A Little Economic History

2018-10-31 07.52.14It is much easier to position your life before, rather than during, an economic crisis.

It’s also truly amazing how fast a credit crunch can sweep across markets.

This month, a decade ago, was the mid-point for the toughest 90-day stretch of my financial life. Taking it back to October to December 2008…

  • My prospective earned income went to zero at a time when…
  • My Business/Personal cash burn rate was $10,000 a week. Simultaneously…
  • My net worth dropped by 67% and…
  • I was facing a potential claim 20x in excess of what remained. The one bright spot was my family life…
  • Our first child was born and we were very happy within our marriage.

The only reason I didn’t follow a friend into bankruptcy was a pre-crash restructuring. I had been scared by four events :

  1. The US was offering loans without income verification.
  2. The UK was offering loans without bank covenants.
  3. Down in New Zealand, I used both of the above and borrowed to pay my living expenses at a time when…
  4. I had a personal guarantee outstanding that covered most my assets, and all my net worth.

There is a line in Fooled By Randomness about Russian Roulette. It goes something like…

Even if the gun has a million chambers, there are some games you don’t want to play.

I was enjoying my life and didn’t want external circumstances to force a financial reboot at 40-years old. So… 2005-2007 was a time of significant change.

The restructuring took three years (2005-2007). It prevented ruin, but still resulted in a lot of pain when credit markets slammed shut in 2008.

At the time I was working in the UK. The entire chain of my business life went from Great-to-Insolvent in 180-days (bank, joint venture partner, developer, general contractor, sub-contractors, employer, CEO).

Just like that.

Gone.

2009-2012 were spent clawing back.

Key steps:

  • Downsized family home, spending and aspirations. Embrace Your Hubris!
  • Invested the downsized capital into a Downtown Boulder rental property. Two units, where the little unit’s rental income would enable us to live for “free” in the larger unit.
  • Invested our remaining funds in a redevelopment opportunity that I could hold FOREVER, because it was debt-free and cash flow positive.
  • Turned a loss making triathlon hobby (draining $75k annually) into a cash generating consulting business ($4,000 per month).

By 2013, we achieved cash flow break even. We were so blasted from our young family (up to three kids) that I don’t remember appreciating the significance of what we achieved.

Within my financial peer group, our story is not unique. Lots of people had a similar ride. However, they don’t necessarily blog about it.

Financial memories are short.

Remember.

You don’t get killed by prices falling — price volatility is emotionally painful but not financially fatal.

Companies, Your Personal Ethics, Friends and Families… All can get crushed by running out of cash in a banking crisis.

Where’s your cash flow statement?

Real Estate Review 2018

Screenshot 2018-10-19 10.14.26

A starter home in Boulder is about $1 million => if you can find one.

How do I look at rent vs buy?

Because it is so expensive to sell real estate, I consider a minimum five-year block. I ignore inflation and future predictions.

For our starter home, I assume that five-year rent is $180,000

My alternative uses of the funds, with five-year income shown:

  • Five-year treasury bond $150,000
  • Yield on Investment Real Estate $100,000
  • Yield on Vanguard Portfolio (using my 40/20/40 mix) $100,000

If I buy then I don’t get the income (from the alternatives) and my cost of ownership is $75,000 across the period (maintenance, taxes, insurance).

To keep things simple, I haven’t assumed a mortgage. I didn’t buy my first house until I could pay cash. I earned a premium on my career by being able to easily change cities.

What does the above say to you?

Here’s what it says to me… if you think there is a good chance you will be able to buy during a market decline then rent.

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The last time I bought a house (winter 2012/2013), the rental map was bare. Here it is this week…

Screenshot 2018-10-21 09.09.55

Real estate and equity investments have the potential for capital appreciation/depreciation. Real-economic growth drives long-term asset values. I’m bullish for Boulder, Boulder County, Colorado and the US.

With real estate, my capital is locked in and it will cost me ~$55,000 to get out (exit costs are about 5.5% of sales price).

With real estate, you can get priced-out of a market. Relative to what I can afford in Boulder, I am priced out of London, Hong Kong and San Francisco (three cities where my skills are highly marketable). This “pricing out” happened within a five-year window.

Beware of FOMO (fear of missing out), after three years of rapidly rising prices, our minds will extrapolate never-ending appreciation into the future. It won’t happen. Your goal should be financial independence, not real estate ownership.

Inflation, future asset prices, vacancy risk, insurance hazards… can’t be known. Sometimes they can be hedged, insured or mitigated.

I don’t seek to predict an unknowable future. I ask myself, “Is this a good price, today?”

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I have a few friends that sell real estate. I watch their their high-end sales to understand the mood of the market.

Nobody needs a 5, 10 or 20-million dollar property. So…

When the ultra-luxury deals start closing with regularity we can assume that we are on the upswing. The last 18 months has been a great time to be selling high-end real estate in Colorado.

