Nearly a decade after the financial crisis interest rates remain at zero. Fed watchers have been arguing for years that policymakers will soon raise rates, only to see the possibility put off yet again (and again and again). While many believe Yellen and company have stuck with ZIRP due to worries about the impact of a hike on the stock market, a bigger concern might be housing.
Believe it or not, mobile home stocks used to be good places to park your money. Twenty years ago, the so-called “manufactured housing” industry was widely followed by Wall Street analysts, and public companies like Clayton Homes, Champion Homes, and Palm Harbor Homes were all rated strong buys.
Then the roof caved in.
First, the easy credit of the early-2000s housing bubble allowed many first time buyers to choose “site built” homes instead mobile homes. That was followed by the 2008 crisis, when financing for all types of homes, mobile or otherwise, evaporated. Now, US mobile home production hovers around 70,000 units, down from a peak of 350,000 units in the late-1990s.
But a few companies have managed to weather the storm. The top three builders now command a combined 72 percent of the market. Berkshire Hathaway owns the largest of them, Clayton Homes, which accounts for 45 percent of all US mobile home production. The third largest company, Champion, is privately held. Aside from tiny Skyline Corp (SKY), that leaves only one publicly traded option for most stock investors: the second place company by market share, Phoenix-based Cavco Industries (CVCO).
On the plane ride back from the Booth Investment Management Conference in Chicago on Sunday, I read the great new book by veteran financial journalist Bethany McLean, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants. The book tells the story of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two massive GSEs (government sponsored enterprises) that buy, package, and sell pools of mortgage loans. It’s a fascinating, if distressing history. Unfortunately, because our government failed to do away with Fannie and Freddie during the 2008 financial crisis, that history is still unfolding.
Last week was no picnic for stocks. With oil prices continuing to implode and a rate hike looking more and more imminent, you’d think a Texas-based homebuilder would have dropped along with the rest of the market. Instead, LGI Homes (LGIH) rocketed from $19 to an all-time high above $24 after it demolished earnings expectations.
As they say in sports, that’s why you play the game.
I’ve been buying and shorting tech stocks since floppy disks were floppy. In all that time, I’ve always been amazed at the steep premium investors are willing to pay for anything even remotely tied to the sector. In the 1990s, all you had to do to command a massive valuation was slap a “.com” onto your name. That is not an exaggeration. In 1998, I shorted a company called 7th Level that was two weeks away from running out of cash. It changed its name to 7th Level.com and its stock jumped from $2 to the mid-teens in a single day. These days, private companies in the tech space–so-called “unicorns”–are all the rage. Few, if any of these billion dollar babies have earned a cent. Commonsense says most of them never will. And yet, VC firms and other private backers are perfectly willing to throw more cash at them in round after round of financing.
Investors justify these lofty valuations with fanciful TAM guesstimates and accelerating revenue projections. This is nothing new. It’s the same wishful thinking that drives all manias, tech or otherwise. But what seems different to me about the current tech boom is just how un-technological most of the players are. Uber lets you hail someone else’s car, AirBnB lets you sleep in someone else’s bed, and Snapchat lets teenagers erase naughty messages before their parents see them. It’s hard to see any significant technological moats around those ideas.
Before I get into blogging, I’d like to thank all the people who have written to me about Dead Companies Walking. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to respond to most of the messages, but I do try to read every email that comes in and it’s a thrill to hear that people are enjoying the book. Thank you for buying it and thank you for reading it!
Okay, on to this week’s blog:
Possibly the greatest surprise in 2014 was the decline in government bond yields. Ten-year treasuries fell from 3 percent to 2.2 percent by year’s end. Last month, I said that yields were unlikely to fall much further. Guess what? They did just that, dropping to 1.8 percent last week after hitting 1.65 percent two weeks ago. This surprisingly rapid drop in rates didn’t just prove (yet again) how silly it is to make financial predictions, it also has two important implications for investors:
In case you missed it, a foreign company nobody had ever heard of until recently staged a gigantic IPO this past week. But lost in all the hype and hoopla was a much more important development here at home: the beginning of the end of the US real estate slump.
New-home sales in the U.S. surged in August to the highest level in more than six years, a sign that the housing recovery is making progress.
Purchases of new houses jumped 18 percent to a 504,000 annualized pace, the strongest since May 2008 and surpassing the highest forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The one-month increase was the biggest since January 1992.
The oldest adage in the investment game is, of course, “Buy low, sell high.” The second-oldest is, “Don’t fight the Fed.” And with the August housing numbers, the Federal Reserve’s monomaniacal six-year campaign to reconstruct the real estate sector from the ashes of the subprime catastrophe is finally starting to show results. At the same time, the stocks of major homebuilders like Pulte, KB Home and DR Horton are all down YTD.
Hear that knocking? That’s a little visitor named opportunity.
I know I’ve been talking about the population boom in Texas quite a bit lately, and I promise to move to other subjects soon, but I really do feel like this is the biggest story nobody is talking about—especially if you’re on the lookout for stocks to buy.
Most investors like growth. I’m no exception. And in this era of the perpetual non-recovery recovery, the only place to find real growth (on this continent anyway) is deep in the heart of the Lone Star State.
Once again, I must apologize for the lack of blog updates recently. I’ve been on the road visiting company managements almost continuously for the past several months–first booming Texas, then booming China, then New Jersey and Long Island, then Texas again, and most recently Phoenix. After meeting with dozens of executives all over the country (and out of it, too) in all sorts of different industries–from retail to manufacturing to tech to finance–I was not at all surprised to see this past Friday’s big revision in third quarter GDP.
Almost to a person, corporate managers seem to be quite upbeat these days. So much so that I’m about to say something I didn’t think I would say for a long, long time: believe it or not, real estate is probably a good investment again.