How a bank could still make money offering negative interest rate mortgages

A bank in Denmark explains how they can make money by offering mortgages with interest rates below zero:

Jyske Bank has had to do a lot of clarifying; there’s a widespread misconception that the bank is actually paying borrowers to take their money. First of all, the bank is not actually paying anyone; it is simply forgiving part of the loan each time a payment is made. A mortgage borrower is likely to end up paying Jyske back a little more than they borrowed, factoring in fees and charges associated with arranging the mortgage loan.

And the bank can afford to do this without losing money because it borrows at negative interest rates as well…

Despite being in “historic remortgaging,” Høegh said the negative interest rates don’t actually make it any easier for home buyers to get a loan, but makes it easier to get a bigger loan – a lower rate means a higher disposable budget.

As long as the borrower is paying more in interest than the mortgage cost the bank, there is money to be made.

I might be showing my ignorance here but it leads to a few more questions:

1. Does this change how much volume in mortgages banks and lenders need to make in order to make money?

2. Would an extended period of such mortgages lead to inflated housing values because people can pay more for homes?

3. These changes might not be so bad in a fairly stable housing market but I wonder if there would be more issues in a high-demand or high-price market.

It looks like we would have a ways to go before negative rate mortgages come to the US but it would be interesting to see what happens if they do come.

Reporting on the return of investment for house flippers

Selling flipped homes is up while the average return on investment for flipping a home is down:

Homes that were resold within 12 months after being purchased made up 7.2 per cent of all transactions in the first quarter, the biggest share since the start of 2010, Attom Data Solutions reported Thursday. Meanwhile, the average return on investment, not including renovations and other expenses, dropped to 39 per cent, an almost eight-year low…

“Investors may be getting out while the getting is good,” Todd Teta, chief product officer at Attom Data Solutions, said in the report. “If investors are seeing profit margins drop, they may be acting now and selling before price increases drop even more.”

Three quick thoughts:

  1. The return on investment for flipping a home is down. Changes in the real estate market mean there are fewer homes with large return potential. I wonder how much of the lack of such homes is due to fewer homes on the market versus sellers getting better at pricing their homes versus multiple kinds of investors driving up prices at the lower price points.
  2. The return of investment of 39% sounds high…until you factor in “renovations and other expenses” which are not part of the figure. So what is the actual average return on investment once factoring in everything? 5%? 15%? This initial figure then helps make sense of the need of flippers to reduce expenses and make cost-effect renovations because those decisions directly connect to profits.
  3. Thinking of the money in house flipping, I have seen little about the accuracy of HGTV shows and other shows that often provide a purchase price, expenses summary, and then give a profit at the end. Are those figures normal? Do they represent unusual housing markets and/or unusual advantages to being part of a TV crew doing house flipping?

Viewing city-to-city trains as public goods and not profit generators

An overview of what expanded Midwest city-to-city train service could look like includes a call to recast the purpose of trains:

Matthews said it is important for Congress to realize that passenger rail offers a public good, just as street lights do. The question is not whether the Southwest Chief makes money, but whether the community makes money because the train is there.

As the thinking about more train service in the Midwest between major cities continues, it will likely take a lot to shift perspectives from making money to providing a public good. If more service is provided, will more people ride it? Of course, it is hard to know what could come of more service until it actually happens. My guess is that we are still a long ways off in the United States from more train service – people still like their cars – and it would be difficult to funnel money from other transportation budgets – such as road maintenance and construction – to trains.

This call for a shift in perspective could serve as a general reminder for all infrastructure projects: focus less on the cost now and think more broadly about what that piece of infrastructure enables. Roads, power lines, water, railroads, and more enable other activities to take place that depend on solid infrastructure.

This also reminds me of sociologist Frank Dobbin’s book Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age. As railroads emerged in the mid-1800s, Dobbin argues France employed a top-down centralized strategy for railroads in the country, Britain had the most laissez-faire approach, and the United States was in the middle with some government support for railroads. While that occurred at the beginning of the railroad age, much of that transportation money in the United States has gone to roads and highways for roughly a century.

If a megaproject proposal doubles the number of onsite affordable housing units in a bid to get approval, doesn’t this mean the profits will be substantial?

The latest proposal for the Lincoln Yards project on Chicago’s north side will now include 600 on-site affordable housing units – 300 more than before:

It will be the largest on-site commitment in the 16-year history of Chicago’s affordable requirements ordinance, according to Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd. Hopkins will join the Chicago developer and affordable housing advocates to announce the revised plan in a news conference Tuesday morning at City Hall…

Sterling Bay wants to build about 15 million square feet of commercial and residential buildings on 54.5 acres of riverfront land along Lincoln Park and Bucktown. That includes 6,000 residential units on the sprawling site between North and Webster avenues…

Under the compromise unveiled Tuesday, Sterling Bay will provide 600 on-site affordable units, while the maximum number of off-site units it will provide within 3 miles decreases to 300, from a previous 600. The Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund payment remains unchanged.

Half of Sterling Bay’s $39 million fee will support construction of about 1,000 affordable units citywide, and the other half will support 15 years of rental subsidies for 130 very low-income families through the Chicago Low Income Housing Trust Fund, according to Hopkins.

Two quick responses:

1. If the developers can offer more onsite units, then Chicago should probably think hard about increasing its requirements. The developer is still very interested in the project even with providing more on-site units.

