Eric Von Berg - Newmark Realty Capital - 595 Market Street, Suite 2550, San Francisco, CA 94105 - for loan quote: 415 956 9922

November 11, 2015

This is Not a Bubble... This is Growth

San Francisco Bay Area 2015 Economic Engine

We hear people referring to the current Bay Area economy as the boom phase of a boom/bust cycle: “We are in a repeat of the dot-com bubble.”  Wrong! A line that moves up and down but consistently ratchets up is not a cycle, it is a trend.  The Bay Area is experiencing real economic and population growth and we need to deal with it.  This trend will not reverse if we choke off the necessities of urban life; limiting housing, transit and other infrastructure.  Choking off these necessities will only make us all miserable.

Each year I do an economic survey of the various drivers of the Bay Area economy, to help Newmark Realty Capital’s lenders and investor clients make plans for the coming year.
Many lenders used to refer to “the Tech Sector” as though it were a single industry, and feared the boom/bust oscillations.  But in my survey, I breakdown “Tech” into its leading industries.  This helps demonstrate that these tech sectors are often on independent trajectories.  The breakdown also helps demonstrate that “Tech” is not some separate industry out there.  “Tech” is integrated into every aspect of the US economy, no matter how prosaic.  And the players in these industries could not compete today without “Tech”.  Agriculture already has self-driving combines.  Trucking companies model deliveries and traffic, using GPS in real-time.  A new car’s software costs more than the steel. 

Tech is diverse and it is everywhere, but Tech innovation for many industries is in the Bay Area.  Many industries only need one or at most two world centers for innovation.  In fashion it is Paris.  In cars it once was Detroit.  In finance we have New York and London.  But for many industries today the center of innovation is the Bay Area. And the consolidation of innovation hubs to the Bay Area is getting stronger.  

The best and brightest, the innovators have a need to congregate. Not only to collaborate, but also that innovator, that star engineer, wants to know she can walk out her employer’s door tomorrow and walk in a door nearby and have her talent recognized for the value it can create. 

Growth won't be choked

All sides of the political spectrum in the Bay Area need to deal with the fact that choking housing and infrastructure will not stop growth.  If a fashion designer wants to make it big in Paris, that person will live in a basement and eat ramen noodles to live that dream.  It is the same with the innovators who come to the Bay Area to make it big in Tech.  We need to recognize that these innovators will not be discouraged and go home if they do not get a seat on BART or MUNI.  But, others won’t get a seat either.  And, the rest of us are likely to give up and move away before the tech innovator does.

Likewise, we need to deal with the fact that the talent in most of the Bay Area tech industries will continue to be well paid.  Preventing housing construction will not keep them out; it only drives up the price of houses and rents.  The tech innovator will be better able to afford to live in the Bay Area than the rest of us.

This is not a bubble... Let's plan for growth

We have a confluence of political interests who want to treat the Bay Area economy as if it is an oscillation of a steady state and thus deny the need to invest in infrastructure, plan regionally and promote density. 
  • One side of the political debate says, “Starve the Beast”.   These “Progressives” are anything but progressive:  You can’t promote progress and fight change. They resent the newly created wealth and think of economics as a choice as if it were a religion or political party.   Growth is not something you can choose to believe in.  Progressives are supply/demand curve deniers. The Progressives, like Donald Trump, want to build a wall and keep immigrants out, not at the Mexican border but around the Bay Area and especially their favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco.   
  • The other extreme also says, “Starve the Beast.”  The Ayn Rand conservative and right-wing Republican cannot face the fact that infrastructure problems will only be solved with more government, the creation of regional authorities that can occasionally overrule the local town council and, yes, with more taxes and long-term bond obligations. 
  • The pragmatic middle says, “What Beast?”  The majority are the proverbial frogs in the pot as the temperature slowly rises, who tolerate the consequences that come from not planning for growth.  The center would prefer to stay out of politics.  And if they see the need for density and infrastructure, they say, “If you are going to build something, do it over there but not in my back yard.”   

The Bay Area economy recently exceeded Dot-Com boom employment peaks 

The Bay Area’s infrastructure was highly stressed from 1999 to 2001 and because we have invested very little since then, the Bay Area’s infrastructure is equally stressed now.  Local economic growth is accelerating and the slack in infrastructure and high-tech employment is long gone.   Job growth in the Bay Area was 103,000 new jobs in 2013, 113,500 in 2014 and in the 12 months ending September 2015 we added 131,200 jobs.  If we convert jobs to people at the USA ratio of 0.6 jobs per person, the last three years would supply employment for a population of 579,500:  Equal to Redwood City, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara combined.
In 2014 GDP growth in the San Francisco/Oakland SMSA was up 6.4% and up 8.0% in Santa Clara County (Bureau of Economic Analysis): That is a China-level of growth without a China-level of investment in infrastructure. 
We all recognize things are approaching a tipping point.  We are exasperated by the traffic and the crowds on BART, MUNI and CalTrain.  We sense the heightened competition for everything: an apartment, a house, a seat on the train, a slot for your child in your preferred school, a reservation at our favorite restaurants.  Even if we do not admit it to ourselves, most of us wish we could dial the economy back a little. 

The Bay Area economy is not going to burst

Yes, we have extreme valuations of the Bay Area’s herd of Unicorn’s, those 56 local start-ups that have achieved a valuation of over $1 billion.  But this is a symptom of a zero-interest rate Fed policy that created the last financial crises and is creating another one.  We have similar extreme valuations in all other asset classes; stocks, bonds, commercial real estate, homes and farms.  Yes, we will have asset-price corrections that may devastate some start-ups, some speculators and some of their lenders.  But, the economic drivers of the Bay Area are diverse, generally healthy and growing in strength.  More importantly, the pace of innovation is intensifying and this pace, plus the need for cross-pollination between technologies is making the Bay Area the location as the innovation hub for more and more industries.   These local innovation hubs attract big companies, the leaders of their industries, not just start-ups.

Will the growth phase pause? 

