Welcome to the Gordon Asset Management podcast, a show for savers investors and entrepreneurs helping you to stay informed, invest wisely, and achieve the unimaginable. Now, on to the show.
Todd Zempel 0:19
Welcome to the Gordon Asset Management podcast. This is Todd Zempel. And today with me is Joe Gordon. For the podcast today, we invited a friend of the firm Burl East to the show. Burl is portfolio manager for the Altegris Opportunistic Real Estate Fund. Burl not only has a very interesting story to tell he has an absolute killer track record, we definitely want to get Burl on the show, learn about what he's doing and share some thoughts on the direction of real estate investing. So let's jump right in. Burl, welcome to the show. Why don't you tell everybody a little bit about yourself?
Burl East 1:04
Sure. So I'm the Chief Executive Officer of the San Diego based company called American Assets Capital Advisors. We are in the real estate securities management business. So we manage money for mutual funds on the sub advisory business and pension funds, insurance companies, families, foundations, and endowments. And the space that we operate in is real estate stocks would include things like reits, or home builders and development companies, stuff like that is global in nature, although in practice, it's almost, you know, probably 75% domestic, but we have a global mandate. I am a little bit north of 60 have been doing this for 40 years, spent roughly 20 years as a sell side securities analysts, and roughly 30 years kind of part of that time overlapping as an investment banker, and now run this company, which is what I used to do before I was sell side securities analysts and real estate stocks. And so this, for me is the kind of third iteration of stuff but within the same space, right? Operating in the same class of securities doing the same kind of stuff. And we run about 850 million, and we run the Altegris AACA Real Estate Securities Fund, which is what you guys are invested in.
Todd Zempel 2:34
Yeah, and speaking of that fund, so we we've been big fans of what you've done there, when I just look at raw performance. You beat the index last year by 36 percentile. I think she just knocked it out of the park on a relative basis, over beat the category by over 33%. And the history goes on from there, obviously, you've done a really good job knocking out of the park. How have you done it? what's what's the philosophy philosophy behind this this fund?
Burl East 3:08
Well, we sort of march a little bit to a different drummer. Okay, so the industry has about 80 or so, folks that do things like we do, and they're some of them are, you know, big successful names folks like fidelity and things like that, right. And what most of the industry participants tend to do is to pursue an index like strategy, they start with the idea of what's in the index, and then they modify slightly at the edges. And then they seek out value within that process that leads to index like return sometimes to do a little better, sometimes a little worse. But it isn't a different road. It's just, you know, cars bumping up against each other on the same freeway, we've taken a different path. Our path is to own monopolies.
Basically, I'm 60 years 61 years old, I've been in investment for this will be my 39th year. And I can tell you, you know, categorically that the best investment strategies involve companies where there's a limited number of suppliers. There's a limited supply the user in our case attended but it could also be the customer has a very high demand for whatever the thing is, you're selling to them. The customer has extraordinarily high switching costs, meaning that once the customer is your customer, becoming not your customer is very difficult. And then that at the customer level are cases attended the tenant or the customer wakes up every day and says Gee, I need more of whatever is you're selling. So that is our strategy.
So you know, there's 30 or so, sectors within real estate. Some are obvious things like office or apartments and some are not obvious. It might be infrastructure or hydroelectric dams or data centers or lab space lease apartments with Good companies, things like that. So it's a very, very broad business, by the way. And there are like 600 companies in it. So it's a big giant supermarket. So we walk through the supermarket picking ingredients around this idea that we're trying to identify under a known monopolies. Now, it is rare to get a monopoly. But it is not that difficult to find duopolies, where there's two competitors in a segment of the business, or an oligopoly, where there's maybe a handful. What we generally try to avoid, though, is owning businesses where the returns are cyclical. And there are times in the, in this wrestling match between the customer and the supplier, right between the landlord and the tenant in our business, where sometimes the tenant is winning, because rents are going down and attendant has more choices. And sometimes the landlord is winning, because rents are going up, that kind of business tends to be cyclical, temporary timing related, we tend not to pursue those industries, we tend to pursue businesses where we believe that the landlord has an opportunity to maintain very high occupancy. And we raise rent on a consistent basis over a very long period of time. And by that we mean usually five to 10 years. So for instance, what we wouldn't do is is say to you on a Tuesday morning, something like well, you know, today, we would almost never start a sentence with that concept today, like apartments in Charlotte are less expensive than apartments in Atlanta. So we'll find some company that owns Charlotte apartments symbol sells a company that owns land apartments, we don't do that. So that's kind of our basic strategy.
