New York

How Much Is (Nonfinancial Corporate) Land in the U.S.A. Worth?

You wouldn’t know it from my writing, but I’ve been wading into real-estate mapping and assessment this year. For reasons I’ll discuss in future posts, I’m researching land-residual vs. building-residual assessment methodologies. Naturally, my initial Internet searches into building-residual assessments led to Georgist writings, and with good reason. Land-residual assessment, which subtracts land values from the total price, invariably leads to absurd results.

One source on the topic is Michael Hudson, whom long-time readers will recall as the economist who coined the phrase, “Debts that can’t be repaid won’t be.” Hudson gave a speech about the demerits of land-residual assessment in 2001, which he republished in 2010. He repeated a claim I first read in the superb collection The Losses of Nations: In 1993, the government valued nonfinancial corporate land at -$4 billion, and as a result, it stopped publishing economy-wide real-estate data.

1994 is the last year for which [the Fed] has estimated economy-wide land values. The problem was that the Fed discovered that its methodology produced nonsensical results – a negative value of $4 billion for all land owned by nonfinancial corporations for the year 1993. This number resulted from imputing land values by subtracting the estimated replacement cost of buildings from overall property market prices. This “land residual” method left little room for land value, for replacement values continue their rise even when overall market prices decline, as periodically occurs. In such downturns the replacement value absorbs nearly all the market value of corporately owned real estate.

It’s a damning accusation, but it’s also untrue. The Fed never stopped tracking nonfinancial corporate real-estate data. Perhaps it changed its source, but in the age of FRED, all this information is readily available. In fact, one can find three releases of the supplemental tables to the Fed’s Financial Accounts of the United States between 1997 and 1998 that indicate a residual nonfinancial corporate land value of -$4.6 billion, which appears to be what Hudson discovered. Starting with the June 1998 release, however, the residual land value for 1993 rose to $21.1 billion and ultimately to $25.5 billion when 1993 last appears (June 2000 release).

You can chalk Hudson’s mistake up to the migration of data to the Internet, or any other reason really. I don’t think it’s bad faith on his part, just bad luck. Obviously, though, there isn’t a clear conspiracy by Fed statisticians to cease reporting data that made it look bad.

Indeed, if anything, the reported data vindicate Hudson and make the financial accounts look worse: In 1996 and 2009-2010 the final residual nonfinancial corporate land value fell below zero—far lower than -$4.6 billion. More disturbingly, it’s skyrocketed since 2010.

See for yourself.

Nonfinancial Corporate Real-Estate Value

(Source: Federal Reserve (NCBEMVQ027S, RCSNNWMVBSNNCB, RCVSRNWMVBSNNCB), BEA fixed-investment price indexes (Table 1.1.9.), my calculations)

(I deflated residential and nonresidential structures by their respective BEA price indexes and then estimated the land value by keeping it in proportion to assessed fair-market real-estate values. It’s crude but “accurate,” I think.)

So at the beginning of 2010, the entire species missed out on the best real-estate deal ever: $566.83 billion (current dollars) to anyone willing to take all nonfinancial corporate land along with it. Just last week the Fed valued it at $4 trillion. And here you thought you missed out on speculating on Bitcoin.

So what should we make of this?

Are the Fed’s estimates merely imprecise or inaccurate? Imprecision just means that the land value is off by about a few trillion dollars one direction or the other. When the land value is negative, that’s just fuzzy math that ought to be improved.

By contrast, inaccuracy suggests government estimates of either the total real-estate values or the structures is systemically flawed. These properties might be worth far more than their assessed values. For instance although it’s a nonprofit, Brooklyn Law School’s 2 Pierrepont Street dormitory was ridiculously under-assessed at $3.88 million when the school sold it for $35 million. Alternatively, as I think Hudson tends to argue, the overall real-estate prices are correct but too much of their price increases are imputed to structures. He comments persuasively that “Building prices seem to be responsible for the rise in real estate prices, while land prices are held responsible for their decline.” The implication is that commercial land owners can depreciate land value.

I tend to think both inaccurate assessments of fair-market and structure values are at work, but the former is the bigger culprit. Regardless, Hudson is correct that encouraging local governments to adopt building-residual assessment methodologies would prevent absurd numbers from appearing in the financial accounts of the United States.

Steel Links

Haven’t done a links post in a while, but there are a few things worth writing about in brief.

