Sunday, December 28, 2014

Those “National Appraisal Firms”

Santiago Cuautlalpan, Mexico: a $10 million hillside?

Three years ago I pitched my valuation services to Citibank’s Latin American Region Appraisal Manager and was told “We’re sorry. We only use national firms.” I had never heard a condition like that before. I started my career 30 years ago at an international firm, Jones Lang Wootton, now known as JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle). Was I more qualified to appraise then than I am now? My observation of national firms is that the most knowledgeable and experienced appraisers sit behind desks and junior appraisers do the field work without adequate supervision. It’s a bait-and-switch system.

Three months prior to my meeting with Citibank, I had appraised (for a different lender) a potential subdivision north of Mexico City, outside the Distrito Federal and inside the Estado de Mexico. It was a piece of steep hillside land zoned for 100 homes. A neighboring subdivision had already failed, with only 18 homes being built. The immediate neighborhood lacked through streets to Federal Highway 57D, a few miles east, which is the main highway leading south into Mexico City. Many of the streets were unpaved and used mainly by stray dogs.

Several months later, my lender client contacted me to inform me that Cushman and Wakefield had since appraised the Mexican land for more than 17 times the value I had estimated. In reading their report it became obvious that the young appraiser had assumed that the property would be rezoned to 15 times its current permitted density, despite instructions from the lender to appraise “as is”. When asked why she made such an extraordinary assumption, the appraiser said that the loan broker told her to, despite no documented evidence of a zoning change in progress. Her report was co-signed by two appraisers with signatures accompanied by designations, but neither went to see the property.

Three years later, Citibank’s venture into subdivision lending in Mexico has been a loss-spewing disaster. I wonder if Cushman and Wakefield was who they hired. I don’t wonder, though, why C and W is facing more than $10 billion in appraisal malpractice lawsuits at the moment.

Meanwhile, a private lender client started telling me in the last year that they could not use me on particular appraisal assignments because the loan applicant had insisted on use of a “national firm”.

I had lunch with a Wells Fargo appraisal executive last summer and asked him if there was some type of “national firms only” trend going on, and he said that the requests only came from loan applicants, who understand that most of the national firms (and international firms) are brokerages and brokerages tend to appraise high, which pleases all their customers. Low values are bad for the brokerage business, and there are other conflicts of interest to consider, too.

The brokerages maintain that a Chinese wall separates their appraisers from undue influence from the sales and leasing side and that there is no bias. Some even claim to be separate companies. At Jones Lang Wootton we appraisers were generally left alone to reach our own value conclusions, but unexpectedly low appraisals sometimes had to be finessed or negotiated, such as in situations where someone’s foolishness had to be covered up (“But we told them to buy that building!”). Conflicts of interest arose because we were a full-service brokerage, and appraisal revenues are less than real estate sales, leasing and management revenues. For that reason, appraiser independence is always at risk of being compromised at brokerage firms.

I see the same forces at work with other international brokerages with valuation subsidiaries.

For instance, I have a client that finances discounted loan payoffs who sent me to research a situation in Baltimore in which they would finance a discounted loan payoff on a defaulted construction loan (from Citibank) for a 4.8 million square foot mixed use center on a waterfront brownfield next to the city’s impoverished and dangerous Westport neighborhood. There had been a lack of pre-leasing and pre-sales and the property was going into foreclosure.

They hired CBRE to appraise it “as is”, and the appraiser was initially skeptical about the prospects for the project, predicting a value in the low seven figures. My client was surprised to receive an appraisal for $23,300,000 instead. When asked by my client about the sudden change of heart, the appraiser made the remark that he believed that the developer “could pull it off”, an odd thing for an appraiser to say considering that “market value” is based on what the property would sell for and not who owns it, even if the owner is supposedly a genius in foreclosure.

Most of the comparable sales were over 4 years old and two were from Philadelphia and Yonkers, New York. I researched local sales and found recent waterfront or waterview land sales in the neighborhood, surely something he could have found in CBRE’s “unrivaled database”. When I asked him why he excluded those sales, though, he said that they were irrelevant because they were “distress sales”, as if the subject property was not in distress.

Suspecting bias, I uncovered a conflict of interest: CBRE had recently received the exclusive leasing contract for the high-rise office building approved for this site. This leasing contract had the potential to dwarf the amount of the appraisal fee.

This waterfront site has been in bankruptcy and was scheduled to be auctioned earlier this year, which was postponed until the bankruptcy was discharged, which happened last month.

When the national firm has already been working for the other side

Sometimes the conflict of interest is because the national firm had already been hired by the loan applicant or broker. My number one client is a wholesale lender, and many loan applications are accompanied by unsolicited appraisals from national firms. I end up having to reject such appraisals for reasons such as:

1. “Extraordinary assumptions”, such as rezoning.
2. Out-of-area comparable sales, always a surprise when coming from national firms that brag about their local databases.
3. Gamed discounted cash flow models which never have increasing expense ratios or assume that declining markets turn around in a V-shaped recovery.
4. Failure to deduct for deferred maintenance or site problems.

One example was in the Dominican Republic, where an unimproved, 59-acre waterfront land parcel in an overbuilt condo market was appraised by CBRE for $25,625,000, or about $100 per square meter, at  a time when comparable properties were listed for sale for as low as $12 per square meter.  The report did not disclose possible mangroves on the waterfront, which foul beaches (see photo) and cannot legally be removed, and also used 3-year- old comparable sales.  The report also disclosed a pre-existing business relationship with the developer.

Other national firms

Colliers and HVS also bear mentioning because of their heavy use by developers and brokers.
Colliers International has been rapidly expanding their appraisal business to catch up with CBRE and C&W, but this means not properly vetting new appraisers.  The property in the Dominican Republic was also appraised by Colliers, who sent an appraiser to fly over the property in a helicopter but photographed and appraised the wrong property. I was also recently sent to Texas to visit a failed subdivision appraised for $6 million by Colliers although the discounted loan payoff had steadily been reduced from $2.7 million to $2.3 million over the past year.  Never in the 186-page report did the Colliers appraiser mention that the subdivision was situated alongside an active railway.

HVS is a different type of company, as it is not a brokerage but mainly an appraisal company (Hospitality Valuation Services) founded by Steve Rushmore, the author of the textbook most commonly used for hotel valuation. They tend to hire fresh graduates from the hotel schools at Cornell and Lausanne but fail to train them in due diligence (such as verification of owner-supplied information). HVS also now licenses its name to too many other firms internationally and fails to vet these firms. The boilerplate in the HVS reports looks the same everywhere but sometimes bears little relation to the appraiser-written narrative.  One egregious report I discussed last year was a proposed 5-star marina hotel on a lochside brownfield in Scotland done for a con man who falsely claimed to own the site. HVS did not check title nor did they check to find out that the site had no marina permit.  Ironically, Colliers International appraised this property (as complete) for 113 million pounds sterling.

