Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Tax Tsunami

As commercial real estate struggles to break through the economic quagmire, it must contend with a flurry of changes on the horizon. Specifically, changing capital gains tax rates, estate taxes, and FASB standards could heavily alter the landscape. Of course, they also may not. There is much uncertainty in the future and all we can really do is theorize.

Capital Gains Taxes

If the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire (which all signs are pointing to) then the capital gains tax rate will increase from 15% this year to 20% in 2011. There are few things this rate change could induce. Investors may be more likely to cash out this year or consider continuing their investment via 1031 tax exchange.

Estate Tax

In one of the oddest strokes of lawmaking to come from Washington, the estate tax expired in 2010 but is scheduled to make a deafening resurgence in 2011. In 2009 the max rate was 45% over $3.5 million; in 2011 it will be 55% over $1 million. This will certainly cause an increase in asset planning, especially with regard to trusts. Whole swaths of people who never needed to worry about the estate tax will be searching for financial planners in order lessen this tax hit.


This is a tricky one. Mostly because no one really knows what the final lease accounting changes in FASB 13 will be. But there will be changes. That has been enough to worry many industry insiders, who could see these changes having serious affects. More likely than not, the concept of operating leases will go away, and no more lease classification will exist. Investors could face a shortage of financing, and tenants may demand shorter leases. However, it is too early in the game to know for sure and debate is still heavy on whether there will be any impact at all.

How these changes will affect commercial real estate (and net leases) may in the end, be an art for scryers. What will their individual impacts be? How will they affect the industry in unison? Investors undoubtedly will continue to "swap until they drop" and receive a step-up in basis for capital gains purposes, and with proper estate planning will side-step the draconian estate tax. More likely than not more money and attention will be spent on tax planning in 2011 than ever before. Lease accounting, estate tax considerations, and capital gains tax rates rising will cause most developers and investors to put their tax attorney on speed dial in front of their lender contacts.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Should We Fuss About FASB?

Recently, there has been some gnashing of teeth about the possible impact on sale-leasebacks by a proposed change in the manner in which leases are accounted for under GAAP. FASB has put forward some changes which, if enacted, will effectively eliminate the distinction between operating and capital leases. For companies such as Walgreens and CVS, who heavily utilize sale-leasebacks, and typically structure the resulting leases as operating leases, this would means billions of dollars of lease liabilities would move from the footnotes to the balance sheet.

While it's true that this change will be a headache for the accounting departments of both lessors and lesses (not the least of which due to its retroactive nature) it's impact onoverall sale-leaseback activity should be zero.

Here's why:

Sale-Leaseback Economics Don't Change Because of How You Account for Them.

The underlying economics of a sale leaseback need to work independent of how the transaction is accounted for. If the cost of doing the sale lease back isn't exceeded by the return obtained on the proceeds of the transaction than it makes no sense. How we record the debits and credits of such a thing is largely irrelevant.

It’s also not like operating leases are a secret on Wall Street. Analysts and those who follow these companies closely have already baked the operating leases into the debt loads of the companies. It’s common practice to take as much as 2/3 of the operating leases listed in the footnotes into consideration when conducting ratio analysis and comparing companies.

That being said, moving the obligations from the footnotes to the balance sheet is essentially a smoke and mirrors exercise although one would have to admit it does enhance transparency. Particularly so for companies who use the practice as a matter of course. It’s amazing how often you hear that Walgreens has no debt. Apparently, those who think so don’t read the footnotes.

While rationally, this change should be a non-issue to the investors in and conductors of sale-leasebacks, no one ever said people were required to act rationally....

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Zero Hour for Net Leases

It is not a secret that many commercial real estate loans stand on shaky foundations. In-fact it has been recently estimated that a “sizable amount of the additional $700 billion in commercial real estate loans coming due during that time frame are loans that could not get refinanced at existing levels in the current lending environment”. This of course will lead to many foreclosures and create an investment opportunity for CRE buyers. However, for the unfortunate holder of the original asset there may be a potentially huge tax consequence. There may also be a glimmer of hope in the form of a Zero-transaction.

Simply speaking a zero transaction is the acquisition of a property using a highly leveraged loan (loan to value usually 88% plus) with all rental income dedicated towards debt service, thus producing “zero income” for the property owner. One of the vehicle’s applications is to defer tax liabilities incurred in a commercial foreclosure.

The Problem

Though it is not widely known, the foreclosure of a commercial property is often a taxable event. How the IRS computes the tax depends on whether the property was financed with a recourse or non-recourse loan. In the case of a recourse loan, tax liability is calculated by taking the difference between a property’s fair market value and its adjusted basis. The tax liability of a non-recourse loan (which the remainder of this piece will be dealing with) is calculated by taking the difference between a property’s outstanding mortgage balance and the property’s adjusted tax basis.