Allison Schrager, “Becoming a Doctor or Lawyer Is Still Worth It,” Quartz, July 14, 2015.

Of course, that doesn’t mean going to law school is still worth it because, of course, the article carefully points out that not all law school graduates work in high-paying professional jobs and lawyers have a notably high attrition rate.

Wait, it didn’t point that out? Oops. Then maybe we shouldn’t be saying that the return to law school is so high. (I should add that the underlying paper at least discusses this.)

Molly Hensley-Clancy, “LegalZoom Wants to Be ‘The Good Guys’ in the Shady World of Student Debt Relief,” BuzzFeed, July 6, 2015.

Fun fact: BuzzFeed does investigative reporting. I’m happy to serve it a compliment. What it found is that everyone’s favorite legal disruptive innovator is making money by … charging federal student loan debtors $700 to sign them on to income-sensitive repayment plans. Which they can do for free on their own. LegalZoom swears it’s informing borrowers of that fact, but that’s not what happened when BuzzFeed‘s reporter called in posing as a debtor. (Yes, really. This is what journalists are supposed to do.)

Did I mention that a couple weeks ago New York’s Student Protection Unit shut down a financial services company for charging student debtors money for signing them onto IBR plans without telling them they could do so for free? Did I also mention it paid a $10,000 fine? Does anyone call these companies legal disruptive innovators?

Now, to editorialize: If you couldn’t tell, I think LegalZoom’s impact is hyped, UPL or not. It’s quite possible that it makes money by (a) offering services lawyers wouldn’t charge for, as in the above case, or (b) serving clients for legal issues they might not bother going to a lawyer for anyway, e.g. a no-income, no-asset, few creditors, chapter 7 bankruptcy filing. Neither of these activities takes business from traditional lawyers.

In fact, in 2014 30 percent of LegalZoom’s revenue came from subscription fees, meaning it wasn’t selling actual legal services. Also, one of its biggest sources of revenue appears to be incorporation documents for California businesses. Perhaps it offers needed services, but consumer regulators need to catch up with it.

Gainful Employment Rule Post

Yeah, this link is for me. Because readers forwarded around my post applying the Gainful Employment rule to all law schools, I went back and updated it so that the table showed only the results from the total income test. I figure in case researchers want to cite it or replicate my results, they’ll have an easier time understanding what I was doing. I realized that the results of both tests produce the equivalent number, so even if a law schools’ graduates’ discretionary incomes are lower, the table now shows the equivalent income graduates would need to be making. I didn’t update the post’s text, so bear that in mind.

Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Contest

A generous reader has nominated the LSTB for the Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Contest. You can read about it here. As ever, I am grateful to you, my readers, for your support.

Brooklyn Law School Building Might Sell for 7 Times Assessed Value

Readers might recall a year and a half ago the glee with which I reported that Brooklyn Law School sold a number of its buildings for triple their assessed values. It’s unusual that I can discuss legal education and land values at the same time, so when the opportunity presents, I pounce like a lion.

Yesterday, the New York Daily News contributed a sequel to the story: BLS plans to sell a “prime Brooklyn Heights” building, the 39-unit 2 Pierrepont Street. The sale hasn’t occurred yet, but the figure being thrown around behind the scenes, according to the article, is $30 million.

…Which shouldn’t be at all surprising. As former Brooklynite, I can tell you that Brooklyn Heights is absolutely gorgeous. Catastrophically under-built given its proximity to lower Manhattan, but absolutely gorgeous.

As one might expect, the assessed value of the 2 Pierrepont St. parcel is a laughable $3.88 million, even though BLS paid just $2.2 million to acquire it back in the 1980s. Thus, the alleged asking price is nearly 8 times the assessed value, strongly implying that the property is absurdly under-assessed. Given the location’s value, the article suggests the building will either be torn down or transformed into condos. Those BLS students never realized how good they had it, and they’ll probably never live in such an expensive neighborhood again.

As with last year’s post, the joke is on New York City. Because BLS is a nonprofit it can play land speculator while only being asked to pay $10,000 to the city after lopping off its full bill for “faculty and student housing.” Hopefully NYC will get more from 2 Pierrepont Street’s successors. The law school, though, is cashing in.


