Storm Front Approaching the Home Builders
There is only one problem with the home builders – expectations are way too high. The builders are not only priced for perfection by the market, the builders themselves have business strategies that are modeled for perfection. I believe the bar is set at an unattainable level.
Here is why.
In the beginning there is raw land. It takes years, if not decades, to develop this raw land into finished lots, lots that are ready for permitting and construction. When the final product is sold, the process of monetizing land is completed. Depending on their strategies, home builders buy land during various stages of this long development process. NVR, for example, is at one extreme. They only buy finished lots based on what they need at the moment. Even with NVR, it will still take them a few months to complete the finished design and put up a couple of models before they can officially market the communities. Most other builders take much longer from land purchases to final sales. They are exposed to market fluctuations during this holding period.
NVR, Inc.: buying only finished lots
With the time lag, there are three possible outcomes. First, when the houses are finally sold and closed, the sales price and costs are exactly what the builders projected when the land was purchased. Second, market conditions improve beyond their original estimates and margins come in much better than expectations. Finally, the third possibility is market conditions turn out to be far below expectations and all profits gone.
The lesson here is that it is not enough for the real estate market to be improving for the builders to be profitable, they need to have a low enough cost basis in order to have a decent margin. To really do well, they will also need volume.
Looking back a decade, starting with the bursting of the tech bubble, the builders were preparing for lean years and did not overpay for land. They did not know that Greenspan had different ideas. Consequently, with the Greenspan versions of quantitative easing, their margins increased way beyond their expectations. With the surprise windfall, builders went wild and paid higher prices to replenish their land inventory. This did not affect their profit margins. The subprime bubble was beyond their wildest dreams and offset all the higher costs, generating even more profits. At the peak of the bubble, the builders were totally fearless and kept buying land at even higher prices until one day it all came tumbling down.
Where are we today and why do I believe a storm front is fast approaching?
Easy Money, and Cheap too. With the help of the Bernanke QEs, every builder has since issued equity, convertibles, new debt and/or refinanced existing debt. The cost of these funds is unbelievably reasonable. This is however a double-edged sword. The cheap money lures the builders into buying more land and/or develop what they already have on hand. The cost basis is no longer cheap.
Land Cost. If we take a snap shot of the builders' land portfolios today, most builders have plenty of land but the finished lot inventory has been absorbed by the favorable conditions so far this year. To survive, they have been purchasing finished lots to meet demand. During the recent earnings conference calls, most builders still claimed that they have underwriting standards that do not rely on future home price appreciation. Anyone who has looked at any recent land deals knows that is not true. They can also spend money developing the raw land in their own inventory but that would add to costs and hurt earnings for the current and upcoming quarters.
No Competition, for now. The builders could not have planned for a more perfect set of circumstances. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, public policies have been the greatest friend the builders can dream of. They were given free money in the form of tax loss carry-back. There were tax credits. The greatest gift, of course, are low mortgage rates along with cumbersome underwriting documentation. Builders are uniquely positioned to coach buyers through the process, far better than their existing homes counterparts. Distressed properties are artificially held off the market. For the better deals that do reach the market, investors are gobbling them up, forcing the owner users to overpay for new homes.
Confused. The market is confusing a listing shortage with a housing shortage. The US population grew by only 2.3 million between 2010 to 2011. Housing starts for this year are around 900,000. Baby boomers are rapidly reaching retirement age, changing housing demand. Employment remains stagnant with no signs of wage appreciation. We are at best at equilibrium, while the market is still trying to absorb the excesses of the past decade.
In summary, the building model is flawed. They cannot avoid boom bust cycles. Right now, builders have to keep buying even if they believe that the market may slow. When every "A" location property is receiving multiple bids from builders, the price is not likely going to be cheap. Can the builders afford to buy, at prices that rely on future appreciation? Can the builders afford not to buy? How are they going to generate revenue if they are not buying land and therefore not building? Shareholders would destroy them. They have no choice but to keep building, hoping favorable market conditions will continue indefinitely. Having used up most of the cheap land already, builders are now facing a "must appreciate" predicament. If the market slows, look out below.
The Home builder ETF, XHB – still in the market's good graces for now, but for how long?
Charts by: StockCharts.com
Dear Readers! We are happy to report that we have reached our turn-of-the-year funding goal and want to extend a special thank you to all of you who have chipped in. We are very grateful for your support! As a general remark, according to usually well informed circles, exercising the donation button in between funding drives is definitely legal and highly appreciated as well.
Bitcoin address: 1DRkVzUmkGaz9xAP81us86zzxh5VMEhNke
Most read in the last 20 days:
- Alan “Bubbles” Greenspan Returns to Gold
Faking It Under a gold standard, the amount of credit that an economy can support is determined by the economy’s tangible assets, since every credit instrument is ultimately a claim on some tangible asset. […] The abandonment of the gold standard made it possible for the welfare statists to use the banking system as a means to an unlimited expansion of credit. — Alan Greenspan, 1961 He was in it for the power and the glory... Alan Greenspan gets presidential bling...
