By Ramsey Su
There is only one problem with the homebuilders -- 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, homebuilders buy land during various stages of this long development process. NVR (NYSE: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: 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 snapshot 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.
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