Appendix: 2 Pierrepont Street’s assessment and tax bill:

Notice of Property Value–2 Pierrepont St

Property Tax Bill Quarterly Statement–2 Pierrepont St

Lowering Law School Tuition Mainly Benefits Students, Taxpayers

Gotta be quick, but Brooklyn Law School dean Nicholas Allard writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Lowering Law-School Tuition Benefits Everyone, Not Just the Students,” which deserves comment.

The fact is that the financial model of law schools is broken. Unless the schools do what they can to make legal education more affordable, they will price themselves out of business, contribute to the high cost of legal services that most people need, and widen the gap in access to justice.

The first sentence is true, but the rest is questionable. Many people will not go to law school at any price, but some schools will survive if they slash tuition. However, tuition has little to do with the cost of legal services and access to justice (not the justice of rents to legal educators).

Allard appears to believe that high tuition leads to high debt, which leads to lawyers not taking public interest jobs that pay less then courtroom janitors. It’s odd because two paragraphs later, he mentions Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Pay-As-You-Earn, which falsify his thesis. If highly indebted graduates want to serve the poor, they should be able to under the current loan-repayment framework. Sure, the proposed caps on PSLF would be bad for debtors and are based on the belief that they over-borrowed rather than the schools over-pricing, the government over-lending, or the jobs-underpaying, but graduates do not often pass up public interest in favor of biglaw. Not everyone gets such a choice.

It is a shameful canard that student loans and indebtedness are the cause of high tuition. They are not; they are the symptom. Tuitions at law schools are soaring … because of the way law schools spend money in pursuit of rankings rather than investing in students, education, professional training, and scholarship.

Not sure what Allard means here, but I think it’s the closest I’ve seen to a law school dean rejecting the Bennett hypothesis. Without excessive federal lending, law schools couldn’t raise their costs. It’s the means of the tuition bubble, not the motive and opportunity—if you fancy looking at this like a murder mystery.

With political currents eroding America’s historic and successful support for higher education, we can’t expect anyone else to help. We must do what we can to break this cycle ourselves. By making law school expensive for motivated, talented women and men, we are shortchanging ourselves. In this country, lawyers have played the central role as guardians of our democratic republic and architects of economic opportunity and prosperity. They will be needed even more in the future.

Political support for legal education has not been a success. It’s created too many law schools, too many law school graduates, and too much unpayable student debt. For example, the NALP just reported that the percent of 2013 graduates employed at all in February 2014 had fallen—negligibly—to 84.5 percent, even though late last year Dean Allard predicted, “[T]he employment rates reported in 2014 will be substantially higher than in 2013.” (More on the NALP report another time.)

Look, good on Brooklyn Law School for unilaterally cutting its tuition next year. It may not be a voluntary rather than demonstrative act like if an elite law school did it to buck the U.S. News rankings, but we can have competent lawyers without student loans and expensive law schools.

On a 25-year fixed repayment the average 2013 Brooklyn Law grad would have to cough up over $750 a month to make his or her student loan payments on $110,000 in debt. Even under the old IBR system, that would require an income of $121,600 per year from day one to escape loan cancelation after 25 years. Since many BLS grads don’t make that kind of income, many will undoubtedly take PAYE and the government will have to write-down the losses. Thus, Allard is right: The beneficiaries of lower law school tuition aren’t just law students but everyone else. Although, it is a “shameful canard” to imply that the federal loan program is a blessing for everyone but law schools and a handful of lucky law students.

What’s ‘Bold’ About Nominal Law School Tuition Cuts?

…Is the question readers of The New York Times asked themselves Saturday morning while reading, James B. Stewart’s, “A Bold Bid to Combat a Crisis in Legal Education.”

The article begins by promptly misleading readers into believing there is a “crisis” in legal education because five law schools have closed, even though apparently all five were non-ABA-accredited schools in California, which frequently enroll only a few students. The distinction is important because the article doesn’t investigate why those law schools closed (if they did—I suspect the NYT’s source is the Wikipedia, which isn’t always reliable for information on California law schools) and what commonalities their fiscal situations shared with Brooklyn Law School’s, the central character in the article.

Indeed, the NYT quotes Brooklyn’s dean, Nicholas Allard, saying that high law school debt burdens are a significant problem, yet students at most non-ABA schools are ineligible for the kind of easy federal student loans ABA schools are infamous for. In 2012-13, 49 percent of Brooklyn Law students took out an average $34,800 in Grad PLUS loans, which can cover the $29,500 gap between the annual Stafford Loan limit and full-time tuition—and also living expenses in cheap, cheap Brooklyn Heights.

