Can the U.S. Commercial Real Estate Boom Last?


Story image for todays news on real estate from Barron's


While the admonition to “follow the money” was popularized by two reporters chasing a big political story (Watergate), the expression has always had more relevance for financial journalists trying to determine what’s really important on their beats.

If you write about money, it’s smart to follow where it’s flowing to. That’s where the best opportunities will likely be for investors.

By that token, the rush of money into U.S. commercial real estate is a big story and a big investment opportunity, assuming it’s not too late to get in.

As Bloomberg’s Sarah Mulholland puts it, “Blockbuster real estate deals are back and breaking records as cash from around the globe pours into U.S. office buildings, apartment complexes and other investment properties.”

According to Bloomberg, commercial real estate transactions in the U.S. jumped 45% by dollar volume in the first quarter, an increase driven by sales of multiple buildings or entire companies, according to research firm Real Capital Analytics.

The big demand is coming from foreign buyers and the fuel is cheap money. Indeed, according to Bloomberg, about $24 billion in foreign capital flowed to U.S. properties in the first quarter, more than half the total for all of 2014.

And here is what’s interesting. According to Bloomberg: “That number is poised to grow further because the majority of sovereign wealth funds — investors such as GIC — have yet to hit their target allocations for real estate, according to Preqin Ltd., an alternative-assets research firm.”

But rushes like this have the potential of turning into bubbles that pop, as was the case in 2008. Bloomberg writes that “some investors are concerned that the seeds are being sown for the next downturn.”

However, the difference between the bubble-era deals and today’s transactions, writes Bloomberg, is that buyers now are putting more cash down for their purchases, making it easier to pay their mortgages and harder to walk away should the economy falter. Moreover, lending is more restrained in the commercial arena, just as it is with residential purchases.

I also want to take note of a story on a very different but timely investment topic — smart-beta funds.

In recent years, these funds — which tweak basic indexes to emphasize value, growth or some other stated attribute — have become quite popular though they cost a bit more than the basic index funds such as the SPDR S&P 500 (ticker: SPY ) that they evolved from.

But a piece by MarketWatch columnist Victor Reklaitis cites a new study that may throw a bit of cold water on these hot funds.

He cites a new research paper by Wharton academic Denys Glushkov that gives a thumbs down to this class of funds because of their higher expense ratios.

“I find no evidence that smart beta ETFs significantly outperform their risk-adjusted passive benchmarks,” says the paper by Glushkov, a research director at Wharton Research Data Services at the University of Pennsylvania. “Positive returns from intended factor bets are offset by negative returns from unintended factor bets resulting in an overall performance wash.”

According to Glushkov, an investor is likely to achieve similar or better returns by supplementing a broad index fund like the Vanguard Total Stock Market exchange-traded fund ( VTI ) with cap-weighted funds tilted toward smaller value stocks. “That approach would be “5-6 times cheaper than a typical domestic equity smart beta fund,” he is quoted as saying in the MarketWatch column.

While I’m on the topic of funds, I’d like to take note of a recent New York Times columnthat shines the light on risky private companies that make their way into mutual funds. The story, however, may be making too much out of very little. (A subscription is required.)

The piece, by respected columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin, takes big fund houses such as T. Rowe Price, BlackRock and Janus to task for “quietly putting shares of private companies like Uber, Pinterest and SpaceX into their investment funds, hoping to lift the returns of certain mutual funds.”

As Sorkin writes, “The good news is that investors across a broad range are able to invest in these pseudo-private companies, democratizing, to some degree, the investment process. The bad news is that should the bubble pop, these investors have already bought shares in the companies at sky-high valuations. And these people may not even realize it.”

As an example, he writes, an investor in the popular Fidelity Contrafund ( FCNTX ), which has a heavy weighting in technology firms, also has small slices of Uber, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Pinterest.

While the topic makes for an interesting column, it’s not that big a deal for investors at the end of the day. At the very end of his piece, Sorkin concedes that it’s “worth noting that these stakes in private companies usually represent a tiny fraction of a total mutual fund’s portfolio. The Fidelity Contrafund says the $162 million stake in Uber is only 0.145 percent of its entire fund.”

That means a collection of these privately held companies might not even hit 1% of the entire fund. That’s not worth getting too worked up about.





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