Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Need Cash? Sell the Capitol Building!
The New Trend of Government Sale-Leasebacks.

As reported by Globe St.’s Brian K. Miller, Arizona has approved plans to auction its “State Capitol Executive Tower” in a 20 year sale-leaseback. The tower houses the offices of the secretary of state, state treasurer and Governor and has an estimated value of $40 million. Arizona was forced into this predicament because of its current budget shortfall, which currently stands at around $3.2 billion.

However unlikely, this is just one example of a growing trend of government sale-leasebacks. California plans to sell $2 billion (or 62% of Arizona’s budget deficit) worth of government real estate, including the Attorney Generals Office, in a similar sale-leaseback. The City of Alexandria, VA, is considering the same thing with a host of its properties and Chicago has already performed sale-leasebacks with the “Skyway toll road, downtown parking garages and downtown parking meter system” for $3 billion. Sale-leasebacks make sense for governments because they allow them to get cash now to pay off their debts while retaining the option to buy back the property in 20 years or so.

Investors have shown a great deal of interest in these properties because their tenants (the government and in-effect, taxpayers) have strong credit ratings and in some cases will return twice what the investor pays. Not surprisingly, interest goes beyond political boundaries, as it is reported that international investors are heavily intrigued by these sale-leasebacks. This creates a bit of an irony, because in theory, you could have a U.S. State Capitol building owned by China.

Sale-leasebacks are generally structured as net leases, giving strength to a segment, which as Michelle Napoli pointed out, is already one of the most active in this current market.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Retailers Expecting Lean Santa:
Holiday Retail Sales & Outlook

The fourth quarter is typically a time retailer’s look forward to with such glee that even a child would be hard pressed to match their level of expectancy. This is, after all, the time of presents, candy, costumes, decorations, ornaments and lavish meals. Children know Santa is coming to town and retailers know parents are. In-fact retailers are so anxious to begin this cycle of profits; they are often accused of putting out holiday items too early, the infamous “Christmas creep”. However, last year retail was hit hard by the recession; today the economy looks much the same and retail must adapt.

This will be the second holiday season celebrated under our current recession and the retail sector carries no illusions about that. According to a recent survey released by Hay Group, 72% of retailers predict sales this year will be equal to or less than sales last year and 57% are planning on reducing staff levels this holiday season. In comparison, last year 60% of retailers expected an increase in sales and only 29% decreased staffing levels. While these numbers are obviously negative, they are also prudent, reflecting a necessary change in mindset rather than an unfortunate change in the economy.

Additionally, retail is adopting new promotional strategies to better fit the current economy. 43% of respondents plan on “running more promotions and/or deeper discounts” this holiday season and another 43% plan to run promotions continuously from now till new years. This reflects a shift in focus from last year, when 45% percent of retailers ran most of their promotions on Black Friday (this year only 35% will), giving people more time to save up paychecks before making purchases.

These changes may already be having a positive impact on retails outlook. According to Fitch Ratings:

“Many companies across Fitch’s U.S. retail coverage have been managing inventory positions well. Gross margins have rebounded for those companies in the discretionary categories that were hit particularly hard during the 2008 holiday period. This, combined with strong cash flow management and the resolutions of liquidity issues for several companies, has resulted in an improved overall credit outlook”.

Though this may not be the holiday season of our dreams, it will certainly be a reality we are more equipped to cope with. Through tempering sales predictions, cutting overhead costs and altering promotional activities, retailers are becoming leaner and more efficient. Furthermore, in this current market where nearly 50% of net leases are traded as retail, should credit scores and sales improve, the only thing that may be going down are cap rates.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Party is Over: Net Lease & the Future of Commercial Real Estate

In a very interesting article by Globe St’s Amy Wolff Sorter, the typical real estate investor of the future is predicted to be quite different from the one of our near past. Due to real estates most unfortunate bubble, the new investor will be squarely focused on pragmatic investments for the future, rather than “Real Estate Riches in 14 Days”. If true, it sounds like this “future investor” would be very interested net leases.

Specifically the article states:

“Experts tell that, in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, the real estate owner of the future will undergo a seismic shift from the buy-and-flip investor to one that is knowledgeable about real estate and will stay with an asset for the long haul.”