As for Brooklyn’s “bold” move:

[Brooklyn] announced that it was taking some unusually bold steps to confront the crisis: The school is cutting tuition and abandoning what has become a widespread obsession with climbing the ladder of national law school rankings.

But the real question is, does Brooklyn Law have a choice? For instance, this year it accepted 47 percent of its full-time applicants, up 7 percent from 2012-13 and up 17 percent from 2011-12. In 2012-13, only 16 percent of its full-time students were paying full tuition. Sixty-three percent were paying $35,400 or less, which after cursory investigation makes Brooklyn the most “over-leveraged” law school in the New York City area in terms of merit aid. Even Seton Hall doesn’t subsidize that many full-time students by that much. Clearly, Brooklyn Law School was playing the scholarship game very, very hard.

And it still lost badly, hence the cuts.

Aside from the above criticisms, too much of the article relies on quotations rather than real reporting. Specifically, the last three paragraphs might as well have been written as an editorial by Dean Allard.

Mr. Allard argues passionately that the legal profession isn’t just for Supreme Court clerks and high-paid associates at elite firms. He noted that 94 percent of Brooklyn’s graduates passed the bar exam and 90 percent were currently employed in legal careers. Many meet the legal needs of underserved populations.

To my knowledge, the bar passage rate is right for last July, but the 90 percent employment in “legal careers” would be a miraculous turn of fortune for Brooklyn Law’s graduates. Fewer than half of its 2011 and 2012 grads were employed full-time, long-term in “bar passage required” positions, and less than 10 percent of both classes were in full-time, long-term “JD advantage” jobs. Did I mention that more than a quarter of these grads reported being either unemployed or didn’t respond to the survey?

Allard adds:

“Those who do manage to graduate from law school end up with excruciating debt. They feel compelled to take jobs with the highest paycheck to find some relief. They don’t feel free to work in jobs that fit their interests or that meet a critical demand.”

Tell that to the Brooklyn grads who never have an opportunity for such jobs.

Then he closes with the real howler:

[Allard] said he believed that law schools had an obligation to address the problem. “If we don’t get this right, we’ll create an acute shortage of lawyers, and law schools will price themselves out of business.”

An acute shortage of lawyers? In a state that allows foreign-trained graduates to take the state’s bar exam?

Yes, the nominal tuition cut and reduced merit scholarship gaming is a good thing. However, characterizing it as “bold” instead of “necessary”; comparing Brooklyn to tiny, non-ABA law schools that aren’t eligible for federal loans; and then handing the mic to the dean is not good reporting. The Times takes Allard at his word when he rhetorically asks, “If you increase quality and reduce cost, demand goes up. Why isn’t everybody doing this?” when it should be asking him why schools weren’t doing that before. Why can’t the Times ask what if anything law schools can do to reduce the signaling effect on law school costs?

Real coverage on the story would have involved asking whether the proposed tuition cut would in fact increase demand. Law degrees aren’t perfectly spherical widget cows from an econ textbook; they’re highly subsidized positional goods that have lost their popularity. How will Brooklyn Law communicate to prospective applicants that $45,000 annual tuition as opposed to $53,000 will make their degrees worth the risk of 20 percent unemployment nine months after graduation?

We’ll find out in a few years if the Times and Allard are right. If Brooklyn’s application and matriculant positions stabilize (it lost 700 full-time applicants this year), increase, or drop less than at nearby schools that don’t try cutting tuition, then we’ll know that its target consumers respond to price changes. However, history has shown that law school applicants weren’t sensitive to price increases in the past, so it stands to reason that they won’t be when prices fall.

If this is true, then Brooklyn Law will have to do more than cut nominal tuition.

‘State Bar Proposals Fail to Address Law Students’ Woes’ on The Am Law Daily

State Bar Proposals Fail to Address Law Students’ Woes

My favorite part of this article is the delicious line about the Luddites.

Brief correction: In the article I referred to one of the reports as coming from the “California Bar Association,” it’s actually the “State Bar of California.” Two different organizations. My mistake. I apologize.

The Census Bureau Strips Speculation From the Housing Vacancy Rate

I went to a lecture at the Henry George School in late June, given by an Episcopalian minister who spearheaded the squatting movement in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s (and, I guess, today). It was really inspirational stuff. He said—and I’m not going to verify this—that there were 120,000 vacant housing units in New York City and 40,000 homeless people in 2012. The reason for the mismatch is exactly what you’d expect: Private landowners are holding their property off the market. Georgist economist Mason Gaffney argues this occurs because landowners behave as a cartel, refusing to supply land to those who need it to increase the price.