Yes, but the ratchet mechanism of Bay Area’s population is still in place.  A ratchet works by a brake that prevents movement in the backward direction.  The force may move in both directions but the brake prevents movement back to the original starting place. 
What is the Bay Area’s population brake?  Simply put, the Bay Area is a wonderful place to live.  People came for the gold rush, to build the railroads, to rebuild San Francisco after the quake, to build the machinery of war in WW2, to design and build the implements of the cold war and the space race.  Each time most of the people stayed even if the employment prospect that brought them to the Bay Area petered out. In the last cycle when the dot-com bubble collapsed, Santa Clara had one of the largest sudden losses of urban employment since the great depression, but Silicon Valley’s population declined very little.  People stayed even if it meant having to create their own work by starting a company themselves.  Some of these companies survived and some of these survivors started whole new industries.  The upward ratcheting of the Bay Area’s population continued and will not stop.
We in the Bay Area need to adopt the mindset of the Greatest Generation.  We need to look for leaders who can be more like Dwight Eisenhower and the First Governor Brown, leaders who have the vision to plan for growth so that California will be better, not worse off because of growth.

We cannot have progress without change.  Let’s embrace it and plan for growth.

January 15, 2015

2014 Bay Area Economic Engine Presentation

I was privileged today to speak at the San Francisco Investment Forum, on the topic of the Bay Area Economic Engine.

You can down load my slides here,

November 25, 2014

2014 San Francisco Bay Area Economic Engine

The Bay Area is firing on all cylinders!

At the end of each year I survey the economic sectors that make up the Bay Area economy. As 2014 draws to a close, I found almost every economic sector in the Bay Area is on an upward trajectory.

Download report
This time last year, we saw a decline in the traditional Silicon Valley tech sectors; Semiconductors, PC’s, Servers, Corporate IT Software and Defense, and layoffs by HP, Lockheed, Cisco and others. The California Employment Development Department (EDD) reported a reduction in the Bay Area job growth rate from 99,000 jobs added in 2012 to just 70,000 new jobs in 2013.
But the decline was happening alongside a boom in the new tech sectors: Social Media, Mobile and the Web.

Actually ... about that New Tech Sector growth 

In March 2014 the EDD announced, “Never mind! We under-counted the Bay Area 2013 net job growth by 67%. There were actually 117,000 new jobs in 2013”.

According to current EDD statistics, for the 12 months ending in September 2014, the Bay Area added 102,600 jobs.  San Francisco and Silicon Valley are adding jobs at impressive 3.7% and 3.5% annual rates respectively.  The East Bay shows a respectable annual rate of job grow at 2%.  This level of growth puts Bay Area total employment above the peak achieved at the height of the dot-com boom in January 2001, and brings the unemployment rate down to 4.2%.

That's an impressive growth according to the official count. But judging by the traffic we see on the freeways and the insatiable demand for housing, I will not be surprised if there is another correction from the California EDD and they say once again... "Oops! We under-counted.”

You can download my detailed report here and as always I welcome your feedback!
2014 Bay Area Economic Engine

November 16, 2014

Name your Loan Servicer… Newmark Realty Capital!

Newmark Realty Capital’s new business model for CMBS 3.0  

We are blazing new trails in the CMBS world at Newmark Realty Capital. While known for our representation of life companies, Newmark Realty Capital can now also take a CMBS deal to market and assure our clients that will take care of them for the life of the loan; through loan placement, loan closing all the way through until that last debt-service payment is made.
Many commercial real estate investors swore off conduit loans after experiencing the rigidity and poor loan servicing of CMBS 1.0.  Investors love getting together and trying to top each other with CMBS loan servicing horror stories.  We often hear from clients that they will never do another conduit loan again.  This prevalent attitude may have been great for Newmark Realty Capital’s life insurance lender/correspondents, but can limit a comprehensive commercial real estate investment strategy, See footnote at end of this article for when a CMBS loan may be the best solution.

Choose Newmark Realty Capital as the Primary Servicer, for the life of your next CMBS loan: 

When you choose Newmark to place your next CMBS loan, you can require in your loan request that the CMBS lenders bid your loan using Newmark Realty Capital as your Primary Servicer. 
By appointing Newmark as the primary servicer, you as the borrower avoid the potluck of CMBS loan servicing. Usually loan servicing contracts for CMBS pools are bid after all the loans close.  The winning bidder for the master servicing contract is often the low cost provider, the firm that can cut costs the most by being thinly staffed with low-wage servicing employees.

We worked to earn the right to service your loan!

S&P Rating:

Newmark obtained an S&P rating as a Primary Servicer.  This took us a while. We needed to build a multi-billion dollar loan servicing portfolio, become Regulation AB compliant, use the right accounting control systems and loan servicing software, restructure our work flow and cash handling procedures, and use SEC recognized auditors to meet the demands of the rating agencies.

Master Servicing Agreements: 

The Primary Servicer Rating allowed Newmark to leverage the $12 billion annual production power of the SAM network ( to establish Primary Servicing Agreements with the five largest master servicers who represent over 90% market share for CMBS servicing: Midland, Key, Berkadia, Wells Fargo and GEMSA. 

Conduit Servicing Agreements:

Newmark arranged agreements individually with eleven of the largest Conduits, covering over 70% market share, who bid their loan servicing to this core group of Master Servicers.  This means that Newmark can still create excellent competition among these eleven conduit lenders to get the best terms for our borrowers.  Yet, we can be the borrower’s primary contact for the loan after it closes. 

What this means for you

As a cashiering primary servicer Newmark conducts the NOI reviews, inspects the property, reviews leases, releases escrowed funds and writes the assumption memo.  As with our life-company servicing accounts, Newmark makes operational decisions throughout the life of the loan, and will give recommendations around major loan events that are decided by the special servicer. We promise to give you good service. Unlike the stereotypical CMBS loan servicer, we value your relationship and we want your next deal. 

We think through issues that might crop up over the life of a loan

Since Newmark, as Primary Loan Servicer, will handle all issues that will come up during the life of the loan; we have an extra incentive to head off problems upfront.  Securitized loans are by design inflexible; REMIC rules require decisions to be made strictly according to the loan documents.  If an event was anticipated in the loan documents, the resolution can be easy.  If not the answer too often is... it's too late now.

