With markets roiling in 2016 and commodities lingering in low-price limbo, the holdings of high-net-worth investors can serve as indicators of where the rest of us might consider parking our nest eggs. It turns out that a good chunk of wealthy peoples' investments is in real estate.
"Real estate is generally accepted as an alternative investment [by high-net-worth investors]," says Simon Jochlin, portfolio analytics associate at StennerZohny Investment Partners, part of Richardson GMP in Vancouver.
"It has the characteristics of an inflation hedge: yield, leverage and cap gains. It does well in upwardly trending markets, it pays you to wait during market corrections and typically it lags equities in market declines – it buys you time to assess the market."
While the definition of high net worth can be flexible, in Canada and the United States it is generally considered to be someone who has at least $1-million in investable assets.
Thane Stenner, StennerZohny's director of wealth management and portfolio manager, says a good way for determining what the wealthy do with their investments is to look at reports from Tiger 21, an ultra-high-net-worth peer-to-peer network for North American investors who have a minimum of $10-million to invest and want to manage their capital carefully.
Every quarter the network surveys its members, who number about 400 members across Canada and the United States. Some of the participants are billionaires, and most have a keen eye for business, Mr. Stenner says.
Though the Tiger 21's Asset Allocation Report for the fourth quarter of 2015 found that its members were becoming cautious about Canadian real estate, they still on average put 27 per cent of their investment into real estate, the largest portion of their allocations. The next largest were public equities (23 per cent) and private equity (22 per cent) with smaller percentages going to hedge funds, fixed income, commodities, foreign currencies, cash and miscellaneous investments.
The real estate portion declined by 1 percentage point from the previous quarter. "While this is the lowest we have seen this year, it is at the same level observed in the fourth quarter of last year, which consequently was the high of 2014," the report said.
"Real estate is very popular and one of the reasons, in my opinion, is that investors can actually see and touch their investment," says Darren Coleman, senior vice-president and portfolio manager at Raymond James Ltd. in Toronto.
In his experience, real-estate investors, wealthy or otherwise, seem to behave with more logic than those who focus on markets. "For example, if you own a rental condo, and the one across the hall goes on sale for 30 per cent less than you think it's worth, you wouldn't automatically put yours on the market and sell, too, because you think there is a problem. Indeed, you may actually buy the other condo," he says.
"And yet when a stock drops on the market, instead of thinking of buying more, most people automatically become fearful and think they should sell."
Real estate also allows for considerable leverage, Mr. Coleman adds: "Banks love to lend against it. Over time, this lets you own a property with a much smaller investment than if you had to buy all of it at once."
At the same time, Mr. Jochlin says there are disadvantages to real estate that investors should beware of. Property is not particularly liquid, so if you need to sell you could be stuck for a while.
"It's also sensitive to interest rates and risks from project development," he says. There are administrative and maintenance costs, and an investor who buys commercial rental property will be exposed to the ups and downs of the entire economy – look at Calgary's glut of unleased office space, for example.
"Timing is key. You do not want to chase the performance of a hot real estate market," Mr. Jochlin says.
"Buying at highs will significantly reduce your overall return on investment. You want to buy in very depressed markets at a discount. In other words, look toward relative multiples, as you would an equity."
As to how one goes about investing in real estate, Mr. Jochlin says it depends. The factors to consider include determining whether your investment objective is short- or longer-term, your liquidity requirements, your targeted return and whether you have any experience as a real estate manager.
"Sophisticated high-net-worth investors have a family office, and thus a specialist to manage their real estate assets," he says.
How the rich buy real estate
The wealthy don't necessarily buy and sell real estate the same way ordinary investors do, says Mr. Stenner. Ordinary people buy something and hope that when they sell it they'll get a better price. Meanwhile, they like to do things like live on the property or rent it out, whether it is residential or commercial. If it is vacant land they might build something. Not always so for high-net-worth (HNW) investors, Mr. Stenner says. While everyone who invests hopes their investment will rise, Mr. Stenner says that in real estate, HNW people tend to fall into four categories:
"The real estate developer is looking for substantial returns from individual/basket real estate projects, typically 30-50 per cent IRRs [internal rates of return]," Mr. Stenner says. Developers are highly experienced investors who often take big risks, looking at a raw, undeveloped property and envisioning what it could look like with, say, a shopping mall or office tower. This requires lots of access to capital and a strong stomach, as there can be huge delays and setbacks.
"These HNW investors typically look for a stable, secure yield, tax-preferred in nature and structure if possible, with modest capital growth potential," Mr. Stenner says. They take the same businesslike approach to property as the developer-types, but they're more conservative, focusing on cash flow and long-term profit as opposed to getting money out after a development is complete. Often they're building a legacy that they hope to pass down through generations. Mr. Stenner says lower net worth people can emulate income investors, for example, through REITs that are based on apartment buildings.
These HNW investors tend to look for more short-term higher risk, higher return "asymmetric" payoffs. Income from the investment or project is secondary — they're in it for the quick buck. Often they see real estate in contrarian terms – investments to look at when the market is low and to sell on the way up, rather than hold. After 2008, many HNW investors bought up depressed-price housing in the U.S. Sunbelt. The sizzling Vancouver and Toronto markets might be the opposite of what they're looking for right now; commercial property in the stagnant Canadian economy that can be purchased for low-trading loonies right now might be more interesting.
This refers to HNW investors who lend capital to developers or opportunistic investors, for a fixed return, plus as much asset coverage from the property as possible. They fund mortgages, invest in real estate financing pools or put money into companies involved in this type of investment. "Because wealthier investors tend to have more liquidity, this also creates more optionality to deploy capital in various ways, while using the real estate as collateral or protection," Mr. Stenner says.
Being a lender is a way to diversify. In addition, money lent in this way puts the lender high up in the creditor line if something goes wrong. If things go right, it generates income as the mortgage is paid back to the HNW investors or the funds they buy into.