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I force myself to review: (a) annually, (b) prior to making any new investment decision and (c) prior to changing strategy.

For now, I’m not sure what to do.

My rule-of-thumb, when unsure, is rebalance, watch and wait.

A cash buyer in a credit crunch can count on a 10-20% discount from pre-crunch prices. Given the magnitude of the last downturn, deals were available at 25-40% discounts.

fredgraph

Geographic Reappraisal – Real Estate October 2017

This business insider article about an SF Bay Area house that sold $1 million over asking caught my eye.

Here in Boulder, we’re up 100% over the last seven years. Most of the increase has happened in the last 2.5 years.

Notwithstanding our big local increase, the “coasts” and luxury vacation markets look expensive from here.

The coasts look even more expensive when I factor in…

Schooling – Can I use the local schools? If not then my cost of living jumps by $25,000 per kid, per annum, after tax see the linked article – public, in-state education will save my family $1 million per kid.

Tax Base vs Legacy Liabilities – How heavily taxed is the location? How large are the legacy liabilities (health care and pension) from former city, county and state employees? The large cities of the oldest parts of the US look awful in this regard.

Other costs of living – Cali always surprises me when I run the numbers. I suspect it’s similar in places like New York and Seattle. Costs are 50% more expensive for the rest of my budget.

I am not recommending that you sell. I’ve made a decision to hold through the next recession.

However, the relative trade into “states with great lifestyles” strikes me as attractive — North Carolina, Montana, Idaho and Colorado.

If you are considering taking-the-leap…

Live where you don’t need to leave — can I create a long-term, year-round, local life here?

When I worked in international finance the “top guys” had homes in three or four countries. That kind of overhead has two negative impacts on your life: (1) your ethics are easier to purchase; and (2) you’ll need (at least) an extra decade of full-time office work.

Kill your commute — can I live within an easy walk, or a short ride, of where I spend my time?

When I was thinking about moving to Cali, I plotted my life in Google Maps. I did the same thing for my prospective life in Palo Alto. That gave me two geographic “triangles” and I calculated real estate and family costs inside the triangles.

Finally, surround yourself with people that live a life you’d like to follow. I do best with an active, outdoor life in a location with abundant sunshine.

This last point is important — know what you want — know where you do best.

Applying Wealth Wisely

A reader recommended a book about Living with a Seal. The book is an entertaining read, but I did find myself swearing far more than usual afterwards (burpee test!).

The book is about a marathoner who spends a month training with David Goggins (former seal). Having done extreme training, I think it’s safe to assume the rest of the guy’s life was on hold during his month with Goggins!

Complete control of your schedule and the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time.

Whether you want to train with a seal, start a business, write a book or simply get really, really good at something… the ability to control your schedule is the starting point for your journey.

Can you take a month “off” to focus on “one thing”?

A month is a good unit because it’s about what it takes for me to start a new business, write a book or bump my level up in anything.

As an elite athlete, I’d spend 13-week blocks focusing on my sport. By that time, I was already good, and seeking to become the absolute best I could be.

You need time because a second use of wealth is accessing, then following, the ACTIONS of world-class teachers.

Advice without action is entertainment.

I’ve been guilty of throwing money and other people’s time at anything I found unpleasant. It can be a winning strategy but it was a band-aid for unnecessary complexity in my life choices.

If you’re a do’er then work towards control of your schedule so you can learn-by-doing alongside the best.

Parenting is similar to learning to swim — we’re not going to become world class on a couple hours per week!

Make sure your mentors have the sort of lives, and character, that you’d like to emulate.

Chose wisely!

What Makes Real Estate Assets Cheap – Tame Your FOMO

Because we are hard-wired to be poor investors, your family’s best bet is dollar-cost averaging in low-cost index funds. Consistent investing, over your working life, it’s as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Despite, and because of, the above truth, many people are going to dive into the real estate market.

When the masses get into trouble, you can do very well by applying this post.

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Wait for…

FINANCIAL DURESS — Once a decade, debt markets rapidly contract and everyone has a freak out.

DIVORCE — Corporate, professional or personal — vendors will hurt themselves to damage former partners

MOMENTUM — Collectively, our long-term memory is about three years long. The Great recession ran from December 2007 to June 2009. It took three years years for us to “forget” the asset price run up of 2005-2007.

If you don’t have two-out-of-three then wait. Discounts are coming!

Do work…

INFORMATION — I assume the vendor knows far more than me, and probably you

How can we improve our knowledge?

Wait & study — while waiting for the next crisis… live in the location where you’re thinking about buying. The cost of the rental will pay for itself through better information.

Fundamental Value — do this with every large investment (or purchase)…

A./ What is the net cash flow the asset can generate after current taxes, all operating costs and the investment required to keep it producing cash?

B./ What is the total capital required to purchase? Include every_single_dollar.

C./ How does the implied yield (A/B) compare to the yield on 30-year US Treasuries (currently ~3%)?

