Overseas Funding & Chasing Rainbows

As featured on: Property Observer

The lure of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow certainly attracts many property developers.

The promise of large tranches of cheap off shore funding with minimal strings attached and for no particular reason they have chosen your project to invest it in. Who could resist? Often, when it all seems too good to be true, it usually is.

The finance industry also has its share of doubtful operators who specialise in taking large upfront fees while offering developers the promised pot of gold, and while these overnight finance ”experts” have a case to answer, I struggle to sympathise with the developer who heard what he wanted to hear and proceeded to run head first into a brick wall under his own steam.

The combination of the developer’s entrepreneurial spirit, optimism and confidence that they have the skills to deliver the project while overcoming all the potential obstacles, gives them the courage to borrow millions of dollars to turn a piece of land into something the market will buy.

And those qualities are all admirable and contribute to their successes, particularly when you consider that the majority of Australians will spend their whole lives in employment, reliant on a weekly pay cheque and that less than 1 on 4 take the leap to start their own business.

However, of all the business opportunities that you could take on, like buying a franchise, leaving the big firm and starting your own consultancy, or opening a café, only a select few take on the risks of property development.

Risking substantial capital and borrowing significant debt just to make a pre-tax profit of between 18-25% on the total funds utilised! Frankly, I take my hat off to those property developers because there are a lot of obstacles to overcome and a lot of variables that can go either way.

They say “the harder you work the luckier you get” but it is this innate sense of optimism peculiar to developers that seems to enable them to take on these levels of risk and more often than not win.

Unfortunately sometimes that optimism goes into over-drive or is born out of naivety and many developers live by the mantra “think big and multiply” only to hit an even bigger wall.

The problem with all this optimism/naivety is their reliance upon those factors at play outside of their control, and the amount of energy and time spent chasing those rainbows. Imagine if they put that energy and time into the core elements of their business creating a better product and the mechanisms to sell and deliver it?

Having seen quite a few developers chase those rainbows I thought about what in particular motivates an otherwise smart person to throw $20,000 – $50,000 in non-refundable application fees at a so called expert finance broker who has no fixed office address or one who has just appeared in town with a “cheap offshore funding” offer, neither of them with even one reference from a happy customer.

The only answer I could come up with is that ultimately they want “Dumb Money”, that in return for a modest dividend/profit share/interest rate doesn’t ask questions and leaves them to largely do as they please with the funds.

But the truth is that if their project was that good and the returns they were offering truly reflected the market risks, a local investor would be more likely to open their chequebook.

What we constantly observe is investors looking to max their return while taking as little risk as possible, which is only natural, while the developer chases large chunks of naïve money that they can manipulate to only provide low returns for what is actually a higher risk than they appreciate. While this reflects typical market forces at work, I question the level of the so-called sophistication on both sides of the equation.

Some people find satisfaction in making money through others losses, but a zero sum game where one party loses and other wins happens all too often in business, including development. As Henry Ford apparently said, “a business that makes only money is not a good business’.

I don’t believe that it is too idealistic to think that deals can be structured in such a way that both parties can win. While Mr Developer can argue that those investors would only otherwise be getting 2%pa in the bank, the fairness comes into it when you compare the risk of that return versus the risk their money is exposed to and the reward being paid.

I have made the case in a previous commentary that developers need to work harder on ensuring that they secure the services of skills consultants/advisors in those areas where they lack the necessary expertise in order to ensure they achieve their targets and this is another instance where too much energy is expended on saving a cost that is disproportionate to the projected outcome.

We are lucky that in Australia there is quite a deep market of passive investors willing to take equity positions on development projects. So it makes you wonder what developers could achieve if they used the right consultants and redirected their energy/time into enhancing their core skill sets, how much more successful their business would be in 5-10 years from now?

This is not to say that you should just accept the finance framework that is offered to you by your local bank manager. The HoldenCAPITAL business is based around pushing boundaries on finance to optimise project profits, we certainly don’t recommend that you don’t base your whole business model around that elusive pot of gold sitting at the end of the rainbow.