Housing Prices Are Way Up, But Experts Disagree on Why

Photo courtesy of thejewishdenver.com

Photo courtesy of thejewishdenver.com

What is driving the recent rapid rise in housing prices? And is this a sign of a sustained economic recovery? Those were among the questions during a segment covering U.S. housing on CNBC May 28 (http://www.cnbc.com/id/100769361). Home prices during the first quarter of 2013 were up by 10.2 percent nationally, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller Index, the highest since 2007. Phoenix and Las Vegas, two of the regions hit hardest by the recession, were up the most.

Experts point to the very low mortgage rates (held artificially low by the Fed) and the low inventory of houses as among the reasons for the increase. Very few new houses are being built so sales are cutting into the inventory, increasing demand for the few left for sale.

Those who believe the housing market will continue to prosper say population growth will be a driver: One million new households a year are being created. Naysayers, who believe the price increases are not sustainable, say the market is being driven by investors who are buying and renting. They also point to still low construction employment numbers and the fact that college graduates, who should be a major factor in first time homebuyers, are not getting jobs and are shackled with $1 trillion in student loan debt.

While there is little doubt that houses are being appraised at higher prices, the small cap home builders, who had been on a tear since last summer, have seen their valuations flatten out. Here is an update on the home builders we have been following for the past year:

Red Bank, NJ-based Hovnanian Enterprises (NYSE: HOV, http://www.khov.com/) specializes in single-family detached homes, condominiums and town homes and operates in two segments: homebuilding and financial services.  As recently as October 2011 HOV was trading for $0.89. But since March HOV has been hovering around the $6 mark. HOV closed May 28 at $6.15, up 11 cents for the day with a market cap of $856 million. Its 52-week trading range is $1.52-$7.43.

Los Angeles-based KB Home (NYSE: KBH, http://www.kbhome.com/) is a home building and financial services company catering in large part to first time buyers. KB is an old Southern California home builder, founded in 1957 and formerly called Kaufman and Broad. As recently as last Aug. 31 KBH traded for $11.04 with a market cap of $851 million. It closed May 28 at $23.16, up 5 cents for the day with a market cap of $1.9 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $6.46-$25.14.

Columbus, OH-based M/I Homes Inc. (NYSE: MHO, http://www.mihomes.com/) builds single family homes primarily in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and southern parts of the U.S. The  company was founded in 1973 and, like most of the other builders, has homebuilding and financial services divisions. It also had a run up into March and closed March 20 at $26.03 with a market cap of $584 million. MHO closed May 28 at $26.47, up 29 cents for the day. Its 52-week trading range is $12.24-$29.07.

Atlanta-based Beazer Homes USA (NYSE: BZH, http://www.beazer.com/) builds and sells single-family and multiple-family homes in 16 states in the U.S. It also acquires, improves and rents homes. The company operates through commissioned home sales counselors and independent brokers. Back in mid-September BZH was trading for $3.77. It closed March 20 at $16.86 with a market cap of $410 million. On May 28, BZH closed at $21.79, up 44 cents for the day, with a market cap of $547 million. Its 52-week trading range is $3.46-$23.29.

Irvine, CA-based Standard Pacific (NYSE: SPF, http://www.standardpacifichomes.com/) builds single family and detached homes and targets a wide range of homebuyers. It also provides mortage financing services through its mortage finance subsidiary, Standard Pacific Mortgage. SPF closed March 20 at $9.07 with a market cap of $1.9 billion. It closed May 28 at $9.52 down 16 cents with a market cap of $2.1 billion. Its 52-week range is $4.39-$9.97.

Westlake Village, CA-based The Ryland Group (NYSE: RYL, http://www.ryland.com/) is a homebuilder and mortage finance company. RYL covers many aspects of the home buying process including design, construction, title insurance and escrow. RYL closed March 20 at $42.16 with a market cap of $1.9 billion. It closed May 28 at $47.60, down 86 cents, with a market cap of $2.2 billion. Its 52-week trading range is $19.25-$50.42.

