Are Hedge Funds Blowing Bubbles?

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Last month the New Republic published a provocative article by former TV producer David Dayen on hedge funds and real estate investing (Your New Landlord Works on Wall Street).  He said out loud what many people have been whispering.

Dayen argued that Wall Street hedge funds, backed by billions from wealthy investors, are turning the once sleepy business of renting and managing houses into a festering real estate bubble that’s bound to burst and blow up everyone standing nearby, from tenants to hedge fund investors to homeowners to the entire national real estate economy. “It’s the next Wall Street gold rush, with all the warning signs of a renewed speculative bubble,” he said.

Another Bubble Brewing?

The essence of his case is that the billions hedge funds are pouring in the REO-to-rental business (actually the total amount that that has been announced is more than twice as much as the $10 billion he cites) will jack up prices for distress sales far above their value as an asset.  Home values will follow and artificially inflate home prices once again only to crash once more.  Two bubbles in less than ten years.  “There’s far less excuse for such nonchalance this time, coming just a few years after we saw the precise consequences of the bubble, and the means by which it grew,” he concluded.

In the interim, the funds will make life miserable for their tenants, especially when compared to the “typical owner of a single-family property for rent is a local mom-and-pop business with a stake in the community who manage properties as a primary vocation.”

“For the most part, they have partnered with large property management companies to deal with day-to-day operations. The houses they purchase often come to them in substandard condition. And the management companies, with thin profit margins of their own, tend to renovate as little as possible before seeking renters,” writes Dayen.

I quibble with a number of the author’s assertions:

  • Hedge funds made an impact on real estate sales, but not as much as Dayen argues.   In the record year for foreclosure sales in 2011, hedge funds were a blip in the horizon at a national level and were not nearly active enough to heat up overall sales.  When Dayen published his piece, 2012 data had not been released, but now we know that even though dozens of hedge funds were up and running, paying crazy prices in some markets, the foreclosure market share of total sales actually fell from 23 percent in 2011 to 21 percent.
  • It’s true funds want to securitize their single family rentals to raise cash from institutional investors, but that day is years away, and may never happen.  Don’t lose any sleep over it.  (See Strike Three: Moody’s Weighs In on Rating SFR Securities)
  • Dayen cites only one source, an organizer with Occupy Our Homes, to prove that hedge funds cut corners on rehabbing, but that’s not enough to condemn tens of thousands of properties.
  • There’s no evidence that larger management firms do a poorer job than smaller ones, or none at all, as Dayen suggests.

Viva la Effervescence

However, there’s more than a kernel of truth in his central message.  Hedge funds are definitely having an impact, not so much on a national basis, but in the less than 5 percent of real estate markets where they active. They may or may not be creating local bubbles, there’s definitely some effervescence at work, as my partner David Lereah used to say.

At about the same that that the New Republic published its article, I interviewed Rick Sharga, formerly with RealtyTrac, now with Carrington Mortgage, and asked him whether small investors will survive the hedge funds.

“There are over 3000 counties in the country. Institutional investors right now seem to be focusing on about a dozen. There are opportunities for individual investors across the country, especially in markets that are off the radar of the bigger guys,” he said.

Sharga’s right about the localized impact of hedge fund acquisitions:

  • Foreclosure prices in foreclosure markets are rising and lifting overall prices with them.  Distressed sales prices increased on an annual basis in the fourth quarter last year in 15 of the 20 major metro markets, according to RealtyTrac. Given that distressed sales accounted for 21 percent of all residential sales in the fourth quarter, increasing prices on those distressed properties helped to lift overall home prices.  Average distressed sales prices increased 26 percent in Phoenix, and were up 22 percent in Las Vegas and 17 percent in San Francisco.
  • Foreclosure prices are rising in response to demand from hedge  funds.  In 19 of the 20 metro areas tracked by Case-Shiller, prices registered positive year-over-year increases in home prices in December. The strongest gains were in some of the markets hardest hit by foreclosures that now are home to active hedge fund operations.  Phoenix home prices were up 23 percent, Detroit home prices were up 13.6 percent, and Las Vegas home prices were up 12.9 percent.
  • In a turnaround from the traditional toxic effect foreclosure prices, rising foreclosure prices are reducing the foreclosure discount.  CoreLogic reported home prices rose MORE when distressed sales (foreclosures and short sales) were included than when they were left out, suggesting that distress prices, which are typically discounted 15 to 30 percent, are worth more on a national average basis than normal homes.  January home prices nationwide, with distress sales excluded, increased on a year-over-year basis by 9.0 percent over January 2012.   Excluding distressed sales, home prices increased on a year-over-year basis by 9.0 percent in January 2013.
  • In several states where REO supplies are tight and investor demand is great, the REO discounts in hot investor markets are at long time lows.  These include Las Vegas, where the discount is only 1 percent, Phoenix at 5 percent discount), and Orlando, where the discount is about 20 percent, far below the traditional 35 percent.  Investors in these low discount markets may find that they are not getting much of a bargain, according to data from Home Value Forecast.
  • According to Capital Economics, the discount on foreclosed homes compared to other homes has
    fallen to a 12 percent average. That was about the same percentage prior to the housing crash, he says. Last year the foreclosure discount averaged about 30 percent.

Consequences and Contingencies

Many of the consequences of the hedge fund incursion have been positive.  The funds are contributing to the overall investor demand, which has been the single saving grace throughout the housing crisis.  Investors built bottoms on spiraling markets and saved homeowners and the nation at large from losing even more home equity than it did.  Just like individual investors but more so, hedge funds are buying and renovating distress sales that would otherwise lower home values, blight neighborhoods and increase the numbers of underwater homeowners.  They are also housing tens of thousands of families, many of them foreclosure victims looking for a new start.