The Public Private Partnership world is moving away from design and build, to design, build, operate and maintain  

Users of buildings find they get a better, lower-maintenance building if the developer has to operate and maintain the building for its first 10-20 years.  So too with the mortgage business: Having the firm that originates your loan deal with the loan’s issues for the loan’s life, gives the mortgage banker an incentive to craft the loan documents into a workable form.

Newmark gives personal service   

I recently attended a Brokers’ Symposium put on by Wells Fargo Bank’s CMBS unit.  Wells Fargo is the largest Master Servicer of CMBS loans and one of the best.  They are well aware of the problems in CMBS loan servicing and are encouraging Newmark’s efforts to build a better mousetrap for CMBS 3.0.  Wells Fargo does offer an enhanced level of service to their biggest customers: If you reach $500 million in loan serviced by Wells Fargo, you get a single point of contact and a different phone number. 

Newmark can give you this personalized level of service with your first loan  

If you would like to meet the servicing team who will service your next CMBS loan, come by our San Francisco office.  Feel free to give me a call on 415-956-9922

Footnote: A CMBS loan can make sense when:

A loan request is big: 
Above $150 million life-company start to club loans.  When multiple lenders need to agree on terms and loan changes unanimously, loans get expensive, inflexible and messy.
High leverage or extended IO is the best solution:  
On a low-risk deal, high leverage or an extended interest-only period can make sense.  Especially for sponsors of investment funds, using CMBS’s aggressive underwriting can cash out the original equity investors, replacing a high rate of preferred-return on equity with a low interest rate on debt.  This can turn a short-term play into a long-term hold. 
Portfolio lenders pass:  
Life companies are most borrowers’ first choice, thus these portfolio lenders can afford to be picky. Many good deals need to turn to CMBS for financing because life companies just are not very interested or not very aggressive.
The borrower wants to lock in today’s low cap rates:  
Even if an investor plans to sell in the medium term, putting on long-term financing now might be a smart hedge.  An assumable loan at today’s historically low rates can lock in a significant portion of the value in case interest rates jump which will cause cap rates to rise.  Locking in a high cash-on-cash return, will preserve a good portion of your property’s value

August 4, 2014

What’s the Value of a Conference Today?

Notes from the 2014 CREFC Conference - As featured in The Registry: The Registry SF
I try to take time to frequently attend commercial real estate conferences and events. Early in my career, in the world before the internet, I looked at these conferences as a way to gather concrete takeaways. I would take furious notes of the overhead slide presentations and grab stacks of industry handouts and market updates. Commercial real estate is an imperfect market; oversized profits can flow to those with the better market knowledge.
When I came back from these conferences without any new take-homes, I reassured myself that the event was valuable anyway simply for the confirmation that I am still on top of my game.
Now as an active market participant with access to the internet and the plethora of industry blogs and publications, takeaways don’t matter. Information is readily available and these facts, tools and buzzwords wash over us all day long. Absent the old concrete takeaways, real estate conferences and events can seem like a waste of time and money.
Here’s my advice on how to get value from commercial real estate conferences and events: Focus on the intangibles. Recognize that you are part of a market, and markets are subject to moods, momentum and mass manias. Go to the conference with the goal of divining these intangibles and take notes to ponder and research afterward.
·       Mood.  Warren Buffet has become wealthy and famous by assessing markets’ moods and betting accordingly. He has shown that the most money can be made in times of a market’s euphoria or a market’s panic. TAKE NOTES: Group the market participants at your conference into classes; lenders, tenants, developers, etc. Write down your opinion of their mood. You might want to keep these notes to compare to your notes from next year’s conference.
·       Momentum.  Where is the herd headed? What are the current fad investments? You may choose to run elsewhere or join the herd. “Me too” investing can make money, if you can control greed and get out before the bulk of the herd. TAKE NOTES: Collect the names of active market participants and note how they are funded (I pay the most attention if they are investing their own vs. OPM—other people’s money), if they seem profitable and the breadth of their competition.
·       Mass Manias.  Divining the collective “groupthink” is something best picked up at actual conferences where you can hear panel interchanges and conversations before and after the sessions. Try to spot anyone saying things like “new paradigm” or other examples of wishful thinking and market blindness. Also  notice if major market players are getting distracted by “fighting the last war”; a common mistake.  TAKE NOTES: Write down the questions that are on the industry’s collective mind. Questions are more important than the answers. Your industry is asking these questions because investors need to assume answers in order to make decisions and place bets. Spot the consensus opinion to these topical questions. But, also try to spot the important questions the industry is trying to ignore.
After the conference, look at your notes, find the cited research to the facts that interested you, and take time to come up with your own best answer to your industries burning questions. Only by having your own take on the burning issues of the time will you avoid falling into the groupthink that hurts many investors.
Here are my notes from the June 2014 Commercial Real Estate Finance Council’s annual conference in New York. CREFC is a CMBS/Wall Street dominated trade group that is making sincere outreaches to the portfolio lending world. (We will see if the wolfs can dwell with the lambs). 
·       Mood.  Cautiously optimistic. CREFC’s world crashed, went to the ICU and is not long off of crutches. Yet, I could spot certain patients positively skipping down the hospital corridor.
·       Momentum.  A liquidity crisis of too little debt capital has turned into a crisis of too much capital. CMBS, banks, insurance companies, private/hedge funds lenders are all crying for deals. 
·       Mass Manias.  The commercial real estate finance industry wants to believe these incredible good times of low rates and increasing property values will last forever, but nagging questions cloud this exuberance. These were:
1.     How long will these artificially low interest rates continue?
2.     Is commercial real estate in an asset bubble?
3.     Why aren’t we seeing inflation as a result of the Central Banks’ massive increase in money supply?
4.     Is CMBS lending any different this time around? Will we make the same mistakes?
I took some time to write down my take to these burning questions:
How long will these artificially low interest rates continue? 
Much longer than we think and much longer than is good for our economy. We watch the Fed as if we live on an isolated island. The Fed’s dropping of interest rates led to a devaluation of the dollar, which in turn stimulated US exports and started a global currency war. Wars always last longer than anyone would like. Over the last few months as the Fed slowed down its QE bond buying, Asian Central Banks increased buying dollars/T-Bills to cheapen their currencies and keep their export advantages. Thus long-term rates stayed low when we all expected them to rise. Central Banks collectively keeping the risk-free rate below real inflation is a hidden tax on investors that has gone on too long. This is an unprecedented experiment, a global distortion of financial markets. When governments distort a free market, the market tends to break and become dependent on government interference. 
Is commercial real estate in an asset-bubble? 
We are not in an asset-bubble; we are in a currency dive. The symptoms are the same but the prognosis will be different. A classic asset bubble is caused by excess investor exuberance directed towards a particular asset class. The bubble bursts when investor capital moves elsewhere. This time around the central banks are competitively printing money by buying bonds to devalue their currencies. The result is across the board inflation of investment values. If you are just watching the values of commercial real estate it feels the same as the last boom. But cap rate-compression 10 years ago was caused by a very high velocity of money. This time around the inflation of investment values is being caused by a very high quantity of money. A flooding river valley may have the same symptom as a rising sea level, but waiting for the sea to recede may be foolish. The sea level has risen.
Why aren’t we seeing inflation as a result of the Central Banks’ massive increase in money supply?  
We do have inflation; the CPI just measures the wrong things. We all know that inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. But we have to recognize there are two kinds of money, investor dollars and consumer dollars. Quantitative easing, QE, by the Central Banks pumped money into the pockets of only the first group—investors. By buying bonds at inflated prices, the Fed keeps interest rates low, raises the value of yield-producing assets and floods the investor word with liquidity. We are seeing huge inflation as the result of too many investor dollars chasing a limited supply of yield-producing investments. The stock market has roughly doubled in value since the crash, so has the value of a San Francisco apartment and Iowa farm land. Consumer dollars come from wages. Do we have a scarcity of workers? Quite the opposite, due to globalization, robotization and virtualization. The CPI largely measures a basket of consumer goods and services. Do we have too many consumer dollars chasing that package of tube socks at Walmart? No, we have too many tube socks chasing that scarce consumer dollar.
Is CMBS lending any different this time around?
Maybe not: But the participants, especially the borrowers, are “once-burned” and not as stupid as last time. At the 2014 CREFC conference there were many market participants placing the current CMBS marketplace on the trajectory of the last cycle. The consensus: We are around the 2004 level of exuberance and underwriting practices. Competitive pressures are lowering underwriting standards and forcing B-Piece buyers to forgo kick-outs in bidding on mortgage pools. Profit margins are thin. There are twice as many conduits as are likely to survive long-term. 
CREFC’s Borrowers-Panel was made up of mega borrowers, Shorenstein, Kushner, SL Green and Morgan Stanley Real Estate. These borrower’s biggest complaint is still CMBS loan servicing. CMBS servicing is sold during securitization after the loans are closed and pooled. Borrowers pick their CMBS originator but must take the servicer who is the lowest bidder for the pool containing their loan. The consensus of the borrowers’ panel was that there is nothing a borrower can do about it. 
This is not true! This time around, some local sub-servicers, working with the largest master servicers, have created a better business model to help solve some of the most important post-closing CMBS servicing problems such as new tenant lease approvals, loan assumptions and reserve releases. Selected companies such as Newmark Realty Capital now have Primary Servicing Agreements with the five primary master servicers who make up over 90 percent of total CMBS Primary Servicing market share. To achieve these agreements, Newmark annually obtains an S&P Primary Servicer Rating by demonstrating its performance and procedures in servicing +$7 billion in commercial loan servicing. CMBS borrowers do not have to be subject to the non-response of the master and special servicers when many of the decisions are delegated to the local primary servicer like Newmark. 