David Fondrie from Heartland Advisors: A Glass-Half-Full Guy Looks at the Sequester and Economic Growth

David Fondrie is a Senior Vice President and Portfolio Manager for the Select Value Fund at Heartland Advisors in Milwaukee (www.heartlandfunds.com).   He joined Heartland in 1994 and subsequently served as Heartland’s Director of Equity Research for ten years from 2001 to 2011.  He also held the position of CEO of Heartland Funds from 2006 to 2012.  He’s a Badger from the University of Wisconsin and served with the armed forces in Korea.  He started his career with Price Waterhouse and is a CPA.  Our paths have crossed repeatedly over the years since we had interests in some of the same companies.  Like many Midwesterners, he is a plain-spoken man.

Dave Fondrie, Heartland Advisors Inc

Dave Fondrie, Heartland Advisors Inc

We had an opportunity to chat on March 1, the day the much-discussed government spending sequester went into effect, and I asked him what he thought would happen as a result.

DF:  The headline effect is likely to be worse than the real effect.  It’s not going to be as devastating as the articles in the press would have us believe.  There will no doubt be some pain inflicted on defense stocks, for instance.  But for the most part people have been expecting this to happen, so it is not a surprise, and it is built into the market.  There are too many green shoots in the economy now for something like the sequester to knock them all down.

JA:  Are you seeing it more like a speed bump than a brick wall?

DF: Yes, exactly.  I think Congress will get around to the budget and the cuts, adjusting them to what makes more sense.  If you look around at the United States economy right now, what is striking is what is going on in the oil and gas field.  Suddenly we are one of the lowest-cost energy producers and consumers in the world.  Not only does that have a direct effect on business, it is creating a new industry that is building out the infrastructure that will allow us to provide low-cost natural gas energy to industrial America.  This has put us in quite a positive situation.

We are paying $3.50 for natural gas, where Europe is paying $12.00 and Japan is paying  $16.00.  So to me that means that companies that rely on energy for their operations are much better off here than in other major developed economies around the world.  A steel forge, for instance or a company like Precision Castparts Corp (PCP), which use enormous amounts of energy in making parts, are a lot better off here than anywhere else.  Fertilizer plants.  The renaissance in chemicals here is extraordinary.  There are 12 new ammonia plants on the drawing boards, and they all will have a reliable and lowcost stream of natural gas as both energy and raw material.  We can use that ammonia domestically and stop importing it from other economies.

LNG.  There are a number of proposals for LNG plants.  These days we are talking about exporting LNG, where we never thought about anything but importing it in years gone by.  I think this low-cost energy source is underappreciated.  In fact it will spur the continued development of oil and gas, infrastructure, chemical plants, and other types of industrial expansion.   All of that is good for the economy.  Add to that some continued improvement in employment and housing, with home prices increasing, and we foresee stronger consumer confidence, especially as a result of higher home prices.  Already 401(k) values have been improving, and it is undeniable that we are in a low interest-rate environment as well.

All this headline talk about the sequester risk is overblown.  There is no doubt that federal spending and the size of the national debt have to be brought under control.  Entitlement plans have to be rationalized.  But add to the overall situation the fact that China is clearly recovering.  Chinese electrical usage is up, their industrial consumption of materials and energy is up, and as China grows, their growth is good for the other economies that feed her growth.  Europe is not likely to get any worse.

We’re looking for 2.5% to 3% GDP growth in 2013.  The stock markets continue to be reasonably valued.  Corporate balance sheets are good; earnings are good and continuing to improve modestly.  The S&P 500 is trading at 14 times earnings, where in the past it has traded at an average of 16 times earnings.

The wild card is what happens with interest rates.  People have not yet abandoned bonds, but the inflows have receded after several years.  There have been outflows from the equity markets for five years.  Now we are seeing a trickle-back return to the equity markets.  Sadly there is a pattern that is repeating itself, with many buyers entering at the midpoint of an equity run, not at the beginning.  But this is the way cycles go.  We are in the 4th or 5th inning if you take a long view of this bull market over the last three years.

JA:  So are you buying energy companies?