- The Gold Situation
A Growing Bullish Chorus – With Somewhat Muted Enthusiasm A few days ago a well-known mainstream investment house (which shall remain nameless) informed the world that it now expects the gold price to reach “$1,500 by early 2017”. Our first thought was: “Now they tell us!”. You won't be surprised to learn that the same house not too long ago had its eyes firmly fixed in the opposite direction. Da bling be goin' somewhere, fellow rastas and homies! Photo via...
- End of an Era: The Rise and Fall of the Petrodollar System
The Transition “The chaos that one day will ensue from our 35-year experiment with worldwide fiat money will require a return to money of real value. We will know that day is approaching when oil-producing countries demand gold, or its equivalent, for their oil rather than dollars or euros. The sooner the better.” Ron Paul A new oil pipeline is built in the Saudi desert... this one is apparently destined for the Ghawar oil field, one of the oldest fields in Saudi Arabia...
- European Banks and Europe's Never-Ending Crisis
Landfall of a “Told You So” Moment... Late last year and early this year, we wrote extensively about the problems we thought were coming down the pike for European banks. Very little attention was paid to the topic at the time, but we felt it was a typical example of a “gray swan” - a problem everybody knows about on some level, but naively thinks won't erupt if only it is studiously ignored. This actually worked for a while, but as Clouseau would say: “Not...
- Writing on the Wall
Time to Sell... Maybe BALTIMORE – Yesterday, the S&P 500 hit a new all-time high. And the Dow just hit a new record close as well. If you haven’t sold yet, dear reader, this may be one of the best times ever to do so. It's still flying... sorta. Meet Bill Bonner's tattered crash flag Image credit: fmh We welcome new readers with a simple insight: Markets are contrary, pernicious, and downright untrustworthy. Just when the mob begins to bawl most loudly...
- Gold – Eerie Pattern Repetition Revisited
Gold Continues to Mimic the 1970s Ask and ye shall receive... we promised we would update the comparison chart we last showed in late November in an article that kind of insinuated that it might be a good time to buy gold and gold stocks (see: “Gold and Gold Stocks – It Gets Even More Interesting” for the details). We are hereby delivering on that promise. A Lydian gold stater from the time of the famously rich King Croesus, approx. 570 BC. It seems they already had this...
- Fat People for Trump!
Alphas and Epsilons BALTIMORE – One of the delights of being an American is that it is so easy to feel superior to your fellow countrymen. All you have to do is stand up straight and smile. Or if you really need an ego boost, just go to a local supermarket. Better yet, go to a supermarket with a Trump poster in the parking lot. The protest vote attractor with the funny hair. Image credit: Liberty Maniacs Trigger warning: In the following ramble, we make fun of...
- The Central Planning Virus Mutates
Chopper Pilot Descends on Nippon Readers are probably aware of recent events in Japan, the global laboratory for interventionist experiments. The theories of assorted fiscal and monetary cranks have been implemented in spades for more than a quarter of a century in the country, to appropriately catastrophic effect. Amid stubbornly stagnating economic output, Japan has amassed a debt pile so vast since the bursting of its 1980s asset bubble, it beggars the imagination. A...
- Destination Mars
Asset Price Levitation One of the more preposterous deeds of modern central banking involves creating digital monetary credits from nothing and then using the faux money to purchase stocks. If you’re unfamiliar with this erudite form of monetary policy this may sound rather fantastical. But, in certain economies, this is now standard operating procedure. The “Tokyo Whale” Haruhiko Kuroda explains his asset purchase madness with a few neat little slides. Photo credit:...
- America Has Become a “Parasitocracy”
Dread and Denial So, let’s return to the discussion you can’t have with your congressman, your mailman, or your barmaid. It’s the important one. It concerns what the Fed is really up to. Eight years after achieving independence, a State modeled after the British merchant state was established in the US. It took a while for the Deep State to consolidate itself within it, a process that was accelerated greatly in the run-up to and aftermath of WW I. Illustration by Ana...
- Planet Debt
Low Interest Rate Persons She is a low-interest-rate person. She has always been a low-interest-rate person. And I must be honest. I am a low-interest-rate person. If we raise interest rates, and if the dollar starts getting too strong, we’re going to have some very major problems. — Donald Trump Two low interest rate persons! The Trumpsumptive president (Donald the Tremendous) can be seen here indicating the approximate size of the interest rate that will...
- Long Term Market Perspectives
Methuselah Tree When looking for a good theme for this post I pondered for a while and then decided to use a picture of a bristlecone pine, which are widely considered to be the oldest living trees in the world. Ye olde bristlecone Photo credit: Kosta Konstantinidis You can find them near the Nevada/California border and if you wind up traveling in the area then I strongly recommend that head over to Bishop and from there head up high up into the White...