[This letter was originally published for Fundrise investors on 5/7/2020. As the global economic situation continues to evolve, we will adapt our investment strategies accordingly and provide additional insights like this one as we see opportunities to do so.]

Key takeaways

  • As has generally occurred in past recessions, we expect that attractive opportunistic investments will begin to present themselves, but this is likely to take time, so patience will be key.
  • In the immediate term, the investment plans will primarily be allocated to newly launched funds so that we are able to proactively pursue investment strategies that take into full consideration the impacts of the current downturn.
  • Generally, we expect there to be three broad phases of our investment strategy over the next 12 to 18 months:
Objective Target investments
Phase I Maximize near term flexibility Public markets and structured debt
Phase II Maintain stability and increase yield Distressed debt and private market rescue/bridge loans
Phase III Capitalize on opportunities for higher potential return Undervalued properties that we intend to hold long-term

Although the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the broader economy remains highly uncertain, we continue to believe that the potential for a deeper and more prolonged recession is much greater than the stock market and its many commentators appear to be anticipating at this time.

While the primary “peak” of new cases in the country may be behind us (and therefore the nationwide shutdown may slowly begin to ease in certain areas), the risk of an ongoing series of localized outbreaks that result in a second wave or even a steady build up of new cases seems highly probable. These outbreaks will likely require further shutdowns which in turn (even if they are limited) will put broadly sustained downward pressure on the economy.

Governments can allow business to reopen, but they cannot force fearful consumers to leave their homes and start spending again. High unemployment, beleaguered business, and real health dangers may dampen any pent-up demand that exists, making it difficult for the recovery to take hold.

Additionally, bills have continued to pile up, in spite of the fact that much of the country has been in suspended animation for the last six weeks. Notwithstanding various government stimulus programs, most businesses that have been forced to temporarily close still have had to carry some payroll and healthcare costs. They may have delayed paying their mortgage, rent, insurance, utilities, and local taxes but those expenses have not been forgiven and more than likely they also have outstanding payments to their vendors. When the economic clock starts up again, all those accumulated bills will come due and many businesses will not be able to pay them.

The market is a complex chain of relationships. One company’s expense is another company’s revenue. So, if customers are afraid to go out and spend, restaurants and retailers won’t earn enough to pay their suppliers and landlords. And if suppliers are left with unpaid orders, they won’t be able to make payroll. And if tenants can’t afford to pay their rent, landlords won’t be able to make their debt service payments to the bank. And if banks are afraid that their borrowers won’t make their loan payments, they will begin to stop extending credit — the very thing every other business needs to get back up and running.

The negative impacts of such a downward spiral are numerous and while the current disruption in the market will inevitably lead to new investment opportunities, we feel that we are still early in this process and now is a time for caution.

Real estate markets move slowly (typically lagging the public stock market), so we believe that it will take several months for the downstream effects of the pandemic and subsequent response to fully work their way into our corner of the economy. The Great Recession, for example, lasted 18 months, and many of the best buying opportunities in the real estate market didn’t open up until 12 to 24 months after it began. Meanwhile, it’s barely been 60 days since the current downturn started.

At this point, we feel the smartest thing we can do for our investors is to begin putting ourselves in the position to act on these opportunities once they do start to arise. This means both continuing to build up a larger cash reserve across the portfolio (which today totals nearly $200 million in cash across all active funds) and establishing ourselves as a ready and willing buyer within the channels of brokers and agents that act as a conduit to future deal flow.

Ultimately, the benefit of having been more conservative up to this point in the cycle combined with our willingness to be patient should afford us better opportunities to acquire those assets that we believe will generate outsized returns over the long term as a result of the more permanent structural changes to behavior that emerge from the pandemic.

Below we walk through our specific investment strategy in more detail, which we’ve broken into three relative phases.

(Keep in mind that the following represents what we believe to be appropriate given what we know today. It’s also important to note that rather than occur in strict succession, there is likely to be some overlap and that, depending on future circumstances, we may deviate from this strategy significantly.)

Expected phases of investment strategy

Phase I: Maximize near term flexibility

Target investments: liquid and structured debt markets

In most financial crises, the first major asset class to experience disruption is credit markets. This is due to the fact that credit is by far the largest asset class and is simultaneously exposed to both long-term economic risk and overnight margin requirements. A long bull market, like the record-setting one that ended in February, encourages a false sense of security. As we indicated in our 2019 year-end letter to investors, the Fed, in its “lower for longer” accommodative monetary policy, effectively signaled to many market participants a green light to take on more risk. Gradually, but ever increasingly, investors borrowed short to lend long. And when the paradigm suddenly and unexpectedly shifted from optimism to fear, institutions called in their lines and demanded paydowns, triggering the start of a vicious doom loop of forced selling and sharp price declines.

For those who don’t make a living trading in them (i.e., nearly everyone), credit markets can often seem completely out of sync with the real world because they trade on the expectations of what the often distant future will bring. They therefore tend to collapse before any real materially adverse changes take place in the economy, and then seemingly rebound even amid mounting job losses, reduced earnings, or even bankruptcies.

For this reason, they can be both a bellwether for the future as well as one of the first places where opportunities to find value emerge.

While we’ve long believed that the general stock market was overvalued and due for a correction, we believe that for certain assets, such as high-quality credit, the recent collapse in pricing was driven more by a lack of liquidity than by weakness in the underlying fundamentals. In some instances, spreads for high grade borrowers have blown out by hundreds of basis points while the underlying assets remain more or less stable. Although spreads have begun to normalize as liquidity returns, we believe there is an interim opportunity to deploy a portion of our existing cash reserves from now near-zero yielding money markets into specific, more liquid securities such as REIT bonds (i.e., loans to public real estate companies), where we have a deep understanding of the underlying assets securing the debt due to managing and operating very similar properties ourselves.