DF:  Not particularly.  Low energy prices are not particularly favorable for exploration and production companies.  But we are looking closely and buying companies that supply goods and services to the energy patch.  For the last two or three years, for instance, it has been apparent that there will have to continue to be huge investments in the energy patch.  If you are drilling in North Dakota, you may have no infrastructure to bring the liquids you are pumping to the refineries, which all tend to be downriver by quite a distance.  We have huge backups in Oklahoma because there is not enough pipeline to carry all the energy.  One company we have owned for 2 to 3 years is Mas Tec Inc (MTZ).  We bought it in the 12s and it closed Friday at $30.78.  Part of their business is in pipelines, and they have also done well at the gathering systems in areas where energy is being produced at the wellhead.  Those are both high-growth areas; the stock was trading cheap two years ago, and it has given us a reward.  Quanta Services Inc (PWR) is very much the same story – we used to own that stock as well, but we sold it when its valuation reached what we thought was a sensible level; in their case they are exposed to pipeline development and new high-voltage lines.

JA:  How about life sciences companies?

DF:  The FDA has been problematic as they have increased their oversight of the industry resulting in complex regulations and inspection observations (commonly called 483 observations).   We own Hospira Inc (HSP), which was a spinout a few years back from Abbott Laboratories  (ABT).  They have run awry of the FDA at a manufacturing facility in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  In Hospira’s case, addressing the 483 observations and revising processes and procedures has resulted in over $300 million in costs and reduced output of drugs that are already in short supply.  We are all concerned with safety; however those concerns should be balanced with a sensible and timely regulatory process.

JA: Does that put a caution flag out?

DF:  I can’t speculate on what kinds of furloughs the FDA will have to put into effect.   I doubt that we will have chickens rotting on processing lines waiting for FDA inspectors as the press and certain congressional members have suggested, but the big issues around drug approvals will continue to be important, and is likely to be slowed down even further with the automatic budget cuts.  Hopefully they will prioritize their cutbacks and the expense reductions will have less impact than we might expect.  But government does not always work very efficiently.  We hope they will be smart and furlough the poor performers instead of just following  a LIFO pattern.

JA:  How do you feel about ObamaCare and stocks?

DF:  I do sense that there is a bit more thought being given to the impact of ObamaCare.  We just reviewed the 2014 Medicare Advantage benchmark payment rates by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the cuts were more draconian than expected.  But the government was clear that they are not trying to cripple the HMOs because they are a vital part of the new program.  I am a glass-half-full guy most of the time, and I think if people sit down and talk they can get to some reasonable results; let’s hope that happens.  There is always give-and-take with reimbursement rates, and they end up meeting someplace in the middle.  US businesses are resilient; once they know where the boundaries are, what the rules are, they adjust.  What happens is what you expect in a capitalist system: change comes quickly.  Capitalism works pretty well.

JA:  Where do you think people ought to be looking in the equity markets this year?

DF:  I am in the camp that says we will continue to have a modest economic recovery.  In that kind of environment you have to look at cyclical companies.  We are overweight in industrials and information technology companies.  Everyone is going to look at productivity, and technology is important there.  People will continue to invest in technology to improve productivity.  We are going to be hooking up all kinds of machines at home and in factories to the Internet.  We think tech plays work.  We might stay away from actual PCs, but mobility will continue to expand, and downloads will continue to grow, keeping  Internet growth robust.  Probably financials are good, due in large part to a stronger housing market.  We are a little more cautious on that because the interest rate environment does not allow much net interest rate gain to banks.  But housing will drive loan growth, and the banks have plenty of capital to lend.  With business loans at 3.5%, it is hard for banks to make money.  If we got an uptick of half a percent, it would do wonders.

In tech companies, we like Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO).  We see Cisco as a chief enabler of the infrastructure of the Internet.  Cloud computing is driving a lot of internet traffic.  Cisco is cheap at 12 times earnings, and there is that nice dividend yield of 3% too.  The balance sheet is pristine; altogether it is a very attractive risk-reward proposition.  I run a value-oriented multicap fund.  Cisco is seen as a growth stock, but right now it is also a value stock.  They have gotten their act together after some unwise acquisitions a few years back; we think the downside is minimal.