If your deal needs a CMBS execution, Newmark can now take your deal to enough conduits to create true competition, achieve the best rate and terms for your loan and yet retain the primary servicing role before and after securitization. For example, as both the broker and primary servicer of your CMBS loan, if you need a lease approval or loan assumption, you call me, and Newmark’s servicing team will make the recommendation to the Master and/or Special Servicer and push for a resolution of your servicing request in a timely fashion. Yes, most borrowers prefer a life company execution, but if you need a CMBS loan, there are alternatives to the horror stories put forth by the CREFC Borrower’s Panel. 

May 31, 2014

Protesting Google’s buses is insane

It's time for Google to fight back by funding urban housing... in downtown San Jose!

The well-publicized media events where “activists” block and board Google buses in San Francisco’s Mission District set me off.  These events lead to the requisite articles about how high-paid tech-workers are driving out San Francisco’s low-income households and leading to Ellis Act evictions. The headlines scream "evictions up by 170% in 2013 from 2010"… but rarely mention the grand total was just 116.
Why do these protests frost me?  Let me count the ways...
  1. This is not about San Francisco, it is about the Mission!  The Mission District is becoming a desirable place to live.  Desirable neighborhoods become expensive.  If you have limited means you don't generally get to live in the district of your choice.  I would like to live in Pacific Heights, but I cannot afford it.  Activists, how about moving into the Bayview or the Crocker Amazon and make those neighborhoods hip and desirable?
  2. Old time San Franciscan’s already have uniquely strong protections against being priced out!  Unlike most major cities in America that have freely operating real estate markets, San Francisco has (1) Prop 13 to help homeowners avoid rapidly escalating real estate taxes if their homes jump in value, and (2) rent control over the majority of SF’s rental stock.  Yes, renters are accepting buy-outs from landlords, some as high as $40,000 to move, but these are voluntary transactions, entirely at the tenant’s option.  Ellis Act evictions are up from the depths of the economic collapse, but so are the number of sales, rent levels, home values and all other measures of real estate activity.  Ellis Act evictions are still very rare, annually accounting for only 0.05% of the total San Francisco rental stock. Also, these Ellis Act units do not disappear:  They are housing for the owner’s relatives or converted to TIC ownership, which is the entry housing option for many renters trying to move into home ownership.  
  3. Who are these “activists” anyway?Although the news stories are about long-time San Francisco residents of limited means; the angry protesters are not long-term residents.  They are generally young hipsters who are the same age as the tech workers.  These young people want to live in hip neighborhoods for the same reasons.  The difference, they studied the wrong subjects in college and are now part-time activist baristas.   Activists having special sway with the media is a San Francisco phenomenon; “I hold no public position or office. But my voice counts more than your average voter! Why? Because I am an angry zealot.”  

