it stated that the purchase price could be adjusted to 50% of my appraised value. Knowing that a property will be sold at half my appraised value – now that is a sobering thought.

6. The straw buyer

I recently appraised a parcel of raw land for a purchase money loan to a prospective developer of a hyperscale supercomputing facility along the NLR (National LambdaRail).  The purchase application indicated that the buyer, who supposedly owned a hyperscale computing company, was putting no cash into the transaction; seller financing would fill the funding gap.  At the same time, there was no discernible relationship with the sellers.  The appraisal failed to hit the purchase price, but rather than trying to negotiate the purchase price down, the buyer spent two months arguing that the property should be appraised higher.  Finally, a background check indicated that this man was no computer expert but had a history of legal judgments, bankruptcies, aliases, criminal convictions -- and a degree in political science.  It appeared that he may have been hired to be a fake buyer to bail the sellers out. These types of arrangements are sometimes found offered on LinkedIn.

Straw buyers are more common than you would think.  As I drive around L.A., for instance, I see simple signs stapled to telephone poles advertising "Real Estate Investment Partners Wanted".  What happens when one calls the number is that a fee will be offered to someone with good credit to co-sign a mortgage loan, no money needed, for someone with impaired credit.  The fee might be $5000 or $10,000 for a residential mortgage, but I've seen a fee of $50,000 offered to co-sign a commercial mortgage.  In each instance, the real estate partner will be guaranteed to have his name released from the mortgage lien after funding of the loan, but it often does not work out this way, as what starts as mortgage fraud (use of a straw buyer with a high credit score) often continues as a mortgage fraud; the real estate "partner" is not released from the mortgage lien and ends up being pursued by a lender for the full amount of a delinquent mortgage loan. Moreover, the "real estate partner" with the high credit score cannot report this fraud to law enforcement because he has already become an accomplice to mortgage fraud.

Other purchase contract deceptions

It is risky, any way, for an appraiser to automatically assume that a contract purchase price is identical to market value.  I have seen fake purchase contracts and purchase contracts which disguise the fact that the buyer and seller are one and the same. I have seen purchase prices inflated by real estate syndicators who are compensated as a percentage of the transaction price.

Many appraisers are so convinced that the purchase price is real that they make the mistake of making unconventional adjustments to sales data to support the stated purchase price. They may choose much newer properties or much smaller properties as comparable sales and fail to make adjustments for age or size.

Questions to ask

The first thing I do in analyzing the purchase transaction is to peruse the Internet to try to find the property listed for sale. LoopNet and realtor.com are good sources, but sometimes if you just google the address of the property, you can find a more obscure listing. When I find the property listed at a price below the contract purchase price, and the property has already spent a substantial time on the market, that is cause for suspicion.

The next question I ask the buyer and the seller, separately if possible, is "who were the listing broker and the buyer's broker on this transaction?" The reason why I ask is that I see so many purchase loan applications which are not represented by a broker, begging the question of how the buyer and seller found each other in a market with so many properties listed for sale. 

If there was no broker, there was most likely no listing or advertising, meaning the buyer already knew the seller, increasing the odds that the purchase transaction is not arm's length or could even be a "pocket-to-pocket" transaction with the owner buying the property from himself with my client's financing. Past experience has shown me that this is a way to make the lender the unintentional buyer of a hard-to-sell property.

One tell-tale sign of a fraudulent purchase is when the buyer complains that the value is too low. In legitimate purchases, the buyer often uses a low appraisal to negotiate a better price, and they sometimes even thank me for saving them money, but when a buyer starts making phony excuses as to why the appraised value should be higher, it is a signal to me that the buyer is either already affiliated with the seller, a straw buyer, or else the buyer and seller have negotiated a separate purchase agreement and the contract I was given was phony.

