By Wolf Richter, a San Francisco based executive, entrepreneur, start up specialist, and author, with extensive international work experience. Originally published at Testosterone Pit.
Private equity firms are the ultimate smart money on Wall Street; they know how to wring out the last dime from their own clients, such as pension funds and rich individuals, through hidden fees, obscure expenses, elaborate expense shifting, lackadaisical disclosure, and “zombie advisers,” to the point where SEC Inspection Chief Andrew Bowden singled them out in a speech in May. Now the lawyers are circling.
And these private equity firms invented a whole new business: buying vacant homes out of foreclosure and from banks and renting them out. Flush with the Fed’s nearly free money, Blackstone Group ended up spending $8.6 billion in two years on 45,000 homes, spread helter-skelter across 14 cities. Another PE product, American Homes 4 Rent, which went public last summer as a highly leveraged REIT, bought 25,000 homes. Firms sprouted like mushrooms, spending $50 billion to acquire 386,000 homes.
And home prices soared. Year-over-year increases of over 20% suddenly appeared in the data. Housing Bubble 2 was born. That’s how the Fed “healed” the housing market. Yet numerous economists claimed that buying 386,000 homes over two years in a market where about 5 million existing homes change owners every year could not possibly have had much impact on price. Turns out, that meme is awfully close to propaganda.
The Smart Money on Wall Street – Private Equity Firms – Had a Goal
And a system – aided and abetted by the banks. Homebuyers today are, literally, paying the price. The goal was to progressively drive up home prices to book near-instant paper profits on the units they had already bought. According to a source at one of the GSEs (Government Sponsored Enterprise), whose work is focused on residential real estate, they did it by constantly laddering their purchases. And in some markets, like Las Vegas, they achieved price increases of 100%. The multiplier effect. He explains:
A multiplier of roughly 60 times is placed on one sale in a market. In other words, one sale affects the value of 60 homes. So the 386,000 homes adjusted the price on roughly 23 million homes. There are 78 million homes in America with 35 million first-lien mortgages. This happened in about 8-12 markets nationwide. The West Coast was leading the charge back up.
Last fall, two investment houses announced they were going to sell out of their inventory and today three others announced the same. Reason: prices have more than met their goal. Since real estate is a commodity, the rule of price elasticity applies. A very small number of sales can have extreme consequences in price for the rest.
The problem with that strategy? It drove up prices so far and so fast that the business model of buying these homes, fixing them up, and renting them out at a profit has hit a wall. So the dynamics of the market are changing. From gobbling up and finding renters to…
Selling, Securitizing, and Consolidating
But selling them to first-time buyers at these prices – well, forget it. So Waypoint Real Estate Group is trying to “quietly” unload half its inventory of 4,000 homes in California to another company. It also manages another 7,000 homes that an affiliated REIT owns. Och-Ziff Capital Management Group and Oaktree Capital Management have already started selling their homes. Other firms, including Blackstone Group and American Homes 4 Rent have pulled back from buying homes as prices have soared.
Instead of trying to sell their tens of thousands of homes, Blackstone and American Homes are selling synthetic structured securities that are backed, not by mortgages like the toxic waste that contributed to the financial crisis, but by something even worse: rental payments, based on the flimsy hope that these homes will stay rented out. The already dumped $3 billion of this stuff. Wall Street is jubilating. The fees are going to be huge: the market for this type of synthetic concoction is estimated to be $1.5 trillion.
Now that they have to focus on making the business model work with what they’ve got, they have to do the grunt work of fixing up tens of thousands of far-flung homes and renting them out one at a time, and keep them rented out, and they have to come to grips with American mobility where strung-out renters wander in and out and are late paying their rent if they can pay at all, and it’s hard, tedious work.
With buying more homes in overheated markets no longer a priority, or even an option, American Homes is embarking on the next step: buying competitors. It just announced that it would acquire Beazer Pre-Owned Rental Homes, a REIT backed by Beazer Homes, private equity firm KKR, and others. It now owns 1,300 homes. Everyone had jumped into this Fed-sponsored game, even home builders like Beazer. American Homes CEO David Singelyn put it this way during the earnings call in May: “We will be one of the players in the consolidation of this sector.”
The goal: manipulate the market to their liking. Through consolidation, the biggest players will try to raise valuations – or at least keep them from collapsing – and control the smaller players that are desperate to take their profits by dumping homes on the market and thereby opening the floodgates. All heck would re-break loose in the housing market. It would reverse the flow, and all the paper profits PE firms have already bragged about to their clients would suddenly evaporate. And that must not be allowed to happen.
“Asset prices have reached stunning levels, obviously out of line with ‘fundamentals.’ The “most dangerous” are housing bubbles; when they burst, they “wreck whole economies.” Read…. UBS: The Secret Reason The Fed Is ‘Tolerating’ Bubbles