This description perfectly fits that of a net lease investor. Net leases are primarily characterized by long term leases with stable tenants of investment grade credit. As such, net lease properties are generally considered to be low risk, dependable investments. For a marketplace suffering the effects of a hangover fueled by a lost weekend of high risk binging, net leases could represent that cool cup of tea and handful of Advil in the morning.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Retail Sales Signs of Life: Do Signs Point to Destinations Anymore?

The early days of September have seen a recent flood of positive news: Retail Sales are Showing Signs of Life. Examples of this include articles entitled “August Retail Sales a Pleasant Surprise” released on Sep. 4th by Globe St. and “Retailers Begin to Show Some Signs of Life, But New Leasing Deals Continue to Pose Challenges” by Retail Traffic on Sep. 1st. If readers from another planet saw these articles, they would undoubtedly think that these were the first reports of good news in a while, as we are just “beginning” to see them. But to an earthly observer, there is something odd about these “Signs”. Namely, that we have been reporting to have seen them for over half a year.

All one has to do is Google “Retail Signs of Life” and they will come upon articles such as Wall Street Journal’s “Retail Sales Show Signs of Life” dated March 6th, Internet Retailer’s eerily similar “Retail Sales Show Signs of Life” dated April 7th and “Signs of Life: Slower Decline May Signal Recessions End” by RIS Media on August 4th.

So how can we be purportedly “Beginning to See Signs of Life” for this long and not yet see the actual Life? The answer may lie in what we are using for signs these days.

Take the opening sentence from the Globe St. article cited above:

“Summer is ending with a pleasant surprise for retail observers, with August US comparable-store store sales declining by a better-than-expected 2% from the same month of 2008, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers Chain Store Sales Index.”

Does this not represent a weird prognostication of good health? We are doing better by doing worse; it is a “pleasant surprise” that comparable-store sales declined by 2%? This is close in resemblance to Orwell’s infamous “Doublethink”, having two contradictory thoughts at the same time. Like, “things are worse but better”. In essence, becoming our own devils advocate.

We can see “signs of life” for as long as we want if we simply make the predictions worse than what actually happens. An actual show of improvement will be a trend in which sales do not decline, or even perhaps go up. Those will be the real signs and hopefully we’ll see them soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It’s the Loans, Not the Land: The CMBS Refinancing Crisis

It seems to be a generally accepted fact that Commercial Real Estate is about to hit the ground like a ripe watermelon thrown off a ten story building. Stories abound about how its impending collapse will send systemic shocks rattling through our weakened economy, delivering a rude kick to the face just as it is trying to get up. Investors stand quivering on the sidelines and banks are trying to find out how they can hire Jimmy Stewart (aka It’s a Wonderful Life) to perform some crowd control once their money evaporates with the popping of this last bubble.

And you know what? These predictions, dire as they are, may not be totally off base. If recent reports are to be believed, things are not all well with the world. The delinquency rate for CMBS rose to 3.14% in July, which is more than six times as high as the level last year and by 2012, $100 billion of the $153 billion worth of CMBS loans (65%) will face difficulties being refinanced. With this kind of information, it’s easy to see why so many are pessimistic.

The thing to be remembered, however, is that this is all the result of massive artificial inflation. There is nothing inherently wrong with the land; there is nothing inherently wrong with commercial real estate. There was something horribly wrong with the way people behaved between 2004 and 2007. Essentially, taking a Louisville Slugger to the figurative credit piƱata and declaring “come get it!” resulting in drastic overpricing and horrible loans. The land itself was the innocent victim of this all and today faces the repercussions of our malfeasance.

In-fact, the cash flow from most of those properties whose loans expire in 2012 is enough to “pay interest and principal on their debt”. Even in the midst of this deep recession, commercial real estate is still producing wealth. The problem is that its values have inevitably fallen from their inflated highs, making it almost impossible for borrowers to extend their existing mortgages or refinance with more debt. But is this necessarily a bad thing? Clearly the market was flooded with bad credit, so is it wise to take out more debt, or in the case of government action, tax payer funded debt, to refinance bad loans? Perhaps it is best just to let the market clear itself of its toxic waste.

We collectively went on a binge of epic proportions and today have to face the consequences. But we never destroyed or devalued assets, we overvalued them. When the dust settles it will be found that commercial real estate is still a great investment, still capable of building wealth and in reality, still is today. If the economy does get hit by a wave of CMBS foreclosures, it’s not because of the land, it’s because of us.