The Impact of Tax Reform on The Real Estate Sector

photo by Sergiu Bacioiu

Congress passed the tax reform act on December 20, 2017 and President Trump is supposed to sign it by the end of the week. A lot of ink has been spilled on the impact of tax reform on homeowners, but less on real estate as an investment class. It will take lawyers and accountants a long time to understand all of the in ands outs of the law, but it is pretty clear that commercial real estate investors will benefit significantly. Most of the provisions of the act are effective at the start of the new year.

Homeowners and the businesses that operate in the residential real estate sector will be impacted in various ways (the net effect on any given taxpayer will vary significantly based on a whole lot of factors) by the increase in the standard deduction; the limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes; the shrinking of the mortgage interest deduction; and the restrictions on the capital gains exclusion for the sale of a primary residence. There are tons of articles out there on these subjects.

The impact on real estate investors has not been covered very much at all. The changes are very technical, but very beneficial to real estate investors. There are a couple of useful resources out there for those who want an overview of these changes. The BakerBotts law firm has posted Tax Reform Act – Impact on Real Estate Industry and the Seyfarth Shaw law firm has posted Tax Reform for REITs and Real Estate Businesses.

To understand the impacts on the real estate industry in particular, it is important to understand the big picture.  The new law lowered the highest marginal tax rates for individuals from 39.6% to 37% (some individuals will also need to pay unearned income Medicare tax as well). The highest marginal tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains stays at 20% for individuals. The other big change was a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 21%. Because qualified dividends are taxed at 20%, the effective tax rate on income from a C corp that is distributed to its shareholders will be 36.8% (plus Medicare tax, if applicable).

Benefits in the new law that particularly impact the real estate sector include:

  • REITs and other pass-through entities are eligible for as much as a 20% deduction for qualified business income;
  • favored treatment of interest expense deductions compared to other businesses;
  • Real estate owners can still engage in tax-favored 1031 exchanges while owners of other assets cannot; and
  • Some types of commercial real estate benefit from more favorable depreciation provisions.

While it is clear that real estate investors came out ahead with the new tax law, it is not yet clear the extent to which that is the case.

High Times for New REIT

photo by Jorge Barrios

Realtor.com quoted me in Could This Marijuana REIT Make Millions, or Are They Just High? It opens,

Investing in real estate just got waaay more interesting, dudes! That’s because amid all that stuffy stock-market buzz, a wacky new REIT (real estate investment trust) has just gone public—and it’s the first in the country to focus on funding marijuana growers.

REITs, for you rookies out there, are funds that specialize in real estate. So, they use their investors’ money to build shopping malls, hotels, and condo complexes with the hope that their value will rise over time. This new pot-friendly REIT, owned by San Diego investment firm Innovative Industrial Properties (IIP), works exactly the same way, only by investing in facilities that grow, store, and distribute cannabis.

Granted, IIP is concentrating exclusively on medicinal marijuana facilities—so no one’s getting high for fun off investor money.

Nonetheless, this REIT could provide a much-needed infusion of capital for marijuana growers. Currently, although cannabis is legal for medicinal purposes in 24 states and for recreational use in four (which could rise to nine after Election Day), under federal law, marijuana is still illegal—and that keeps most banks from loaning these companies money.

REITs, however, aren’t bound by the same strict principles as big banks. So, IIP can shower ganja growers with cash—and could stand to make huge piles of money for its investors, right?

It could … but this whole scheme could also implode in a funky cloud of smoke.

“With limited information due to the newness of cannabis legalization, there’s not much of a track record or history to determine a cannabis REIT’s future performance,” says real estate and economic advisor Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting. McCabe also concedes that he hasn’t scrutinized this particular firm’s investment criteria, methodology, or fees.

“The early results show a new and flourishing industry,” McCabe says. “My opinion is that marijuana REITs and investors could see triple-digit profits and growth that could be historic and surpass profits generated by most all established industries.”

Whoa, triple-digit returns! That’s pretty impressive performance for any investment.

“A typical REIT is viewed as a fixed-income vehicle that competes with bonds,” says Paul Habibi, a real estate entrepreneur and professor at UCLA. “The range of REIT dividends are in the mid-single digits, like 5% to 6%.”

