Friday, April 27, 2012

Shenyang and PCRT update

As reported in the April 25th edition of Retail Traffic, “Shenyang, China was the most active market for new development [in the world] in 2011 with 10.76 million sq. ft. [1 million square meters] of new retail space completed.” CBRE ranked Shenyang as second in the world in retail construction last year, with 2.18 million more square meters under construction in 18 separate projects.

Shenyang is a city of 5.7 million residents and ranks as the 11th most populous “urban area” in China (“urban area” being the term most analogous to the western concept of “city”.)

What this means is that Shenyang has increased retail space at a more rapid pace than most other large Chinese cities, which are themselves no slackers in building malls. Yet GDP per capita (the predominantly used statistic since household incomes are not measured) is less than half that of Shanghai. I have not heard the story yet on why Shenyang should have significantly higher hopes than other Chinese cities.

I have visited and focused previously on Shenyang because of it contains the only operating assets in the portfolio of Perennial China Retail Trust. Shenyang seems particularly at risk of retail overdevelopment, particularly the Dadong district containing the Shenyang Longemont Asia Pacific City development. The 2011 Market Study suggested a quadrupling of shopping center space in this area. Moreover, PCRT is designed to enrich its sponsors regardless of the success of its properties (such as compensation based on valuations performed according to blatantly unrealistic "extraordinary assumptions" dictated to the valuers), and the normal feasibility study process was thus compromised. 

The PCRT share price began sinking in February, possibly as a result of unfavorable news of a 39% decline in occupancy at the Red Star Macalline Mall as of December 11 (which had opened at 91.8% occupancy but was down to 56% as of December). The report to shareholders acknowledges that Chinese government initiatives to cool down the housing market have had an adverse impact on the sale of home furnishings, thereby hurting the tenants of Red Star Macalline Mall. PCRT has reported that they have relocated remaining tenants into one half of the mall, while the other half of the mall will be re-tenanted with conventional retail tenants, thus competing with their own Longemont Mall next door.

One surprising claim, though, was that the slow leasing performance of the Longemont Mall was due to a 3-month delay in the opening of the mall until October due to fire department regulations. My visit occurred in September and was instigated by the news that the mall had opened on July 1st. Furthermore, DBS (one of the IPO underwriters) published a favorable report on PCRT on November 14, 2011, with the title "Perennial China Retail Trust - Execution on Track", also informing the readers that the mall had opened in July. They set a 12-month price target of 83 cents. I noticed that their cameras carefully avoided photographing any vacant space, though.

It should be understood that the property inspectors and independent valuers are the paid advocates of PCRT management, hence explaining the wildly optimistic price targets and valuations.

Last week, the share price popped from 49.5 cents to 52 cents on news of Kuok Khoon Hong, the founder of Wilmar, a palm oil company, raising his stake in PCRT to 16.9%, seen as a vote of confidence. The purchase was at a price of only 44.6 cents per share, though, by a purchasing consortium 49.5% owned by Wilmar and 20% owned by CEO Pua Seck Guan. There is no buy that happens without a sell, however, and it should very concerning that the seller was Shanghai Summit, the local development partner in the Shenyang PCRT properties, effectively reducing their ownership stake from 14.9% to 0. When the developer in charge of the project bails out like this, shouldn't investors be concerned, particularly at a price of 44.6 cents per share? When the co-owner with the most local knowledge bails out, that is never a good sign.

PCRT is currently at 52.5 cents per share, creating a 17.7% two-week gain for buyers Kuok and CEO Pua Seck Guan.

Meanwhile, the latest "independent valuation" valuation still valued the entire PCRT portfolio as of the end of 2011 as completed and leased to 95% occupancy. I don't know why such fiction is permitted in Singapore, but if such a valuation report had been published in the USA, this would invite a class action lawsuit from disgruntled investors.

Disclosures: None. I have no short or long position in this stock and have no plans to initiate such a position.
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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Latin American Land Grabs from Absentee Owners

Squatter housing in Mexico

When performing market research in Latin America, I heavily consult broker web sites, some of which require me to identify myself and provide contact information.

As a result, I find my e-mail inbox filled each day with “Retire in Paradise” promotions, written with the same tired old marketing vernacular, frequent underlining, bolding and exclamation marks!!!, used to also peddle miracle weight loss or genital enlargement pills.