Todd Zempel 6:44
Thanks for that. And looking at holdings within your find a big source of the outperformance last year, it looks like it was mostly to do with data centers and 5g cell phone towers, can you can you speak a little bit to that trend?
Burl East 7:04
Yeah, broadly speaking, and the demand for mobile data in the US is growing in the mid 40s per year. And this is everything that ends up in your phone, right. So it is both data. And some of its encrypted data, like your email, but it's also music and web search and Instagram and things like that. And most so there's the there's the you know, per device, the consumption of data is going up, then there's people have multiple devices. And then there's the idea that things that previously weren't connected to the internet, which might be you know, your refrigerator, or your or a household appliances now are or your automobile. So there's a proliferation of devices. And those devices are always using more data. So the way for us to play that is invest in both the cell phone tower companies which own cell phone towers, obviously, hence the name, but they also own distributed antenna systems and small cells. And then they additionally own things like Metro fiber, which might be fiber running up and down your street and backhaul fiber, which might be fiber between two big cities, you know, dc in New York. And then the data center companies, which is where all the data lives. And so this secular demand driver, this idea that consumers and businesses are using your data, we don't think that's going away. In fact, we think it probably accelerates because there's a half a dozen technologies that are I would say, moving from the drawing board to real life. Big Data, Ai, autonomous vehicles, and AI uses like photographic recognition, facial recognition, topographical MapReduce, stuff like that. Real will take this this demand for data and move it, you know, at a pretty good pace. And so we have been invested in that for five or six years now. And we also think it benefits from it has benefited from COVID. Right? There's this idea that, you know, folks have been staying home. And so they you know, have been using remote access for devices and laptops and iPads and so forth. And also the shopping online more. Right. So they have been consuming more Netflix and more Amazon instead of going to the store or going to the movie theater. So so that's the logic behind that. That positioning for us.
Todd Zempel 9:32
And you were clearly early to that trade to that positioning. So, kudos to you to seeing the trend. Obviously, your foresight has rewarded investors handsomely. So kudos to you for saying that.
Burl East 9:50
Yeah, that's, that's probably correct. We sort of figured this out probably in 2011 2012 and start arted investing back then. And you're right. For five years, people were like, why are you doing this, we would explain why. And they would say, okay, and a lot of times, we will, we will be early to an idea. And it's later less obvious, but maybe it didn't look obvious. And I, we tend to do a lot of deep research, we, we tend to be like a dog with a bone, we get an idea. And we will really vet that idea fully, we will visit all the properties and all the companies will talk to all the analysts and investment bankers and customers. And we'll build a really good, like topographical landscape of how all the people in the business worked together. And then we'll try to make some decisions based on that. And when we looked at the telecommunications and mobile business, when the iPhone came out, you know, it started this, but by 2010 or so the idea that people were moving storage online, and also big companies, right part of this was you were a company and you had your own data, right, your your Pfizer, you have zillions of terabytes of drug records, right, and you need to that needs to be stored and accessible and secure and all that. And there's been a significant move by corporate America to outsource their data centers. And then in addition to that, you had 4g and now 5g improving connectivity. And when that happened, you had folks that previously looked at the cell phone as maybe a tool, now look at it as a tool and an entertainment device and a companion, right. I mean, a lot of younger people, just they won't go three feet without their phone. So we were early to sort of recognize that and, and I think found a productive way to, to invest in it.
Joe Gordon 11:49
So burlwood, where do you see the emerging trends? I noticed that you've got some gaming stocks. I think it's MGM, and your top holdings. Now, is this a? Is this a play on every state licensing? legalized betting? Or is it just the reopening of the global economy typething?
