Mall Tour 2017

June 25, 2017 7:19 PM


For the past few years, most retailers have struggled. Of course, it’s easy to blame Amazon.com, but it is only one of many causes. At the same time, for us hedgies living in major cities with luxury malls, there is confusion about the problem itself—my mall is crowded and people are shopping. After having debated with friends endlessly on what the real root of the problem is, I decided it was time to actually go investigate. Every city has its own story and the local mall is the nexus of that story. In my mind, the only way to get real answers was a 4-day, 1,500 mile meandering road-trip through the lower mid-west, where we planned to hit as many malls and take as many meetings with facility managers and brokers as we could organize along the way. Besides, when an asset class like mall real estate is down 90% in a few years’ time, a different viewpoint can create huge upside.

The overriding question was: is retail suffering because of Amazon.com cannibalizing store-fronts or are rising health care costs, with stagnant wage growth, what’s really cannibalizing disposable spending power in middle-America? Is shopping still America’s pastime or do we prefer food and “experiences” instead? Every industry evolves. Why hasn’t the mall changed in the past three decades—it’s still the same cinema, crappy food court and undifferentiated retailers that I knew when I was a teen—where’s the fun in that? Other countries are perfecting “shoppertainment,” why hasn’t America? In summary, what is the real issue with retail?

malls 2

When you scroll through http://deadmalls.com there is a certain eeriness about a million square feet of empty space. However, the images don’t, in any way, prepare you for an almost-dead mall on its last gasps. As we wandered one facility with the head of leasing, we could look straight ahead at a thousand feet of almost vacant space, dimly lit from sky-lights as none of the lighting fixtures still worked—the air conditioner had long ago failed and it was 95 degrees inside this mall. However, there was one light that drew us forward. As we approached, we heard music and sure enough, it was the Victoria’s Secret that time forgot (corporate probably forgot it too). In a mall with only 7 tenants and even fewer shoppers, Victoria’s Secret was still jamming out. No customers, but 2 girls tending shop, blasting music and throwing light into a dark hallway.

As we rounded another corner, we heard the unmistakable sound of a Zumba Class at 100 decibels. As we drew nearer, we saw the first mall visitors in almost an hour—what looked like an instructor with a half dozen middle-aged women trying to do exercises that they were hopelessly unfit to accomplish.

I turned to the leasing agent;

Me: Any idea how much they pay in rent?

Him: Actually, I think they’re squatting in here. I don’t show any record of them being a tenant.

Me: Is anyone going to make them pay rent?

Him: Why bother, at least it brings people to the mall...

empty malls

With no security or cleaning staff, who's watering the plants?

 

All of this segwayed into the meeting with the leasing agent afterwards.

Me: Can I meet the facility manager when we’re done chatting?

Him: Funny story; actually, she quit a few months back. Unfortunately, the owner only told me last week that I am now in charge of managing this mall. I’m doing my best, but I live an hour away, so I can only come here a few times a week.

Me: So who’s been locking up at the end of the day lately?

Him: Hmmm…. Honestly, I’m not sure. That’s a pretty good question.

Me: Would anyone notice if they never locked the doors?

Him: Probably not…

Of course, you cannot quite put this into context until you realize that I was sitting there in a nearly pitch black food court, in 95 degree heat, with only a beam of light from the sky-light above to guide the conversation—yet despite the odds, one vendor still remained at the food court—ironically it was the sushi place.

mall gumballs

I wonder what decade these gumballs are from?? I didn't know they could turn brown.

 

While the tour was entertaining, what I really wanted to know was; why did this place, surrounded by a thriving community somehow fail? This is where the story actually deviates from the usual narrative.