Included are elated testimonials from retirees living like kings on $800 per month, describing cheap, delicious local food, friendly locals and $10 visits to U.S.-trained doctors. There are no traffic jams, but one still has to drive slowly in order to avoid hitting one of the many unicorns jumping over rainbows. Then there is the exhortation to buy now, before prices go up, because Latin America is running out of land, and the Baby Boomers just started hitting age 65 last year.

So you make up your mind to buy a foreign property now for when you retire in 5 years. You go down there, find some run-down property or vacant land advertised at a bargain price, hire a local attorney to verify clear title, pay the money and then leave. Everything is OK, right?

What sometimes happens is that the absentee owner arrives five years later to find squatters living on the property. When you call the police to have the squatters removed from the property you rightfully own, you find out that squatters often have occupancy rights under various “adverse possession” or "prescriptive easement" laws meant to protect landless campesinos from homelessness and starvation.

Even the United States has adverse possession and prescriptive easement laws, which recently became problematic in several states, such as Colorado, Florida and Texas, where squatters have seized unoccupied homes and transfered title to themselves, including a case in which the owner was absent only because he was being treated for cancer in Houston, 250 miles away. "Adverse possession" is different than "prescriptive easement" in that it extinguishes title for the former owner,
and in most U.S. cases, the title has been transferred illegally, as the minimum period of occupancy required in any state is 7 years. That's somewhat irrelevant, though, in removing squatters, as even American state laws protect squatters' rights until the matter has been adjudicated.

This squatter problem may be a somewhat recent problem in Latin America, which was largely ruled by heartless fascist dictatorships 50 years ago, but has recently been experiencing a democratic renaissance. Democracies give poor people a voice, effecting legislation sympathetic to their interests, including adverse possession laws.

If taken to a court of law, who would be the more sympathetic party in front of a jury or a judge -- the barefoot campesino who just wants a place to raise his chickens? -- or the rich gringo who didn’t even live on the property, letting the space just go wasted?

On the other hand, adverse possession can sometimes be a scam organized by a wealthy land grabber. Consider the case of Sheldon Haseltine, an absentee UK investor with prime land next to Costa Rica’s finest marina. He found squatters on his land in 1998 and tried to have them legally removed. He later found a billboard advertising a Wyndham hotel to be built on his site. He found out that the campesinos had been paid to occupy his site by another wealthy landowner and even found a copy of the cancelled check to the campesinos, in the amount of 100 million colones (about $200,000). His litigation has now lasted 14 years.

How could adverse possession be avoided?

1. Buy in an already-gated community (not accepting the promise that it will be gated some day).
2. Try to get some type of title insurance to protect against adverse possession (not sure if this exists). Title insurers, please comment.
3. Buy only when ready to move in.
4. Do not necessarily believe that prices will be increasing in the near future. In most countries I visit, property prices have been decreasing. There may still be opportunities available at the time when you are ready to occupy or develop your foreign property.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Shanghai's Lujiazui financial district and "Skyscraper Index Theory"

From left to right: Shanghai World Financial Center, Jin Mao Tower, and the intended 2073-foot Shanghai Tower under construction

The last three years has inspired debate about whether China is going through a real estate bubble. Prior to my first visit, I had read beforehand of 64 million vacant Chinese apartments and 50% office vacancy rates in Beijing and Shanghai. When I arrived in China, I did not see this, except for some vacant luxury retail malls in second-tier locations. Perhaps some of these vacancy estimates were inaccurate or even hyped to make China look foolish. Claims of 64 million vacant apartments seemed preposterous when urban Chinese people told me they couldn’t find an affordable one, but to bubble theorists I have found the following chart from Wendell Cox of (My undergraduate degree was in Geography.) If there is a surplus, it is in the construction of luxury housing, which has been built more rapidly than affordable housing.

In the most recent Jones Lang LaSalle global office space count, the picture became clearer about all that formerly vacant office space in Beijing and Shanghai – it has been leased. By JLL's measures, Shanghai and Beijing ranked first and third respectively in the global absorption of office space during 2011.

Focus on Shanghai

I recently visited the two tallest skyscrapers in Shanghai, side by side, the World Financial Center and the Jin Mao Tower, both exceeding 1300 feet in height. Both have Hyatt Hotels atop office towers each with over 75 floors of office space. The building directories both indicate almost no vacant floors.

