Real Estate Isn't a `Sacred Chalice'?

Going to watch the Habs vs. Leafs tonight but wanted to post a couple of excellent Bloomberg interviews with Tom Barrack, Chairman of Colony Capital, who discusses the European debt crisis and warns investors that real estate isn't a 'sacred chalice'.

I first discovered Barrack exactly six years ago when I circulated an article among PSP Investment's senior managers, The king of real estate's cashing out:
Tom Barrack, arguably the world's greatest real estate investor, is methodically selling off his U.S. real estate holdings as prices drive the market to nosebleed levels.

He likens the current real estate market to a game of polo.

"I feel totally safe playing polo on a field full of pros," says the bronzed 58-year old. "But when amateurs are all over the field, someone can get killed. They have more guts than brains. They charge after every ball and don't know when to hold back."

It's the same with U.S. real estate right now. "There's too much money chasing too few good deals, with too much debt and too few brains." The amateurs are going to get trampled, he explains, taking seasoned horsemen, who should get off the turf, down with them.

Says Barrack: "That's why I'm getting out."

Investors take heed. Barrack may be an amateur at polo, but when it comes to judging markets, he's the ultimate pro.

Arguably the best real estate investor on the planet, he runs a $25 billion portfolio of trophy assets, from the Raffles hotel chain in Asia to the Aga Khan's former resort in Sardinia to Resorts International, the largest private gaming company in the U.S.

Barrack's Colony Capital, one of the largest private equity firms devoted solely to real estate, has racked up returns of 21 percent annually since 1990, handing investors, chiefly pension funds and college endowments, 17 percent after all fees.

Barrack bought the Fukuoka Dome, Japan's Yankee Stadium, in part because he calculated that the titanium in the retractable roof was worth as much as the purchase price.

His strategy is to buy classy but neglected properties anywhere in the world where prices are low. Then, he'll pour in capital to fix them up, and resell in them in five years of so with their pedigrees fully restored. Says his friend Donald Trump: "Tom has an amazing vision of the future, an ability to see what's going to happen that no one else can match."

Right now, Barrack's view of the U.S. market couldn't be clearer: It's a great time to sell, and a terrible time to buy.

In fact, he sees signs of the tech bubble mentality in real estate. Too much capital is chasing real estate, he explains, with hedge funds, private equity groups, and rich investors all bidding on the same properties. "They've driven prices to the point where the yields on high-quality properties are like the returns on bonds, around 5 percent or 6 percent," says Barrack. "That's too low."

And he sees the bubble deflating soon. Barrack thinks the catalyst will be a trend few others are talking about, a steep rise in the price of building materials and labor. "Construction costs have spiked 20 percent in the past nine months," he says. The reasons: Shortages of labor and materials like lumber because of the building boom, and increases in the price of oil, needed to produce everything from plastic piping to insulation to shingles.

The slump will show up first in speculative hot spots like Miami and Las Vegas, he says, where condo developers are preselling their projects for what looks like big profits. When they actually build the units over the next year or two, he predicts, they will end up spending more then the units are now selling for.

At that point, says Barrack, the developers will try to raise prices. "But most of these buyers are speculators," he says. "They will either sue the developers to get the original price or take their deposits back and walk away." The developers will then put the units back on the market, and the glut of vacant condos will drive prices down. "It's the busted deals caused by construction costs that will cause the turn in the market," he says.

So Barrack is buying just one type of property in the U.S.: Casinos. And in contrast to most gaming titans, he's doing it on the cheap.

Colony paid just $280 million for the 3000 room Las Vegas Hilton in 2003, one-tenth of what Steve Wynn paid to build his new casino, which has roughly the same number of rooms.

The reason Barrack likes casinos is that he's licensed to operate casinos in all the major markets, while most other private equity firms and other financial players don't have licenses. Hence, they're locked out of the market, and can't bid against Barrack. For Barrack, casinos are a safe, exclusive preserve, far from the frenzied melee that's makes every other part of U.S. real estate such a dangerous place to play.

For now, Barrack is getting off the field. But when the din subsides, and the amateurs depart, look for Barrack to ride back in, mallet cocked, ready to play again.

Barrack was right to note "there's too much money chasing too few good deals, with too much debt and too few brains." For me, this is the quote of the century when it comes to understanding pension Ponzi 101! And the same thing is happening all over again as pension funds shift assets out of public markets into private markets and hedge funds in search of "alpha" (more like leveraged beta).

Unfortunately, some of Barrack's casino investments have not fared too well. One pension fund manager told me "he's up to his eyeballs and forced to give up the keys" on investments like the Las Vegas Hilton hotel-casino. Nonetheless, I find it interesting that Barrack is still extremely bearish on residential real estate at a time when U.S. homebuilders rose the most in two years after an index of developer sentiment unexpectedly increased to its highest level since May 2010, spurring optimism that demand for new houses may be improving.

Will the king of real estate be proven right once again? I think so but the problem is that there's still "too much money chasing too few good deals, with too much debt and too few brains." Next up, Euro celebrations or more of the same? Who cares! Go Habs Go!