Recent adverse publicity for the appraisal profession

The National Association of Realtors (U.S.) has recently unleashed their well-funded publicity machine to criticize appraisers for failing to "hit" purchase prices. They publicize sob stories of realtors whose purchase deals fell apart.  "I had a bona fide purchase contract and the incompetent appraiser appraised it too low!" Such things could be said about me, too, but nothing is being said about the epidemic of deceptive purchase contracts nowadays.

To appraisers who think they must "hit" the purchase price:

If it was really true that the market value of a property is always the same as the purchase price, there would be no need for appraisals, would there be? 

It doesn't help, though, that some lenders have policies of sanctioning appraisers who don't "hit the purchase price".

Next stop: Puerto Rico










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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mexico's La Riviera Maya: Ruins from a post-Columbian Race


Storm clouds gather at El Cañón de los Condos, Cozumel

























Many tourists are drawn to Mexico's Riviera Maya to visit ruins from a pre-Columbian civilization known as the Mayas, a civilization thought to be the most sophisticated civilization in the western hemisphere prior to the arrival of Columbus, with surprisingly advanced knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, medicine and engineering. Legendary L.A. schoolteacher Jaime Escalante referred to Mayan mastery of mathematics to instill confidence in his Mexican-American students.  

Unlike the Aztecs, the Mayan civilization reached its zenith 6 centuries before the arrival of Columbus and then fell into a mysterious decline. The reason for this decline is not yet understood, and their ruins leave us curious to know more about them.

In my valuation work in Latin America, I have encountered equally interesting ruins from a post-Columbian race of people, a people I label as desarrolladores especulativos (“speculative real estate developers”). Although always present in the indigenous population, their numbers exploded during the first decade of the 21st century, with a significant influx from North America, but this race curiously disappeared after 2008.

One builder's abandoned hommage to the Mayan ancestors, Playa del Carmen













As an appraiser-anthropologist, I have actually met and worked with these people and participated in their beer-drinking  and overeating rituals afterwards. The desarrolladores especulativos were of diverse ethnicity, with some being Latino and others being North American. The one thing they seemed to have in common is that they were all middle-aged and older males. Could this gender imbalance be a biological reason for the disappearance of this race?

No, because this race is not actually extinct, but is instead just hiding from creditors.

Still, there is little left to understand these people other than the ruins they left behind.

La Piscina para los Dioses









As the 21st century began, the desarrolladores greatly increased in numbers. Many came from English-speaking countries. Some called themselves “developers”; others called themselves “renowned developers”. Members of this latter group had sometimes produced only one successful development. (Would Trump need to describe himself as "renowned"?) Some had no actual development experience, and when asked about what other projects they had built, they responded evasively with answers such as “I’ve been in this business 20 years” (most likely in real estate sales).

"La Torre Disponible" peeks out of the jungle much like pre-Columbian ruins in San Miguel.  






Some historians speculate that the Mayan civilization fell due to an unknown cataclysmic event in about 900 A.D. Similar to this theory of Mayan destruction, the desarrolladores especulativos disappeared in an event known as el día en que murió préstamos “the day the lending died”, which can be narrowed down to some time in late 2008.
Here I am surveying an airplane wreck at la Playa del Cid La Ceiba. Could this have been a high-flying developer who found himself "underwater" in his development loans?
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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mitsui Fudosan and Shuwa Investments: Then and Now

Mitsui Building in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, Nov. 2, 2012



Some of us still remember a time, about a quarter of a century ago, when rules of valuation of office buildings were completely ignored in an ego-fueled Japanese buying binge.

The competition between Shuwa Investments Corporation and the real estate subsidiaries of Mitsui, Sumitomo and Mitsubishi in overpaying for real estate became insane. (“Mitsui Fudosan”, established in 1941, means “Mitsui Real Estate”)

For instance, the Exxon Building in New York was already listed for sale for $330 million when Mitsui came in and offered $610 million, or 85% above list price in 1986. When Mitsui representatives were later asked (after the deal closed) why they bid 85% above the list price, they said it was because Mitsui’s president wanted to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, and the previous high price for an office building had been $600 million [per Roger Simon Farrell, A Yen for Real Estate: Japanese Real Estate Investment Abroad – from Boom to Bust, 2000, Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK].