Burl East 12:07
Yes to both of those. So the gaming business is really an interesting business, because in some ways, it's like lodging, it has the same sort of component where when people travel, you know, gaming stocks tend to do well as do lodging stocks. But lodging is not a oligopoly in gaming is there's really four companies in the US there's, you know, sands, wind, Caesars and MGM. And so part of it is, as you suggested, let's go backwards. You You, you talked about the online game, and we'll cover that in the second second answer. But the first answer is yes. As COVID goes away, and people become you know, inoculated, suddenly, there's like a mood to travel, right, people must suck in their homes for a year. They've deferred vacations, there's all kinds of stuff where people just itching to get out. And we think the first thing to have will be the drive to markets, right? So people will drive to vacations and supposed to fly. And so Caesars has the biggest footprint in the US and MGM is number two. So if they have a location close to you, that you might drive to, that picks up first, and that's already picking up. So for instance, gambling, or rather, you know, sort of the business in Las Vegas is down about two thirds from kind of what you'd call normal. But the business regionally is down 1/3. So it's still down, but it's doing twice as well as Vegas itself, because Vegas is largely an Air Force, you know, fly to market, unless you happen to live in LA, right. So we're investing because we think that the recovery is in place, there's been significant amount of fiscal stimulus and and Caesars and MGM will will benefit directly from people getting out of their houses and traveling as part one. But the bigger thing is part two, which is this sports betting and AI gaming thing. This is it's now I can't can't remember the exact numbers, but it's illegal in about five states. And I love there's like another 10 states that are in the process of legalizing this and what happens is, governors will talk right one governor will say the other Hey, we legalize this, some are generating some tax revenue and so forth and so on.
In addition, legislators, when they look at this will say, well, gosh, this is an activity that's already occurring, particularly sports betting people have, you know, fantasy football leagues at their office, right? So. So if you tell a legislator, hey, there's an activity that's already occurring, and you can tax it, they almost always nod their head up and down. Right. So we believe that there'll be a widespread legalization of sports betting and eye gaming over the next column, 567 years. And the number one and number two beneficiary of that should be Caesars and MGM. Part of the reason is if you're going to offer an electronic format of something in the state, by and large, you need a physical setting. Right, so so the state legislature will not allow you generally, to run online sports betting unless you have a location and that state. And so since Caesars has the biggest footprint, they win that contest, Caesars also has about 61 million people in its total rewards program. So it has a installed, like connection to its own customers, which is an electronic connection. And so what they're going to do is roll out and we're already rolling out sports betting and states where it's legal, and it shows up on your phone. And it's tied into your rewards program and is tied into a concept called one wallet. And one wallet might be where you'd have your you'd have your rewards, you'd have how much money you spend to make it incentive to go stay at Caesars in Las Vegas, you can gamble online, like I saw, that was exactly sure how big the sports betting market is yet. And there are a wide range of estimates.
If you if you look at what Caesars is saying when I think they're probably the most sophisticated party in the space, they think the market is roughly 30 to 35 billion. To give you a frame of reference, gambling in Las Vegas is a $7 billion business. So what Caesars is saying is that the potential for sports betting and gaming in the US over like 567 years, is call it five times the size of what happens now in Las Vegas. So we think that is a really big idea. Now again, these are estimates and these are dependent upon a bunch of things we can't control like the speed at which states legalized but clearly you would look at this and say, okay, there's something here. And so we've put about 14% of the portfolio into a combination of Caesars and MGM and to a lesser extent Las Vegas Sands. Now sands and Wynn do not have a US sports betting business per se because they don't have a physical footprint. Wynn has assets in Vegas, and one in Boston. And sands is basically just in Vegas. What what sand and win do have is exposure to Macau. And so historically, Macau has also been about a $35 billion business. But it isn't right now sound about 80 to 90%, because of COVID. But we think when COVID goes away, like call it this time next year or even the end of this year, we believe that that travel to Macau will resume and the normal pace of activity will resume and win and sans will benefit from that. So that's as I said, that's kind of 15% the portfolio.
Joe Gordon 17:34
So one of your top holdings has been this great story fortress. Can you update us on that? I noticed that I think Morningstar said you were selling some shares. I mean, things can't go to the moon. But you've done really well in that one.