So when I hear that a borrower insists on a “national firm only”, what I think they really mean is “we can’t take a risk getting an honest appraisal”.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Another appraisal in Puntarenas, Costa Rica


The subject property was unimproved, mountainous, ocean view land of about 160 acres, located on the Nicoya Peninsula. It has no utilities, paved road access or development entitlements.

A decade ago, ocean view land parcels were trading at much higher prices because of their value to real estate developers, as each had dreams of building luxury vacation or retirement communities for wealthy foreigners. This same situation prevailed throughout Mexico and the Caribbean, too.

The only problem with this vision is that Costa Rica, owing to its topography and coastlines, has tens of thousands of square miles of land with ocean views, and there aren’t enough homebuyers to take up all the possible lots, particularly when having to compete with many other tropical paradise nations. Partially completed subdivisions ended up competing with other partially completed subdivisions when the market went into decline in 2007, and other projects never moved forward due to the difficulty in receiving all the necessary permits.

The land development approval process can take years in Costa Rica, much like in California, and typically entails:

1. Approval by the “municipality” (similar to a U.S. county),
2. Approval by the national environmental agency, SETENA (Secretaria Tecnica Nacional Ambiental),
3. Approval of all architectural and engineering design by the Department of Professional Responsibility of the CFIA (Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y de Arquitectos) [Translated: the Federal College of Engineers and Architects], and
4. Approval from the Ministry of Health

Last time I was in Puntarenas, in 2012, it seemed that every ocean view parcel of land was for sale and nothing was selling. Little has changed since then, except that asking prices are slightly lower now. Many landowners can’t reduce their prices any more and pay back the debt they’ve taken on. A broker was able to supply one closed sale occurring at a price at only one third of the asking prices of nearby parcels, but no large development parcels have been acquired since 2007.

There are enough land parcels with development entitlements or paved road access or utilities that unimproved land like the subject has little chance in competing for buyers, except at highly discounted prices.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Latest appraisal in Bakken


This  appraisal assignment was of a proposed 35-acre business park in the Bakken area in North Dakota in one of the most active counties for drilling. The owner planned to build a hotel on this site, but wished to sell off 25 acres to other users. Having a hotel on site would be a good draw for a restaurant, for instance, or perhaps offices serving as regional headquarters for an oil or oil service company.

The city with jurisdiction over this site had granted a permit to build a 2-story hotel with 290,000 square feet of floor area with the belief that it would be a 110-room family-oriented hotel. The developer plans to build a 3-story, 400-room hotel. Like many community governments in the Bakken area, the city was rather unsophisticated, not realizing that 290,000 square feet could fit many more than 110 hotel rooms. Nevertheless, the city expressed a desire for a hotel that catered to families whereas the owner/developer is known as a developer of “man camps” – lodging for single oil workers – with small rooms appropriate for single occupants, not families.

Example of hotel operated as man camp by Target Logistics in Stanley, ND

The city’s prejudice against “man camps” and oil worker lodging is becoming common among community governments in the Bakken area. Williams County, generally considered as the locus of the North Dakota shale oil boom, with Williston as its county seat, has issued a moratorium on new man camps and RV parks, as has McKenzie County, with Watford City as its county seat. There is a shared perception that man camps demand extra law enforcement resources, as so many single, bored, lonely, uneducated men in their 20s and 30s increase the local crime rate in such categories as public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, assault and sexual assault. They are paid well, though, averaging about $32 per hour, with many taking advantage of double shifts and earning 6 figures, so theft and robbery is less of a problem.


Temporary worker housing that is needed but unwanted by many local governments

The Bakken area is known for shortages of real estate in certain categories, particularly housing and lodging, but one property type in abundance is raw land. Early successes with Bakken-area business parks have led to a proliferation of “me-too” business parks, often having not yet procured the permits or water necessary for development, listed for sale at inflated prices. The subject property seemed to be in this category. 

Another complicating factor is the recent drop in the price of oil, which closed at $57 per barrel on December 19th. It is estimated that 60% of Bakken’s shale oil wells are unprofitable at below $60 per barrel because of the expense of fracking technology. The cost to develop a new well, furthermore, is estimated to be as high as $85 per barrel. The number of drilling rigs in North Dakota is now 181, 16% below the peak of the shale oil boom.

The few commercial land sales which could be found were of single-user sites of half an acre or less, whereas there is a proliferation of large business parks with unsold lots. In this instance, I had to create a discounted cash flow model with an extended absorption period.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mainland China Property REITs to Multiply

Boundary between Hong Kong, on left, and Shenzhen, China, on right, photographed from Ramada Hotel
 
I’ve just returned from a recent trip to China, where financial deregulation continues onward. The week I arrived, the Chinese government approved a figurative “Through Train” that links the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges. And the first two days saw a massive transfer of capital from Hong Kong to Shanghai, with little capital flowing in the reverse direction. Part of the reason is because Mainland China is still perceived as the place where the growth opportunities are, and the Chinese Yuan currency has steadily appreciated relative to the Hong Kong Dollar, which is statutorily fixed to the U.S. dollar. The continuing trade imbalance between China and the U.S. continues to propel the Chinese Yuan slowly higher relative to the Dollar.

In this continuing Chinese financial deregulation, international real estate investors should take note of the proposal to organize mainland Chinese properties into REITs to be traded starting next year on the Shanghai exchange, with assets of these REITs estimated to top $6 trillion by 2020. This is an effort to support “the ailing Chinese property industry”. The Chinese government is also admitting a slowing of the economy as they announce reductions in taxes in order to stimulate business.

But if what ails the Chinese property industry is overbuilding, attracting more investors does not solve the fundamental problems of the industry, which is in need of more tenants, not more investors. More investors just pushes asset prices upward without improving net operating income, thus driving yields down, such as in Shanghai, where current yields were once over 7% but are now less than 5%.

Such compression of yields gives the appearance of improving real estate markets even when fundamentals are not keeping pace. For instance, I blogged last year about a portfolio of southern California industrial and retail properties I monitored over 11 years and found an average decline of 17% in net operating income but and average value appreciation of 28% in the same time period.

It remains to be seen how today’s investors will react to the new possibilities of investing in Chinese REITs. Such REITs often offer the prospects of instant dividends by the use of earn-out arrangements funded in IPOs, which serve as a return of capital rather than as a return on capital. Perennial China Retail Trust is an example, initially stumbling badly in the Shenyang market before finishing more successful projects in Chengdu and Foshan. Initial investors who bought at the 70-cent IPO price saw the stock price plummet to 40 cents before recovering to today’s 54 cents per share. Those buyers at 40 cents, including some insiders, still received dividends from the earn-outs funded in the IPO and profited enormously with the earn-out dividends and partial recovery in the stock price. Buyers will need to scrutinize prospectuses for actual net operating income sufficient to fund the advertised dividends.