This mall was in a community of about 100,000 people. A decade ago, this had been a thriving mall. Then, a new major highway was placed about 5 miles west of the mall, which diverted regional traffic away from the mall. Even worse, a massive open air retailing complex was built alongside the new highway, siphoning shoppers from the mall. In a town that was big enough to support one large shopping complex, the newer one with better access from the highway had ultimately won out. However, this mall was still muddling forward with a handful of national tenants who hadn’t quite thrown in the towel, despite no lighting, air conditioning or adult supervision at the mall. It lead to a real epiphany; malls die a slow strange death—not the cataclysmic collapse depicted by most analysts.

empty malls 3

We saw a similar situation on the following day at another mall about 100 miles away. In this situation, a new retailing facility had been built closer to the local university to compete with the mall. This facility had stolen a number of the key tenants from the mall. At the time, it looked like this mall would also surrender to the newer facility in the better location. Instead, the mall was sold to new owners who; injected substantial capital to remodel the mall, offered discounted rent to retain existing tenants and had put up a fight to the death with the newer facility. Now, nearly a decade later, neither facility was full and both were desperately fighting it out for the minds of tenants and shoppers in a winner-take-all battle, a veritable retailing Battle of Verdun in the north of Texas—where even the winner will be a loser for having spent so much capital to win the booby prize of top retail destination in a town of about 125,000 people. Even worse, with no clear winner, new retailing concepts were hesitant to guess wrong in their expansion plans and simply chose to pass this town by when expanding—further sapping the strength of both facilities.

In fact, we continued to see similar stories as we ventured north. Retail may not be dead; instead there may simply be too much retail (both property and competing concepts) fighting it out for too few customers. This is further compounded by too much cheap capital developing more retail as a result of ultra-low interest rates. Naturally, there will be losers in this process—in fact; the losses have only just begun. There will also be huge winners.

To Be Continued…

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Amazing Tequila (Part II)

May 10, 2017 7:57 PM


I tend to travel a lot. No matter where I am, I try the local beer. If I like it, I often seek out the local brewer. You’d be amazed at how often you can get a brewery tour—at pretty much any hour of the day—any day of the week. If the owner or head brewer is proud of what he’s producing, he’s going to want to show it off and then share plenty of it with you afterwards.

Apparently, the same rules apply with Tequila and my new friend Guillermo Erickson Sauza, from Fortaleza Tequila was more than willing to share. The Sauza family has been producing tequila for 5 generations and it shows. However, I wasn’t interested in exploring the eponymous industrial scale production facility which was sold by the Sauza family in 1976. Instead, I wanted to see the artisanal Fortaleza facility, where tequila is still made in the traditional way.

With that in mind, here’s a crash course in Tequila making;

agave field

 

You start by harvesting the agave from the fields. Note the town of Tequila in the distance.

 

tequila pinas

 

The leaves of the agave plant are removed so that all that remains is the fleshy stem (pina) that has the maximum quantity of sugar.

 

tequila 1

Then, processing starts. The pina is slowly baked in an oven to break down the complex sugars into simpler fructose. The pinas are then mashed (see the millstone in the back of the collection tank). Using water, the fructose is washed out of the fibrous plant material through hard work resulting in an agave juice. (Notice how small the facility is).

 

tequila 2

After the fiber has been thoroughly washed of sugars, it is left on a rack to allow all the agave juice to drip back into the collection tank. Machines can accomplish the same task in much less time, but you end up with overwashed material and unwanted flavors.

tequila fermentation

The extracted agave juice is then fermented into a wort or mosto with low alcohol content.

fermentation foam

The foam on top means it's working!!

distillation

After it has been fermented, it is distilled.

aging

At this stage, silver tequila can be bottled directly and tequila destined to become reposado or anejo is pumped into casks to age.

tequila fortaleza

Here is the finished product. Having drunk my way westwards across Mexico for nearly three weeks, I can say that this is the finest tequila I've had. Clearly, others agree as it continues to win all the tequila awards. Unfortunately, all the stores in Miami are sold out--trust me, I've been calling around.

Let's just say that Guillermo has it all figured out and it sounds like his annual sales growth is off the charts. This is the sort of business that I would be interested in owning part of--too bad he doesn't need any capital for his growth. He already has it all; a few dozen hectares of agave fields, a massive estate on a hill overlooking his fields, his own tequila production facility and a tequila cave bar for escaping the heat of a Mexican afternoon.

guillermo

Guillermo sitting to the right, watching the preparations for our afternoon drinks.

