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Home > Analysis and Commentary, Association, Finance, loans, Manufactured Housing Industry, News Item, People, research, Trends > Smoking Gun 3 – Warren Buffett, Kevin Clayton, Clayton Homes, 21st Mortgage Corp Tim Williams – Manufactured Home Lending, Sales Grab?

Smoking Gun 3 – Warren Buffett, Kevin Clayton, Clayton Homes, 21st Mortgage Corp Tim Williams – Manufactured Home Lending, Sales Grab?

May 9th, 2018

WarrenBuffettKevinClaytonTimWilliamsClaytonHomes21stMortgageBerkshireHathawayManufacturedHomeLoansMonopolisticConcernsLogoMHProNews

During a crisis, when people are desperately trying to swim for shore, details can often get lost in the fog of panic and pressure.

Thus, some issues only come into focus after a crisis – like the 2008 housing/mortgage meltdown – has come and gone.

When the Urban Institute or others study the manufactured home industry, and they ask why it is at such relatively low ebb, these two documents ought to be among the top exhibits examined.

When federal officials, investors and others wonder why manufactured homes haven’t done better, given the affordable housing crisis, these two documents are an important starting point.

And when independent manufactured home retailers are wondering about the future – as in which supplier(s) and service providers they should use – an adage ought to be applied.  Namely, that a reasonable predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

This Smoking Gun 3 report and analysis will look at two historic documents:

  • an annual letter from Warren Buffett to his shareholders,
  • married up against the letter from Tim Williams, 21st Mortgage Corp President and CEO, which is a Berkshire Hathaway owned unit, and a ‘sister’ company to Clayton Homes.

 

Quotes from Buffett’s Letter

WarrenBuffettBerkshireHathawayChairmanManufacrturedHOusingINdustryDailyBusinessNewsMHProNewsOur gain in net worth during 2009 was $21.8 billion, which increased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 19.8%. Over the last 45 years (that is, since present management took over) book value has grown from $19 to $84,487, a rate of 20.3% compounded annually,” said Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, in his 2009 annual letter to shareholders.

Here are a few examples of how we apply Charlie’s [Munger, Berkshire Vice-Chairman] thinking at Berkshire: Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate.”

In manufactured housing, that meant that Buffett and Munger had no doubt about the future of the industry.  Investors, take note.

When the financial system went into cardiac arrest in September 2008, Berkshire was a supplier of liquidity and capital to the system, not a supplicant. At the very peak of the crisis, we poured $15.5 billion into a business world that could otherwise look only to the federal government for help,” said that same 2009 annual letter. What did that mean for manufactured housing professionals?

Simply this.

That the 21st Mortgage Corporation letter to independent retailers includes claims that were at best a mistaken, misleading – or even false – assertions.

21stMortgageCorpLogoLetterheadJan302009TimWilliamsRetailersBrokersCutSpecifiedLendingMonopolisticPloyConcernManufacturedHomeDailyBusinessNewsMHProNews

This document was provided as a news tip to MHProNews. To see the PDF of this document, click here or above.

Berkshire made money that year.

Buffett’s conglomerate lent billions that year, his letter said. Yet, 21st had the chutzpah to claim they couldn’t lend to manufactured housing retailers that didn’t carry Clayton product?

Buffett’s own words – plus Tim Williams letter to retailers – seem to be in conflict on claims and/or facts.

Wouldn’t a reasonable person be led to believe that Williams was widening the Berkshire moat by choking off lending to independents?

Indeed, many of those companies later sold off to others – including Clayton – for less than they would in a more normal economic circumstance.

Scores of manufactured home connected companies of all sizes, slid into oblivion. Among those firms were those that had years of prior success, and good service to their customers.

How many retailers failed?  How many communities lost the benefits of having retailers sell homes into their properties?  How many factories supporting those retailers sold out for less, or failed as a result of the above?

 

What Buffett Said – Who’s Responsible?

We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree…Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner-oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations,” said Buffett that year.

But it should also be recalled that Buffett preaches about widening the moat.   See all of the Buffett videos on the key Kevin Clayton videos on the page, linked here, or watch the two videos posted below.

Buffett referenced this from his 2008 annual letter, “We are certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 – and probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the market will rise or fall.”  He chastised many in media for sensationalism, in quoting only have of that, and added: “Any investors who were misled by the sensationalists paid a big price: The Dow closed the day of the letter at 7,063 and finished the year at 10,428.”

Skipping deeper into that 2009 Buffet annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, we find the section that deals with Clayton Homes, and manufactured housing.

 

Smoking Gun 3…”

“Finance and Financial Products

Our largest operation in this sector is Clayton Homes, the country’s leading producer of modular and manufactured homes. Clayton was not always number one: A decade ago the three leading manufacturers were Fleetwood, Champion and Oakwood, which together accounted for 44% of the output of the industry. All have since gone bankrupt. Total industry output, meanwhile, has fallen from 382,000 units in 1999 to 60,000 units in 2009.”

By the way, the industry shipped 372,000+ in 1998 – not 1999. And in 2009, the total shipments were under 50,000 homes  So that last sentence above has two fact errors.

The collapse of so many companies in manufactured housing has several causes.  But cutting off capital – in the form of lending – has to be high on the list, if not on top.

After all, Harvard’s Eric Belksy said credit is the lifeblood of housing.  At the very time – post 2008 – when hundreds of thousands were walking away from site-built housing due to mortgages they couldn’t afford, why didn’t manufactured housing spike?  Does this choking off of lending and capital – reflected in the 21st letter above – explain why?

But why would Berkshire Hathaway units choke off business for the industry, some ask?