Meanwhile, a recent Cushman & Wakefield report shed light on where Mainland real estate capital is headed -- out of the country, to "mature markets", with the U.S. being the favorite destination and United Kingdom in second place, and Hong Kong and Singapore as the preferred destinations for real estate investments in Asia.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Issue of Client Pressure on Valuation Results in International Appraisals

Costa Rican subdivision overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya

It has been almost 3 months now since I’ve done a foreign appraisal assignment, and there are a couple of reasons for this.

1. I’ve had a large increase in business in appraisals of domestic “solar farms” (photovoltaic energy generation) in the U.S. Southwest, and

2. Foreign appraisal assignments have been offered to me with “conditions” that would compromise the ethical code most appraisers follow, conditions which would require me to deceive lenders or the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Here are some situations:

1. An owner of a high-end condo on Grand Cayman Island was fishing for an appraiser who could guarantee that his condo was worth $2 million in every year that he has owned it since 2006. But the Caymans have had the same rise and fall as every other Caribbean condo market, and it would not seem reasonable to anyone, including the Internal Revenue Service, that it had been worth the same amount in every year since 2006. The fact that he did an e-mail broadcast of these appraisal conditions to other appraisers could also end up getting him into trouble with the IRS, who provides rewards to whistleblowers.

2. Developers of ocean view residential subdivisions in Brazil and Costa Rica wanted to me to provide current market value opinions on their subdivisions without having me visit their properties. Yes, I was already familiar with their subdivisions, but a determination of current market value requires me to know current market conditions in these respective localities, requiring that I visit and analyze competing subdivisions, too.

“Desktop appraisals” (appraisals done without a property inspection) have limited reliability for overseas properties and are not likely be taken seriously by lenders, either. I also need to see if amenities, such as the guardhouse, pools, recreational areas are operational and that infrastructural development is continuing.


Thursday, August 7, 2014

Shelf corporations in international real estate transactions


Grand Cayman's famous Ugland House, the address of 19,000 corporations






Most readers know what shell companies are. Many offshore locations, such as British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, and Cyprus are known for harboring shell companies because of their privacy laws, and shell companies are sometimes used for illicit purposes, tax evasion and money laundering.

But wait! This Wyoming office building houses 60,000 corporations.






A “shelf corporation” is an aged shell company that has a multiyear history of being in business and may also have a credit history and bank account, but no other assets or income. Shelf corporations are created by third party vendors to sell to buyers seeking a misleading history of credit and longevity for their own new enterprises. These shelf corporations are offered for sale on the Internet. Just do a Google search of “shelf corporation for sale” and you will find many shelf corporations that are legally created in the U.S., in states such as Nevada, Wyoming and Delaware, which promise privacy, secrecy, and protection from litigation. Named directors of these corporations are often down-on-their-luck individuals who consented to sell their names just like they would sell their blood to blood banks.

There are legitimate uses for shelf corporations, too, such as the ability to rapidly start up a business in a state that has a lot of red tape for start-ups.

Since most of my work is for lenders, though, I see the seamier side of this business. If the lender has made a loan to a shell or shelf corporation, and the loan defaults, the lender ends up trying to recover their money from a corporation which has no assets, no income and no accounts receivable.

I am sometimes confronted with purchase contracts in which the seller or buyer, or both, are LLCs, shell corporations or shelf corporations, leaving me unable to judge whether the purchase is an arm’s length transaction (a sale to unrelated parties). As an appraiser, however, I can only estimate a value supported by market data, and if the transaction is not arm’s length, it will become obvious. Many other appraisers will try to “hit the purchase price”, any way, with strange selection of or adjustment to comparable sales.

Every state in the U.S. has either a Secretary of State office or Department of Corporations office from which one can obtain names of the principals of LLCs and corporations, and it is helpful in determining whether a purchase transaction is arm’s length (different names on each side of the transaction), unless those entities are located in Nevada, Wyoming or Delaware.

Working in the United Kingdom last year, I was thrilled with the functionality of the UK Companies House web site – one web site for all of the corporations in the UK, so much easier than working in the U.S. It provided addresses, directors’ names, and dates for and changes of company names or directors. It also allowed me to easily establish that the sale contract I was looking at was for the sale of the property from one shelf corporation to another shelf corporation sharing the same directors — in other words, a completely bogus transaction.

The ICIJ, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, has been documenting known offshore shell companies and their addresses. If in doubt about an address, one can check it out on their web site, https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/ They also have a list of the nations having the most offshore shell companies, which is helpful in its own right. For instance, a few weeks ago I was looking at a deal in Mexico in which the developer was a company in Cyprus. Red flag. Cyprus is not known for its real estate developers, just its reputation as a haven for shell companies.

Clues that you’re dealing with a shell or shelf corporation include:

1. No web site.
2. The principals of the organization have only hotmail, gmail or yahoo e-mail addresses.
3. The web site is “Under construction”. Sometimes there is verbiage about “amazing things to happen”.
4. No present location for company staff.

For example, in a situation I encountered in 2012, in which a piece of raw desert land was being purchased for $1.6 million above the price it had been listed at for two years, the buyer claimed to be looking for a location to build a 100,000 square foot corporate headquarters building for an unknown high-tech company. They had a web site under construction with the words:

“Company is in stealth mode while we develop the team, the infrastructure and the technology. Details to follow in Fall 2011.”

The corporation had no current location. A search of LinkedIn showed about 4 employees scattered all over the country, hardly enough for a 100,000 square foot building. No plans, specifications or blueprints were presented for the building, only artists’ renderings.

When he was unable to show established business operations, the CEO then talked about “secret government contracts”. Suspecting that my client had not performed due diligence on this loan applicant, I ordered a simple $25 on-line background check on the CEO and found:

1. Two criminal convictions, one for check fraud
2. Two bankruptcies
3. Two legal judgments against him
4. No background in high technology, but a bachelor’s degree in political science.

I could go on and on, but I quickly came to the conclusion that his company did not exist and his lack of recent accomplishments suggested that he may have been the kind of person typically recruited as a “straw buyer” in a fake purchase scam. If you participate in certain LinkedIn real estate groups, for instance, you may sometimes see offers of up to $50,000 to participate as a front man in a commercial real estate purchase. This is called “nominee fraud” by the FBI.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Appraisal in Lima, Peru


An interesting cityscape resulting from upzoning approved in the 1990s. Many of the office buildings erected then have a lack of windows.

This was a one-acre site, improved with an old mansion from decades ago, situated in Lima’s main financial district, San Isidro. Per JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle), the office vacancy rate in San Isidro was measured at the end of 2013 at just 1%, so a site such as this one would have great value to commercial real estate developers.