Yet the Google bus controversy highlights an important issue

The Bay Area’s largely car-centric suburban housing stock does not meet the needs and desires of its influx of millennial in-migrants.  The Bay Area needs a genuine urban alternative to San Francisco.  Downtown San Jose is on the cusp of meeting this need.

Downtown San Jose is at the inflection point of becoming a hip and vibrant place.  See this excellent recent report by SPUR about the emergence of Downtown San Jose:  .

Jerry Brown killed the skimming of tax increment by redevelopment districts.  San Jose was one of the most aggressive skimmers, creating massive, interlocking redevelopment districts that allowed it to use the tax increment from all of the business development in North San Jose’s Golden Triangle to fund projects downtown.  The redevelopment punchbowl was taken away but not before the City spent over $2 billion dollars in redevelopment funds in Downtown San Jose on transit projects, museums, parking, an arena, convention center, parks and street beautification.  Downtown San Jose is safe, clean and beautiful but it is a ghost town after 6 PM.  The 200+ restaurants and bars downtown struggle when it is not Sharks Hockey night.

Without the redevelopment slush fund, San Jose’s city planners are being forced to do what makes sense; incentivize the free-market to bring in high-rise housing to populate its downtown.  A few thousand young, well paid tech-workers living, eating and hanging out downtown will change everything.  Yet the City should not allow a bunch of low-rise, stick-built apartment houses to spring up downtown.  Transit oriented development makes sense only if it is dense: San Jose should demand minimum height limits downtown and continue its current economic incentives for high-rise residential developments.

The Cash-Rich Employers of Silicon Valley should fund high-rise rental projects.  High-rise construction requires developers to meet Type-1 fire safety codes.  This means buildings that don’t burn made of concrete and steel.  Type-1 is expensive construction in earthquake country.  Until very recently the only residential buildings that could afford this type of construction in Downtown San Jose were luxury condos (And, most of these projects still when back to the banks).   Apartment rents in San Francisco are now high enough for Type-1 construction, but San Jose’s rents are not quite there.  So the City of San Jose gave some temporary breaks on development fees for high-rise residential and temporarily suspended inclusionary housing requirements.  As a result two apartment towers are under construction in Downtown San Jose.

But, these City incentives will expire at the end of 2014.  Likewise banks are starting to lose their fear of funding condo projects.  Condo developers historically outbid apartment developers for land.   Luxury condos miss the mark, Silicon Valley’s young newly hired tech workers seek apartments to rent.

Google, Apple and the other cash-rich Silicon Valley employers should create venture funds to back high-rise, transit-oriented apartment projects.  These would not be corporate housing projects. These apartments would be market-rate, open to any renter.  If a developer can propose a project that can achieve an initial unleveraged return equal or higher than a current cap rate, say 4.5%, these tech giants should fund the equity for that project.  These tech companies would show they are helping solve the area’s housing problems.  They will earn 4.5%+ on their excess cash, far better than they are earning today.  And they will not lose money.  They can sell the projects or their positions upon completion to restock their transit-oriented housing incentive fund and likely make a tidy profit.

Google forget San Francisco!  Go to the genuine urban alternative that will accept your tech workers with open arms, downtown San Jose!

November 26, 2013

2013 Bay Area Economic Engine - Creative Destruction

Here again is my annual assessment of the Bay Area's Economic Engine.  Feel free to download it for your own use... and as always feel free to call or write me with questions or comments!

Warning... data alone does not tell the whole story

If you just look at the data, you might see the recent boom in San Francisco and Silicon Valley has slowed slightly; the Bay Area added 52,000 jobs in the 12 months ending October 31st, 2013, compared to 99,000 in calendar year 2012.

I predicted this "slowdown" in last year’s Bay Area Economic Engine. Here's what I wrote then:

Much of the 2010-2012 surge in employment and demand for space was due to companies with disruptive technologies… As these innovations gain market they replace something else. In 2010-2012 these winning companies were launching and growing while the losing companies were still in place. Now we are beginning to see the fallout from the disruptive technologies; upcoming layoffs being announced for chip manufacturers, network equipment manufacturers, PC’s, console video game companies and companies that produced products made redundant by the smartphone…

And so it was... 2013 saw major layoffs... HP 28,000, Cisco 4,000, Lockheed 4000, EMC 1,000, Electronic Arts 900, Symantec 800. But the magic of the Bay Area tech culture is “creative destruction”… Google moves into 500,000 sf of space at the old Mayfield Mall in Mountain View last occupied by HP. Oracle buys and decimates Siebel Systems and that San Mateo space becomes a 1,000,000 sf campus for Sony’s PlayStation group.

Watch corporate IT spending and know the health of Silicon Valley?

Not true this year... 2013 proved this adage to be wrong. With corporate IT spending flat, cuts in defense spending, sequestration, personal computer sales falling, Intel missing the tablet market and computer gaming companies suffering, you might expect Silicon Valley to be on its rear.

Emerging technologies more than compensated... smart phones, tablets, social networking, cloud computing, the consumerization of IT .... these technology trends are still in their infancy and are all are growing up in the Bay Area.

What does that mean for the Bay Area?  The headwinds we saw last year are largely behind us and with the overall US economy recovering; our Bay Area Tech Boom may just be beginning.

DOWNLOAD the 2013 Bay Area Economic Engine by clicking here

October 6, 2013

Commercial Real Estate Investors join the Carry Trade

Learning to trust the Fed – Freely Floating and Fearless

Long–term interest rates are up about 150 basis points since the low we saw in May of this year.  The consensus is that with the economy strengthening and the Fed announcing they will taper their long-term bond buying, the bottom we saw in interest rates will not be back in the current economic cycle.

