The Fallibility Of Tangibility by Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®, Investing Caffeine
Why do so many star athletes end up going bankrupt? Rather than building a low-cost, tax-efficient, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that could help generate significant income and compounded wealth over the long-term (yawn…boring), many investors succumb to the allure of over-exposing themselves to costly, illiquid, tangible assets, while assuming disproportionate risk.
After all, it’s much more exciting to brag about the purchase of a car wash, apartment building or luxury condo than it is to whip out a brokerage statement and show a friend a bond fund earning a respectable 4% yield.
Many real estate investors in my Southern California backyard (epicenter of the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis) have experienced both ruin and riches over the last few decades. The appeal and pitfalls associated with owning tangible assets like real estate are particularly exemplified with professional athletes (see also Hidden Train Wreck). Consider the fate suffered by these following individuals:
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- Mike Tyson: Famous boxer Mike Tyson tore through $300 million on multiple homes, cars, jewels and pet tigers before filing for bankruptcy in 2003.
- Julius Erving: Hall of Fame NBA player Julius “Dr. J” Erving went financially belly-up in 2010 after his Celebrity Golf Club International was pushed into foreclosure. Dr. J. was also forced to auction off coveted NBA memorabilia (including championship uniforms, trophies, and rings) along with foreclosing on his personal $2 million, 6,600-square foot Utah home.
- Mark Brunell: Pro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell was estimated to have earned over $50 million during his career. Due to failed real estate ventures and business loans, Brunell filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
- Evander Holyfield: Heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield burned through a mountain of money estimated at $230 million, including a 235-acre Utah estate, which had 109 rooms and included at least one monthly electric bill of $17,000.
Inclusion of real estate as part of a diversified portfolio makes all the sense in the world – this is exactly what we do for clients at Sidoxia. But unfortunately, many investors mistake the tangibility of real estate with “lower risk,” even though levered real estate is arguably more volatile than the stock market – evidenced by the volatility in publicly traded REIT share prices. For example, the Dow Jones SPDR REIT (RWR) declined by -78% from its 2007 high to its 2009 low versus the S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) drop of -57% over the comparable period. Private real estate investors are generally immune from the heart-pumping price volatility rampant in the public markets because they are not bombarded with daily, real-time, second-by-second pricing data over flashing red and green colored screens.
Without experiencing the emotional daily price swings, many real estate investors ignore the risks and costs associated with real estate, even when those risks often exceed those of traditional investments (e.g., stocks and bonds). Here are some of the important factors these real estate investors overlook:
Leverage: Many real estate investors don’t appreciate that the fact that 100% of a 10% investment (90% borrowed) can be wiped out completely (i.e., lose -100%), if the value of a property drops a mere -10%. Real estate owners found this lesson out the hard way during the last housing downturn and recession.
Illiquidity: Unlike a stock and bond, which merely takes a click of a mouse, buying/selling real estate can take weeks, if not months, to complete. If a seller needs access to liquidity, they may be forced to sell at unattractively low, fire-sale prices. Pricing transparency is opaque due to the variability and volume of transactions, although online services offered by Zillow Group Inc. (Z).
Costs: For real estate buyer, the list of costs can be long: appraisal fee, origination fee, pre-paid interest, pre-paid insurance, flood certification fee, tax servicing fee, credit report fee, bank processing fee, recording fee, notary fee, and title insurance. And once an investment property is officially purchased, there are costs such as property management fees, property taxes, association dues, landscaping fees and the opportunity costs of filling vacancies when there is tenant turnover. And this analysis neglects the hefty commission expenses, which generally run 5-6% and split between the buying and selling agent. Add all these costs up, and you can understand the dollars can become significant.
Concentration Risk: It’s perfectly fine to own a levered, cyclical asset in a broadly diversified portfolio for long-term investors, but owning $1.3 million of real estate in a $1.5 million total portfolio does not qualify as diversified. If a portfolio is real estate heavy, hopefully the real estate assets are at least diversified across geographies and real estate type (e.g., residential / commercial / multi-family / industrial / retail mall / mortgages / etc).
Stocks Abhorred, Gold & Real Estate Adored
With the downdraft in the stock market that started in late August, a recent survey conducted by CNBC showed how increased volatility has caused wealthy investors to sour on the stock market. More specifically, the All-America Survey, conducted by Hart-McInturff, polled 800 wealthy Americans at the beginning of October. Unsurprisingly, many investors automatically correlate temporary weakness in stocks to a lagging economy. In fact, 32% of respondents believed the U.S. economy would get worse, a 6% increase from the last poll in June, and the highest level of economic pessimism since the government shutdown in 2013 (as it turned out, this was a very good time to buy stocks). These gloom and doom views manifested themselves in skeptical views of stocks as well. Overall, 46% of the public felt it is a bad time to invest in stocks, representing a 12% gain from the last survey.
With investor appetites tainted for stocks, hunger for real state has risen. Actually, real estate was the top investment choice by a large margin, selected by 39% percent of the investors polled. Real estate has steadily gained in popularity since the depths of the recession in 2008. Jockeying for second place have been stocks and gold with the shiny metal edging out stocks by a score of 25% to 21%, respectively.
Successful long-term investors like Warren Buffett understand the best returns are earned by going against the grain. As Buffett said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,” and we know stock investors are fearful. Along those same lines, Bill Miller, the man who beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years (1991 – 2005), believes now is a perfect time to buy stocks. Investing in real estate is not a bad idea in the context of a diversified portfolio, but investors should not forget the fallibility of tangibility.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) including SPY, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in Z, RWR, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.