Many Latin American cities are divided into municipios, or municipalities, which are similar in concept to the boroughs of New York City. During the 1990s, the municipio of San Isidro, a sort distance south of Lima’s central business district, was upzoned to building heights ranging from 4 to 32 stories, and most of the banks relocated to this district, making San Isidro Lima’s de facto financial district, but also home to many embassies, too. This is one of the nicest areas of Lima.

Lima and Peru have in recent years undergone rapid economic expansion, averaging 7% per year and predicted to be 6% this year, and the supply of office and residential space has been unable to keep up with rapidly increasing demand from redevelopment ventures. This has resulted in urban land values spiraling upward, quadrupling since 2006.

In places like Manhattan, New York, such land is often appraised on a “value per square foot of allowable building area”, which is based on land prices divided by site area divided by FAR (Floor Area Ratio). Such a method does not work quite so well here in Lima because many lots are so small that high density construction is not efficient, partially because of required setbacks. There are many lots of less than 400 square meters (4280 square feet) zoned for 7 stories of construction, and perhaps their main value is to serve as part of an assemblage of a larger site, which is being done all over the financial district in San Isidro.

The Lima office of Colliers International, which seems to be the most active global broker in Latin America (based on seeing their signs), was generous in providing comps. However, I found that price per square foot of FAR was not working as a unit of comparison; it was seriously undervaluing many sites with allowable building heights of 7 stories, which are selling for more than $3000 per square meter.

Because of the number of available comps, I performed a regression analysis on the data in order to isolate possible adjustments to comparable sales for both building height and for site area. Because of low sample sizes in commercial real estate markets, such regressions cannot meet the high standards of the scientific community, yet they are better than pulling adjustments out of thin air, the last resort of many appraisers. The regression suggested an adjustment of $170 per square meter of site area for extra floor allowed to be built. The adjustment for site area was more understated, a premium of $60 per square meter for every extra 1000 square meters of site area.

This assignment reminded me of a similar assignment in San Jose, Costa Rica last summer. The shortage of land within the central cities of prospering Latin American cities is resulting in a profound amount of redevelopment, and it must be an exciting time to be a real estate developer in many Latin American cities.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Common Denominators Seen in Mexican Land Scams



 
After six years of appraising in Mexico I’ve seen the following patterns that warn me when I am being deceived.

1. My favorite one is when the loan applicant’s representatives take me to a prime location and then point to their property in the distance. “There it is,” they tell me. I tell them that my client requires me to set foot on the property, which is not really true (setting foot on the property is my requirement), but wouldn’t I look foolish and my client be harmed if I didn’t know find out that the land is a mangrove swamp? Sometimes it’s hard to tell from above, as can be seen in the following photos from Isla Mujeres:

2. Another pattern is when excuses are made as to why I cannot meet the property’s true owner. A common response is “We have power of attorney; it doesn’t matter,” but the document supposedly conveying the power of attorney is not convincing, either that is excessively old, it conveys power to yet another individual who is not present, or it does not actually convey power of attorney and the loan applicants are just hoping that I can’t read Spanish. Some feel compelled to provide a photocopy of the owner’s driver’s license or passport, hardly a standard of proof.

3. The borrower’s representatives all have business cards labeling them as marketing or public relations consultants, yet they claim to be real estate developers. “Show me your development plan” is a good question to flush out fake real estate developers.

4. When I request a current predial (property tax bill) for the property, deceivers instead supply a predial from years before. Years 2008 and 1993 are favorite years. Year 2008 is the year before Mexican tourist land values started crashing. Year 1993 was the year that the peso was devalued by 1000:1, so every assessed value appears 1000 times larger than it actually was. The inability to obtain a current predial might also indicate that the borrowers do not actually currently represent the true land owner.

On a related note, Citibank announced in February fraud-related losses in Mexico of $400 million in their Banamex subsidiary and has also experienced hundreds of millions of dollars in losses in previous years in ill-fated Mexican residential subdivisions.  In 2011, I pitched my own Latin American appraisal services to their chief appraiser for Latin America, who is actually a gringo in Atlanta. I was then told that I cannot serve Citibank because I am "not a national firm", even though the first three years of my career were spent at international firm Jones Lang Wootton, now JLL.

Next year, a client hired me to appraise a proposed residential subdivision outside Mexico City and also hired the local Cushman and Wakefield Valuation and Advisory Services office in Mexico City.  C&W came up with an appraised value 15 times as high as mine and the client got us on a 3-way conference call to resolve this discrepancy. The C&W appraiser was a young girl right out of college.  I noted that her report had incorrect zoning for the site.  She said that she did that because the broker told her to, but there was no documentation that a change in zoning was occurring and the neighboring subdivision had only been able to sell less than 20 lots. My client told her "Don't assume anything".

Perhaps Citibank's insistence on using "national firms" is what has caused them so many losses in Mexico? Perhaps this also explains why Cushman is facing over $10 billion in appraisal malpractice claims.

 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Appraisal of a proposed resort project near the Canadian Rockies

 
Curiously dead ground vegetation for a proposed vacation resort

These were 130 acres in a town west of the Canadian Rockies popular with snowmobile enthusiasts. Local leaders want to make their town the “Next Canmore”, an expensive vacation community about one hour's driving distance west of Calgary and the first town east of Banff, Alberta's most famous ski destination. This town, though, was 300 miles west of Edmonton.

The local authorities, eager for economic development, had granted entitlements to a developer to build 183 condos and 70,000 square feet of commercial space. To impress how much political support she had for this project, she invited the mayor to have lunch with us. I ordered a “moose burger”, but I was also informed by the two that the restaurant didn’t really serve moose meat.

No feasibility study had been done, but I was told that there was a waiting list of 250 for the condos, and substantial "verbal interest" for the commercial space (meaning no leases or letters of intent). It turned out that the waiting list for the condos was just as real as the mooseburgers. It was just a collection of names and addresses of people who had responded to ads in snowmobile magazines, and there had been no discussion of prices, nor had there been any contracts signed.

The condos were priced quite steeply, from $430 to $455 psf Canadian, with prices ranging from $350,000 to $680,000, in one high density building. The town itself, though, had 21st century homes on their own lots for sale for less than $270,000. Per Landcor, the data service I use in BC, the highest priced home sale in the last year had been at a price of just $225,000, a new log home of 1068 square feet on a conventional-sized city lot.

124 of the 130 acres were a former rail yard previously used by the Canadian National Railway. Railyards are often heavily contaminated through years of washing out tank cars. Rail ties, too, were treated with arsenic to resist rot before being set in place. The photo demonstrates a mostly grey area of dead ground cover, punctuated by young pine trees, a tell-tale sign of contamination.

