Acquiring and Rehabbing a Bank Owned Property

Bank owned properties, also technically known as REO (Real Estate Owned), are today the most profitable and active segment of real estate investing in the United States. They are easy to find, the bank itself advertises them, and they require a relatively short negotiation: between a few days and a couple of weeks at the outside. The negotiation is based only on the capability of the potential buyer to buy cash (the so called proof of fund letter or statement) and on a knowledge of the condition of the property in terms of market location and repairs needed.

Banks today list their properties at prices which are fairly well aligned with the market, so to entice potential home owners who wish to live personally in the house. Gone are the days when they established their selling price based on the remaining loan balance. Today they know how to market competitively and sometimes they even start with a price that is well lower the current market value. If the basic elements are fine: roof in good condition, functional plumbing and electric components and no structural damage, a retail buyer is likely to win against any investor since the home owner is willing to offer much more and he is also ready to put up with the basic repairs that could be needed to make the home fully functional. A broken water heater or A/C unit, new carpet and paint, new windows are usually acceptable for an home owner who can still get the house at a good discount.

The investor has better chances of acquiring a property for a price that is right for him when he deals with homes that require substantial work or that have been on the market for some time. I found that after a couple of months the house has been listed, the bank becomes much more willing to deal with investors. Banks sometimes start a bit too high and don’t accept lower offers for sometime until they discover that nobody is willing to bid anymore. At that time they usually accept a lower offer.

The more rehab work is required on the property, the easier it will be to get a very good price, but this demands closer attention to evaluating the costs and then finding the right contractor that can perform within those costs.

You will find that it is always good to involve two or three contractors as soon as the house is under contract with the bank and before the usual one week inspection period comes to an end. In this way you will be able to walk away from the deal if you discover that you offered too much compared to repairs required and you wil get different ideas and costs for the rehab.

Call the same contractors that you plan to use for the actual rehab and after you chose the one you want for that job, you should do a final walk through of the property detailing what will have to be done and where, putting everything in writing and defining both the scope and the timing of the work as well as the amounts to be paid at the various stages, leaving a substantial quota for the final inspection.

The materials chosen for my rehabs are conceived to make the product interesting for both an American and an European buyer. I therefore try to stay away from carpet whenever I can using laminate or tiles. If the price of the house warrants it, I will put the same type of tiles pretty much every where, making sure I get a very competitive price. The other key aspect to consider is selecting block homes rather than frame homes whenever possible: they are so much easier to sell to an international buyer.

The European Bank for the Retardation of Development

In typical bureaucratese, the pensive EBRD analyst ventures with the appearance of compunction: “A number of projects have fallen short of acceptable standards (notice the passive, exculpating voice – SV) and have put the reputation of the bank at risk”. If so, very little was risked. The outlandish lavishness of its City headquarters, the apotheosis of the inevitable narcissism of its first French Chairman (sliding marble slabs, motion sensitive lighting and designer furniture) – is, at this stage, its only tangible achievement. In the territories of its constituencies and shareholders it is known equally for its logy pomposity, the irrelevance of its projects, its lack of perspicacity and its Kafkaesque procedures. And where the IMF sometimes indulges in oblique malice and corrupt opaqueness, the EBRD wallows merely in avuncular inefficacy. Both are havens of insouciant third rate economists and bankers beyond rating.

Established in 1991, “it exists to foster the transition towards open market oriented economies and to promote private and entrepreneurial initiative in the countries of central and eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) committed to and applying the principles of multiparty democracy, pluralism and market economics. The EBRD seeks to help its 26 countries of operations to implement structural and sectoral economic reforms, promoting competition, privatization and entrepreneurship, taking into account the particular needs of countries at different stages of transition. Through its investments it promotes private sector activity, the strengthening of financial institutions and legal systems, and the development of the infrastructure needed to support the private sector. The Bank applies sound banking and investment principles in all of its operations. In fulfilling its role as a catalyst of change, the Bank encourages co-financing and foreign direct investment from the private and public sectors, helps to mobilize domestic capital, and provides technical co-operation in relevant areas. It works in close co-operation with international financial institutions and other international and national organizations. In all of its activities, the Bank promotes environmentally sound and sustainable development.”

Grandiloquence aside, the EBRD was supposed to foster the formation of the private sector in the revenant wreckage of Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkan, Russia and the New Independent States. This it was mandated to do by providing finance where there was none (“bridging the gaps in the post communist financial system” to quote “The Economist”). Put more intelligibly, it was NOT supposed to transform itself into a long-term investment portfolio with equity holdings in most blue-chips in the region. Yet, this is precisely what it ended up becoming. It avoided project financing like the plague and met the burgeoning capital needs of small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) grudgingly. And it refuses to divest itself of stakes in the best run and most efficiently managed firms from Russia to the Czech Republic. In a way, it competes head on with other investors and commercial banks – often crowding them out with its subsidized financing.

One of its main mistakes, in a depressingly impressive salmagundi, is that it channelled precious resources to this budding sector (SMEs), the dynamo of every economy, through the domestic, decrepit, venal and politically manhandled banking system. The inevitable result was a colossal waste of resources. The money was allocated to sycophantic cronies and sinecured relatives (often one and the same) and to gigantic, state-owned or state-favoured loss makers. Most of it lay idle and yielded to its hosts a hefty income in arbitrage and speculation. As banks went bankrupt, they wiped whole portfolios of EBRD SME funds, theoretically guaranteed by even more bankrupt states.