Yet talking to investment brokers, cap rates for apartments and core assets are up only 50 basis points, if at all.  Positive leverage, where the cap rate is higher than both the long term interest rate and the debt-service-constant, has occurred very rarely over my career.  Usually real estate investors need appreciation in rents and/or values for a project to make sense.  With positive leverage, real estate investors can start out with a decent return from day one.  This has attracted a huge amount of money to commercial real estate, running up prices and driving the excess profits out of the industry.
Core real estate assets shot-up in value and cap rates plummeted. Now, at least on a debt-service-coverage basis, positive leverage is behind us and we are seeing little inflation that we can count on.

So, why are values not falling?

The answer lies in how the winning bidders are financing their acquisitions today.  

Often the buyers for stabilized, institutional quality, core assets are REITS or large investment funds.  These real estate hedge funds have amassed money from pension funds and endowments, where the fund sponsor receives a promotional incentive bases upon the IRR achieved for each asset or based on the performance of the fund in general. 
Many of the winning buyers today are relying on floating rate debt for a large portion of their leverage, if not funding 100% with funds that float over LIBOR.  The big banks are back an are very aggresive.  The best borrowers for the best assets can get spreads of 150 BP to 175 BP today for moderate leverage on stabilized assets.  With the short-term LIBOR rate stuck at about 25 BP, these investors are borrowing floating rate money at 2.0% or less.  It is fairly easy to make the numbers work even at a 4.5% cap rate if your leverage is coming in at 2%:

The Carry Trade: Arbitraging higher long-term bonds, using short-term leverage

The carryb trade is a staple of the non-real estate hedge fund world.  With high leverage an investor can make a decent return on its equity by playing the usual upward slope of the yield curve.  For the vast majority of time, long-term rates are higher than shorter term rates.  This is a great way to make a tidy profit… until it stops working.
Commercial property has longer term leases and cap rates generally track longer term bonds.  For those of us who were around for the S&L crises, we were taught that lending long and borrowing short is a recipe for disaster. 

Yet how many years need to go by with the Fed committed to a near zero Fed-Funds rate, before we learn to believe in it and make money by relying on the Fed to execute on their stated plan. 

The current manipulation by the Fed of a free-market for money, takes returns away from those who invest and gives the advantage to those who borrower.  This financial repression is a government redistribution of wealth that has gone on for over 5-years.  This situation is very likely to continue longer than it should: The Federal Government’ as the biggest borrower of all is getting hooked on this form of financial steroid.  Yes, Quantitative Easing will eventually come to a close. However, Janet Yellen, the incoming Chairmen of the Fed is making no noises about changing the near zero percent target for the Fed Funds Rate, i.e short term rates will remain low for the foreseeable future.
An investor, who does not take advantage of a clearly manipulated market, can look foolish. 

For the real estate fund manager, the issue is really one of disclosure. 

The pension fund or endowment investor that invests in real estate funds also invests in financial hedge funds.  These investors are making returns of the Carry Trade already.  The investors are making two forms of profit, (1) a real estate profit and (2) a profit from the Carry Trade, the mismatch of asset and liability maturities.  For the real estate fund manger, it comes down to an issue of disclosure; simply layout the proposed leverage strategy for the fund and disclosing the advantages and the risks.  

The advantages can be shown with a simple calculation   If an investor believes we are will face a near zero LIBOR rate for the next five years, an un-hedged bank floating rate deal creates a borrowing cost of around 2.0% (LIBOR plus 1.75%).  A ten-year fixed interest rate today might be 5.0%.  With 66% leverage, the 3% rate difference will return an extra 9% per year on the 1/3rd equity.  Over a 5 year holding period the carry-trade portion of the investment will return almost half (45%) of the invested equity.   

Learning to float fearlessly. 

If you believe in the Fed's commitment to manipulate short term rates to the low side, you negotiate your floating rate loans differently.  Do not let your bank force you to buy a cap or hedge: if forced, buy the cheapest insurance possible; highest cap and shortest term.  For the last 5-years caps and hedges have been a waste of money and given the current higher costs of these derivatives this is overly expensive insurance. 

If you follow a freely floating strategy, engage a mortgage banker.  More and more investors are using mortgage bankers to create competition among banks and other floating rate lenders.  Newmark Realty Capital is glad to help with this strategy. 

July 30, 2013

Why Life Companies continue to pursue long-term, fixed-rate Commercial Real Estate Loans

The historic low in long term interest rates likely occurred in July 2012. Now we are facing increased volatility in interest rates and long-term interest rates will climb. This situation seems obvious to all the players in the capital markets. 
So, with the almost certain prospect of rising interest rates, why are the life companies still aggressively pursuing long-term, fixed-rate commercial real estate loans?
The current monetary policy of a zero-interest Fed Funds rate and successive Quantitative Easing’s is a form of price controls; artificially decreasing the price of capital.  This manipulation of the free market for capital shifts earnings from investors to borrowers.  Companies have artificially high earnings because their bond costs are artificially low.  Leveraged real estate investors enjoy an even bigger subsidy, since their degree of leverage is generally higher than that of corporations. 

In the face of what is often called the Fed’s policy of “Financial Repression”, why is anyone willing to play on the lending side of a rigged game?   The reason: As rates were falling long-term bonds were very profitable.   The low yield from the stated interest rate was more than made up by the appreciation of the market value for these bonds as rates fell. 

The rigged market has created a bond bubble 

The ride has been good, but investors admit that the risk to return ratios are out of whack.  As in any bubble, we know the situation will reverse, but as long as we are convinced a greater-fool will buy from us at a higher price tomorrow, we convince ourselves we are not one of the fools.  If greed keeps us in the game too long, we are proven foolish.  The trick in any bubble is to sell before the crowd begins to sell.
Given this competition to not be the last one still sitting, even rate stability can drive bond holders to race for the exit door.  We saw this in the mini-panic caused by some very mild words from Ben Bernanke in June:


“Tapering” = Quantitative Easing will slowly, eventually end. 

We all knew this, but bond investors fled and both interest rates and spreads jumped.  10-year Treasury Swap yields were 2% on May 27th and 2.75% on July 9th.  CMBS spreads increased as the same time.  Since there is no good way to lock in an interest rate on a CMBS mortgage, 10-year fixed-rate CMBS mortgages that were getting  signed up in the high 3% range were closing (if they closed at all) in the low 5% range, many times with the dollar amount of the loan drastically reduced. 