The “outstanding mortgage balance” is the key element which catches investors off guard.

For example:

Let’s say you bought a property for $5M (your cost basis) which subsequently has been depreciated to an adjusted tax basis of $3M. Let’s also say you refinanced this property during an upsurge in the market and pulled out $8M of equity. If this transaction was foreclosed upon (without any action to defer tax liabilities), you would face a taxable gain of $5M, i.e. the $8M in outstanding mortgage amount minus the $3M in adjusted tax basis.

Thus, investors who think returning the keys to the bank absolves them of all monetary concern involved in a commercial foreclosure are gravely mistaken. The IRS views any money previously pulled from a property via loan refinancing to be taxable gain, even though the property is foreclosed upon.

The Solution

With proper scheduling and use of the 1031 exchange, the situation above can be avoided through the purchase of a “zero income” property. The reason a zero income property can be so beneficial is due to its highly leveraged nature and its ability to defer a taxable gain through a 1031 transaction. A portion of the money an investor would have otherwise paid to the IRS can be used instead to acquire the zero income property through the 1031 exchange.

Here is how our previous example would be impacted by a zero transaction:

Assuming a tax rate of 25% (Federal capital gains rates, Federal recapture rates and state taxes), the $5M in gain would cost $1.25M in taxes. If instead, a zero transaction was pursued, the investor would need to replace the balance of the debt, $8M. By exchanging into a zero income property for approximately 10% of the $8M debt amount replaced ($800,000), there would be a $450,000 savings ($1.25M-$800,000) and the investor would own NNN property with a very high credit tenant.

In order for the transaction to flow smoothly, it will have to be properly organized and scheduled on an individual basis. It should be noted that a zero transaction is not possible without outside assistance of at least a Qualified Intermediary and qualified professional tax and accounting advice. If done properly, this strategy can be an invaluable tool for investors caught in a foreclosure situation.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Drug Store Wars

Recent developments concerning Walgreens and CVS point to changes in their stores and company interactions. These range from alterations in store layout and product offerings to new rules concerning prescriptions. Both of these tenants are huge players in the net lease market and these shifts could change the way investors view them.

CVS to Expand Grocery Aisles

CVS plans to expand grocery aisles in 3,000 of their stores during 2010. They will be doubled in size, giving the company more exposure to the trillion dollar U.S. food market. Many see this as continuation of “channel blurring”, a trend which has been embraced by many retailers. As reported by the Patriot Ledger “Just as supermarkets have expanded pharmacy and health and beauty sections in the past decade, drugstores are retaliating by putting food products in the forefront.” Cleary CVS is jumping in head first by modifying 43% of their 7,000 nationwide stores.

Walgreens to Sell Beer and Wine Again

Walgreens is breaking a nearly 15 year self-imposed ban on the sale of alcohol in their stores by reintroducing beer and wine. So far 3,100 (41.3%) of their stores have already been stocked, with plans to increase that number to 5,000 by years end. Previously the sale of alcohol and other spirits made up 10% of Walgreens total sales, indicating a likely increase in sales this year. Other drugstores such as CVS and Rite Aid have continually sold alcohol. It is available in 4,300 (61.4%) of CVS stores and 28 of the 31 states Rite Aid operates.

CVS to Exclude Walgreens from Retail Pharmacy Network

CVS Caremark has stated it will end their retail pharmacy partnership with Walgreens in roughly 30 days. This occurred in response to Walgreens announcement that it will no longer participate in new CVS managed prescription drug plans. Thus, the pharmacy networks of the two will become mutually exclusive forcing customers to one or the other. This certainly heightens the competition for customers between the two and could increase marketing to that effect.

Looking at the situation from an investor’s standpoint, the first two changes are certainly positive. CVS expanding their food section is in line with a nascent trend of frugality and “back to basics” purchase behavior. Walgreens on the other hand is opening itself up to the conclusively popular trade in alcohol which should only benefit their store revenues. The only trend which could be perceived as worrisome is the segregation of prescription customers. Forcing an exclusive choice could lead to higher costs to maintain and attract new customers. However, such fears maybe overblown. A little competition never hurt anyone.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Are Cap Rates Going Down?

A recent article by M.P. McQueen in the Wall Street Journal stated that cap rates for investment grade triple net lease properties were falling. Specifically it said “in recent months, cap rates have been falling because property prices nationally are rebounding. More investors are going after fewer high-quality properties, driving prices up.” In order to gain a wider perspective on this topic, we asked two industry experts, who have capital available and are active in the market, their opinions on cap rate trends today and by years end.

Here are their responses:

Jon Adamo, National Retail Properties.