The properties had been acquired at the peak of the market in 2007, and in my previous valuation assignment in BC, I noticed that the sale of vacation properties began to considerably diminish after 2007. Yet, in this situation, the developer had appraisals done by Canadian appraisers estimating land value several times as high as the acquisition price in 2007. It gives me the impression that the Canadian appraiser profession is less effectively regulated and policed than in the U.S.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Another appraisal assignment in Nayarit, Mexico raises red flags of possible fraud




This was the appraisal of nearly 1000 hectares (over 2000 acres) of beachfront land, my third appraisal in Nayarit. There were many red flags to cause me to be suspicious:

1. The borrowing entity was a company in Cyprus, a country known as a hotbed of offshore shell companies (2267 identified so far by ICIJ). Shell companies are notorious for straw officers and directors and untraceability. Think of Cyprus as another Cayman Islands.

2. The borrowing entity had no history and no web site.

3. The borrowing entity did not own the land but had a JVA (joint venture agreement) with the landowner, a Mexican national.

4. The principal of the Cypriot company consistently misspelled his own name throughout the JVA.

5. All the bank account information of the Cypriot company had the company name misspelled.

6. As with Mexican land scams I’ve uncovered, the borrower’s representatives extolled the development possibilities for the land, but their credentials were not as real estate developers, but as marketing or public relations consultants.

7. No credible development plan was presented, but I was told that there was an agreement with the “Canadian Retirement Association” to build thousands of vacation homes for Canadian retirees. I have been unsuccessful in verifying the existence of the Canadian Retirement Association.

8. The Toronto phone number I was given for the Canadian Retirement Association connected me to a man who seemed to be more fluent in Spanish than in English and who bragged about his 75 “advertising awards”. This is not the talk of someone who would be trusted to manage a Canadian pension fund.

9. Similar to the Mexican land scams I’ve seen, I never got to meet the actual property owner, but I was given a document that assigned the right to mortgage his land to one of the borrower’s representatives. As I learned today at the ACFE Fraud Conference in San Antonio, identity fraud is a growing problem in Mexico as it is here in the USA, so I have to be careful.

10. As with Mexican land scams I’ve seen, my request for a current predial (property tax bill) instead yielded a predial from 2008, raising the possibility that the property has diminished in value since then or even the possibility that there was no affiliation with present owner such that a current predial could be provided.

Having been collecting listing data on this part of Nayarit for the last two and a half years, I noticed that asking prices on beach land in this area have declined up to 60%. Regardless of the suspicions I had about the loan request, the appraised value fell short of what was needed, any way.

Land loans are an ideal conduit for fraud in Mexico, by the way, because the value is so hard to determine, accurate information is so hard to come by, and it is easy to hire a Mexican appraiser to appraise the land for $100 million.

 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Another appraisal in the Bakken area of North Dakota/Canada


Bakken is a subsurface shale formation underneath North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and has become the biggest oil find in North America in the last 40 years (not since Alaska). North Dakota has the most favorable location over the Bakken foundation and has undergone boomtown economic conditions similar to the Alberta Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.


In my latest appraisal assignment, I appraised a massive RV (Recreational Vehicle) Park which provides temporary housing for hundreds of new workers in the oil and oil service industries as well as a motel with fully occupied RV spaces behind it.

Being a boomtown economy, there is an extreme shortage of housing for incoming workers. This is a real worry for oil firms and oil service firms desperately in need of manpower; in the last measurement of unemployment in Williams County, home to the largest Bakken-area city of Williston, the last measured unemployment rate was 0.9%, and other Bakken-area counties were at around 1.5%.

RV Parks have been the quickest solution in providing new housing, and the 765 space RV Park I appraised was actually in the business of wholesaling its spaces to housing contractors who then erected temporary housing, either in the form of manufactured housing (as seen in left of above photo) or else recreational vehicles themselves (as seen on right of above photo).

In this case of such an enormous RV park, the gross income multiplier seemed to be the most reliable method of valuing, as the collected rent per pad was much lower than for much smaller RV parks in which the landlord needed no intermediaries to lease RV pads.  Using “price per pad” established by much smaller parks would have overvalued the subject park.

The motel averaged occupancy of about 90% last year, while for the first third of this year it has been close to 100% and is budgeted to average 93.5% for the year.  Despite the high occupancy, room revenue multipliers in this region were not found to be higher than motels in other states; only the incomes were high.

Numerous motels are also being erected and designed to be extended stay lodging.  At the new Telluride Lodge where I was staying, which advertises itself as "executive housing" to distinguish itself from the other more blue collar housing choices available, I checked in to find no soap or shampoo in the bathroom.  In my trip to the front office to explain these missing items, the incredulous front desk clerk offered me a bottle of dishwashing liquid instead.
"Executive housing" offered at Telluride Lodge south of Watford City

Room revenue multipliers at motels listed for sale started at a remarkably low 2 x revenues.

What accounts for the pessimism of investors?  Perhaps the most obvious reason is the slowdown in employment growth, which was close to 50% per year prior to 2012 but only 6.5% in the last year, which is still good, but is temporary housing and lodging being built too fast to cope with a coming slowdown?

The most labor intensive phase of an oil boom is the exploratory phase.  Extraction requires less personnel and is also a declining number.  Based on these realities the North Dakota state government's Oil and Gas Division and North Dakota State University are both predicting that Bakken-area employment will begin to decline starting in 2020. Maybe this why so many investors want their returns upfront in the form of current returns.  As the need for exploration personnel lessens, too, will the need for temporary housing lessen.



Friday, April 4, 2014

Another Appraisal at Playa Novillero, Mexico


This assignment called for the appraisal of 91 hectares of beachfront land at Playa Novillero very near some land I previously appraised in 2012. Playa Novillero is Mexico's longest beach at 82 kilometers, but is isolated and lacking in visitors. Despite being zoned for tourist development, land uses at the beach reveal abandonment rather than new development.

The beach is ideal for families, having about 50 meters of sand extending inland and shallow depths for a long distance out, but the beach is busy only week per year during a Mexican holiday week.

There are no close international airports. Last time I was here it took 2 hours to get here from the Mazatlan airport, and this time it took me 4 hours to travel from Guadalajara. Decent roads end at the town of Tecuala, which is 22 km inland from the beach, and arriving at the small village (population 249) at the south end of the beach, one has to drive up the beach to access the beach properties. This time our GMC got stuck in the sand and I had to get down on my chest several times to clear the soft sand from around the tires.

Most of the beach homes are abandoned.




As in the last Mexican appraisal assignment, the loan applicants were pledging as collateral a property that they did not own yet, although they did possess a 4-year-old purchase contract and a document conveying "Special Irrevocable Power" for 5 years, with less than a year from the end of the contract. They said they were taking their time executing the purchase contract, but there was no plan to close on the purchase at the time of loan funding, leaving the lender with the prospect of having no collateral for the loan.

