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
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
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
No Economy is too small, no political crisis is too dire, and no country is too bankrupt for a solo operator like me to find riches among the ruins.
Riches Among the Ruins: Adventures in the Dark Corners of the Global Economy is an incredibly entertaining bottom up look at frontier market crises over the last 3 decades from the perspective of a travelling distressed debt trader. Each chapter is dedicated to Robert Smith’s experience in a particular country: El Salvador, Turkey, Russia, Nigeria, Iraq, etc, etc. Each country is unique, but Smith’s weaves several key lessons throughout his memoir.
Anyone who seeks profits in inefficient markets could benefit from Smith’s experience.
Information vacuums are key for middleman and arbitrageurs
In the mid 1980s no one had any idea what an El Salvador bond was worth- which is to say, they had no idea what value others might attach to it. The ignorance, this information vacuum, was my bliss. The seller’s price was simply a measure of how desperately he wanted to dispose of a paper promise of the government of El Salvador, and the buyer’s measure of how eager he was to convert his local currency into a glimmer of hope and seeing dollars down the road. The spread, my profit, was the difference between the two. In a fledgling market, with no reporting mechanisms and precious little information floating around, the spread can be enormous, and there was no regulatory or legal restrictions on how much you could make on a transaction.
Though my sellers and buyers, usually the representative of foreign companies doing business in El Salvador, often knew each other , played golf together, or broke bread together at American Chamber of Commerce breakfasts, I knew it would take some time before they eventually started to compare notes. At the beginning I doubt any of them even mentioned they were trying to sell or buy El Salvador bonds because the market didn’t exist yet. But until the market matured it was a gold rush, and I developed a monopoly on that most precious of all commodities in any market: information. I found out who wanted to sell, who wanted to buy and their price, and I held that information very tight to the vest.
In some cases buyers and sellers were on different floors in the same office building, or different divisions of the same global corporation. The biggest challenges for foreign companies doing business in the developing world was converting local currency revenues back into dollars. One way to get money out was to buy dollar bonds at fixed exchange rate and over time collect principal and interest in dollars.
Creativity and information edge: Struggles over bondholder lists
In almost every country, Smith, goes through difficulty to get the list of people holding the bonds in which he was seeking to make a market. Arbitrageurs and brokers who had access to the list guarded it aggressively, because it gave them an edge in acquiring positions at a discount, or profiting as a middleman. This was a key bit of information, available from connections at the Central Bank or other places.