Not to be outdone, Shuwa Corporation acquired the Arco Plaza in downtown Los Angeles for $650 million in 1986, only to spend tens of millions more on asbestos abatement. Many of us who worked in L.A. in the late 1980s sat by our phones hoping for a call from Shuwa’s headhunter, because working for Shuwa meant being welcomed anywhere like a binge-shopping Arab sheik or Elizabeth Taylor at a jewelry store. 

By the end of the 1980s, though, Shuwa had lost its luster and even attracted local consternation in L.A. when local employees sued for being physically beaten at work. Finally, in 2002, the troubled loan from the Bank of Tokyo for all of Shuwa’s downtown L.A. office buildings was bought for $255 million.

"Yoshi-san just spent $650 million for Asbestos Plaza ! Hit him !"

[Disclaimer: Not an actual photo of employee beatings at Shuwa Corporation]









The causes

There was a perfect storm of causes that resulted in this legendary period of Japanese misinvestment:

a. The appreciation of the yen, starting in the mid-1980s. The Japanese manufacturing miracle suddenly elevated the yen to a status in which the rest of the world looked cheap.

b. Japan’s extraordinarily low cost of capital, which allowed borrowers to settle on lower returns from foreign real estate.

c. Japanese bank regulations which were favorable to real estate because real estate inflation was a fact of life at that time in Japan.

d. Rivalry for prestige among Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi, Shuwa, Mitsui and Sumitomo, which created a competitive haste to acquire trophy properties without adequate due diligence.

e. The Guinness Book of World Records.

f. The use of domestic investment criteria to evaluate overseas investments. In Japan at that time, real estate investors were being enriched by capital gains, and investors looking overseas were so convinced that capital gains would continue that they overlooked current financial performance. Japanese investors did not use DCF models or current rates of return in evaluating their foreign purchase decisions, as they assumed that capital gains would take care of everything.

Mitsui Fudosan today

As a publicly owned company, Mitsui Fudosan was forced to become run in a more sensible manner, and pursued a course as a savvy, diversified real estate developer involved in office, retail, and housing, with new initiatives in logistics facilities, solar power development and private REITs. It is not a J-REIT (Japanese REIT), but a development company focused on growth through value-added projects, and it had a good record in the last decade by increasing revenues by 21% and increasing the dividend from 14 yen per share in 2007 to 22 yen per share in 2009, where it has remained since, equivalent to a current dividend rate of 1.3%. The most recent annual report, however, indicated 4% slippage in revenues, down to 1.338 trillion yen, due mainly to the falloff in the property sales business.

One of Mitsui's most interesting recent projects has been DiverCity Tokyo Plaza, a grand mixed use project on Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay with an office tower and 154store, "theater-oriented" retail center. Just as New York Harbor has the Statue of Liberty, Mitsui has now given Tokyo Bay a statue of Gundam, a popular Japanese anime character.

Both Jones Lang LaSalle and Cushman & Wakefield have recently published reports that Tokyo now ranks third in the world for new real estate investment, trailing only New York and London, and some of these Tokyo investments are of the "flight to safety" type that also define the New York and London markets.

Part of this "flight to safety", however, is a flight to seismic safety after last year's 9.0 earthquake, creating an interest in new, safer office structures and also causing more functional obsolescence for high-rise structures built before 1981, when seismic standards were considerably strengthened.  The above-depicted Mitsui Building in Shinjuku, for instance, was completed in 1974, although one can observe that the entire east-facing wall of the building is dominated by seismic cross-bracing.

Although the U.S. hasn't had a major destructive earthquake since 1994, there is currently a flight to building safety after Hurrican Sandy caused such unexpected destruction in New Jersey and New York. In this case, tenants are seeking buildings more resistant to wind and water damage. It is not a good time to sell a beach house.