Just as in the other beach property assignments, the most consistent indicator of value in this case was the price per lineal meter of beach front.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

An Appraisal in Nigeria, Land of Inconvenient Factoids

Ikoyi neighborhood in Lagos

A factoid is defined by Wikipedia as “a questionable or spurious (unverified, false, or fabricated) statement presented as a fact, but without supporting evidence.” A good appraiser learns how to distinguish between facts and factoids. A bad appraiser does not care.  In my latest assignment in Nigeria, I found the nation to be as rich in factoids as it is in oil.

I was initially given 2 weeks’ time to submit a valuation report on an 11-unit luxury apartment building in the prestigious Ikoyi neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. In contacting the borrower, I stipulated that tenants had to be notified in advance that I would be entering their apartments during my property inspection. The borrower then informed me that this could not be done, because Nigerian Law required that an attorney be hired to provide 21 days’ advance notice to each tenant. Was this law real, or just a factoid? These apartments were labeled as “corporate serviced apartments”, which suggested to me that they received regular maid service of some kind, and how often do maids need a legal writ to clean a room?

The importance of seeing inside the apartments was mainly to verify occupancy, as the subject neighborhood of Ikoyi in Lagos has become seriously oversupplied with new, luxury 3 bedroom 3 bathroom apartments.

Several years ago, prior to the Global Financial Crisis, Ikoyi was known as the most expensive neighborhood on the African continent. Flats were selling for more than a million dollars and renting for $5000 to $7000 per month. The last canvassing of vacant apartments in Ikoyi in late 2012, however, indicated a vacancy rate of 42%.

The subject property was represented as fully leased at individual unit rents of $58,000 to $60,000 per year, or about $5000 per month. Was this real or just a factoid?

Arrival at Lagos Airport

The Nigerian embassy in Washington had provided my visa and told me that no immunization certificates were needed for entry into Nigeria when traveling from USA or northern Europe. When I was exiting customs at Lagos Airport, however, a customs agent asked for my proof of Yellow Fever immunization (which I had left at home). I told her what the embassy had told me, but she told me that all persons entering the country had to show the card. Was this the truth or just a factoid?

Without my Yellow Fever card, she said that I would be sent back home [having wasted more than $10,000 on a plane ticket]….unless….I could pay a fine. “How much is the fine?” I asked. “How much can you pay me?” she responded. “$50,” I said. She said “No, $100.” When I tried to hand her the $100, though, she cautioned me to not display the money, instead instructing me to go to the men’s room and then place the $100 in my passport, which she took out of my folded passport as I exited Customs. As this was the first of other attempted extortions to come, I learned one useful thing – Nigerian civil servants do not like to be witnessed taking bribes.

Back home from Nigeria, I read the current issue of The Economist, which had an article entitled "Big Country, Thin Skin", stating that Nigerian "corruption is so endemic that many visitors pay their first bribe before they have even left the airport."

Research in Ikoyi

Since the crisis, demand for luxury apartments has weakened, and some major oil companies such as Shell, Exxon and Schlumberger have constructed their own employee housing. Meanwhile, construction of new luxury 3 bedroom apartments continues unabated.

In driving through Ikoyi at 9 pm, it was eerie to see so many dark, empty residential towers. I wanted to see the subject property at night (one way to estimate occupancy), but the borrower told me that he had no permission to enter the subject’s gated Parkview Estate community during the night.

He couldn’t get permission to visit his company’s property? Either this was another factoid or neither he nor his company really owned the building. Neither he nor his company was named on the Certificate of Occupancy, the Nigerian version of title.

The inspection

I was actually shown only one apartment the following day, and the functionality of the building was not impressive, with long narrow apartments, no elevators, minimal fenestration, and no power on during my inspection, despite the presence of two back-up generators.
Center hallway inside unit
Typical bedroom
Kitchen
In the U.S., when an appraiser inspects a building represented as fully occupied and finds the power turned off, this is an instant red flag, but there are many power blackouts per day in Lagos, which has one of the world's least reliable electrical infrastructures. That is why many buildings there have back-up electrical generators, and the subject property had two of them to guarantee 24 hours-a-day electrical service.

Most new apartments in the U.S. have separate electrical meters for each apartment, so I asked to see the meters just in case only one meter was turned off. There was only one meter for this whole property, though, and I noticed that common area electricity was turned off, too. For the period of time I was at the property, about 45 minutes, the power was off the whole time, which would be a situation unacceptable to real occupants as food perishes in dark refrigerators and freezers, and fussy executives don’t want to come home to walk up three flights of stairs in the tropical heat to a warm apartment.

There were no signs of other tenants during my 11 am weekday inspection, although there is the possibility that all tenants would be at work. Nevertheless, there were no personal effects or plants in windows or on balconies to indicate that anyone lived there. The two cars in the parking lot belonged to staff only.

On that basis I had to conclude that the property was vacant. I don’t give loan applicants “benefit of the doubt” in face of evidence to the contrary. Moreover, an examination of documents further made their claims of rent and occupancy to be absurd.

The documents

Despite repeatedly requesting operating statements for 2012 and 2013 prepared by a property manager or accountant, I instead received an Excel spreadsheet for 2013 indicating that 12 units out of 11 had been occupied at rents of $58,000 to $60,000 per unit per year (representing 109% occupancy) at rents well above asking rents in the neighborhood, with relatively few expense items listed, all in very round numbers (not typical of an accountant’s report or professional management report), and not including usual line items such as building insurance, water, sewer or property management. The report appeared to have been hastily prepared and not consistent with standard worldwide real estate accounting procedures.

I did find 10 of the subject property’s apartments listed as available for rent on the Internet for the dollar equivalent of $36,810 per year each, or about 40% less than what the borrower had represented as being rented for at the time, which was November 2012.

On that basis I dismissed the operating statement and rent roll as factoids and not facts.

Leaving Lagos

The passenger screeners were greedy. I normally travel with both a laptop and an I-Pad, but did not take the I-Pad out of my luggage. The first passenger screener informed me that failing to take out the I-Pad was a violation and I would need to pay a fine. I asked “How much?” and she said “Just drop it into the luggage tray” without specifying an amount. I took out Nigerian currency from my wallet and hurriedly dropped a 100 naira note into the luggage tray, failing to compute that my bribe amounted to the equivalent of only 60 U.S. cents. She just looked at it, irritated, and said “Take it back”.

I stuffed my remaining Nigerian currency into my right pocket and was then greeted by a personal screener (frisker). He detected the wad of cash in my pocket and asked to see it. He then asked how much I could give him, and I just responded with a loud “How much do you want?” That seemed to embarrass him and he hurriedly let me pass.






Thursday, January 30, 2014

Discounted Cash Flow Analysis throughout the world – Who does it right and who does it wrong?