2. This project must really be projected to turn a nice profit if these last-minute adjustments can be made. Perhaps it is all about negotiating – offer a low figure and then it looks nice if you adjust up – but developers tend to want to get plenty of profit by the end.

On the whole, when these kinds of prime properties come up for development and/or a developer gets a big idea, there could be better ways to ensure there is more affordable housing included in what is eventually built rather than just settling for a relatively low figure. Even with more land devoted to affordable housing and parks, the plans still provides plenty of room for money to be made. Would Sterling Bay be scared off if the affordable housing requirements were higher and, if so, would other developers jump right in to develop such a property?

Dwindling yet still present pay phones

Even as the number of pay phones has dropped dramatically in recent decades, they can still generate money:

In 1999, you could still plunk a coin into one at 2 million phone booths in the United States. Only 5% of those are left today. About a fifth of America’s 100,000 remaining pay phones are in New York, according to the FCC…

But pay phones remain a steady business for some of the 1,100 companies operating them across the country.

Pay phone providers reported $286 million in revenue in 2015, according to the most recent FCC report. They can still be profitable, particularly in places where there isn’t cell phone or landline coverage, said Tom Keane, president of Pacific Telemanagement Services. Keane’s company operates 20,000 pay phones around the country.

Yet, even if pay phones help serve the need for calls in certain circumstances, the article says the future of pay phones is “bleak”:

More low-income Americans, once a steady revenue stream for pay phones, have turned to prepaid phones or receive subsidizes on cellphones through the federal government’s Lifeline program. Ironically, providers contribute to the Lifeline fund on their phone bill taxes.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. What is most intriguing to me here is not that pay phones are dwindling – the rise of smartphones in everyone’s pockets may be just as remarkable – but that there may still be a market for a limited number of pay phones. Is there still a business opportunity in the remaining phones?
  2. Imagine something drastic happens to the cell phone network. How would people communicate over long distances with the decline of pay phones and landlines?
  3. What other features of physical spaces are still around but are also anachronistic like the pay phone? Perhaps the water tower on top of some buildings or the occasional hitching post.
  4. Last thought: it takes some work to have sufficient change to regularly use pay phones. I realized again recently that I rarely make cash purchases and this means I generate a lot less spare change than I did before. If I really needed to use a pay phone, it would take some work to get some change.

Builders to construct “jewel box homes”?

Builders have ways to sell small but high-end homes:

Stumped on what to do about buyers who are looking for a home that comes with a tiny price but a McMansion look and feel? Enter stage right: the jewel box home.

Ranging between 650-2,500 square feet, these are a win for buyers who want something custom but affordable, but they’re also an ideal product for builders looking to diversify and sell a higher-end product across multiple demographics…

It’s just a smaller-than-average single-family home — not a starter home or a tiny house — built with high-quality materials, exquisite detailing and custom finishes with an emphasis on tailoring the home to the owners’ way of life for maximum elegance, harmony and function…

Another key advantage to building jewel box homes: They’re ideal for high-density areas. In some of Weremeichik’s planned communities, he has reached densities up to 9-11 dwelling units per acre.

I suspect this may be a way for builders to avoid the ignominy of constructing oversized single-family homes: they can build (1) homes with all sorts of nice touches that still command high prices and (2) fit even more of these smaller homes onto parcels of land. Of course, there is also the matter of providing the sorts of homes that at least some in the housing market desire. However, are the profits to be made in these smaller homes enough to outweigh what could be made in larger homes or other development projects?

Calculator suggests developers can profit and build affordable housing

The Inclusionary Calculator suggests developers can typically make 10% profits and build 12-15% affordable housing at the same time:

It can feel like a mantra among private developers: Requirements by municipal governments to include affordable units in market-rate housing developments make those developments unprofitable, even unfeasible. It may be one of the most frequently repeated claims about housing in general. Can it possibly be right?

The Inclusionary Calculator is an effort to settle this question—and to prove that one major assumption about affordable housing is a myth. Developed by the Cornerstone Partnership, the tool allows users to simulate the balance sheets for market-rate developments for any number of scenarios. It accounts for factors such as costs of production, financing, affordability set-asides, and parking requirements…

“In almost every case, we could target a 10 percent profit for the developer and still leave at least 12 to 15 percent of the units to be affordable,” McCarthy says…

So, not only does inclusionary zoning not raise the costs of market-rate construction beyond reason, it also does not raise the price of market-rate units for homeowners. It eats away at developer profits. That makes affordable housing a moral question, not a feasibility issue: Do leaders dare to challenge developers on their profit margins?

The Inclusionary Calculator is available here after watching a training video and registering.

This poses a fascinating question in the housing industry (as well as for other sectors of the American economy): just how much profit is enough? Very few people outside the housing industry would have any idea how much money developers and others make on the construction and sale of housing units. Perhaps the process is deliberately opaque or perhaps it is simply complicated. But, I wonder how the public in many communities would respond if they knew that 10% profits were generally possible while also providing affordable housing.

Of course, this is just one hurdle in the construction of affordable housing. Not allowing developers to claim that they can’t make money would help the process but in many communities, neighbors would still complain. A NIMBY response often takes over; who lives in affordable housing? What does this signal to outsiders? Won’t this lower our property values?