Last year, Mitsui Fudosan had a 25th year anniversary celebration of their acquisition of the Exxon Building, now known as 1251 Avenue of the Americas, in the building lobby.

Shuwa Investments Corporation was dissolved some time during the turn of the century. Being a privately held corporation, they did not have angry shareholders to keep them in line.

Per Jones Lang LaSalle and Cushman & Wakefield, the Tokyo office vacancy rate was last measured at 8.9%, down from over 10% the year before.
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Monday, October 29, 2012

Appraisal in St. Maarten


The property was a 20-acre hillside, ocean view parcel, improved with a 10,000 square foot home. The top half was zoned for conservation only, but the bottom half had an approved subdivision plan allowing 1200 square meter (13,000 square foot) lots. There were picturesque views of a bay and yacht harbor.

The home had been built in the 1970s and still had a few, dated design features from that time period, such as mirrored ceilings and flagstone facades, but was being renovated in preparation for the winter rental season, when it typically rents for $5500 per week. It had just received a new roof, kitchen and air conditioning units.

The buyer had not disclosed that the he was also the real estate broker who had listed the combined property for sale for the last 4 years at a price of $15 million. (Nothing else in the area had sold in the last 4 years, either.) The buyer offered $5 million, and the offer was accepted. Based on a cost approach and an income approach (based on weekly vacation rental rates) plus an estimate of value for unimproved, hillside land with ocean views, I validated the $5 million offer to be at market value.

Ordinarily, a scenario like this would result in a funded loan, but the buyer hired his own local appraiser to appraise the property for $36 million, and was intent on requesting an $18 million loan. He seemed quite insistent that he should be able to buy such a property for no cash down and also be able to pull $13 million out of the deal.

Similar to my discussion in my last Costa Rican post, it seems that there are many property owners and their pet appraisers who insist that highly sloping raw land is just as valuable as flat land. It is actually less valuable because of the extra costs to develop the land, but in the end, the finished lots are worth more becbause of the views.  In the mean time, it takes a lot of money to convert hilly terrain into finished lots. In this instance, too, the local appraiser assigned the same value to the unbuildable Conservation land as to much smaller flat, buildable parcels in the neighborhood. This is what makes lending on land particularly vulnerable to fraud.

Some other lessons to be learned here are:

1. Borrower-ordered appraisals are not taken seriously by lenders.
2. Requesting a cash-out loan for 260% of the purchase price is not likely to be taken seriously, either.
3. The market for luxury residential real estate in the Caribbean is still weak, just as it is in most other tourist destinations of the world.

It never ceases to amaze me, too, when a seller or broker fails to take their listing of the property off of the Internet before representing that the property has a much higher value.

I saw the same thing last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a property currently listed for sale for $6.9 million, having been listed for sale for nearly 3 years, with an application for title insurance in the amount of $4.5 million in favor of the buyer, but the only purchase document I received was an unsigned, post-dated purchase contract for a price of $8.5 million (with $4 million in seller financing). Considering that the $4 million in seller financing was the exact difference between the contract purchase price and the amount of title insurance, one can conclude that the $4 million second mortgage was a "soft second", a forgivable loan meant to inflate the purchase price and trick the lender and appraiser in believing that the $8.5 million purchase price represented market value.
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Central American Real Estate Horror Stories


I received another such phone call today. Today the offending country was Panama, but sometimes it is Costa Rica. I asked, “Did you get legal representation before you purchased the land?” The answer was “I didn’t know how to find an attorney down there, so I just went with the one recommended by the seller..” I asked, “Did you get title insurance?” The answer was “No. The title company thought it was a scam.” I’m short on time today, so let me just present 3 “musts” for investing in foreign real estate:

1. Get title insurance. It has become available in many countries where it did not exist before. If the title insurer won’t insure, that is Red Flag no. 1.

