Category: Credit Cycle

Sam Zell: Poet laureate of contrarians and dumpster divers

Sam Zell is the patron saint  of contrarians and poet laureate of dumpster divers.  He has one of the best track records of any real estate or distressed asset investor, and helped pioneer the use of REITs, NOLs, and other key strategies and structures.  His excellent autobiography is a valuable lens from which to understand the last 50 years of economic history.

Although he built up his reputation in off the beaten path markets, his sense of macro timing is also surreal.  He loaded up on multifamily properties at the bottom of the market in the 1970s. He sold out of a large portion of his holdings near the top of the market in 2007(although that story was a bit more nuanced than I realized prior to reading the book).

Here are my notes and highlights from the book:

A full throttle opportunist

This isn’t a dress rehearsal. I try to live full throttle. I believe I was put on this earth to make a difference, and to do that I have to test my limits. I look for ways to do that every day. After all, I think it was Confucius who said, “The definition of a schmuck is someone who’s reached his goals.” It’s up to me to keep moving the end zone, and go for greatness.

….At some point the guy I was sitting next to turned to me and asked, “So what do you do?” I replied, “I’m a professional opportunist.” And that has been my response to that question ever since.


Zell’s Jewish parents were on one of the last trains out of Poland, just hours before the Nazi’s bombed the train tracks and took over.   Many of his ancestors perished in concentration camps.  His parents reminded him of this, and it appears to have had a significant impact on his world view

Did you ever wonder how the Jews allowed the Nazis to come into Poland without taking action? I asked my father that when I was little, and I’ll never forget what he said. The Jewish community in Poland at the time was extraordinarily myopic—it had little idea what was going on in the world. And it cost most of them the ultimate price. In contrast, my father’s macro understanding of world events and the conviction to act saved the lives of my family. I apply the same strategy on a much less life-and-death scale. I rely on a macro perspective to identify opportunities and make better decisions, both in my investment activity and in leading my portfolio companies. I am always questioning, always calculating the implications of broader events. How will worldwide depressed currencies affect capital flows and world trade? Does it create opportunity for international expansion among multinational companies? What real estate needs will they have? How can we get a first-mover advantage into new markets? And on and on.

Avoiding the crowd

Zell was clearly unafraid of career risk.  Several times in his career he safely sat out major bubbles, and pounced later when it all burst.

The industry has a long history of overbuilding when there’s easy money, without regard for who will occupy those spaces once they’re built. At the same time that construction cranes were dotting the horizon of every major city, the country was just starting to tip into a recession. Supply was going up and prospects for demand were not good. I was certain that we were headed toward a massive oversupply and a crash was coming. That’s when I just said, “Stop.” I was done. I stopped buying assets, started accumulating capital, and got ready for what I was sure would be the greatest buying opportunity of my career thus far. My thesis was that over the next five years, we would have the opportunity to make a fortune by acquiring distressed real estate. So I established a property management firm, First Property Management Company (FPM), to focus on distressed assets. Everyone thought I was nuts. After all, occupancies were still over 90 percent. Absorption was high. Companies were hiring. It was one of many times I would hear people tell me that I just didn’t understand.

I didn’t listen. I just stepped aside while the music was still playing. It was the biggest risk I had taken to date in my career. After all, I had a stable of investors by then. What would they think if I bowed out and the end didn’t come? That would mean I was forgoing a lot of upside for them. It was a true test of my conviction. But I had to follow the logic of supply and demand. Turns out I was right. Less than one year later, in 1974, the market crashed. Hard.

Overnight, we were buying assets at 50 cents on the dollar. At the time, financial institutions did not have to mark to market. In other words, they didn’t have to adjust the book value of their assets to the current market value those assets could actually sell for. If you were an insurance company, instead of marking to market, you could avoid taking a hit

Avoiding competition

By being  contrarian, Zell avoided competition.

In 1980, Bob and I sat down and listed the reasons we didn’t like where the real estate market was headed. First, the key to our prior success had been an inefficient market. The real estate industry had always been fragmented, with valuations and projections that often varied widely. That started changing rapidly with the debut of Hewlett-Packard’s financial calculator. All of a sudden, any owner could hire an MBA with an HP-12C to run ten years of cash flows, none of which considered recessions or rent dips, and make an elaborate and sophisticated case for investment—and a bunch of eager investors would show up to check out the property.