But there’s another caveat: No one knows how the federal government might decide to deal with semilegal cannabis down the road.

“Given medical-use marijuana is illegal under federal law, how could that play out with federal regulation of IIP?” points out David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn [Law School] and editor of REFinBlog.com.

The IIP (which could not comment), admits that much is still unknown in one of its SEC filings:

“Although the federal government currently has a relaxed enforcement position as it relates to states that have legalized medical-use cannabis, it remains illegal under federal law, and therefore, strict enforcement of federal laws regarding medical-use cannabis would likely result in our inability and the inability of our tenants to execute our respective business plans.”

Investing in Mortgage-Backed Securities

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

US News & World Report quoted me in Why Investors Own Private Mortgage-Backed Securities. It opens,

Private-label, or non-agency backed mortgage securities, got a black eye a few years ago when they were blamed for bringing on the financial crisis. But they still exist and can be found in many fixed-income mutual funds and real estate investment trusts.

So who should own them – and who should stay away?

Many experts say they’re safer now and are worthy of a small part of the ordinary investor’s portfolio. Some funds holding non-agency securities yield upward of 10 percent.

“The current landscape is favorable for non-agency securities,” says Jason Callan, head of structured products at Columbia Threadneedle Investments in Minneapolis, pointing to factors that have reduced risks.

“The amount of delinquent borrowers is now at a post-crisis low, U.S. consumers continue to perform quite well from a credit perspective, and risk premiums are very attractive relative to the fundamental outlook for housing and the economy,” he says. “Home prices have appreciated nationwide by 5 to 6 percent over the last three years.”

Mortgage-backed securities are like bonds that give their owners rights to share in interest and principal received from homeowners’ mortgage payments.

The most common are agency-backed securities like Ginnie Maes guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, or securities from government-authorized companies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The agency securities carry an implicit or explicit guarantee that the promised principal and interest income will be paid even if homeowners default on their loans. Ginnie Mae obligations, for instance, can be made up with federal tax revenues if necessary. Agency securities are considered safe holdings with better yields than alternatives like U.S. Treasurys.

The non-agency securities are issued by financial firms and carry no such guarantee. Trillions of dollars worth were issued in the build up to the financial crisis. Many contained mortgages granted to high-risk homeowners who had no income, poor credit or no home equity. Because risky borrowers are charged higher mortgage rates, private-label mortgage securities appealed to investors seeking higher yields than they could get from other holdings. When housing prices collapsed, a tidal wave of borrower defaults torpedoed the private-label securities, triggering the financial crisis.

Not many private-label securities have been issued in the years since, and they accounted for just 4 percent of mortgage securities issued in 2015, according to Freddie Mac. But those that are created are considered safer than the old ones because today’s borrowers must meet stiffer standards. Also, many of the non-agency securities created a decade or more ago continue to be traded and are viewed as safer because market conditions like home prices have improved.

Investors can buy these securities through bond brokers, but the most common way to participate in this market is with mutual funds or with REITs that own mortgages rather than actual real estate.

Though safer than before, non-agency securities are still risky because, unlike agency-backed securities, they can incur losses if homeowners stop making their payments. This credit risk comes atop the “prepayment” and “interest rate” risks found in agency-backed mortgage securities. Prepayment risk is when interest earnings stop because homeowners have refinanced. Interest rate risk means a security loses value because newer ones offer higher yields, making the older, stingier ones less attractive to investors.

“With non-agencies, you own the credit risk of the underlying mortgages,” Callan says, “whereas with agencies the (payments) are government guaranteed.”

Another risk of non-agency securities: different ones created from the same pool of loans are not necessarily equal. Typically, the pool is sliced into “tranches” like a loaf of bread, with each slice carrying different features. The safest have first dibs on interest and principal earnings, or are the last in the pool to default if payments dry up. In exchange for safety, these pay the least. At the other extreme are tranches that pay the most but are the first to lose out when income stops flowing.

Still, despite the risks, many experts say non-agency securities are safer than they used to be.

“Since the financial crisis, issuers have been much more careful in choosing the collateral that goes into a non-agency MBS, sticking to plain vanilla mortgage products and borrowers with good credit profiles,” says David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who studies the mortgage market.