I would agree that over the last few months we’ve seen a decrease in cap rates of higher quality net lease investments in the range of 25 to 50bps from pricing we experienced in 2009. There’s definitely a supply and demand issue at the root of the adjustment along with an improvement in the ability of buyers to get the better tenants/deals financed. The scarcity of new deals hitting the market will continue to keep cap rates low for the remainder of the year and may cause them to go even a little lower but not significantly.
The cost of financing is still very much a factor for many deals and although banks are doing very safe deals at very safe rates and terms they have certainly not opened their doors all the way.

If you look out past the next 6 months and into the next year I think caps will be moving up with rising interest rates. I also see more product reaching the market as developers begin to reemerge and M&A activity picks up thus producing some sale-leaseback opportunities for buyers that might look to dispose of some assets. For now it seems there’s a glut of capital for good Walgreens and McDonald’s-type NNN investments and not enough to go around putting stress on cap rates but higher rates and lower ltv’s of the new financing “norm” will cause the cap rates to rise eventually.

George Rerat, Senior Vice President of Acquisitions, AEI Fund Management, Inc.

We’ve seen cap rates for high quality NNN properties decrease from around 9.5% to 9.0% today. This drop is a reflection of the dwindling supply of high quality NNN properties on the market. Construction has been at a relative standstill and as such the pool of these assets has been shrinking, forcing cap rates down. By years end we could possibly see cap rates drop by another 50 basis points. Furthermore, it may take a while for construction to pick up again, prolonging the supply imbalance for the next 1-2 years.

So the question becomes whether or not the window is still open, as supply continues to constrict and the laws of economics take hold.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Springtime for Retail, Sale Leasebacks, and Urban Investments

As spring unfolds, key areas of the net lease market such as retail, sale leasebacks and urban investments seem set to grow. Numbers and analysis from the first quarter of 2010 point to better days and more opportunities ahead.


As of March 2010 consumer spending has increased over the past five months and retail sales have risen the past four. Retail sales in the first quarter 2010 are up 1.9% over the previous quarter and up 5% compared to the same period last year. Retail transaction volume totaled $3.1 billion for the 1Q 2010, which is a steady improvement from $2.2 billion in the same period last year. Furthermore, according to a major commercial real estate magazine “investors are showing strong interest in well-stabilized retail properties that generate consistent cash flows”. This description fits perfectly with net lease investments, which are defined by their stability.

Sale Leasebacks

It has been estimated that there is at least $1 billion in corporate owned essential real estate and according to RW Baird “strong corporate demand for sale-leaseback transactions”. If only a fraction of this $1 trillion were to enter the market, it would be a huge boon for net leases. Sale-leasebacks, which are almost always structured as net leases, offer corporations a chance to pull vital equity out of their real estate and enhance current operations. The real estate is sold and a long term lease is signed which leases back the property. Sale leasebacks have already provided the basis for many net lease transactions in the last two years and that trend looks to continue to pick up steam.

Urban Investments

There has been a lot of talk about the upward trend in urban investments. Walgreens purchased Duane Reade and their 258 New York metro area locations for $1 billion and those leases have been recently valued at $74 million. The German group, GLL Real Estate Partners also entered the urban market by purchasing 14,000 sq. ft. of New York retail condominiums from Hines. The urban market is one the most attractive today because it ensures a properties close proximity to large populations. As a result, net lease urban properties have increasingly been in demand.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Walgreens Goes Urban With Duane Reade

Walgreens recently closed the purchase of Duane Reade, a deal which included “all 258 Duane Reade stores in the New York City metropolitan area, as well as Duane Reade’s corporate office at 440 Ninth Ave. and two distribution centers”. The transaction was all-cash and involved the absorption of $457 million in debt. This bolsters Walgreens already impressive presence in the drugstore/pharmacy market, adding a prominent urban chain and presenting new opportunities for net lease investors.

Duane Reed, which had struggled under debt and in July 2009 was downgraded to CCC+ by S&P, will certainly become more appealing now that it’s helmed by A+ rated Walgreens. In addition Walgreens has “agreed to repay or redeem Duane Reade’s outstanding debt related to the local chain’s July 2003 credit agreement, its 9.75% senior subordinated notes due 2011, its 11.75% senior secured notes due 2015, and its senior convertible notes due 2022.” The looming question is whether Walgreens will back Duane Reade leases or if they will be allowed to stand alone. If Walgreens does agree to back the leases, a high investment grade product would be added to the net lease market, if not, the asset will at lease become more attractive under the Walgreens flag.

This transaction also represents a great expansion into one the largest urban areas in the country by Walgreens. Duane Reade is centered in the New York metropolitan area and this purchase shows Walgreen’s desire to enter the urban market with force. This situation deserves close monitoring by those who are considering a net lease asset or have interest in investing in the surging urban market.