Already “investors have begun to pull out of one of the leading edge markets, Phoenix, as most of the foreclosed properties worth purchasing have been snapped up. The big run-up in prices there could collapse as demand collapses, depressing prices and putting the recovery in jeopardy. And any economic downturn would increase rental vacancies and send this entire market reeling. We may not only have a bubble, but already the beginnings of a bust,” he writes.

Aside for the fact that in Phoenix neither is demand showing any sign of collapsing or nor are prices depressed (they’re up 24.64 percent year over year in February), it may be the first place hedge funds pull out in earnest.  After all, it was the first place they all chose to land.

“We got to a point in Phoenix where we said these prices don’t make any sense. It’s mind boggling to hear an institutional investor say that their model is based on buying a property, holding it and then flipping it as prices appreciate and then buying a property for 25 percent over list price. It makes sense. But that’s not our model so we’ll let everyone else do what they want,” Sharga told me in our interview.

Whimper or Bang?

Dayen is right the Hedge Fund Incursion won’t last.  Fewer bets are more certain than the withdrawal of a number of the 50-plus funds and REITS in the REO-to-rental business.  The Foreclosure Era has only two or three years left before the flow of defaults dries up and the front end of the REO-to-Rental model─acquiring properties at a significant discount ─disappears.  Investors who were sold on quick returns of 8 percent or more will tire of paying more than they expected for properties and waiting three, four, five years, maybe more, maybe never, for securitization to produce a payday.  Like most things in life, it’s just not as simple as it looked.

One of the catalysts for the Hedge Fund Incursion was the void for institutional investors created by the meltdown of private label mortgage backed securities in 2006.  As the economy picks up, institutional money may find new opportunities, including the return of a viable private label mortgage market that is a priority for both the big lenders and the federal government as they seek a private sector alternative to Fannie and Freddie.  As time passes, the private money behind the hedge funds may also realize there are better opportunities elsewhere can be doing a lot better elsewhere.  They’ll unload their assets quickly and quietly, selling to other funds that that are sticking it out for the long haul or, on a limited basis, dumping them on the for sale market.  The great Hedge Fund Incursion will end with a whimper, or the sound of air escaping from a balloon, not a bang as Dayen expects.  Left will be a few survivors, who may realize some of their initial goals—securitization, massive numbers of rental units, management economies of scale─but only if the SFR rental market remains strong.

That’s another question.  In light of the findings of the single family rental survey that we released a week ago, I’m increasingly confident that with time SFRs will become a more accepted option, and develop a stronger market than it has today, which is doing just fine.  However, the homeownership lobby sees a potential new home buyer in every SFR despite tough lending standards that aren’t going to change any time soon, skimpy for sale inventories and the emotional baggage of the housing crisis that has left an entire generation wary of the homeownership risk.

In Dayen’s scenario, the hedge fund survivors would “make life really miserable for renters,” which would be an extremely foolish thing to do.  In fact, their success will largely rest on maintaining the lowest possible vacancy rates, which will call for excellent property management skills.  In our single family rental survey we found that real estate investors, predominantly individual not hedge funds, are doing a much better job of management than multifamily owners.  The big guys will need to learn from the little guys or they’ll be out of business in a heartbeat, their rentals empty and their securities worthless.

Photo: matze_ott

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About Author

Steve Cook is the editor of Real Estate Economy Watch and writes for a several leading outlets in addition to BiggerPockets, including Equifax and Total Mortgage. He also provides communications consulting services to leading real estate companies. Previously he was vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Realtors.

5 Comments

  1. I sure hope the Hedge funds run the prices up past the Stratosphere. On the way off the planet with prices I will be selling.
    Many years ago a fellow investor said to me “Don’t you know RE doubles every 10 years?” Looking back he might have been right, but in between it falls by 50% allowing it to double once more. I will buy it all back at the bottom of the curve.

    Funny in a sad way how when the government, banks, or Wall Street get into housing and treat it as a commodity they create volatility in a normally static sector.

    • Dennis,

      Until 2006 they called it the “real estate cycle.” Then it stopped cycling and lay on the floor comatose for about six years.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Steve

  2. Since the stock market is doing well, I wonder if that is going to lead any of the hedge fund to exit as well as they chase the newest hot item?

    • Shawn,

      Excellent question. I had the same thought when I wrote this piece, The assumption made by prviate banks and the very rich people who invest in hedge funds is that they will handily beat the market. So I didnt think they would appreciate me suggesting something so obvious as opening an ETrade account. Time will tell.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Steve

  3. Great post, thanks, Steve.

    I think with the state of intertwining global economies (eg when Europe suffers, the US and Asia totter, at the very least, etc) and world wide currency wars raging between all nations and continents, this “cycle” will become far less predictable and far more erratic in coming decades. The property market is one of the closest linked and best indicators of a country’s economy, and certainly inseparable to its ups and downs, (big understatement).

    I, for one, also advocate holding until bubbles start growing, then sell (half way on the up, no need to be greedy) – then look for the next recently popped one to purchase in (again, half way down, no need to be greedy) – rinse, repeat, etc.

    That’s why we and our clients are currently invested (and still investing) in Japan and Italy – great deals to be had, supreme cashflow on a regular basis, superb potential if and when things pick up, and very little to lose value-wise until then, if you come in at the lower end of the market.

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