 

Premium tequila has minimal penetration into the US and sales are growing nearly 50% a year. Clearly there's an opportunity for me here. Unfortunately, the hunt for the right opportunity goes on...

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Amazing Tequila (Part I)

May 8, 2017 11:48 PM


For most of my life, tequila was something I gagged on at 4am, because some asshole thought it would be “fun to do shots.” Yet, throughout my many recent trips to Mexico, I experienced faint hints of what quality tequila tasted like. I quickly learned to avoid the mass produced commercial product out there and instead sampled small batch brands—often led forward by those who claimed to be experts in the craft. I liked what I tried, but I knew that nothing would do justice except a proper education in Tequila itself. As I was already organizing a Mexican road-trip with friends, I figured, we all might as well go 500km out of the way and explore both tequilas—the city and the libation. Besides, with overall US tequila consumption growing 10% a year and premium consumption growing nearly 50% a year, maybe there was an angle for a bunch of drunken portfolio managers to explore.

Tequila itself is unique, as it is one of the very few alcohols to take the name of the city it is produced in, instead of a region. After many a fraternity night essentially doused in the stuff, I assumed that the city would be set up for drunken tourism—a Bourbon street in the highlands of Mexico. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I was expecting. There are some tourist accoutrements, but in reality, this is a sleepy sixteenth century village of about 25,000 people—most of whom are in some way or another, tied to the tequila industry. Then again, given how remote the city is, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the tourists making the journey are true tequila aficionados—not the rowdy fraternity boys I expected to find.

downtown tequila

The leisurely town square in Tequila

 

After a leisurely lunch, we made our way to La Cata, Tequila’s best (and only) tasting room to get educated by a true expert, Clayton Szczech. While I can describe the dozens of varieties we sampled, that won’t do justice to the unique flavors—besides, by glass number 5, I sort of lost track of what I was drinking. What I do remember is our talk about the tequila industry itself.

Tequila comes from blue agave plants, primarily from the state of Jalisco and a handful of surrounding areas (the appellation). Production from other regions is considered mezcal. This limited growing region has created unique problems for producers. To start with, the plant takes 7-10 years to mature and will rot if not harvested at maturity. Since only the inner stem is used, it must be replanted after harvest and the wait until harvest begins again. With demand growing rapidly, this has led to perpetual cycles of boom and bust—just imagine how hard it is to predict demand for a product a decade into the future. Meanwhile, the cycles can last for many years due to the time it takes for a crop to mature. When we arrived in Tequila, the price, at 13 pesos per kilo was on the upswing—having been at half a peso per kilo just a few years earlier. Then again, that bust was epic and caused by a peak price of nearly 40 pesos per kilo (adjusted for exchange rates) back in 2000.

tequila truck

Truck full of agave waiting to unload

 

In all commodities, the cure for high prices is high prices. In the early 2000’s, farmers raced to plant agave, dreaming of heady profits, only to have most of their agave rot on their fields around 2010 since the glut was so extreme that it didn’t even pay to harvest it. That experience even led farmers to tear up their young plants and now there is a growing shortage again. The magnitude of this boom and bust cycle is unique for an agricultural commodity. If wheat doubles, that’s a huge move. Agave is up nearly 25-fold in 3 years and no one expects the price to pull back until larger crops can be harvested around 2020. Agave has had an epic move. Who needs futures or leverage, if you can capture those sorts of moves with physical offtake agreements? In a country with high interest rates and a lack of access to capital, I’m sure there is a business here. As everyone attested, the big guys are calling the shots and screwing the farmers who need access to capital.