JA:  What about social media?

DF:  Social media doesn’t really fit our style.  Even Google is not in an area where we play.  Thematically I like agricultural plays like Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM).  It is trading a bit above book value, and the dividend yield is 2.4%.  If we have a big corn crop, ADM is going to benefit from processing all that corn.  I believe we will have a big corn crop this year, and we need one.  ADM’s PE is under the S&P 500.  I can’t predict the weather, but we are getting moisture that we badly need in the Midwest, so the water table can support strong crops this year.  We’re looking at fertilizer companies, seed companies, and farm equipment (especially on a dip).  Railroads are a bit expensive right now, but it is worth noting that the number of rail cars carrying oil is growing at 25%, which makes those cars part of the infrastructure for moving energy.  Oil companies and refiners are buying those cars and the rails are moving them.  We’ll buy rails on dips too.

One final area that is more in the later innings is deepwater offshore.  We are particularly interested in drilling off the east and west coasts of Africa.  We like the companies that build out those platforms and subsea infrastructure to bring that oil to market.  We like the boat companies that service those rigs.  These are long-cycle investments; the big international oil companies don’t start-and-stop those projects.

JA:  What about shipping companies?

DF:  There may be too much capacity there.  OSG went bankrupt.  What has happened in the US is that we are importing less oil than we were five years ago, and the amount we are producing here has increased.  Our demand for oil from overseas has decreased.  So tanker ship demand has decreased as well.  If China starts to really boom again, that could absorb some of the excess capacity, but I don’t see that as near-term.

JA:  How about the greenback?

DF: The euro is at risk, but the dollar should hold its own.  If the Chinese let their currency float more that might affect the dollar, but for now the dollar is fine.

JA:  Is there an upside to the 2.5% to 3% GDP growth you mentioned?

DF:  Maybe in the back half.  If we resolve our government problems, that might restore more confidence.

JA:  Thanks, Dave.

Allen & Caron owns none of the stocks mentioned in this interview, and Joe Allen owns none of the stocks mentioned in his personal accounts.  Please do your own research.  JA

That Light at the End of the Recession: Who Is the Levi Strauss of the Recovery?

There are articles this morning with significant news for the economy as a whole and for the investment community in particular.  First of all, the job market improved more than expected, and is back on the curve it was on earlier this spring, with job creation in the private sector at 176,000 jobs, and new applications for unemployment well under the “magical” number of 400,000. 

Early gold miners wearing Levis. Photo courtesy of andrewhennigan.blogspot.com

Second, and possibly more important, the number of business bankruptcies has fallen and is on track to finish the year at its lowest level since prior to the beginning of the “Great Recession.”  The comes chockablock on top of a truly boffo month of June for consumers, especially people buying cars.

There are storm clouds — European and Chinese wobblies specifically, with interest rates dropping, which is likely to push the value of the US dollar up, making our goods more expensive overseas.  Actually though, two of our biggest trading partners are virtually (but not officially) pegged to the US dollar (Mexico & Canada), and many other economies, such as Australia — resource rich and recessionless — are fairly stable with regard to the greenback. 

So the question is, if we are seeing all these lights at the end of the tunnel — what should we be doing as investors?  We at SmallCapWorld have no answers, no recommendations, because we are not financial advisors,  but we are finding some areas more interesting than others.  Infrastructure continues to be a big agenda item, for instance.  For those with a longer horizon and some patience, homebuilders are looking more interesting.  And an intriguing article in the New York Times last weekend theorized that the electric vehicle market, in spite of the highly publicized obituaries of the lithium-ion battery companies,  may not be dead in the water: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/automobiles/evs-are-merging-into-californias-traffic.html?_r=1&ref=automobiles.

Many investors look at sectors like these when economic reports are positive, hoping to find bargains like four-leaf clovers.  An article this morning in Motley Fool may be a case in point, for instance: http://beta.fool.com/jonathanyates13/2012/07/05/it-time-togo-sir-john-templeton-european-stocks/6140/?source=eogyholnk0000001.  Heck, even Warren Buffett is out in the weeds looking for something special, buying up newspapers (talk about last century!). 

