To say that global financial markets are off to a rocky start in 2016 would be an understatement... Oil (West Texas Intermediate) has plummeted to roughly $30 dollars per barrel - the lowest level in over 12 years. Japan, the world's 3rd largest economy, took a great leap into the unknown by lowering interest rates to below 0% in an effort to counteract negative GDP growth rates. Emerging market economies are feeling the impact of a prolonged deceleration of growth in China. Despite these concerning global developments, economists and leading analysts still assert that the U.S. economy, the strongest and most resilient in the world, is likely to see improved economic growth..
We can take some solace that industry titans here in the U.S. are not running for the exits. For example, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, just last week purchased over $26M in JP Morgan shares. That is certainly putting your money where your mouth is! Other more technical indicators suggest that the U.S. economy is on relatively solid footing. The U.S. economy added over 150,000 jobs in January of this year, and unemployment is down to 4.9% (although one should take into account that many people are still underemployed or have already left the job market). The U.S. consumer also remains relatively strong. Retail sales were up 0.2% in January - beating analyst estimates. To conclude, most market participants believe that the U.S. economy is doing "OK", and that barring any global economic calamities domestic growth should accelerate. So in which direction is one to reallocate their portfolio in today's market?
U.S. debt and equity markets have not been immune to the global market turmoil. Year-to-date, the Bloomberg High Yield Corporate Bond Index is down over 4% for the year, and the S&P 500 Index is off roughly 8.5%. The sharp swings in global markets have left many investors shell shocked and fearful that we are on the cusp of another 2008-style financial crisis. U.S. equity markets are still historically "expensive" on a price/earnings ratio basis, and continued global market volatility makes for a wild ride.
Other than as a "safe haven" hedge, U.S. Treasuries or investment grade corporate bonds are not very appealing given that interest rates should eventually rise in the medium term. Commodity markets are still reeling from unprecedented structural shifts in global oil markets as well as the slowdown in China's economic growth. As with oil, those without a long-term investment horizon and a strong stomach are also hesitant to invest in battered emerging market economies. Much Commercial, Industrial, Multi-Family and to a lesser extent Residential Real Estate has arguably hit what could be called "fair market value", or is even entering "overheated" territory. With many commercial properties in Tier 1 markets trading at 3.5-4.5% cap rates, is there really that much more room for cap rate compression?
Land, however, is an often overlooked asset class that may be both less susceptible to global economic volatility as well as currently available at attractive historical valuations.
In the run-up to the 2008 crash, land prices were driven up by 3 demand-side market participants, all of which were fueled by loose credit markets. At the base of the market, there were the consumers who had easy access to capital and were eager to enjoy the benefits of home ownership, including the capital gains then commonly associated with it. Acting as a middle man, there were individual investors who were engaged in land investment, land banking and "pre-development". At the top of the market, homebuilders competed with one another to rapidly acquire land for their soon-to-be-built communities. After the 2008 financial crisis, each of these market participants packed their bags and went away. The consumers suffered from foreclosures and massive financial losses, and were left with their credit in tatters. Aside from the substantial toll that the crash took on their finances and their employment, it has taken many buyers over 7 years for their credit to recover so that they can finally qualify for a mortgage once again. For their part, land investors faced tremendous losses, as the value of their land plummeted to in many cases less than 10 cents on the dollar. Many investors gave back their land to lenders or tried to "hang on" until prices recovered (which they still haven't...). The largest players in the market, large homebuilders, faced drastic losses as their core business all but dried up. Along with the banks who took back property secured by bad debt, the homebuilders wrote off unprecedented losses and ditched their assets at fire sale prices. All 3 market participants (the consumer, the land investor, and the large homebuilder) have still not returned to "normalcy". Normalcy is by no means the 2005-2007 run-up to the Financial Crisis, but it is also not this ho-hum market that we are seeing today.
Despite the painfully slow recovery that we have experienced thus far, there are signs that we are slowly marching towards "normalcy". The market participant that is out in front of the rest is the U.S. consumer. The stabilization of home ownership rates and the rise of housing prices are a testament to the resurgence of the U.S. consumer. Despite the recent global economic turmoil, the gains in the housing market have been largely sustained and resilient. It is great news that the U.S. consumer is leading the charge, since in a healthy market the U.S. consumer serves as the cornerstone for housing growth. The land investor has been wary of reentering the market. Many land investors who were burned during the financial crisis, and there were many, have "sworn off" land either out of necessity or based on bad prior experiences. Other would-be land investors are unable to invest in more land since they are still holding onto land that they have owned since before the crisis. Meanwhile, the large homebuilder is slowly dipping their toe back in the water to meet rising consumer demand. However, they are still highly conservative (arguably over-conservative) with their land investments and entitlements for new developments. The corporate objective of most builders in today's market is to have just enough supply to meet their projected demand, which is likely underestimated. With the U.S. consumer driving sustained gains in the U.S. housing market, builders may soon need to step up their land acquisitions to meet this rising demand. In response to the strength of the U.S. consumer and the return of the large homebuilder, land investors will also likely take note of attractive investment opportunities and re-enter the market.
In certain parts of the Valley, raw land prices are currently at an estimated 20% to 50% of their pre-crisis peaks (although this varies widely). While we do not anticipate quickly returning to the inflated land prices seen in the frenzy leading up to the crash (nor do we hope to see such frenzied activity again), today we believe that may be substantial room for land price appreciation. With few attractive investment alternatives to chose from, long-term investors should consider adding some land to their portfolios.
Disclaimer: The content on this site is provided as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. All site content shall not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell any asset, or to participate in any particular investment strategy. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable, but we cannot attest to its accuracy.