Despite such apparent success, there has been a recent re-introduction of a “skyscraper index” theory that portends a coming recession that naturally occurs after a flurry of new “world’s tallest buildings”, a theory that has been recently re-introduced by Barclays Capital’s equity research team in Hong Kong. This theory is not meant to imply causation, but instead reasons that having so many “world’s tallest buildings” built at once is but one symptom of a significant misallocation of capital that creates asset bubbles and resultant crashes. The recently published Barclays paper points out that of the world’s skyscrapers under construction, 53% are situated in China, which will be expanding its stock of skyscrapers by 87% by year 2017.

The crane-dominated Lujiazui skyline. The trapezoidal hole at the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center is designed to reduce building sway from high winds at this 1600-foot altitude. The hole was originally designed as a circle by the Japanese developers, which was perceived unfavorably by older Chinese generations as symbolic of the "Rising Sun" emblem on the Japanese flag -- an offensive reminder of the Japanese occupation during the last century.

Origins of the "skyscraper index theory"

The “skyscraper index” theory appears to date back to a 1999 paper by Andrew Lawrence, research director for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, perhaps in response to the southeast Asian financial meltdown concurrent with the opening of the world’s new tallest buildings of the time – the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The southeast Asian region was collapsing in debt much like the current Eurozone crisis.

Some empirical evidence consistent with the skyscraper index theory

Since the beginning of the 20th Century, there seem to be some interesting correlations.

The famous Panic of 1907 coincided with the construction of two new world’s tallest buildings in New York. The 612-foot Singer Building was completed in 1908 while the old Metropolitan Life Tower (not the one blocking Park Avenue) was completed in 1909 at a height of 700 feet. The one year Panic of 1907 led to an approximate 30% decline in business activity and the severe monetary contraction was the impetus for the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

The 791-foot Woolworth Building in New York was completed in 1913 during the two-year recession of 1913-1914 which saw an estimated 26% decline in business activity as well as a decline in personal incomes. The Woolworth Building was just one of many New York skyscrapers completed at that time.

It was not until 17 years later that three new world’s tallest buildings were completed in rapid succession – the 928-foot Bank of Manhattan Trust Building (40 Wall Street) in 1930, followed by the 1050-foot Chrysler Building later that year, followed by the 1250-foot Empire State Building completed in 1931, all while the nation was sinking into the Great Depression.

It was not until more than 40 years later that the records were shattered by the 1368-foot World Trade Center in New York, opening in 1973, and then the 1450-foot Sears Tower in Chicago, which opened in 1974 amidst the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Interestingly enough, you will find no offices built between the years of 1974 and 1980 in almost any American CBD.

The world height record was not exceeded until 1998, with the opening of the 1483-foot Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur at a time when southeast Asia was in financial crisis.

One interesting exception to the skyscraper index theory is the opening of the 1671-foot Taipei 101 building in 2003. Economic disaster did not strike.

Last of all, there is the 2717-foot Burj Khalifa that opened in Dubai in 2010 at a time when Dubai was about to default on its sovereign debt and was rescued at the last moment by its UAE neighbors. Perhaps this is the most obvious example of misallocation of capital as this building still stands largely vacant.

What are the implications for Shanghai?

In 2007, the Shanghai World Financial Center was completed at a height of 1614 feet, exceeding the 1381-foot Jin Mao Tower next to it. More auspicious, however, is the adjacent construction of the Shanghai Tower, which will top out at 2073 feet, making it the world’s second tallest building.

It is interesting to observe that the adjacent Shanghai World Financial Center and Jin Mao towers are both fully occupied. Bubble naysayers can easily say, “Look. All that space got built and leased.” The Shanghai Tower could be a game-changer, though, according to the “skyscraper index” theory, as the bubble just got larger.

Thanks to reader Ms. Ng in Chicago for pointing out that the pavement near these skyscrapers, which were built on landfill, is actually buckling. This appears to be some ugly concrete patchwork.

Not to be outdone by Shanghai, the Greenland Financial Center under construction in the Chinese city of Wuhan is considering a redesign that will have it top out at 2087 feet. When towers are built to assuage civic egos or developer’s egos rather than meet financial measures, watch out – a bubble is in the making.

