Thursday, February 8, 2018

Upside-down CAPM, Part 3: Capital Growth

There are problems with the way we talk about capital and leverage.  Frequently, leverage is discussed as if it is a way to multiply the amount of capital we have in some unsustainable way.  During the housing bubble, it is homeowners taking out equity LOCs or investment banks using high levels of leverage in their business models when they were underwriting MBSs and CDOs.  But, leverage doesn't really do that.  Maybe we talk that way because we are thinking in terms of a household taking out consumer debt, or a small business owner getting a loan to make a capital investment, so that for the protagonist in the story, there is some sense of magnifying their economic ownership and risk.  Or, maybe, we are thinking of how banks can make loans, which are re-deposited in the system, seemingly creating capital out of mid-air.

But, none of those things actually increases the real stock of capital.  None of it makes a building appear or stocks a store's shelves.  To do that, capital must bid on the same stock of real inputs that existed before those loans were made.

We might think of the stock of capital something like this:

For this exercise, let's think of public debt simply as deferred taxation.  It might fund some public capital that provides public benefits, but it doesn't have to, and its value is just a claim on future taxes in either case.  So, I am not going to address public debt here.

Private capital might be broadly divided into four categories: Two debt categories that generally have nominally fixed claims and income streams, and two equity categories that generally have nominally flexible claims and income streams based on constantly changing residual income streams to the full basket of income-producing assets.

There is a consumption vs. saving decision that is important on the margin.  But, over time, the growth to the capital base largely comes from growing equity, not new saving.  (I saw a great graph on this recently that I have lost track of.  Please post in the comments if you know what I'm talking about.)  Now, here is where there is a bit of magic.  Let's say Amazon makes some transformative consumer electronics announcement tomorrow, netting $5 billion in new market capitalization.  This means that equity value grew by $5 billion above any investments that Amazon will make in new tangible assets.  I contend that this is an increase in the real capital base, even though it is intangible value.  Amazon might reinvest cash, borrow, or issue stock in order to make that investment, and those activities will affect the stock of capital in the way we normally think about it.  Yet, those are all just reinvestments and shifts in ownership claims.  One could say that the only real increase in the capital stock from that initiative is the new intangible equity value it created.

And that value comes from the real intangible value that Amazon's organizational capital creates.  In the aggregate, this is the primary source of capital growth, and the funding comes from future broad growth in incomes.  Over the long term, the division between capital income and labor income is quite stable.  This means that the added value to business equity that comes from future profits is a reflection of broad-based future economic growth.  In that sort of time-travel hocus pocus that modern capital markets create, the capital base largely grows from its own future intangible value.  The investment Amazon makes has to outbid some other potential use.  It is the intangible increase in value that grows the base of measured capital.

Debt has little to do with this growth.  Changing levels of debt are generally simply changes in the ownership of those future intangibles, between residual owners (equity) and owners with nominal claims and income streams that are fixed in some way (debt).  So, when economic progress happens, some of that accrues to equity.  When equity increases, that actually means that the total capital base increases.  But, when debt increases, that is simply a balance sheet decision by the firm.  The total level of capital remains the same, but the proportions by which it is divided up change.

This is the opposite of how capital seems to be generally understood.

Real estate is no different.  Changing mortgage debt levels are simply a reflection of shifting ownership between equity and debt.  Changing equity levels actually change the total level of capital.  But, the source of value in housing capital is a little tricky.  Business equity value comes from growing future real production.  But, the rent we pay for shelter appears to track pretty closely with about 19% of total personal consumption expenditures, regardless of how much real capital we invest in real estate.  In other words, demand for housing is overwhelmingly mediated by the income effect.  Future income levels are largely a product of investments outside of housing.

If we look at past consumption of housing, there was a great housing boom after World War II, where both real and nominal expenditures on housing grew.  The capital base was growing, part of that was through deferred consumption creating new real housing stock.  When housing expenditures reached about 18% of PCE, that leveled out, and both real and nominal spending on housing remained flat for 20 or 30 years.

By the 1990s, though, we had entered the age of Closed Access, and so, while nominal spending on housing remained level, the real housing stock declined.  This is the period of time where households segregate into metropolitan areas by income.  High income frequently means high rents in a Closed Access city and low income means moving to other cities.  Nominal spending on housing remains level, but Closed Access households are spending a portion of those high incomes on a stagnant housing stock.  Their real housing expenditures (size, commute, amenities) continue to grow at a slower pace than their real incomes.

We can see the shadow of this in the measure of operating surplus to housing.  This is the net income to all homeowners (equity and debt investors, for both owned and rented units) after expenses and depreciation.  Even though nominal spending on housing has been level for 40 years, income to real estate owners has captured an increasing portion of that spending.  That is because Closed Access real estate owners capture income from political exclusion instead of from building new and better units.  Notice that net operating surplus to real estate owners was starting to decline during the big, bad housing bubble.  That's no accident.  The housing bubble was largely the acceleration of the great American housing segregation event, where builders were investing in new real housing stock and households were moving out of the Closed Access cities to other cities where their rent actually paid for shelter instead of transfers to politically protected owners.

During the boom, real estate equity grew substantially - the real stock of capital grew.  But, unlike what happens when business equity grows, this wasn't because future real incomes were growing.  This was a combination of three factors.  First, finally, after decades, new housing stock was being built at a rate that maintained real housing expenditures as a proportion of real incomes.  (That maintained the size of the housing portion of the capital stock.)  This meant that the nation's interior had to build enough homes for its own population and for the Closed Access housing refugees.  Second, low real long term interest rates caused home values to rise.  (I see this mainly as a shift in proportions, similar to the shift we might see if creditors take a larger portion of the balance sheet.  Real estate equity and mortgages grew, but at the expense of business equity, in a complex mix of investment and valuation shifts.)  Third, the capitalization of future rents into Closed Access home prices increased the capital base.  (This did increase the capital base as a portion of domestic income.  But, whereas business equity grows because future incomes will grow, in this case, real estate equity - and debt - grew because they were claiming a larger portion of domestic incomes, which we see in the upward trend in housing operating surplus.)