Example… across 2014 and 2015, I was unsure if I should sell, or hold. The common wisdom was long-term rates were going to rise and prices would stagnate. Tempting to switch asset classes…

I calculated my cash yield was roughly equal to the, then, 30-year rate.

I considered…

1./ My sites were exposed to the upside from Boulder County economic growth

2./ My alternative investments had lower yields than my existing investments

3./ I would crystalize significant deferred tax liabilities

4./ My existing position was good enough to meet my goals

I decided to sell a negative-yielding asset and hold the cash generators.

NOBODY predicted what happened next, long rates fell by a third, and local real estate values rose by 50%.

FWIW, long rates are back up but fear of missing out (FOMO) is driving the market upwards.

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When is our margin of safety highest?

  1. Let prices, and transaction volume, fall for two years
  2. Look for a distressed seller
  3. Look for a deal where the cost to own is less than the cost to rent
  4. Confirm your taxed, net cash yield is greater than the 30-year treasury rate

Your FOMO will tell you that the above will NEVER happen.

WRONG!

Since I graduated university (1990), very favorable conditions have happened FIVE different times where I was living.

It takes a long time to build capital and two great deals (in 50 years) will let you meet your goals.

Tame your FOMO and choose wisely!

Effective Real Estate Ownership

When you buy real estate, what’s your goal?

We want to live in a fabulous place, while getting rich on asset appreciation.

It sounds great but the choice of moving into an affluent community increases expectations, and cost of living.

“So what?”, you say.

The hidden cost can be time for our kids and marriage.

In the Great Recession, I changed course…

We aim to create a portfolio of assets enabling us to live for free in an effective public school system that’s close to nature.

In your teens, you will start to make investment decisions… how much to work, spend, save, donate and borrow. You have 50 years to create your portfolio!

Live for free:

  1. In high-school: with your parents
  2. As a young adult: a place where your roommates subsidize your cost of living
  3. Next: a house with many bedrooms — the first place I owned had the capacity to support me via roommates
  4. As soon as I “could afford it” — I made a mistake with a large, expensive to own, flash property!
  5. …but I found myself unexpectedly unemployed and we couldn’t afford it
  6. Eventually, we wised-up, downsized our home, and bought rental properties that covered our mortgage and healthcare.

When my wife is 65, the mortgage will be paid off, the kids will be educated and her retirement self-funded by the residual real estate portfolio.

How much of our cost of living can be permanently covered, or hedged, by this decision?

Most people aspire towards material goods, appearances and spending.

I urge you to patiently buy time, personal freedom and shared experiences.

Most of effective investing is learning, saving and waiting.

 

Real Estate Switching Costs

Real estate has had a good run since 2010.

It can be tempting to cash in profits.

Financial Case Study

My neighbor is just about at the point where he can net $1,000,000 dollars on the sale of his house. He’s retired and this represents a very substantial sum for him. One million dollars is also kind of a magic number emotionally as he never expected to be a millionaire.

For him to net $1,000,000 he will need to sell his place for about $1,067,500 gross.

He bought the house many years ago so, even after his primary residence exclusion, he’s going to have a tax bill of $70,000.

There will be other costs (moving, cleaning, etc…) adding up to $2,500.

So his certain costs today are $67,500 + $70,000 + $2,500 => $140,000

Putting this into his personal context…

Having paid off his mortgage by the time he retired, he has the ability to live on $1,500 per month. So he’s looking at a certain bill that’s worth 7 3/4 years’ living expenses.

He’s also a young retiree, with parents still alive.

So he might be living another 30+ years.

Key Questions

How might the switch make things better? Whatever they are… they are uncertain benefits to be weighed against certain financial costs.

How will surplus cash be invested? Given the choice between prime residential real estate and an investment account… most retirees prefer the hidden volatility of real estate.

Do I want to leave my community? When I left Christchurch (NZ), I left behind a fantastic group of people. Community has a far stronger association with a meaningful life than cash in a bank account.

Certain types of people make new friends easily. I’m not one of those people! What type of person are you?

What Can Go Wrong

Bull Markets — Assume that you can only “move out of town” once. In our case, we lack the financial resources to repurchase our existing real estate at current market prices. If we sell, and prices rise, then we will be priced out of the market.

Neutral Markets — Real estate is expensive to transact. In the example above, the vendor is paying 13% of gross proceeds in commissions, taxes and expenses. In any new purchase I assume that I “lose” (on paper) 10% of the gross purchase value at completion. In other words, I am going to need a 10% market increase to get my money back.

Bear Markets — Can I afford to be locked into this market for many years? Vacation markets, cities reliant on a single industry (oil and gas) and secondary locations… buyers can be locked in for five plus years. Am I OK with that risk?

The Good Enough Portfolio

There’s a lot to be said for an attitude that an existing position is “good enough.”

Each time I make a choice, change or modification it’s an opportunity for expense and error.