Burl East 17:48
Well, that started out as an infrastructure story is called fortress transportation and infrastructure. And we like infrastructure, right? These are long term assets with long term contracts are typically inflation protected, they typically generate income, right? So that's, that was our entree to the name. What has happened for the company, though, over the last couple of years is they have expanded their aircraft leasing business, right, they had this business where they would own an engine and lease it to a carrier, the carrier might be Southwest or United Airlines or something like this. Okay. So that's how the business was working. And it was a good business before COVID. And then COVID came along, and of course, destroyed air travel, right. So, so their ability to rent out their engines and things like that was temporarily hindered. And so the stock collapsed, and kind of the second quarter, and we ended up buying a significant amount of stock at that pretty attractive prices. But in the background, what's really happened very powerfully is the company has started to build for itself a what we were disguised as monopoly in aircraft engines, right, so so this is going to be like a two or three minute story. So I apologize in advance for the detail. I'm going to give you what is necessary to understand what's going on. The engines that they own are called CFM 56 engine, so the engine that powers the 737. The 8322 8319. It is the Toyota Camry of the skies. It is the largest installed base, there's roughly 22,000 of these things in, in use, and they generally work in non international travel, right. So it's like Southwest, it's like I'm going from Phoenix to Denver that gets they tend to be short haul flights. Okay, so that visit by the way is going to return for for international, so they're very well positioned.
If you own an engine, an engine has a roughly five year maintenance cycle and every five years you retrofit the engine, and when you retrofit the engine, it cost about five to $6 million to rebuild the engine and then the engine is effectively new. And you run it again for five to six years and then just go on like this nearly forever. airframes like the plane itself depreciate to zero but engines don't and then just by the way are modular you take them off the plane you put them on another plane it's like a lego thing right so the company is focused on engines not one airframes and they own the cfm 56 engines which are the workhorse of the world and what they're doing is they have built a platform with three joint venture partners to take the cost of the renovation which is this five or $6 million you know cuz it's called a it's called a hot cycle engine to do that to down to like 2 million or 3 million so for their own engines their cost of maintenance is gonna get cut in half and the reason is because they have figured out with lockheed martin how to modularize the engine and swap parts of it out secondly they've figured out with chroma law who is an aircraft parts manufacturer how to build third party parts which costs significantly less than those who buy from general electric who is the builder of the engine and then they have figured out with a company called aar how to create what are called used but serviceable materials and all of these value added components in the engine maintenance process have reduced fortresses cost of renovation from ballpark $6 million which would be marketed to ballpark like $3 million so for the engines they own they become twice as efficient and secondly they're going to vend this process to other carriers so let's say you're a large carrier and i'm just using this as a name by the way they don't have this under i have a contract but let's hear southwest and you have lots of 730 sevens and you want fortress to do your maintenance now because they do it at a cheaper price so what we think is happening is they're building have been working they've been working on this for four years an actual monopoly and again that was our original thing just so we go to monopolies doing a monopoly in aircraft aviation maintenance in the world's largest market for aircraft engines and they're the only ones doing it so this is not a normal thing for us again we were attracted to the company because infrastructure this was a secondary business but the secondary business has now taken over as the primary business and appears to us to have an enormously large potential into the future.
Joe Gordon 22:21
Interesting so when you when you look at research and you do new opportunities are looking for new opportunities are there any new investments in the portfolio that align with a new trend that you're seeing out there of monopolistic real estate or infrastructure or anything like that?
Burl East 22:42
Well you know of course the data centers are new business i mean they're not new this week but they were new 10 years ago as was cell phone towers these things these businesses didn't exist a decade ago the lab space business existed in the smaller way a decade ago so we're constantly underwriting new areas and also new geographies for instance we have about 15% of the portfolio in data centers that are that are basically in asia pacific area so it's a combination of like singapore malaysia india and china because the growth effects are so that's like a new thing so we're always looking for new areas where there's again limited number of suppliers when the supplier are normal montreux having said that it doesn't happen that often we will underwrite new sectors new new areas new ideas all the time and more often than not probably 90% of the time after doing the full underwriting of whatever the idea is we will conclude that it's not as good ideas we thought originally or maybe not as good as idea things we already do but we do go through the process on a fairly constant basis of looking for new companies new spaces new ideas on on a on a fairly constant basis i mean for instance we don't own airbnb but we underwrote airbnb fully and we actually liked the business model well now we don't like the business model at today's price but but but if airbnb were two thirds cheaper we would probably own it because we think that that is a sustainable business model is asset light there's a brand name there they're really not competing with anybody so we'd like that we were going to buy it at the ipo with the pricing was was overpriced then it's really overpriced now but the basic idea we liked so we're kind of doing that as we go along and you know we're always hopefully open to new ideas and i know say adaptive but we're we're trying to make sure that we are not blindsided like loving the stocks we owe now and rejecting everything else.