Today, some of these REIT bonds, with effective LTVs of approximately 40 – 60%, are pricing at +200 basis point spreads above US Treasuries (a basis point equals 1/100th of a percent, so the aforementioned bonds are trading at a price that yields a 2% premium to a US Treasury note). By comparison, the same bond was trading at a +50 basis point spread only a few months earlier. We believe these bonds, with their increased spreads, represent a prudent interim investment today that will generate yields superior to money market funds (which now only pay about 25 basis points) while still providing near term flexibility for when we determine it is appropriate to shift into more illiquid, opportunistic acquisitions.

Phase II: Maintain midterm stability while seeking increased yield

Target investments: distressed debt and private market bridge / rescue loans

As the shock of the abrupt shutdown continues to reverberate through the economy, we expect that some of the first real estate assets to be impacted will be projects that are midway through development. This could include properties that are still in the process of completing their entitlements, or even buildings that are under construction. Either way, the combined impact of the shutdown of non-essential businesses with the rapid change in the commercial lending environment is likely to produce a cohort of projects that are behind schedule and in need of additional funds to reach completion.

In certain cases, these projects may not have inherent flaws or weaknesses, but are simply the victims of poor timing and circumstances changing beneath them. Even experienced developers will often only capitalize a new development with a 10% contingency for timing delays and cost overruns, leaving little room for the unexpected. Many of these projects will need short-term additional funding in order to ensure they are able to deliver. Due to the existential nature of not completing a development — a half-finished building isn’t worth much — the value of these additional funds tends to be extremely high. While the most likely source of additional funding should be capital calls from existing equity investors, some of those equity investors may be unwilling or unable to step up to the plate. In which case, the sponsor would then need to look to external sources to rescue the project and “bridge” it to completion.

In these instances, the combination of substantial cash reserves, along with our experience as an operator and investor in similar projects, should put us in a compelling position to recapitalize select projects that we believe have the strongest fundamentals. Since the liquidity provided by our cash reserves tends to be scarce during times like this, we’d expect to be able to invest at a lower basis and a higher return than we would have been able to only a few months earlier.

Phase III: Capitalize on opportunities for higher potential return

Target investments: Direct ownership of undervalued properties that fit long-term macroeconomic trends

Capitalizing on opportunities for the direct acquisition of assets whose prices have come down substantially below where they were trading previously will have the longest lead time. This is primarily due to the fact that in most instances, unless an existing owner is in a truly distressed situation, they are unlikely to sell an asset for substantially less than what they had expected to receive before the downturn. In other words, external events must force a sale.

In this case, distress would likely come from owners who overleveraged the asset itself or have overextended themselves as the sponsorship-ownership group.

To understand the natural lag in starting to see these opportunities, take for example the hypothetical owner of a retail shopping center in today’s environment.

  1. Due to the shutdown, most if not all of the tenants in the center are closed, or at minimum providing delivery-only services. Few are generating enough revenue to afford to pay their rent and the owner is probably willing — if not required in certain states — to extend several months of rent relief to the tenants.
  2. It may be 3+ months before all the tenants are able to fully reopen for business. And once they do, it’s unclear if many will actually be able to survive after having drained much of their cash reserves, and with customers potentially choosing to continue to do a majority of their shopping online.
  3. During what may be a painful 6 to 12 month period, as stores close and income from the property deteriorates, the owner will struggle to cover their debt service payments to their lender.
  4. After a series of short-term extensions and potentially even last-ditch capital infusions from the owner in an attempt to stabilize the property, they may finally determine that their best option is either to sell the asset at a substantial discount to their basis, or simply give the asset back to the lender in foreclosure.

In summary, even for assets such as failing retail shopping centers that are likely to experience the most immediate and substantial negative impact, it would take 12 months or more before an asset actually changes hands at a distressed price.

Much like Warren Buffet, we believe it is better to buy great real estate at a good price than bad real estate at a great price. So, we will focus our efforts on those assets that we believe have the strongest fundamentals and long-term growth drivers.

What does this mean for investors’ portfolios?

In the immediate term, the investment plans will primarily be allocated to newly launched funds so that we are able to proactively pursue the aforementioned investment strategies that fully take into consideration the impacts of the COVID-19 downturn, as well as the natural timing of private real estate markets. While having a blank slate from which to invest provides the flexibility necessary to execute on these strategies, it also means that these new dollars invested through the plans will be going into funds with only a limited number of assets for some period of time.

In addition, the relative variation between our income and growth focused plans is likely to be less pronounced while, during Phase I & II, we seek to deploy into those assets that provide investors with the greatest stability and flexibility. As we eventually move into Phase III, we’d expect the plans to begin to diverge more as the income funds would likely continue to hold some of the longer-term income focused assets while the growth funds would likely allocate out of short term, liquid assets to acquire potentially undervalued or distressed assets that may have very little yield during the period required to fix or rebuild the asset but that have much higher potential returns should that work prove accretive.

While investing with Fundrise has and will always be a long-term proposition (something we’ve written about many times), we expect the current environment to require an even greater level of patience from us if we are to fully capture the opportunity created by the moment.

Fortunately, because of the strength and size of our overall portfolio, as well as our ability to deploy into certain types of institutional grade public and private market assets, we believe we will be able to deliver for our investors a strategy that otherwise would not be available to them as individuals.

As always, our unique advantage comes from our 130K strong investor community and the ability for that collective force to come together to direct action for the benefit of the whole.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to investments@fundrise.com with any questions or comments.