My own “L.A. freeway model” of real estate bubbles

Those of us who have had to commute to distant jobs in southern California spend a lot of time in freeway traffic and often find patterns to get to our destinations quicker. Here is one pattern I learned early on:

When traffic is moving smoothly on eight-lane freeways, one can drive fastest in the “fast lane”, the lane farthest left in societies where traffic moves on the right side of the road. However, when the volume of traffic reaches a certain saturation point, the fast lane is beset with the most sudden decelerations, causing cars behind to hit their brakes even harder, and the fast lane suddenly becomes the slowest lane. It is during these types of traffic conditions that I make the quickest progress by driving in the far right lane where traffic is entering or exiting.

Liken a fast-moving freeway lane to a fast-moving economy, and the point I make is this: the fastest growing economies experience the hardest landings, or “the most sudden decelerations”. I have witnessed it many times before – Texas in the 1980s, southern California in the early 1990s, and recent examples in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Florida. That is why I say, “Watch out, Shanghai.”

For other information or views on an impending Chinese real estate crash, check out
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Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Red Star Macalline Mall on Shanghai's northwest side, from which I took the featured interior photos

In recent posts concerning Perennial China Retail Trust, I have referred to this unique retail mall type, a mall that specializes exclusively in furniture and home furnishings to retail end-users in an attractive, upscale setting. This mall type benefits from the virtues of agglomeration similar to the success of “auto malls” in the U.S. The object is to attract the consumer wishing to make a one-stop shopping trip in furnishing a new home.
This is a property type not commonly available to retail consumers in the U.S. The closest aesthetic equivalent I can think of is Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, which serves as a wholesale showroom mall restricted to buyers from major retailers. What Red Star Macalline does is eliminate the middleman.

Red Star Macalline began as a furniture manufacturer and morphed into an innovator in the sales of home furnishings and design services within a retail mall concept, switching from being a tenant to being a landlord. Founded in the 1980s, Red Star Macalline opened its first malls in 1991 in and sales took off, crowding out the furniture retailing efforts of western furniture vendors not sufficiently attuned to the furniture shopping habits of Chinese consumers. At last count, there are now 100 Red Star Macalline Malls in China.
At a Red Star Macalline Mall, home furnishings shoppers can haggle with individual merchants and also arrange turn-key design services. This is a consumer behavior that Home Depot and La Maison were not sufficiently accustomed to, having had to close many stores in China, but Ikea keeps persevering, even building its own store adjacent to the Pudong Red Star Macalline mall, easily seen during the taxi ride into Shanghai from the airport.

Mona Lisa bedroom set. "Faux Baroque" is said to be the preferred interior decor for China's nouveau riche.

Still, such a duplicative and complementary unit mix is somewhat risky at a time when the Chinese government has been putting the brakes on home lending. Less homes sold means less furnishings sold, and the recent shareholders’ report from PCRT confirms that Shenyang Longemont Red Star Macalline Mall has had its occupancy slip from 92% to 56% for that very stated reason. Existing tenants will be consolidated in one part of the mall while a broader array of tenants will be solicited for the remainder of the mall in Shenyang.

While the Chinese government does not publish data on household incomes, the closest figure it uses to compare city wealth is GDP per capita. Shanghai leads the mainland (excluding Hong Kong, Macau and Mongolia) with $20,000 annual GDP per capita, while Shenyang has less than half, last reported as $9244 per capita.

Sofa alone is priced at over 16,000 RMB ($2500 USD)

The recent slowdown in U.S. housing had severe consequences for the home furnishings industry, with the bankruptcy of such major furniture brands as Levitz and Wickes. While the housing sales slowdown in China is government policy-induced rather than credit-induced, there may be the hope of a quicker turnaround in furniture sales if the government policy is reversed (loosening restrictions on financing and homebuying by investors and “migrants”). In the mean time, China Central Television reported that sales at some home furnishing malls in Beijing decreased by more than 30 percent year-on-year in early 2012. Some small companies were forced out of business.

Side note on the just-published PCRT shareholders’ report for the upcoming meeting

PCRT has been slightly more forthright recently in reporting “independent valuation” results, mentioning this time (in footnotes) that the CBRE valuation is actually based on the assumption that all properties are completed and fully leased. CBRE has even raised its valuation this time. But with Shenyang Red Star’s occupancy slipping so badly, what purpose does such a hypothetical valuation serve other than to mislead shareholders? Would Warren Buffett report to shareholders in such a manner? What is the main purpose of an “independent valuation” other than to be independent and uninfluenced by the very managers whose compensation will be determined by the valuation itself, as disclosed in the IPO?

More on Shanghai soon
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