That was not an arena we wanted to compete in. Second, up until then, lenders made long-term, fixed-rate, nonrecourse loans. But as a result of inflation in the 1970s, they got scared and switched to short-term, floating-rate loans. We believed the real money in real estate came from borrowing long-term, fixed-rate debt in an inflationary scenario that ultimately depreciated the value of the loan and increased the position of the borrower. Finally, we had always looked at the tax benefits of real estate as what you got for the lack of liquidity. All of a sudden, sellers were including a value for tax benefits in their asset pricing. So we said, “If we’ve been as successful in real estate as we have been, aren’t we really just good businessmen? And if we’re good businessmen, then why wouldn’t the same principles that apply to buying real estate apply to buying anything else?” We checked the boxes—supply and demand, barriers to entry, tax considerations—all of the criteria that governed our decisions in real estate, and didn’t see any differences. So we set a goal that we would diversify our investment portfolio to be 50 percent real estate and 50 percent non–real estate by 1990.


We narrowed our universe by targeting good asset-intensive companies with bad balance sheets, a thesis similar to real estate. We liked asset-intensive investments because if the world ended, there would be something to liquidate. The low-tech manufacturing and agricultural chemical industries were perfect fits for us—the former driven by Bob with his expertise in engineering and passion for anything mechanical.


I’ve spent my career trying to avoid its destructive consequences. Competition skews people’s assessments; as buyers get competitive, the demand for assets inflates pricing, often beyond reason. I jokingly tell people that competition is great—for you. Me, I’d rather have a natural monopoly, and if I can’t get that, I’ll take an oligopoly. Not long after we got involved with GAMI,

Micro Opportunities in Macro Events

As an investor,  Zell has a unique way of combining macro insights with bottom up research.Several examples in the book highlight this. He was “all about seeing micro opportunities in macro events.  For example:

 In this case, the macro event was legislation similar to the impact of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 on NOLs. But I find implications for opportunity everywhere—in world events, economic news, and conversations. I’ve always been on the lookout for big-picture influencers and anomalies that will direct the course of industries and companies. But first-mover advantage requires conviction. While the rest of the radio industry was deliberating about what the telecom bill meant and how it would be implemented and whether it was a good change or a bad change, we moved and bought up

Zell’s abiliy to see the big picture gave him an edge in international investing.  He was the first gringo in town buying real estate in a lot of the bigger emerging market stories of the past few decades:

This is our primary premise in international investing—the transformation of businesses into institutional platforms. We started in Mexico, then went to Brazil. Then to Colombia, India, and China. So far we’ve brought about thirty companies in fifteen countries along for the ride, with four IPOs. I’m drawn to emerging markets because of their built-in demand. I’ve always believed in buying into in-place demand rather than trying to create it. To me, international investing is largely a story of demography. Just look at population growth. Most of the developed countries (e.g., U.K., France, Japan, Spain, Italy) have aging populations and are ending each year with flat or negative population growth rates. For instance, we don’t spend much time looking at Western Europe. It’s Disneyland. It’s great for wine and castles and cheese, but there’s no growth there. Further, Europe has the largest population of pensioners in the world. The number of retirees who don’t work is close to double what we have in the U.S. and most of those European countries fund each year’s pensions from taxes. It begs the question, with a shrinking workforce where will that money come from? In contrast, most of the emerging markets (e.g., India, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Brazil) have younger populations and higher growth rates. And while growth rates across the board have fallen off a cliff opportunity there as well. In particular, we are drawn to Mexico. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in Japan in 2011, nearly every multinational executive I talked to was bemoaning the cost of delays and availabilities in exports coming out of Asia. I couldn’t help but think that companies would not want to get caught in that type of scenario again, so they would be looking for an alternative manufacturing option closer to home. The only logical place was Mexico. Also, Chinese labor costs were steadily rising and eroding the margin for U.S. companies to manufacture there. So we invested in a Mexican warehouse and logistics company to support what I believed to be a pretty good bet on future growth. Sure enough, within four years, Mexico was in a manufacturing boom with a double-digit increase in exports from Mexican factories. We continue to view opportunity on a global scale. I see international investing as a challenge of connecting multiple dots to reach a conclusion. My job has always been to identify the dots we should pay attention to as well as the incentives that will connect them—all to get maximum possible results

See also:

Fistful of Lira

While packing for my redeye flight to Istanbul tonight, I remembered the last time I had travelled to Turkey around 6 years ago. After getting sort of stranded in Kazakhstan for a day, I ended up wandering back alleys of Istanbul talking to questionable people in the non-bank financial service sector.