I’d like to suggest that there is a larger pond to splash about in, and it is not sector-specific: cross-border companies, especially those trading in the USA as ADRs (American Depositary Receipts).  It seems as though ADRs tend to trade at a significant discount to the valuations given their peers on US markets.  That is less true of largecap ADRs, a fast-growing group, by the way, but largely controlled in valuation by trading in their home exchanges.   But it seems to be increasingly true across the board in smallcap ADRs.  After all, what was the biggest success story of the California Gold Rush?  I think it was Levi Strauss, which did nothing more than invent blue jeans for the miners.  Facilitators tend to be ignored at times.

Why would this be so?  Well, maybe it is that they are farther away than US-headquartered companies; they use currencies that may be more volatile these days; they tend not to market themselves well to US investors; they seldom trade on Nasdaq or the NYSE.  In fact, most of them trade in the regulatory twilight zone that used to be universally referred to as The Pink Sheets.  However that may be, there are some very big, very prosperous, very well-known companies now trading on the “pinks” after having delisted from the big exchanges when Congress started tightening the regulatory screws a couple of financial bubbles and several Ponzi schemes ago.

If there are bargains in the ADR world, they will be found eventually — at least that is the theory behind the “if you build it they will come” philosophy that used to be called “build a better mousetrap” or “stick to your knitting.”  And for the Sherlock Holmes types among us, there are all kinds of companies worth looking on the upgraded “pink sheets” listings called OTCQX and OTCQB.  With the not-so-slow decline of the Bulletin Board, these listings may look like the Wild West, but they are not the typical old “pennystocks” that many investors remember.  And the JOBS Act is breathing new life into these small newcomers by suspending a lot of the draconian rules that govern fund-raising for larger companies:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/alanhall/2012/06/28/hearings-on-jobs-prepare-the-u-s-for-expanded-crowdfunding-accelerating-startup-activity-creation-of-jobs/

Anyway, the point of this article is not to pick out stocks in the pink sheets, it is to look for stocks that could benefit from a gold rush pointed at the pink sheets.  The first and most obvious is OTC Markets Group itself (OTCQX: OTCM), the proprietor of the Pinks, the OTCQX and OTCQB.  OTCM, headquartered in New York City (http://www.otcmarkets.com/home) , is chugging along at an increasing revenue rate that looks to be in the range of at least $32 million to $35 million this year, and bringing about 15%  (or $0.12 per share) to the bottom line in the most recently reported quarter.  Just to put this in perspective, the market cap is around $73 million and OTCM is handling 10,000 over-the-counter securities.  The volume of trading in OTCM is under 1,000 shares per day, which puts a bit of a technical barrier up for some people — but it is hard to imagine this part of the market NOT growing.

Another you-never-heard-of-it company that stands to benefit is one of the Fortune 500: INTL FCStone Inc (Nasdaq: INTL).  One of the busiest traders in the market, INTL is said to be the largest marketmaker of cross-border stocks in the US, and they are an increasingly prominent advisor to OTCQX and OTCQB companies under the “PAL” or Principal American Liaison designation.  They are also one of the largest buyers of gold in the world.    The shares are trading at $19.61, not far off their lows; the market cap is $375 million, and the average daily trading volume is 84,000 shares.  This article in SeekingAlpha addresses the value that might be there: http://seekingalpha.com/article/667071-4-undervalued-small-cap-financials-with-analyst-love?source=yahoo

There are some very small dark horses, like San Francisco-based Merriman Holdings (OTC: MERR; http://www.merrimanco.com), which claims to be the largest PAL operation with regard to OTCQX companies.  MERR is quite small and has a recent history of management change and financial distress, but their newswires are busy virtually every day with new OTCQX clients. 

And there are some much larger companies that stand to benefit, like the Australian whiz-kid, Computershare Ltd (OTCQX: CMSQY and ASX: CPU).  Their market cap is well out of our ballpark at $4+ billion, but they have come out of the pack like Secretariat at the Derby, recently taking over the stock servicing portfolio at Bank of New York Mellon.

We own none of the securities discussed in this article.