Portfolio Manager Perspectives

Jeff Benjamin

Green acres best bet for making green, Yale's Shiller says

Limited supply will drive prices of farmland up over the next decade; stocks will come a-cropper

May 16, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

By Jeff Benjamin

+ Zoom

With the exception of farmland, investors should keep their expectations for investment returns low for at least the next 10 years, according to Robert Shiller, an economics professor at Yale University.

Speaking during an opening session of the Investment Management Consultants Association's annual conference in Las Vegas, Mr. Shiller said he expects stocks to gain a mere 2% to 3% annually over the next decade.

In his presentation, Mr.Shiller, well known for his S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price indexes, illustrated how farmland participated in the real estate bubble from 2000 to 2005, but did not fall in stride over the past few years.

“My only bullish call is farmland,” he said.

The reason farmland has held much of the gains that it built up during the real estate bubble, he said, is because, unlike housing, there is a limited supply.

“A single logical error that people make when buying a home is that they think buying a home is the same as buying land,” he said. “But in the total price of a house, only 20% is the land.”

Mr. Shiller also covered some of the driving forces behind the financial crisis, which he described as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

“Even at this point, with the recession technically over, we are in the worst financial shape we've been in since the Great Depression,” he said.

Mr. Shiller mentioned the usual suspects in explaining the crisis, including relaxed lending practices, a disproportionate percentage of subprime loans, weak regulatory oversight and a government policy that encouraged more mortgage lending.

But the real question people should be asking, he said, is why we ended up in that position to begin with?

“You can't just blame the regulators, because people weren't calling for regulators to do something about it during the housing boom,” he said.

In terms of his generally gloomy investment outlook, Mr. Shiller calculated the real unemployment rate — including the unemployed, underemployed, as well as those people that have been forced into early retirement — at 15.9% or about one-sixth of the adult population in the United States.

The downward trend of the latest consumer confidence data also should be recognized, he added.

“It worries me because if people don't have confidence, they don't spend money,” he said.

Mr. Shiller also pointed out that the homebuilding industry, and probably the banking industry, actually started feeling the pressure at least two years before the start of the financial crisis in 2007.

According to his research, consumer traffic at real estate properties started to fall dramatically in 2005, and that was followed by a dramatic decline in housing permits.

“It was almost like somebody blew a whistle that only dogs and homebuyers could hear,” he said.

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