A planning error left me with no choice but to run an experiment on the fringes of the global forex market.

At the time, I was working at an investment bank in China, but I got a week off for a some sort of Communist Party workers holiday in October. My then girlfriend now wife was a grad student in the US. We decided to meet in Turkey for a little getaway.

As I prepared for the trip I was flush with RMB(Chinese yuan), but short on dollars and Euros(1). None of the banks in Beijing I went to would directly change RMB to Turkish Lira. Plus all them had silly wide bid-ask spreads on RMB/USD or RMB/EUR transactions. No point in changing here I thought, I’ll just change once when I get to Turkey. Turns out that was a rookie mistake.

I was on the Air Astana flight from Beijing to Istanbul with a layover in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Checking in was a bit of a debacle. I  had to wait in a long line behind migrant laborers who had absurdly large quantities of luggage to check, much of it in non-traditional suitcases (ie barely sealed cardboard boxes).

The guy in front of me in the line to check in  was about 6 foot 4, bald, big boned, with the look of a football referee who let himself go. After some sort of commotion at the front of the line , he turned around, smiled and said in a baritone, probably Russian Accent: “Almaty airlines ,this always happens. “

The flight was delayed a few hours but it ultimately did take off. However we were late enough that I missed my connecting flight. I had a day to wait for the next flight to Istanbul.

Almaty airport wasn’t fancy, but it was no worse than many of the small airports I’ve been to around the globe. I went to a cafe to get some food.

Turns out they wouldn’t accept RMB. No problem I thought, and I walked over to the one moneychanger accessible from the terminal I was at.

Turns out they wouldn’t change RMB at all.

I went to the ATM, and it wouldn’t accept my card for some reason.

For amusement I tested if any of the shops there would take RMB. None would.

At least I got a lot of reading done passing the time with no money to entertain myself in the airport for a day. I don’t remember what the meal was on the next leg of the flight, but I remember it was quite delicious.

When I got to Istanbul, and ran into identical forex issues with shops, moneychangers, and ATMs.(2)

So I wandered the streets going into moneychangers asking to change money. Even banks with China origins wouldn’t do it. Finally one money changer looked surprised, and asked “how much,” as he motioned me over towards the other end of the counter.

I answered him, then he took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper, and started to draw a map.

It was a long journey. As I recall, I had to go to the far end of one of the subway lines, then walk for about 15 minutes. Finally I found a shop that would change RMB. But their rate was horrible so I said I’d be right back.

I finally found another one a block over with a much better rate. I was relieved to at last clutch a fistful of Lira.

The rest of the trip went smoothly. Of course those days were before Erdogan, um “changed” (3).

This time I’m going back to Istanbul, with a mix of USD and Euro I’m excited to enjoy deeply discounted falafel, and drink coffee while working from a deck on the Asia side of the bosphorus, with a perfect view of the river, and Europe on the other side. I won’t have time to explore the far ends of the subway lines since I’ll only be in Istanbul for a day. After that I’ll be going to Sofia Bulgaria and working there for a week.

(1)When if ever will the RMB be a global currency? I don’t know. My general view on currencies is I never make pure directional bets. I just try to avoid getting killed by sudden changes. This basically means cautious sizing of any position that is exposed to fringe markets. Smart operational decisions have real alpha implications in these areas as well I guess you can say I learned this on the streets, the hard way.

Anyways, while there is now a surplus of superficial media coverage of China’s One Belt One Road policy,few people are talking about the capital markets implications. China is basically throwing money at every country to its west all the way to Europe, with a potentially huge impact of the smaller countries. What I find interesting is that most of it is going to be financed with yuan denominated debt, not dollar denominated debt. Combined with a yuan denominated oil futures contract hitting the market, One Belt One Road will result in a lot more financial market activity in yuan rather than dollars. I would still consider yuan internationalization(and a decline in the dollars status) a bit of a long shot near term, but these recent changes make it a lot more plausible over the next decade. At the very least there will soon be a lot more funky securities denominated in yuan(many probably, ahem, distressed and deeply discounted), so it makes sense to get comfortable with custody and banking issues involving the currency.