“It seems like the Wild West days of the mortgage market in the early 2000s won’t be returning for quite some time because issuers and investors are gun shy after the Subprime Crisis,” Reiss says. “The regulations implemented by Dodd-Frank, such as the qualified residential mortgage rule, also tamp down on excesses in the mortgage markets.”

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Preserving Workforce Housing

"Affordable housing" by BrightFarm Systems

The Urban Land Institute has issued Preserving Multifamily Workforce and Affordable Housing: New Approaches for Investing in a Vital National Asset. Stockton Williams, the Executive Director of the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing, opens the report with a Letter from the Author,

Real estate investors seeking competitive returns increasingly view lower- and middle-income apartments as an attractive target for repositioning to serve higher-income households. In response, creative approaches are emerging for preserving the affordability of this critical asset class for its current residents and those of similar means—while still delivering financial returns to investors.

This report from the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing provides a broad-based overview of this rapidly evolving landscape. It profiles 16 leading efforts to preserve multifamily workforce and affordable housing, including below-market debt funds, private equity vehicles, and real estate investment trusts.

Collectively, the entities leading these efforts have raised or plan to raise more than $3 billion and have acquired, rehabilitated, and developed nearly 60,000 housing units for lower- and middle-income renters, with thousands of additional units in the pipeline. Several are actively raising more capital to expand their activities. They are meeting a pressing social need while delivering cash-on-cash returns to equity investors ranging from 6 to 12 percent.

The report is written with the following primary audiences in mind:

■ Developers and owners looking for new sources of capital to acquire, rehabilitate, and develop multifamily workforce and affordable properties;

■ Local officials and community leaders seeking options for attracting or creating new sources of financing to meet their rising rental housing needs for lower- and middle-income families; and

■ Real estate investors and lenders interested in more fully understanding their range of options for a product type that offers financial as well as social returns.

As the country continues to grapple with the worst housing crisis for lower- and middle-income renters it has ever known, the private sector and community-based institutions must play an ever-greater role in ensuring that existing affordable properties remain available to the many who need them, while doing what they can to produce new units where possible. The financing vehicles profiled here show what is possible and suggest opportunities for further progress. (iv)

I found Part II particularly useful, with its overview of financing vehicles. Many readers of this blog will benefit from a description of below-market debt funds, private equity vehicles and real estate investment trusts, particularly as they are illustrated with real world examples like the Bay Area Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing Fund, Avanath Capital Management and the Community Development Trust.

Buy-To-Rent Investing

"Foreclosedhome" by User:Brendel

James Mills, Raven Molloy and Rebecca Zarutskie have posted Large-Scale Buy-to-Rent Investors in the Single-Family Housing Market: The Emergence of a New Asset Class? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

In 2012, several large firms began purchasing single-family homes with the stated intention of creating large portfolios of rental property. We present the first systematic evidence on how this new investor activity differs from that of other investors in the housing market. Many aspects of buy-to-rent investor behavior are consistent with holding property for rent rather than reselling quickly. Additionally, the large size of these investors imparts a few important advantages. In the short run, this investment activity appears to have supported house prices in the areas where it is concentrated. The longer-run impacts remain to be seen.

I had been very skeptical of this asset class when it first appeared, thinking that the housing crisis presented a one-time opportunity for investors to profit from this type of investment. The conventional wisdom had been that it was too hard to manage so many units scattered over so much territory. The authors identify reasons to think that that conventional wisdom is now outdated:

To the extent that technological improvements, economies of scale, and lower financing costs have substantially reduced the operating costs of buy-to-rent investors relative to smaller investors, large portfolios of single-family rental property may become a permanent feature of the real estate market. As such, the events of the past three years may signal the emergence of a new class of real estate asset. A similar transformation occurred in the market for multifamily structures in the 1990s, when large firms began to purchase multifamily property and created portfolios of professionally-managed multifamily units that were traded on public stock exchanges as REITs. (32-33)

Nonetheless, the authors are cautious (rightfully so, as far as I am concerned) in their predictions: “only time will tell whether the recent purchases of large-scale buy-to-rent investors reflect the emergence of a new asset class or whether the business model will fail to be viable over the longer-term.” (33, footnote omitted)