Joe Gordon 24:54
So when you look into the future and again in a parallel way to legalized gambling, sports gambling in the US. There's also the state by state trend of legalized marijuana. And are you looking at any logistics or real estate opportunities and companies there that are going to own that space?
Burl East 25:15
Well, that's a really good analogy you've come up with because we think they're very similar. The medical marijuana industry started becoming legalized state by state probably a decade ago. And I'm just making up the number I don't really know exactly, but it feels like a decade ago. And it was one state that was two states in this four states. And if you give you flash forward to today, what you find is that more states than not have medical marijuana licensed. I can't remember what the number is, but is well, more than half. And I think a little bit less than half have recreational. Right. So but it's been a it's been a process, right? Where states have gone, you know, what happens is one state will do it, the other state will watch and observe and say, Okay, well, what are the problems they didn't anticipate that they ended up facing? Or what were the opportunities, and they'll do an analysis. And so let's say Colorado does it and you know, New Mexico doesn't in Colorado watches New Mexico or vice versa. And they, again, Governor's talk, and they go, Hey, here's what we found that was good. Here's we found this bad. If you're going to do this, maybe you have to take these lessons to heart and it rolls out.
We think the same thing will happen in sports betting. But as far as marijuana goes, what we've done is we've bought a company called innovative industrial. And what innovative industrial does is they own the space that they lease out as greenhouses to the growers, right. So they'll own a greenhouse, and the grower will be the tenant in the space, and they will pay rent. And so the company we own doesn't touch the product, they're not in the marijuana business, per se. They're in the kind of real estate business, they're read. And they're simply collecting rent from these medical marijuana growers in states where is, you know, you're since available near legally available to grow. It's been a really good investment for us. Our sense for what it's worth, is that sometime in the next probably in the Biden administration, we wouldn't be surprised if the federal government took cannabis off of the schedule one drug and they did a schedule two drug that would enable people like Pfizer or Merck or Lilly to do legitimate actual research on creating you know, regulated prescription drugs or non prescription drugs formulated from medical marijuana, the business now tends to be a kind of a loosey goosey concept without real prescriptions. Instead, doctors are giving what they call recommendations. And so we think that will probably happen over the next couple of years. And, and when that happens, we believe that the demand for both the space and things like IPR, the reads itself will go up, and the stock will probably rally dramatically into that.
And again, there's not many folks doing it is a limited business. And it's a weird business, because at the state level, this is legal, but a federal level, it's illegal, which is very strange. And the Obama administration decided to simply ignore the fact that it was illegal. And they did that by issuing a memo called the cole memo, which told the Department of Justice, not to enforce federal laws, when those laws interfere with state laws. So the feds just said, Hey, basically, we're just going to not not bother to enforce federal law and states, you can do whatever you want, we'll leave you alone. So that's that we went along, you know, fine for a number of years. And then in the Trump administration, they canceled the cole memo, but they didn't do anything about the business. And now we're back to a democratic administration. So we suspect is some a little dust off, the cole memo accepted might have a different name this time. And when they do it, there were a number of Democratic candidates, folks like Cory Booker, for instance, who were very vocal about legalizing marijuana, and then when they were running in the primaries, right, so we senses there's enough like, commonality of thought, at the federal government level to do something which would legalize this even further. And that should probably be good for the space. So that's how we that's how that's our approach. And again, we think of this as a metaphor for sports betting, it will go state by state by state, It'll take a while to build some steam. There will be bumps along the way. But when you look back 10 years from now, our senses that in the same way that marijuana was legalized sports betting and i gaming will end up in the same sort of place.
Todd Zempel 30:04
Now Burl so we've talked about cannabis sports betting cell towers data centers how do you envision that investors position your fund in an overall portfolio?
Burl East 30:21
Well the first thing i would tell most investors is that they're underweighted to real estate broadly so this is not talking about my fund specific this is a general concept real estate as an asset class has done a terrific job of creating long term wealth over long periods of time it's not fully correlated it's not uncorrelated anymore because it reacts to market conditions but it's a little bit less correlated it produces generally reasonably high decent levels of income it produces inflation protected returns generally and broadly now setting aside the great recession broadly is not subject to cataclysmic changes unless changes are caused by government typically okay so i would say that if you were to talk to a long term investor like an endowment or a foundation and they tend to be very long term in their approach they're usually 7, 8, 9 percent rule will say to as high as 12 to 15 let's say the average is 10 is your average institutional investor attempts at real estate i suspect that your average retail or individual lessor is not so first thing is you're probably know.