The big distillers have the luxury to use grower loans to lock in supply when it’s cheap. Alternatively, they can store semi-processed product for years in order to smooth out these cycles when the price is high—buying agave when it’s cheap and storing it by the millions of gallons for when the price appreciates. Of course, that’s why most of the tequila you drink tastes like diesel—it wasn’t meant to be stored semi-processed. To a bunch of hedgies, this sounds like a system that is ripe to be disrupted—fortunately, we all scheme best when inebriated…

la cata

La Cata Tequila Wall

 

As we went through La Cata's wall of tequila, another recurring question was; how do these brands intend to differentiate themselves in the market? Unlike the whiskey bars now popping up everywhere, there aren’t a lot of tequila bars in the US for sampling all the brands out there. Americans often have to buy a full bottle to try it—hence the tequila sales effort is focused on the bottle design—unlike with whiskey. We saw some real works of art—much of it hand-blown. Interestingly, while a lot of well-known global brands will tell you that they’re “super-premium,” once you try the good stuff, you realize that there is still plenty of room globally for a super-premium brand of tequila—the true high ground hasn’t yet been claimed. Unfortunately, grubstaking a young brand is too much like venture capital. While established liquor brands have insane returns on capital, most start-ups fail to be noticed and ultimately go bust. This was a business that we would leave to someone else.

After a week on a bus full of hedgies, the conversation naturally turned back to the usual talk of which industries are due to be disrupted, which companies we should target for activist campaigns and which of our friends has had a big score lately. We sipped a few more glasses of tequila and continued to think out an angle on the rapidly growing tequila industry.

Unfortunately, all that drinking got us hungry and we weren’t going to bed without some quality street tacos.

 

taco guy

If you are ever in Tequila, seek this hombre out. He's mastered the taco craft.

sacha with dog

RBC Portfolio Manager Sacha Imbert devouring tacos. Even the local dogs were amazed.

 

To be continued….

 

 

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Real de Catorce and Onto 2017...

January 4, 2017 5:45 PM


While I was in Mexico, December the 12th was the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. If you want to learn more about the holiday, go to Wikipedia, but the key takeaway for me, was that Mexico effectively shuts down for a few days. That’s all fine and good, because despite multiple trips to Mexico, there was one thing that I’d never been able to do—visit Real de Catorce. Furthermore, I knew that I’d need a few days—as it’s not exactly close to anything else.

At one time, Real de Catorce was one of Mexico’s richest silver producing cities, with some veins producing ore that was nearly half silver—for comparison, a few ounces per ton is considered pretty good today. Of course this led to an epic mining boom and over two centuries, they built a lot of mining infrastructure, some opulent homes, a mint and two large churches (as this is Mexico). However, you cannot really appreciate the city and how lucrative it must have been to get the silver out, until you realize that it’s situated in a valley at almost 9,000 feet, surrounded by desert and hundreds of kilometers from other large cities. Just to get supplies into the town, they had to dig a two kilometer tunnel after winding dozens of terrifying miles on a cobblestone road from the desert floor. Before the tunnel was built, you took your chances on one of many roads leading up over the mountains towering above Real de Catorce before descending into town. Let’s just say that I was terrified to ride a horse on one of these roads as one false step would send us both tumbling thousands of feet below. Imagine doing this with a wagon full of supplies.

Real de Catorce 1

1 lane tunnel that alternates between entry and exit all day long to get in or out

 

In any case, its remoteness preserved it when political instability shuttered the mines around 1910. The city's population dropped from over 15,000 people to a few dozen hardcore residents. While time and vandalism have done their damage, much of the original city remains—if in a degraded form. Recently, its picturesque setting and unique history have led to something of a recovery as the backpacker set has “discovered” Real de Catorce. Once tourists start spending money, you can be sure that they’ll “restore” the old buildings, start selling kitschy nick-knacks and "Disney" the place up to the point where I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. Places like Real de Catorce are rapidly being commercialized and I knew that I either went now, or missed the chance forever. Despite a day of driving in each direction, it was well worth it and I highly recommend going—for that matter, I recommend doing all the things that you want to before you can’t.

As we enter 2017, my New Year’s resolution once again is to do all that I want to do, see all that I want to see and find ways to insert myself into lucrative investment situations based on my willingness to go anywhere, think differently and figure things out before the masses.