If you want to verify whether land speculation causes higher prices throughout the United States, you’ll be disappointed to find that the housing vacancy rate in the U.S. is dropping, though it’s still higher than it was in the late 1990s. In an era of concentrated wealth, one would expect landowners’ land-hoarding to cause the vacancy rate to rise, based on all the foreclosures we hear about.

Annual Rental and Homeowner Vacancy Rates

Yet, Dean Baker tells us that residential construction is depressed because of the high vacancy rate. Who’s right?

Here’s how the Census Bureau calculates the vacancy rate.

If you look for the data in Historical Table 8 that Baker links to, though, you’ll find that the vacancy rate’s denominator is not the entire housing inventory. It excludes “seasonally vacant units” and units that are “held off the market.” In other words, if speculation is going on, the vacancy rate deliberately excludes it.

Here’s the total vacancy rate, the held-off-the-market rate, and the composite vacancy rate (it’s the weighted average vacancy rate for owner-occupied units and rentals because Census doesn’t separate “rented but awaiting occupancy” and “sold but awaiting occupancy).

Actual Vacancy Rate, 4-Qtr Moving Average

What’s obvious here is that since about 2010, the Census Bureaus’ vacancy rate has dropped while the held-off-the market rate has not. Meanwhile, total vacancies are down slightly from their peak over 14 percent during the housing bubble, but it’s still well above the 11-12 percent range from the 1990s.

Now, you ask, how is “held off the market” defined? You get three answers:

(1)  Occasional Use

(2)  Usual Residence Elsewhere (URE)

(3)  Other

There is but a slim difference between “occasional use” and URE, if any. “Other,” has a more nuanced *cough* definition:

Other vacant. Included in this category are year-round units which were vacant for reasons other than those mentioned above: For example, held for settlement of an estate, held for personal reasons, or held for repairs. Below are the definitions for the other vacant categories presented in Historical Table 18.

  • Foreclosure – [Q1, 2013 = 10.8%]
  • Personal/Family Reasons – [19.6%]
  • Legal Proceedings – [6.0%]
  • Preparing to Rent/Sell – [6.2%]
  • Held for Storage of Household Furniture – [7.8%]
  • Needs Repairs – [15.3%]
  • Currently Being Repaired/Renovated – [8.5%]
  • Specific Use Housing – [1.4%]
  • Extended Absence – [6.0%]
  • Abandoned/Possibly to be Demolished/Possibly Condemned – [5.9%]
  • Other Write-in/Don’t Know – [12.5.%]

Table 18 would be enormously useful, except it only goes back to … 2012. Heckuva job Census.

Held-Off-the-Market Rates

Importantly, though, “Foreclosure” includes units that are “bank owned,” meaning if banks want to hold them off the market, then they’re in “foreclosure,” even if it’s actually for naked real estate speculation.

You might ask “Why is this important?” I’ll tell you: Think about all those times you read about how student loan debt “delays important milestones like marriage, family formation, and home ownership.” If the banks were forced to put their housing inventory up for sale or rent, then there’d be a large wealth transfer from the hyper-wealthy banks to real-life human beings. The long-run problem of student loan debt, even with IBR, is a generation of Americans that will lack the earning power to buy homes from aging boomers.

I was going to stop there, but if you want more evidence, take this super-downer article from The Japan Times, “Pity the Generation That Can’t Retire Before 80,” July 6, 2013. Here’s a taste:

“Mr. B” is a 56-year-old junior high school teacher. His son studied hard, was a good student, got into a good university and graduated with distinction. He sent out 50 job applications and was invited to 30 interviews. But the expected offers didn’t materialize — not a single one. The young man grew seriously depressed. He hinted at suicide. His parents had to watch him constantly. The strain was too much for Mr. B’s wife. It wore her down. Though far from elderly, she showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s. They got worse. She had to be institutionalized. Her son blamed himself. His depression deepened. And so it goes.

At least in Japan, 40 percent of people under 30 don’t have student loan debt. The Japanese government is trying to reflate the economy, and it’s not championing credential inflation. The U.S. isn’t so lucky.

Now you understand why I think young Americans should all be Georgists.