In the midst of this, the life insurance lenders were an island of stability.  They honored their commitments holding rates on loan applications where rates were locked and continued quoting loans and taking new loan applications generally at the same spreads as before the mini-panic.
A savvy real estate investor, John McNellis (who has known me since I had hair), asked during this confusion in the capital markets: “If the life companies know that interest rates will be rising, why don’t they just pull out of the market and wait to put their money out when rates will be higher?”

I had my own theories, but I posed John’s question to a few of Newmark Realty Capital’s life insurance lenders.  Here is their feedback:
  1. Life Companies are Investors not Speculators:  Market timing investing does not work for life companies, especially now when holding cash is so costly.  Chief Investment Officers (CIO’s) who try to time the market can be successful several time in a row, but one miss can cost the CIO his job.  No one gets fired for matching the terms of assets and liabilities.  Life companies have various product lines, many of which have long liability durations that pair well with long-term fixed-rate mortgages.  The CIO’s job is simply to make a profitable spread between the long-term asset (the mortgage) and the long-term liability (the annuity or insurance product).  If they just stay constantly in the markets they hope to average out over time.  If not, they can sell or close out the line of insurance business.  Because of the low-rate environment, Met Life announced they planned to get out of multiple lines of business this year. 
  2. Mortgages do not have to be marked to market:  Bonds are actively traded securities, as such accounting standards require them to be “marked-to-market”.  Mortgages are much more illiquid and are generally held to term.  Thus, mortgages just sit there on the balance sheet at their face value.   Bonds can be very profitable when overall rates are falling as these securities increase in value.  But the reverse will be true as rates start to rise.  Over the last 30-years constantly dropping rates has created a tailwind for life companies as their bond portfolios rose in value.  During this time (my whole career) the bond group was treated as the A-Team in the investment departments of most of Newmark’s insurance company clients.  In the last few years this reversed.  CIO’s are giving their Mortgage Department first billing.  They are being told; “Find good mortgage deals and we will find the funds.”  Mortgages’ avoidance of potential mark-to-market losses as rates begin to rise is a big factor. 
  3. Call Protection.   Mortgages can be a better match for long-term liabilities than bonds.  The lender gets to write the documents in a mortgage and the borrower gets to write the documents in a bond.  Thus fixed-rate commercial mortgage loans have the type of call-protection  (generally yield-maintenance prepayment formulas) that is lender-friendly versus the borrower-friendly call options in a corporate bond.  High-rate corporate bonds have a tendency to pay off when the corporation’s credit improves or when overall interest rates decline.  Commercial mortgages generally keep their yield until very close to the due-date. 
  4. Better Loss History.  Most life companies have a system to equate a mortgage’s risk level to an equivalent bond, with targets usually somewhere in the range of BBB+/A-.  Most life companies have fond that their mortgage portfolios have a loss history 15 to 20 basis points better than that bond equivalent.  Also, a defaulted bond gives you a total loss, but even a vacant building taken back by the mortgage department has some value.
  5. Better underwriting and access to information with a Mortgage versus a Bond.  In mortgage underwriting there is less need to rely on third-party underwriting and valuation.  Most life companies underwrite mortgages themselves directly from the underlying leases and only use appraisals as a final check, simply a closing item.  The specter of partiality by the Rating Agencies clouds the bond world (see  prior blog posts).  Likewise the creativity of corporate accounting is an ongoing challenge, with off-balance sheet entities and hidden derivative risks a real concern.

As the Fed calms the capital market with talk of postponing the end of QE3, it seems the question is not are the Life Companies back? They never went away!

June 3, 2013

Does Panama Canal expansion spell disaster for West Coast distribution buildings?

Will the expansion of the Panama Canal in December 2014 be a disaster for West Coast distribution buildings?
"Likely Not" said Curtis Spencer, President of IMS Worldwide Inc., one of the leading consultants to ports, shippers and big retailers on logistics strategy.

I attended a presentation by Curtis Spencer at the Spring ULI meeting in San Diego. His presentation countered much of the doom and gloom that is out there regarding the impact of the Panama Canal expansion on West Coast demand for distribution buildings.

He kindly agreed to allow me to share this with my readers. Click here for copy of his slides.

West Coast Competitive Advantages

Because of the large ships that can be accommodated, the Panama Canal expansion will drop sea cargo costs to the East Coast by 30%. IMS is telling their clients that much of the current cost advantage of West Coast shipping is absorbed by the railroads (that is why Mr. Buffet bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.) and they are predicting that after the Panama Canal expansion the railroads will drop their pricing to keep intermodal shipping competitive to most of the East Coast. IMS Worldwide estimates only a 1 in 10 chance that the railroads will stick to their current pricing and the West Coast will lose significant market share of the import/export business.

The recent economic downturn resulted in a glut of container ships. As a result the shipping lines shifted to a slow-shipping system. With excess ships sitting around, it cost them less to run their ships as slower speeds than to dock these ships. This resulted in such large fuel savings that IMS is predicting the industry will not shift back to maximum speeds even as shipping demand picks up. If slow-speed shipping stays the norm, the intermodal system used by West Coast ports to get product to the East Coast will still have about a one week advantage over the improved speeds after the Panama Canal Expansion to the East Coast.

West Coast’s Biggest Area of Concern

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has a strangle hold on West Coast ports. The organized slowdown in 2002 in LA and Long Beach disrupted logistics for the entire nation. As a result, the union usually gets everything it wants. The typical crane operator in LA/Long Beach makes over $300,000 per year and is not required to punch in and out. A skilled operator can meet his/her weekly quota working about 20 hours a week.

Watch Mexico
Also, an important driver for increasing demand for distribution buildings in the US Southwest is the growth of manufacturing in Mexico. This demand growth is expected to continue due to the increased competitiveness of Mexican wages versus China:

See the attached slide presentation for details

May 7, 2013

Self-Storage Business.... and Perspectives on Creating a Financing Strategy

I had the privilege of attending the California Self Storage Association’s owners’ conference in Napa last week.  It was a fun time with meaty sessions, warm weather and good food and fine wine.  The CSSA is a great association that gives its members the type of value that only comes when there are more “givers” than “takers” in an association.  I am always pleasantly surprised how much Self Storage owners share with each other; a bit different from many other trade groups.