(2) My ATM card ended up getting flagged with a security alert for suspected fraud, which I was later able to resolve.

(3) Much as been said about his more populist tendencies. I also find it amusing how non-populist policies have had unintended consequences contributing to the current crisis. For example, the government incentivized small and medium sized companies to borrow in non-Lira currencies, by loosening restrictions on loans over a threshold(IIRC, $5 million). This part of the economy is seriously hurting now. Alas there will be some fun picking in the distressed debt space before too long.

Big dam frontier market bond offerings, low dam yields

Credit markets are crazy, from US buyouts, to frontier market bond offerings.

Buffett released the annual Berkshire letter this past weekend, and it contained a number of gems as usual, although it was shorter than the typical letter.

Petition’s excellent distressed credit focused newsletter last week  pointed out that Buffett’s concerns about high M&A prices were:

affirmation of a number of macro themes that ought to portend well for distressed players in a few years: (i) excess capital supply, (ii) resultant inflated asset values, (iii) lack of discipline, and (iv) over-leverage.

The big dam indicator

The loose credit has spread to frontier market bond offerings as well. Tajikistan, a country with $7 billion in annual GDP in September raised $500 million of debt at 7.125% for 10 years. Tajikistan had no problem raising this capital.  In fact funds put in $4 billion in bids for the $500 million in paper. Tajikistan will use this capital used for the Rogun barrage project, which involves building the world’s largest hydroelectic dams. Building large buildings tends to correlate with hubris, and bubbles(although the empirical evidence around causality is loose), as many have noted:



More frontier market fun

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Is credit really the smart money?

Conventional wisdom holds that credit markets are “smart institutional money” that sees problems faster than  equity markets that  are full of less sophisticated retail investors.  I question whether that is still empirically true.  Retail investors now own large portions of the credit market, including high yield. Credit markets appear to be distorted by a combination of indexation and a reach for yield.   Its possible that bonds trading at par can be a false comfort signal for an equity investor looking at a highly leveraged company, because in many recent cases equity markets have been faster to react to bad news.

Retail ownership of credit markets.

However you slice and dice the data, there is clearly a lot more retail money in credit than there was a decade ago.  The media  mostly reports on noisy weekly or monthly flows, even though there has been a clear long term change.

Bond funds in general have experienced dramatic inflows over the past decade:

bond mutual funds.png

Source: ICI Fact Book 2017


The issues becomes more serious when you look just at the high yield part of the market. Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital estimated that between ½ or ⅓ of junk bonds are owned by retail investors in the current market. The WSJ cited Lipper data that says mutual fund ownership of high yield bonds/loans is $97 billion today vs $18 billion a decade ago. ICI slices the data differently, and comes up with a much nosier data set for just floating rate unds, indicating large outflows in 2014 and 2015.  However it shows net assets in high yield bond funds up 3x compared to 2007, and the total number of funds up over 2x during that time.

High Yield inflows.png

Source: ICI Fact Book 2017

Its not just mutual funds either- there are now more closed end type fund structures that market towards retail investors.  BDCs experienced a fundraising renaissance through 2014, and are now active in all parts of the high yield credit markets- from large syndicated loans to lower middle market.  Closely related, before the last financial crisis, ago there was minimal retail ownership of CLO equity tranches, but now there are a few specialist funds, and a lot of BDCs have big chunks of it as well.     Oxford Lane and Eagle Point were sort of pioneers in marketing CLO investments to retail investors but many others have followed.   Interval funds are a tiny niche, but over half the funds in registration are focused on credit.  It seems just about every asset manager is cooking up a direct lending strategy.  The illiquid parts of the credit market are harder to quantify, but there has been a clear uptick in retail investor exposure since before the financial crisis.  The marginal buyer impacting pricing is increasingly likely to be a retail investor rather than an institution.  

Retail investors to exhibit more extreme herding behavior.  According to Ellington Management Group:

This feedback loop between asset returns and asset flows has magnified the growth of the high yield bubble.

Capital Distortions

Its pretty easy to make a loan, its much harder to get paid back.

-Jeffrey Aronson, Centerbridge Capital

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