Because of the way we tend to think about capital, consensus descriptions of the housing bubble get this all wrong.  The conclusion we came to about the bubble was that banks were creating capital by increasing the level of mortgage debt outstanding, and households were using that newly created capital to consume.  This is wrong because lending doesn't create capital, it can only reallocate it between classes of owners.  What was actually happening was that real estate owners were capitalizing their future, bloated rental claims.  The rising levels of housing equity and mortgages outstanding weren't creating capital, and on net they weren't funding unsustainable consumption.  Early in the boom, real estate owners were mostly tapping debt markets to use their capitalized rents to consume.  Non-owners and foreigners provided that capital by shifting it from other capital or by curtailing consumption.  (Foreigners were doing it by maintaining a trade surplus with us.)  But, those netted out.  For every owner shifting consumption to the present, there was another household who was consuming less.  There had to be, in the global sense.  So, real estate owners held politically exclusive assets, this raised future rental income in selected cities, which raised home prices, which raised the value of home equity, and eventually some of that equity was shifted to debt ownership because we don't have a developed system for liquidating home equity to other equity holders.  Partial liquidation of real estate holdings is typically done in debt markets.

The net effect of these shifts was a drag on long term real income expectations, which is why the marginal effect was to keep real long term interest rates low rather than high.

As the boom aged, more owners were tapping those capitalized rents by selling out and moving or renting.  During the later period, there was a transfer of homes from old owners to new owners (either new buyers or investors.)  By then, total value of real estate had peaked, so that the increase of capital in mortgages clearly wasn't increasing the capital base.  There was a large transfer of ownership from housing equity to housing debt.  Much of that transfer was from previous homeowners, tactically reinvesting away from home equity, which had ceased to be considered a safe asset class, and in that search for safety, moving down the array of asset classes, mortgage debt seemed a reasonable resting place, even if that decision was filtered through financial intermediaries rather than being a direct decision of the savers themselves.  For the households taking out that debt, there was nothing stimulative about it.  The debt was simply funding the transfer of their wages to the previous real estate owners.  Those mortgages were a reflection of the reduction in real wages created by Closed Access, manifest through higher rent expenses.

PS. The show Shark Tank is a good example of how this capital creation happens.  Someone with a good idea and little else walks onto the set.  They have very little capital.  They connect with a "Shark" that has the means to capitalize that good idea, and now, suddenly, they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital.  If execution of the plan goes well, they will soon have millions of dollars in capital.  That capital appeared as if out of thin air, but it really was created out of the execution of the plan that creates future consumer surplus from their good idea.  That's why it's hard to think about the offers and valuations that are given in a simple mathematical framework, because even if the presenters give up a lot of equity based on their existing business, the payoff really comes from the creation of capital, not from divvying up existing capital.  In that context, one of the "Sharks" may offer a deal that has a debt component, but their shift from an equity stake to a debt stake has little or nothing to do with the capital that will be created from their partnership.  It is just a reallocation between equity or debt forms of ownership.

PPS. These models, along with my narrower viewpoints regarding the housing market and the financial crisis specifically, lend themselves to a coherent and unique asset management process, both strategically and tactically.  I have been gauging interest in that sort of thing among some readers.  If you know of someone or if you have clients that would also be interested in a fund run on these principles, please contact me via the e-mail address in the right margin.

PPPS. So I have this conceptual framework, and I can use to it tell a story about capital.  But, I haven't debunked the other story, have I?  What if everyone else thinks mortgage lending did cause home prices to rise, increase the base of capital, make everyone feel richer, and lead to overconsumption?  Why should you care if I came up with a story?  In the end, this is all rooted in the empirical evidence I have found regarding the financial crisis and the housing bubble.  And, the core empirical evidence that confirms the conceptual model here is the realization that rents explain everything.  The empirical presumptions underlying the other story are wrong.  Not only does my conceptual framework make sense, but it rose out of the array of empirical evidence that I discovered which contradicted the presumptions of the other framework.


  1. Amazing post.

    I have been thinking about debt somewhat along the same lines.

    I wonder about when central banks simply buy back debt.

    It is remarkable that people cannot think about an economy as factories, farms, trucks, roads, housing etc. and labor, but get confused about the financialization of it all.

    A quibble:

    I realize there are a variety of viewpoints on this topic, and usually politics determines views. But this seemed like a real stab at it.

  2. I would be interested in such a fund, but since I'm working for an investment bank now, there's lots of finance I am not allowed to engage in (on my own) at the moment..

    1. Shouldn't my fund should be something your investment bank offers to its clients?

    2. Perhaps. I'm just a techie/quant who reads blogs, I don't know much about the actual practice of the kind of banking that involves talking to customers. (I can model you some exotic derivatives just fine, though.)

  3. People miss the fact that everything is always owed by someone.

    1. It's weird how much this informs economics though. The idea that leverage is a response to interest rate levels and generates capital investment seems to be everywhere.

  4. Great work as usual. How did you calculate the Net Housing Surplus, can you provide a source for it? Why for instance does your measure seem to show significantly more growth in returns to residential real estate than a measure such as this.


    1. Thanks!
      I think your measure is gross rent of owners. Mine is net rental income before interest expense on all housing units.