In what looks like a very positive sign for the housing market, US mortgage rates have just hit an all-time low. The 30-year rate for fixed rate mortgages is 2.98%. The stat comes from Freddie Mac and it is the first time ever that rates have fallen below 3%. The super low rates have sparked a refinancing boom and stoked confidence in the real estate market. Some have wondered why mortgage rates haven’t fallen faster given the plunge in the general yield environment. According to Freddie Mac, this is because banks have been so overwhelmed with demand for mortgages that lowering rates didn’t make sense. In Freddie Mac’s words “There is no point in lowering prices to gain business you can’t close anyway”.
FINSUM: It seems like rates may fall even further as lenders catch up with demand. Overall, the housing market is looking very strong.
Investors are doing a lot of economic data analysis these days. As the economy picks up (for the most part) after the COVID lockdown, everyone is trying to guess the trend of the expansion. Well, in our search for new economic data, we found something that really stuck out to us as a positive: lumber demand. The whole lumber sector got hurt very badly in the first quarter as COVID shut down real estate construction. The collapse in demand led to a halt in production in the lumber industry. However, lumber demand for construction projects has come back faster than anyone anticipated and the supply chain cannot even keep up. Lumber prices rose 60% in the second quarter alone.
FINSUM: We think it is an excellent sign that builders and consumers have enough confidence in the economy and their financial positions to be able to create this kind of demand. V-shaped recovery?
For those interested in dividend investing, REITs have always been a key area. While rate sensitive, they can also provide strong and steady income streams. REITs may seem particularly risky as a whole right now because of the ongoing reckoning in commercial real estate as a result of the pandemic, but there are still some good opportunities to be had. The reason why is that REIT dividends, which have fallen 20% since the beginning of COVID, have likely hit their floor. JP Morgan says “that the current 3.5% dividend yield for the REIT group should be sustainable at this point.” Some of JPM’s best REIT picks right now include Brandywine Realty Trust (BDN, yielding 7.6%), Four Corners Property Trust (FCPT, 5.5%), Welltower (WELL, 5%), Medical Properties Trust (MPW, 6%), and W.P. Carey (WPC, 6.3%).
FINSUM: As obvious as it is to say, in our view, the key to REITs right now is the area of real estate they focus on. Mall REITS—probably not, storage/industrial RETS—much better.
An event happened this week in the commercial real estate space that feels as though it might be seen as a canary in the coal mine for the forthcoming real estate crisis. The largest (and probably most famous) mall in the US—Mall of America—just fell behind on its $1.4 bn mortgage payments. The owner of the mall, which features over 500 stores and a theme park, missed its mortgage payments in both April and May, reports the Financial Times via Wells Fargo documentation. The owner, called TripleFive Group, has reported to Wells Fargo that it has suffered hardship because of COVID. Presently, nationwide about 1 in 5 loans bundled in CMBS are now on “watch lists”.
FINSUM: For context here, Macerich, which is one of the biggest mall owners in the country, disclosed that is has only collected 18% of rent it is owed in May.
There have been all kinds of predictions for how COVID will affect real estate. The virus’ implications for commercial real estate are clearly bearish, at least in the short-term, but residential is a different story. While viewings are done, supply of housing is so tight that prices in April actually rose from last year despite the huge disruption to the economy. Home owners don’t want to move right now, so either aren’t putting their homes on the market, or are taking them off.
FINSUM: The other key thing to bear in mind is that home equity/leverage was in a very healthy place as this crisis unfolded, so homeowners are not underwater like they were in the last big crisis. Thus, there is a lot less pressure to fire sale.
Hotels are increasingly in trouble. About a quarter of all hotels in the US are now behind on their loan payments. COVID has obviously had a huge effect on hotel occupancy rates, which is now causing financial difficulties for the hotels and their lenders. The situation echoes other data from across the commercial real estate sector. For instance, Vornado Realty Trust yesterday said that it had only collected 53% of retail rents in April, and 90% of office rents.
FINSUM: We think it is critical to remember that re-opening is not a sign that all is clear in commercial real estate. Even once they re-open, restaurants and retail stores are still very likely to be doing MUCH less business than before they closed, and since a lot of cash reserves have probably been used up, their financial situation and thus the sector are just going to grow more precarious.