McNellis: Working the Recession

Image by Sean Benesh via Unsplash

By John McNellis

Recession: a period of temporary economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are reduced, generally identified by a fall in GDP in two successive quarters.

McNellis

GDP dropped 4.8 percent in the first quarter of this year—the biggest contraction since 2008—a fall that will resemble an infant’s stumble when compared to Q2’s upcoming Acapulco cliff dive. As of May 8th, more than 23 million workers have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus shut-down; our national unemployment rate was cresting 15 percent in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That we’re in the midst of a recession is undeniable. How long it lasts beyond the definitional two quarters is simply a guess. Some smart, persuasive guys insist we’ll be rocking by late summer, while other, equally compelling pundits, predict we won’t see our January 2020 base camp again for four years.

If you’re one of the 23 million unemployed, your waking thoughts are consumed with finding a job. If you’re lucky, however, and you’re still employed and working at home (no longer an oxymoron), you might find time—hell, a lot of time—to contemplate your life and how you might come out of this economic winter a step ahead. To that end, I asked a half-dozen friends—successful entrepreneurs—what advice they’d give themselves today if they were 27 years old; that is, if they were reasonably well-employed, but ambitious and longing to succeed.

Now’s the time to wear out a pair of shoes

Their answers skittered across the board, from the practical (never underestimate the practical) to the near mystic. The quotes are paraphrased, but accurate. In no particular order, they opined:

“If you’re already in a contract you can terminate without penalty, drop it. And then, if you really want the asset, chisel.” (One apartment builder told his seller he would only close with a 25 percent price reduction. He got it.)

“Marry—or stay married to—a spouse with a steady income. That stability will let you go out on your own, take the risks you need to get to the next level.”

“I’d go on with my life exactly as I would have done had there been no virus.”

“I wouldn’t bet all I have on a chance to win all the gold in Fort Knox. I know I can’t live without what I’ve got, and I’m doin’ just fine without all that gold.”

“What do I care if the economy drops 10 percent? That’s where it was two years ago, and I was doin’ just fine then.”

“Do the work. Just because you heard the owner has said no to everyone in town, knock on his door, make sure he hasn’t changed his mind. Get him to say no to you. Look for the neighborhoods that will bounce back first. Now’s the time to wear out a pair of shoes.”

“If you think the world’s dependence on oil isn’t going away, start your own little private equity fund, use your friends’ and family’s money to buy stock—a basket of oil companies and oil service providers. When oil hits $50 a barrel, you’ll look like a genius.”

“You gotta be able to fail the whole thing.” (Yes, dear reader, my friends are not in complete agreement).

“Timing is critically important. Success is all about entry points and exit points.” (He meant when to buy and when to sell. As an aside, the when-to-buy part is a lot easier than the when-to-sell).

“Use this down time to vet your personal situation. Ask yourself, ‘Am I with the right organization?’ If you’re not, move. The best companies hire in downturns, they know they can pick off top talent.”

One good friend took it up to 30,000 feet. He said, “Now’s a great time to ask yourself what you want out of life. Are you that motivated by financial success? Are you really all about money? Could you be happier living a quieter, less stressful life—taking a job, say, as a school teacher-and having more time for living a good life? But if you’re bent on becoming an entrepreneur, do this: Find a guy who knows how to make money—doesn’t matter what industry he’s in, it’s all about the individual, not the business—a guy who’s willing to pay attention to you and who isn’t a d*** and go to work for him. Make him teach you what he knows.”

And there you have it.

On to 2020 real estate. A couple observations and a couple conclusions. First, it would be foolish to expect that this recession will produce a bumper crop of fat deals. Why? Real estate ownership is more concentrated today than ever, most of the vulnerable little guys have long since been flushed out; there are literally trillions of dollars in “opportunity funds” (talk about misnomers) sitting on the sidelines waiting to pounce on the first underpriced portfolio that hits the market (and thus jack the price); and, let’s face it, no one wants to sell in a down-market. Everyone who can sit tight will. That said, the four “D”s—death, divorce, dissolution and disaster—inexorably cross the stage even when the audience is forced to stay home. Some owners will have to sell. There may not be a flood, but expect better than a trickle of great deals.

Making it more difficult and, at the same time, more enticing, is today’s lending market. As of this writing, real estate has two kinds of lenders: those who’ll admit they’re not lending enough for a latte and those who pretend they are. A real estate market without debt is like a car with a broken oil pan—it seizes up a couple miles down the road. Which means those 4-D sellers must become reasonable. A clever, forthright buyer will structure his offer with either long-term seller financing or at least a couple year bridge loan carry-back. More devious buyers will offer to purchase subject to obtaining conventional financing and then seek to retrade at the financing deadline, forcing the hapless seller to carry the loan on onerous terms. Clever sellers, however, already know any offer dependent on outside financing is dead on arrival.

There will be deals. Go find one.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Articles published in our Contributor section do not necessarily represent the views of The Registry or Mighty Dot Media, Inc. They represent a selection of topics chosen for the value of their editorial perspective. We welcome feedback and alternative positions on topics, and we will consider publishing those, as well.

To read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.

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