I entered the appraisal profession at an opportune time – in the mid-1980s, when discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis had come into vogue in the real estate industry.  The crowning moment for DCF’s new place in real estate investment analysis became apparent in the purchase of the Pan Am building (now the Met Life building) in New York in early 1981.  The price paid shocked many, as it reflected a “going-in” capitalization rate of just 4% for an 18-year-old building in a time of high inflation. 

Manhattan was just awakening, though, from a 1970s stagflation-induced real estate coma of no new construction, and the rapid expansion of the financial industry brought the Manhattan office market to full occupancy, with rents increasing 50% from early 1979 to the end of 1980.  The buyers of the Pan Am Building relied on a DCF model based on cash flow projections for years into the future, anticipating the ability to re-lease space at much higher rental rates.  In this context, the purchase price was justified.

I was recruited out of graduate school by Jones Lang Wootton, where I was promptly put to work creating DCF models for regional malls and high-rise office buildings owned by their institutional clients.  My work wasn’t questioned because my superiors had never been taught DCF analysis and did not understand how it worked.  Many of my business school peers also landed into cozy positions not previously available to new graduates, all because they could perform DCF analyses.

In hindsight, all of the DCF models of the 1980s were toxic, rosy fantasies which failed to consider the possibilities of overbuilding and recession.  Hundreds of billions of dollars were lost based on DCF models – and will continue to be lost, as I am about to explain.

Between 1988 and 1998 I worked as a bank review appraiser and chief appraiser and reviewed a lot of commercial real estate appraisal reports, noticing that when appraisers used both a DCF model and a direct capitalization method in their reports, the DCF model usually produced higher estimates of value.  One reason why was because they projected income growth equal to or exceeding expense growth, contrary to the documented operating histories of most income properties.

In examining the long-term operating histories of income properties, expenses increase faster than revenues over the life of the building. This is why expense ratios are higher for older buildings, as is graphically demonstrated by a typical subset of BOMA data in Figure 1, and is equally supported by IREM data.  Notice how the line representing the operating expense ratio for each age subcategory increases in slope relative to gross income.  The numerator, Expenses, is increasing faster than the denominator, Gross Income.  This is a graphical proof of expenses increasing faster than income for income properties.

                              

                                                           FIGURE 1

Data from BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association)


There is a logical reason for this. As a building ages, it becomes less competitive in its marketplace and the rate of rental increase slows, while the aging of the property requires increasing maintenance and capital improvements expenditures. This is the reality of physical and functional obsolescence.

The natural end of the economic life of a building is when expenses finally exceed collectible income. If expenses typically grew no faster than income, on the other hand, no building would become obsolete. That would be nice for building owners, but the real world does not operate in this manner.

DCF models which forecast expense growth to be the same rate as consumer price inflation are therefore fundamentally wrong.

Since it is so hard for some appraisers and valuers and even the Appraisal Institute to accept this, let me present an analogy – your car.

What are your likely operating expenses for your car in its first year of operation? Perhaps $100 to $200 for oil changes. With consumer price inflation currently at about 2%, would you predict the car to cost you $102 to $204 in its second year of operation? $104.04 to $208.08 in the third year? What about the 10th year? Would you expect operating expenses in the range of only $119.51 to $232.02? No, because the car is a deteriorating asset, and many parts will need replacement.

A building is a deteriorating asset, too. There are two forces governing expense growth – price inflation and increasing maintenance and capital improvement needs. This places the rate of expense growth higher than price inflation alone.

The above graph, indicating the typical pattern of expenses increasing faster than income for income properties, was originally part of my book (see sidebar) for the Appraisal Institute, but was not allowed by the editors, as the Appraisal Institute maintains that income and expenses increase at the same rate. This is also reflected in the 13th Edition of The Appraisal of Real Estate, published by the Appraisal Institute in 2008, in which DCF models indicate decreasing operating expense ratios as buildings age. This is a mysterious retrogression for the Institute, who published my uncensored article on DCF analysis in The Appraisal Journal in 1990. To deny now what I wrote then makes me wonder if they’ve been hijacked by the Flat Earth Society.  It also suggests that a generation of MAIs has been taught to overvalue properties using DCF analysis.

The Appraisal Institute may be a formidable opponent for me to challenge, but fortunately, I have rules of arithmetic on my side.

Why is this matter so important? Most DCF models project 11 years of cash flows, and the underestimation of expense growth gets compounded, resulting in serious overvaluation.

One of my fellow Appraisal Institute authors, Howard Gelbtuch, assembled and edited an enlightening book entitled Real Estate Valuation in Global Markets, in which highly decorated appraisers and valuers from many nations explain how real estate valuation is done in their countries. Once again, most who presented DCF models had final year operating expense ratios lower than beginning expense ratios. Many of the violators were Western nations that are considered financially sophisticated. Other nations getting it wrong were:

Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan and Turkey.

Which nations got it right? Nations less likely to be considered part of the supposedly sophisticated Western herdthink:

Argentina, Bulgaria, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Romania, South Korea, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Getting beaten by the likes of Argentina and Bulgaria in DCF analysis should shame appraisers and valuers from the most affluent Western nations into "stepping up their game".

Next stop:  Lagos, Nigeria

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

HUA ZHU HOTELS GROUP AND CHINA’S MIDSCALE HOTEL MARKET



Beijing's Wangfujing Night Market, a popular tourist spot.  One of the closest stalls in the photo sells barbecued scorpions.

In traveling throughout China, I have been constantly surprised to find most hotels to be independently owned and managed and unaffiliated with known franchises. The higher end hotels (such as Peninsula, Swissotel, Raffles, Hyatt) are an exception, as they are particularly suited to serving Western travelers, but at this stage in China’s march towards prosperity, with its burgeoning middle class, the time seems ripe for major hotel companies to consolidate the remainder of the Chinese lodging industry, just as was done during the 1960s and 1970s in American history, when hotel names such as Hilton and Holiday Inn became commonplace.

China has now reached a threshold in which leisure travel is taking off, presenting opportunities for mid-priced and economy hotel chains to gain market share. Meanwhile, the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has spent the last year cracking down on wasteful spending by government workers, such as stays at 5-star hotels, and local governments have enacted similar restrictions, so far as to cause 56 5-star hotels to request that they be re-labeled as 4-star hotels. This should redirect much government and business travel into midscale hotels.

Entrepreneurial forces have already been put to work to consolidate the midscale hotel market, as several Chinese companies have been building midscale hotel chains (in the 2 to 4 star range), achieving economies of scale, brand awareness and customer loyalty. These hotel chains are relatively new; none existed as a franchise before year 2003. The creation of a strong hotel brand adds great value to each such branded hotel because of central reservation systems and guest loyalty rewards programs (although the Internet has slightly eroded this value).

The most noticeable Chinese franchises are 7 Days Inns, a limited service chain similar to Super 8 (which is also common in China), Jinjiang Inns, a state-owned hotel company that covers the higher end of “midscale”, and Hua Zhu Hotels Group, an assemblage of several different brands such as Starway, Hi Inn and Hanting.