For that matter, if you’re looking for a good investment, you should buy property on the main street of Real de Catorce, because...

Real de catorce 2

...is becoming....

real de catorce 3

 

May 2017 bring continued opportunity and adventure to all of us,

Kuppy

real 4

Real de Catorce main street

 

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The Woodstock Of Crony Capitalism

April 28, 2016 9:01 PM


It’s been a while since I've attended the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK:NYSE) annual meeting. Between the tedium of little kids asking questions about how to live life, to the feel-good nature of the thing, I simply got repulsed. Why do a bunch of hard-nosed capitalists choose to act like Ned Flanders for a weekend—in Omaha of all places? It’s illogical and completely artificial.

BH

Then, a few weeks back, as friends asked if I was attending this year, I had a certain realization—all this play-acting is simply Buffett, the puppet-master at his most brilliant. As he plows capital into highly regulated industries, he has the upper hand because he has skillfully crafted the image of the Mid-Western grandfather that can do no wrong. He can cozy up to regulators and politicians and get what he wants—without the added costs and distractions of lobbyists and consultants. Who wouldn’t want to get their permits in half the time and with a fraction of the cost? Want to block a Canadian pipe-line that would compete with your cherished rail-road? Become the President’s “economic advisor.” Want to abuse tax loopholes? Bemoan that your secretary pays a higher tax rate than you. You want to obstruct solar energy in Nevada? Elon Musk is a foreigner, Omaha is as American as it gets. Your railroad has an atrocious safety record? Well, at least we don’t have to worry about global warming from that pipeline...

I can go on and on, but I went from disgusted to awestruck. In this horribly overregulated world of ours, Buffett has evolved into the apex predator. Why wouldn’t he? Over his career, he’s consistently gone where the opportunities were. He’s gone from investing in “cigar-butts” when few other investors knew how to look for companies trading for less than cash, to branded products with pricing power that could thrive during the increasing inflation of the 70’s and early 80’s to a diversified book of high return on capital businesses during the great bull market that began in 1982. Over this time, he realized that he could leverage his bets with an insurance business that not only gave him access to cheap capital, but removed the headaches associated with bond maturities and margin calls.

Over the past fifteen years, the US has undergone a massive increase in pernicious regulation. Therefore, it seems only natural that opportunities would exist in the most regulated sectors of the economy. If you can get your permits and deny those permits to others, if you can avoid environmentalists and NIMBYs, if you can dodge taxes, if you can charm the cliques in Washington, you have an opportunity to earn outsized profits—especially if you have an endless fire-hose of cheap insurance float to deploy.

crony 2

Crony capitalism is highly lucrative and as a Berkshire shareholder, I’ve reaped the rewards. Now, I once again want to sit at the feet of the master. How do you make people like you to the point that they give you a free pass on whatever you want? When you call up a regulator, do you even talk about the issues? Or do you talk about your Ukulele skills and Omaha little league? You have to admire what he’s accomplished and I will be there to watch him amuse the petite bourgeoisie. I see a world that continues to become more regulated—where a cloistered elite uses special interest groups to crush opponents and destroy businesses. Either you’re calling the shots, or you’re getting abused like a peasant.

The Koch Brothers spend hundreds of millions on elections. Soros spends similarly on fringe groups that break windows and overturn cars. Neither really accomplishes his goals. Buffett gets what he wants. In Davos, they chug bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and plot how to pillage small nations. At Berkshire, we will eat Dilly bars and plot how to pillage the middle class. Capitalism is beautiful and crony capitalism is the end product of politicians who prostitute the laws. I don’t have the power to change the current rules, but I can certainly learn to thrive within them.

This is a long-winded way of saying that after a few years of sitting out the meeting, I’ll be there. If you want to grab a drink, email me and I’ll tell you where I am. Beer with friends is fun—free beer at someone else’s party is the true definition of value investing.

 

Disclosure: Long Berkshire Hathaway

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