Point two is publicly traded real estate reads in real estate stocks broadly have outperformed private real estate over any rolling time period of more than a couple of years public beats private and there's a couple reasons for that but the biggest one tends to be fees running a read costs you know 75 to 100 basis points of fees whereas private transactions you invest with some individual and sewing a deal to raise money to go buy some building or something usually there's acquisition fees and disposition fees and you know there's a promote and all kinds of other stuff and those fees add up to be two or 3% versus if you just bought a let's say it was an apartment we were doing a private if you just want an apartment read the fees would be 30 basis points right so so part of it is fees the other part is public companies have access to less expensive debt and by and large have access to smarter people there's been a brain drain in the last 30 years from private to public real estate because it's just easier and more scalable and more leverageable and all that kind of stuff so point one you probably don't own up real estate point to his reach and things like that real estate stocks have done better than private real estate the other things that reach bring to the table is first of all there's governance you have boards of directors you have normal corporate governance you have rights as a shareholder the second thing is it's liquid you can change your mind you can wake up in the morning and say i want to go buy a boat and go do it the third thing is now we're transitioned to people like me as a portfolio manager i can change my mind right i can wake up this morning and say you know i like this stock 10% more this morning than i liked it yesterday based on maybe its earnings call or something that happened i can buy some so at the margin i can constantly adjust the portfolio to best optimize what i think is going on and what might happen so i would tell investors own more real estate you should probably do in public real estate and then find a fund that's really well run like a five star font doesn't have to be us by the way there's seven or eight other five star funds but find a well run five star fund and put it away for five to 10 years it's not a timing issue i wouldn't attempt to outguess the portfolio manager and most retail investors are terrible timing anyway and just think about this as a long term investment and something that should create you know significant wealth over time and and that's how that's that would be my advice to investors
Todd Zempel 34:06
Perfect well thank you. Burl, any additional closing closing thoughts before we end the podcast today?
Burl East 34:14
There's been enormous damage to the economy done like COVID and some of this is like permanent in the sense that people's behaviors have changed right so things that might have been really really valid businesses a year ago or less less robust now and may never come back just because of peon some pockets of real estate which have been damaged and will recover and then there are others which have done really well like like The data centers and you know, communication network systems. So that's been a weird year. And then of course, also the government, both under Trump and now under Biden have provided substantial amounts of fiscal stimulus. And so we've sort of drunk on liquidity right now the whole market is and so so we're, we're, we're in a bit of a weird time where it is hard for me to tell you like exactly where the which way the tide is going. Because there's just conflicting tides right now between liquidity and the Fed. And this is that have changed permanently not Germany. So I'd say stay flexible. But always try to invest in a business that you think will be worth more 10 years from now, regardless of the cycle right? So you should we you instead of thinking about, like the quarter or the week or the month or even a year, really think about a five year timeframe. That's what we tried to do.
Todd Zempel 36:01
Got it. Well, thanks, Burl, and thanks to everybody for tuning in today. If you would like more information about Burl and his farm and his strategies, you can visit their website aacadvisors.com or you're always welcome to reach out to our firm WealthQB.com. Thanks a lot folks. We appreciate you tuning in, have a great day.
The information and this podcast is presented for educational and entertainment purposes only and is subject to change without notice. opinions expressed are those of the participants and don't necessarily reflect those of Gordon Asset Management LLC. Its producers, posts or guests information presented should not be construed as tax, legal or investment advice or a recommendation or solicitation for the sale of any product or strategy. Listeners are encouraged to seek advice from qualified professionals to determine whether any information presented may be suitable for this specific situation. Investments involve risks neither Gordon Asset Management LLC nor its podcast participants shall be liable for losses resulting from decisions based on information or viewpoints presented on this podcast.ple's again if you've looked at like office for instance we think that you know 20% of people don't want to work office at all anymore and another 60% want to work there part time come and go so we think there's a diminished demand for commercial office space right so there's bee