Hanting Beijing Wangfujing Hotel, with nightly rates starting at $46

Hua Zhu has particularly attracted attention recently because of its very rapid growth, surpassing Jinjiang Inns before 2010 to become China’s largest hotel chain. Hua Zhu Hotels Group had its IPO on NASDAQ in 2010 (as China Lodging Group) and has expanded its reach from 413 hotels at the time of its IPO to 1425 hotels today, with 152,879 rooms in all. China Lodging Group stock (symbol HTHT) opened on NASDAQ in 2010 at $13.50 per share and is now trading at $26.60 per share. There have been two days this month in which HTHT was listed on Yahoo Finance’s top 5 stocks “gaining on unusual volume”.

Hua Zhu Hotels Group has existed since 2005, and its revenues expanded 60-fold in 6 years, as follows:

Year Revenues (RMB) Earnings (RMB)           # of hotels
2006 54,031,000
2007 235,306.000        -111,623,000
2008 764,249,000        -136,162,000                 167
2009 1,260,191,000        42,545,000                 236
2010 1,738,493,000      215,751,000                 438
2011 2,249,597,000      114,832,000                 639
2012 3,224,527,000      174,887,000               1035
2013* 4,153,000,000*    221,000,000 **           1425
*projected
**first 3 quarters

As of the 3rd quarter of 2013, average daily occupancy was 94%, average daily rate was 186 RMB ($30.74) and REVPAR (revenue per available room) was 175 RMB ($28.93). While these numbers are lower than those of 2010, Hua Zhu explains it is because they are shifting towards lower-tier cities in their expansion. Meanwhile, their frequent guest program is reported to have more than 13 million members, constituting 80% of room nights sold.

Because the Hua Zhu brand is now so well established, Hua Zhu can now move from a business model in which most of their hotels were once leased and operated to a business model emphasizing managing and franchising, enabling Hua Zhu to expand its reach with much less capital and operations risk, much like the other most successful hotel franchises. 60% of their hotels are now managed and franchised vs. owned as leasehold.

The recent dip in share price to $26.60 would indicate a price/earnings ratio of 28 for the trailing 12 months, but the first two quarters reported minimal earnings (mainly due to depreciation expense) despite strongly positive cash flows from operations, whereas the last two quarters had respective earnings of 39 cents per share and 50 cents per share, suggesting a much lower PE ratio based on forward earnings. The recent dip in price seems to be caused by a general overreaction to the most recently reported  dip in PMI (from 50.5 to 49.6) in China.  Even the Chinese internet stocks such as QIHU (down 10% after the report) and YY (down 7.4%) are behaving in similar fashion despite being unrelated to the manufacturing sector.

Disclosure: I own this stock.


Shanghai's Xujiahui District and Starway Xujiahui Royal Garden Hotel, with rack rates starting at $76

Monday, January 20, 2014

Commercial Real Estate Values Rising Due to Cap Rate Compression

My previous posts have discussed this situation in Hong Kong and Singapore, but the same phenomenon is at work in the U.S., too. http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2010/12/asian-growth-story.html
http://www.internationalappraiser.com/2012/12/hong-kong-revisited-risks-presented-by.html

Many are trumpeting the return of rising commercial real estate values in the U.S., but how much of this rise is organically grown rather than the effect of artificially low interest rates?  By “organically grown” I mean growth based on improving net operating incomes at the properties being measured.
Buying properties just because the market is going up due to cap rate compression would be just as illogical as buying stocks because their price/earnings ratios are going up.  Such an investor would just be paying more for the same amount of income.

Last fall I appraised a portfolio of southern California industrial and retail properties for a divorce, requiring me to estimate market values as of year 2013 and year 2002.  All but one property had increased in value in those 11 years and the average increase was 51%, yet the majority of properties were earning less net operating income (NOI) than 11 years previously.

Examining just those properties that suffered declining net income, the average NOI was 17% below 11 years ago, but the average value was 28% higher than 11 years ago.

What made these declining properties worth more?  The most obvious answer is the compression of capitalization rates in response to artificially low interest rates resulting from the Federal Reserve Bank’s doses of “quantitative easing”.  The range of cap rates in 2002 was 7.5 to 9%.  The range of cap rates in 2013 was 5.5 to 6.1%.  NOI divided by .055 is going to yield a much higher value than NOI divided by .09.

One could argue that today’s low cap rates are a vote of confidence in the future of these properties and a rebounding economy, but how can one be confident about properties that have been declining in economic performance for the past 11 years?    

It requires a leap of faith to value these properties as if their NOIs will start rising again, particularly since these were mostly older properties, built before 1980.  Yet, I’ve seen this happen once before, in the early 1980s, when the lack of commercial real estate construction after 1974 resulted in a serious shortage of commercial space by the end of the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I don’t see a nationwide shortage of commercial space today, only some small pockets which have supply constraints.

The concern I have here is that when the Fed tapers its “quantitative easing”, the consequent rise in interest rates will quickly reverse the gains in commercial real estate value.  In a matter of months we have already seen the US 10-year bond rate rise from 1.6% to 2.82%.  Is this a portent of rising interest rates to come?

For instance, what if cap rates returned to the levels of 2002?  The subset of properties that fell 17% in NOI but rose 28% in value would consequently see a 35% reduction in value from today’s values. 

“Quantitative easing”, of course, is just a euphemism for “money printing”.  My economics courses at the University of Chicago taught that the consequence of rampant money printing was inflation, which is indeed what happened in the 1970s in the U.S.  Inflation can manifest itself in consumer prices, or also, more recently, in asset price inflation, as the extra money now somehow finds its way into the coffers of the upper class, enabling them to bid up equities and art prices to record levels.  It’s getting so hard to buy a decent Picasso for less than $20 million nowadays.

The natural consequence of inflation is an increase in interest rates, as investors want to be compensated for the erosion of purchasing power over time.  Real estate capitalization rates are correlated with interest rates, so one can expect the commercial real estate market to face some major headwinds in the future.

Similar consequences may happen overseas, too, as all of the major central banks, even China, which did it again today, have been printing money to recover from the Global Financial Crisis 5 years ago.

Soundly run nations, such as Switzerland, are also adversely affected by the declining level of confidence in other currencies.  When investors lost confidence in the Euro, for instance, they traded Euros for Swiss Francs, temporarily elevating the value of the Swiss Franc before the Swiss government stepped in to devalue its own currency in order to preserve its export markets.

In my previous travels in Asia, I’ve seen commercial properties sold at ultra-low capitalization rates, in the 2 to 3% range, in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai.  Residential cap rates are even lower.  With cap rates this low, there is little margin for interest rate increases before the streets become flooded with red ink and real estate values are pushed downwards.















Singapore skyline.  Top photo: Hong Kong Central