Get to know this "scent" before investing in Latin American real estate














2. Get independent legal representation. This means never use an attorney recommended by the seller. That is Red Flag no. 2.

3. Keep your property secure from squatters. If you do not plan to occupy your property, make sure that someone is there to keep the squatters off. Whether it is Latin America or Africa, once they’re living there, you will have a hard time removing them. Recall my previous post linking to a YouTube video of a desperate British investor who has fought for 14 years to remove squatters from his property in Costa Rica. My advice: If you’re just buying a vacation home, buy in a gated community.


Monday, October 8, 2012

Appraisal of Beach Land in Bahia, Brasil


This assignment was to value an L-shaped beach parcel, with the wide end of the parcel situated more than 1 km from the beach. 

The subject parcel had already been approved by the local small town for a 900-lot residential development, and about 200 lots were sold before sales dried up 2 years ago.  One problem in selling lots was competition from other projects. This town, which had grand growth ambitions, had already approved 16 such projects, and the adjacent project had sold only 150 lots out of 735 before pulling the plug on development. If every approved home had been built, this small town would have expanded several times in size.

To re-energize sales, this developer was planning to reconfigure the project at a lower density and include a luxury hotel with amenities.  This new plan had not yet been submitted to the city for approval, nor had there been pre-sales activity.

Despite all the “planning approvals” dispensed by the town, there did not seem to be a concomitant plan to improve the transportation infrastructure in this area.  The approved projects consisted of vacation residences and hotel rooms, and tourists would generally be coming from the airport and large cities to the south.  However, this town can only be reached via a two-lane highway divided by an estuary that can only be crossed by ferry.  The ferry seems to run at full capacity already.  Imagine the strain on the ferry service when several thousand more people have relocated to this town.
 
   Main highway separated by ferry crossing
 
Debate about beach land valuation methods

 There is more than one way to value beach land. Some appraisers use “price per hectare” while others use “price per lineal meter of beach”.  I am in the latter camp for the following reason:

An appraiser or valuer takes raw sales data and tries to make order out of chaos.  This is often done with adjustment grids or calculation of price-per-unit indicators, such as price per hectare, price per meter, or price per room. The object of this process is to adjust comparable sales data into as narrow a range as possible so that a definitive estimate of value can be made with little room for doubt.

 In valuing beach properties, I have found that price per lineal meter of beach to be anywhere from slightly more correlated to significantly more correlated with sales prices than price per hectare.  The greater the variety of shapes, the less valid is the use of “price per hectare” as a unit of value.  This is intuitive, as a parcel with 400 meters of beach front and 100 meters of depth will be much more desirable than a parcel with just 100 meters of beach front but 400 meters of depth.

My use of “price per lineal meter” was contested by the mortgage broker, who thought that I should rely exclusively on “price per hectare”, which can be a valid technique under certain circumstances, namely that the size and shape of the parcels should be similar.  In this particular case, the subject property had only about 350 meters of beach front, while most of its lots were situated more than 1 km from the beach.  In other words, most potential residents in this project would be living far from the beach, and level terrain precluded having beach views. All of the 9 comps I found had better ratios of beach front to total area.

When I have doubts about which unit of comparison to consider, I calculate a coefficient of variation for each unit of comparison.  The "coefficient of variation" is simply the ratio of the standard deviation of the sample to the mean of the sample.  A low coefficient of variation means little variation and a narrow range of indicated values.

 In the case of price per hectare, the coefficient of variation was 1.68. Whenever the standard deviation is so much larger than the mean, you have a statistically meaningless relationship.

I then applied the same analysis to "price per lineal meter of beach". In this case, the coefficient of variation was .48, signifying a much higher correlation between price and lineal meters of beach front. When I removed the two most geographically distant parcels from my sample, the coefficient of variation fell to a remarkable .133 for price per lineal meter.


The point of this post is that differences in shape and beach frontage can cause significant variations in the value per hectare for beach properties. Value per lineal meter of beach front is the more reliable indicator of value.

 
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