As a mortgage banker among the self-storage owners, I found myself addressing two common questions…

What is the lending community’s image of self-storage? 

My answer: Excellent among the lenders who have learned this sector, with more lenders getting on board all the time.

Where are rates today? 

My answer: The best they have ever been in my entire career.  We have recently closed several loans well below 4% fixed for 10-years on larger, well-located self-storage properties.

Greetings from California!

What follows is the start of a chapter I wrote for a book published by the California Self Storage Association, “Greetings from CA: Best Practices from the CSSA”   It was written a year ago, but it holds up pretty well.  If your read the entire chapter, just keep in mind that interest rates and cap rates are down 75 basis points since this was published!

The importance of asking Why? before What? or How Much? *

So you need a loan?  You and your partners are buying a self-storage facility or you have a loan coming up for refinance.  “This should not be too hard.” you say to yourself.  Lenders are coming back into commercial real estate and are looking favorably on self-storage as a product type.  As we come out of the recent downturn in 2012 self-storage may not be on top of the heap, but it is near the top.  Self-storage has a relatively low rate of foreclosures and a relatively high recovery ratio when loans do go bad.  In fact, self-storage weathered the downturn extremely well, except for those doomed facilities built at the top of the bubble near the edge of the exurbs still waiting for the rooftops to appear.  Lenders recognize that self-storage does not have the great swings in occupancy and rents experienced by other property types.  Lenders can trust self-storage income streams;  rents are real and a few years of strong collection reports is better than relying on an office or retail tenant’s credit rating that could be gone tomorrow.

With this favorable financing environment it’s not hard to get a loan for a stabilized self-storage project, but it is hard to be sure it is the right loan for your situation.  Efforts to finance without a financing strategy often fall into two approaches.

Scenario One: Ready! Fire! Aim!

You pick up the phone and call your mortgage banker.  He explains there are lots of options available and presses you for some guidance.  You say. “Show me what is out there.  Get me a variety of quotes so I can see what’s available.”  Your mortgage banker pulls favors and runs a wide variety of lenders through their paces and comes back with a mixture of quotes that looks to you like apples & oranges; different loan amounts, rates, loan terms, recourse provisions, prepayment penalties, impounds and other lender controls, and different amortization periods, all from lenders with various reputations as to surety of execution and loan servicing behavior. You want to keep things simple so you focus on only one of the many financing variables (usually the interest rate or total loan proceeds) and compare the options that way.   You pick a lender and financing structure that you worry you later may regret, but can’t quite put your finger on what is bothering you.

Scenario Two: Ladies and Gentlemen, Start your Engines!

This scenario is even worse than a single mortgage banker casting around without guidance, you and your partners start the financing search by each partner taking the initiative, dialing for dollars, calling multiple mortgage brokers and banks.  The competing mortgage brokers get into a footrace to reach lenders before the other guy, so they can protect their fee.  Their packages are sketchy and inaccurate because they prepared them in haste.  Their presentation of your story is fragmented, poorly rendered and the unprofessionalism reflects on you and your project.  The various banks contacted by your partners are competitive and jealous of each other and feel disrespected, but still begrudgingly prepare preliminary term sheets.  The quotes come in, with each source selling their solution and disparaging all other approaches.  Your partners each champion their financing sources and take it personally that you will not direct the financing to their favorite bank.  The quotes are hard to compare because they were based on different NOI projections and different financing requests.  You feel you are only getting half the story and you don’t like the pressure tactics from the lenders and brokers competing to secure the business.   Given this chaos how do you have confidence in your choice of lender and loan structure? "

* From the book: Greetings from California: Best Practices from the California Self Storage Association features a unique collection of self-storage insights and knowledge from this highly respected group of professionals.

Voted the 2011 Best State Association, the California Self Storage Association counts among its members some of the most experienced operators, property managers and marketing experts in the self-storage industry.

April 25, 2013

Are rating agency’s ratings based upon independent objective research or just on puffery?


S&P’s lawyers claim, it's puffery...

In our Federal Government’s belated response to the financial collapse, the US Justice Department filed a $5 billion lawsuit in February 2013 against S&P for their role in rating the mortgage-backed securities that became toxic.  S&P told investors that their ratings were the result of thorough research and that such ratings were “independent, objective and free of conflicts of interest”. 
The government’s suit claims: “… S&P knew these representations were material false and concealed facts, in that S&P’s desire for increased revenue and market share … led S&P to downplay and disregard the true extent of the credit risk…”

On Monday S&P’s lawyers filed a response asking that the case be thrown out. 

S&P said, “These CDO's are THE BEST!!!” Instead, they turned out to be “OFFAL!”
"... the Government claims that S&P engaged in a scheme to defraud investors by asserting that its ratings were independent, objective and uninfluenced by conflicts of interest when S&P knew or believed that in truth they were not. This claim fails because the statements at issue are not actionable. Each of the representations identified by the Government is the type of vague, generalized statement that court after court -- in this District, this Circuit and elsewhere across the country -- has held to be non-actionable in a federal fraud case such as this."

The S&P lawyers’ claim is that S&P engaged in “classic puffery”.  Marketing hyperbole is allowed as a form of advertising.  If the CD cover say’s “The BEST of Johnny”, could you really bring the CD back for a refund because you dont agree it's not Johnny Cash’s “BEST”?   No, you couldn’t. 

The S&P lawyers’ defense boils down to that famous line from the movie Animal House, when Bluto and Otter say to a crying Flounder as he confronts his father's ruined car: "You can't spend your whole life worrying abut your mistakes!  You fucked up, you trusted us!"

But, what is S&P selling if not it’s reputation as “independent and objective”?  Yet, their own lawyers claim S&P (and other rating agencies) are just stamping approvals on securitized loan pools to help sell the bonds  - Even if they have to hold their noses to do it.  And we in the investor public can only blame ourselves if we trust them.