Thus, the only segments of the private sector to benefit handsomely from the EBRD were lawyers and accountants involved in the umpteen lawsuits the EBRD is mired in. It is a growth industry in “countries” such as Russia. This is the melancholy outcome of indiscriminate, politically-motivated lending and of a lackadaisical performance as both lenders and shareholders. In the spirit of its first chairman, the suave and titivated Attali, the bank is in a constant road show, mortified by the possibility of its dissolution by reason of irrelevance. It aims to impress the West with its grandiose projects, mega investments, fast returns and acquiescence. In thus behaving, it is engaged in a perditionable perfidy of its fiduciary obligations. It lends to criminal managers, winking at their off-shore shenanigans and turning a blind eye to the scapegrace slaughter of minority shareholders. It throws good money after bad, cosies up to oligarchs near and far and engages in creative accounting. Instead of Westernizing the Easterners – it has been Easternized by them. Its sedentary though peregrinating employees are more adept at wining and at dining the high and mighty and at haughtily maundering in the odd, tangential, seminar – than at managing a banking institution or looking after the interests of their nominal shareholders with the tutelary solicitude expected of a bank.

Consider two examples:

MACEDONIA

The nascent private sector is nowhere to be found in the list of projects the EBRD so sagely chose to falter into here. The Electricity and Telecoms monopolies are prime beneficiaries as is the airport. The EBRD is also a passive shareholder in both big universal banks – until recently, conduits of state mismanagement. The SME and Trade Facilitation credit lines were conveniently divvied up among five domestic banks (one went belly up, the managers of two are under criminal investigation and one was sold to a Greek state bank). Despite vigorous protestations to the contrary, none of this money reached its proclaimed entrepreneurial targets. Two loans were made to giant local firms – the natural preserve of commercial lenders and equity investors the world over. The EBRD contributed nothing to the emergence of a management culture, to the development of proper corporate governance, to the safeguarding of property rights and the protection of minority shareholders here. Instead, it colluded in the perpetuation of monopolies, shoddy and shady banking practices, the pertinacious robbery titled “privatization” and the pretence of funding languishing private sector enterprises.

RUSSIA

Its 2 billion US dollars portfolio all but wiped out in the August 1998 financial crisis, the EBRD has now returned with 700 million new Euros to be – conservatively but not more safely – lent in major energy and telecom behemoths.

The historic, pre-1998, portfolio appears impressive. Almost 11 billion US dollars were generated by the EBRD’s less than 4. The bottom line reads 94 projects. Yet, when one neutralizes the infrastructural ones (including the gas and energy sector) – one is left with less than 50% of the amount. Add “infrastructure-like” projects (water transportation and the like) – and less than 30% of the portfolio went to what can be called proper “private sector”. Moreover, even these investments and credits were geared towards traditional and smokestack industries: mining, food processing, pipelines, rubber and such. Not an entrepreneur in sight. And the EBRD’s meagre loan-loss provisions and reserves cast serious doubts regarding the mental state of both its directors and its auditors.

To varying degrees, these two countries are typical. Development banks, like industrial policy, import substitution and poverty reduction, have gone in and out of multilateral fashion several times in the last few decades. But there is a consensus regarding some minimum aims of such bureaucracy-laden establishments – and the EBRD achieves none. It does not encourage entrepreneurship. It does not improve corporate governance. It does not enhance property rights. It does not allocate economic resources efficiently. It competes directly with other – more desirable – financing alternatives. It is not equipped to monitor its vast and inert portfolio. By implication it collaborates in graft, tax evasion and worse. It is a waste of scarce resources badly needed elsewhere. It should be administered a coup de grace. And its marbled abode – so out of touch with the realities of its clients and its balance sheet – should be sold to someone more up to the task. A bank, for instance.

The Richest Federal Reserve Banks Around the Globe

Every nation in this world relies on a banking institution which functions as the sole entity granted the right of lending currency to its government. It is also the only authority in the country responsible for issuing the banknotes and coins which make up the currency of that respective nation. And, one last thing which distinguishes such an institution from a common commercial bank is its role of ‘lender as last resort’ for other banks as well in times of great financial difficulties.

The names by which these banking authorities are known in different parts of the world are central bank, federal reserve or monetary authority. Their primary function is to insure the money supply of a nation, but they can also be invested with supervisory powers acting as a watch dog for financial institutions or banks in order to make sure they do not attempt any reckless or fraudulent behavior. Central banks also handle the foreign exchange and gold and bank reserves a country has.

These monetary organisms usually function as independent entities in most of the rich countries around the world. That means they operate under a code of principles and regulations designed in a way that makes it possible for any political interference to be avoided. Two conclusive examples of such a functioning mechanism are the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve System in the USA.

As mentioned earlier, the main job of a federal or central bank is to keep an eye on the banks’ reserves. These reserves refer to all the holdings the banks have, deposits and currency, and stored within the central bank. But, just like in the case of countries, the federal reserves of a nation can be classified in two categories: the richer and the poorer.

Our interest shall now focus on the biggest federal reserve banks around the globe. It may come as a surprise for many that the explosion of reserve holdings which has been characteristic for the last ten years is to be observed mainly in Asia. In fact, in a top 10 of the central banks with the richest reserves in the world, China and Japan come on the first two places holding together around 43% of global reserves. Their official reserves accounting for $2,447.1 billion, respectively $1,046.8 billion, entitle them to be considered the countries with the richest federal bank reserves in the whole world. The list of ten is completed with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, India, South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil and Singapore.

Having learned which countries in the world have the larger federal bank reserves, perhaps we should let ourselves be tickled by curiosity once again and try to find out which bank in the world possesses the biggest gold reserves. That place, storing the greatest quantity of gold in the world, amounting $203.3 billion, is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. A treasure of about 550,000 pieces made of the precious metal, more then enough to stir everybody’s imagination. Bars, coins, medals or sovereigns, a beautiful dream for collectors and investors alike, have found shelter somewhere in the vaults under the lower Manhattan.