Answer – Buffett routinely says, grow the moat, per Kevin Clayton in the video posted below.  Indeed, the Berkshire/Clayton Homes “moat” grew rapidly from 2009 to 2017.

Kevin Clayton says in the video below that in 2011, Clayton Homes was 25 percent of the industry’s production. By the end of 2017, per Berkshire’s data, it was about 50 percent of the industry’s production. Doesn’t cutting off lending explain that rapid growth in market share? Isn’t that a monopolistic ploy – a market share grab – hiding in plain sight?

What Buffett next describes in his annual letter as an overhang – meaning overproduction – of new housing in the U.S.  He said that the severe drop in new housing starts “Paradoxically, this is good news.”

The second reason that manufactured housing is troubled is specific to the industry: the punitive differential in mortgage rates between factory-built homes and site-built homes,” said Buffett, and he gave a disclaimer that the 21st letter did not phrase in a similar way.  “Before you read further, let me underscore the obvious: Berkshire has a dog in this fight, and you should therefore assess the commentary that follows with special care. That warning made, however, let me explain why the rate differential causes problems for both large numbers of lower-income Americans and Clayton.”

The residential mortgage market is shaped by government rules that are expressed by FHA, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Their lending standards are all-powerful because the mortgages they insure can typically be securitized and turned into what, in effect, is an obligation of the U.S. government. Currently buyers of conventional site-built homes who qualify for these guarantees can obtain a 30-year loan at about 5 1⁄4%. In addition, these are mortgages that have recently been purchased in massive amounts by the Federal Reserve, an action that also helped to keep rates at bargain-basement levels.

In contrast, very few factory-built homes qualify for agency-insured mortgages. Therefore, a meritorious buyer of a factory-built home must pay about 9% on his loan. For the all-cash buyer, Clayton’s homes offer terrific value. If the buyer needs mortgage financing, however – and, of course, most buyers do – the difference in financing costs too often negates the attractive price of a factory-built home.

This was another odd statement, as the more accurate phrasing would be “…negates [some of] the attractive price of a factory-built home,” as the Fannie Mae graphic below from 2011 reflects.

fanniemae-2011-chart1-affordable-manufactured-housing-posted-daily-business-news-mhpronews-

The price difference between much of conventional and new manufactured housing is so great, that even with higher interest rates, the manufactured home remains the bargain in both price and monthly payments.

So both Buffett and Williams made several questionable statements, and some outright fact errors.  But the key is that Buffett’s letter reveals that 21st could have had the money they told their retailers they didn’t have.  The result, was a contraction of credit that killed off businesses or forced many to sell out for less.  Isn’t that monopoly power at work?

 

Two Sides of the Story

It is important to note, that we’ve given several voices with Berkshire Hathaway brands and the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) numerous opportunities to explain these seemingly contradictory matters, in writing and/or on stage and by video.

Is there is another explanation that what’s shown in this analysis?  If so, please, let MHI – which has been viewed by voices inside and outside of manufactured housing as dominated by Berkshire Hathaway for years – Mr. Buffett, or leaders of any of Berkshire owned manufactured home brands explain it.

They’ve repeatedly demurred, and we’ve documented several of those outreaches.

So, quoting directly from Berkshire Hathaway or Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) source documents is the next best thing to presenting “both sides” of the story.  Facts, balance, evidence all matters.

 

Back to the Buffett 2009 Annual Letter

Last year I told you why our [manufactured home] buyers – generally people with low incomes – performed so well as credit risks. Their attitude was all-important: They signed up to live in the home, not resell or refinance it. Consequently, our buyers usually took out loans with payments geared to their verified incomes (we weren’t making “liar’s loans”) and looked forward to the day they could burn their mortgage. If they lost their jobs, had health problems or got divorced, we could of course expect defaults. But they seldom walked away simply because house values had fallen. Even today, though job-loss troubles have grown, Clayton’s delinquencies and defaults remain reasonable and will not cause us significant problems.”

We have tried to qualify more of our customers’ loans for treatment similar to those available on the site-built product. So far we have had only token success. Many families with modest incomes but responsible habits have therefore had to forego home ownership simply because the financing differential attached to the factory-built product makes monthly payments too expensive. If qualifications aren’t broadened, so as to open low-cost financing to all who meet down-payment and income standards, the manufactured-home industry seems destined to struggle and dwindle.”

Once more, by way of analysis, Fannie Mae’s data is different.  But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also had similar statistics, which demonstrated that even with a somewhat higher finance rate, because of the far lower home price, monthly payments on manufactured homes are still typically considerably less.

But there’s another problem with Buffett’s statement above. The manufactured home (MH) industry has experienced prior shipment levels far higher then – or now – and MH did it with higher interest rates than conventional housing. Pardon me, sir, but shouldn’t that paragraph be rephrased?

TimWilliams21stMortgageCEOMHProNews

Tim Williams, CEO, 21st Mortgage Corp. Photo credit, MHProNews.com

Furthermore, Tim Williams of 21st Mortgage took steps that several sources indicated would contribute to the Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs) not making an earlier, and more robust entry, into the manufactured housing marketplace. 

That report, which quotes from Williams and others, is linked below.

In other words, there are several third parties and multiple sources – including Williams – that made it clear that Berkshire operatives took steps that could predictably cause the GSEs not to enter manufactured housing earlier, or more robustly.

Duty To Serve, “Complete Waste of Time” per Tim Williams, CEO/21st Mortgage; POTUS Trump, Warren Buffett Insight$

As Mark Weiss, president and CEO of the Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform (MHARR) has said, every day that the GSEs don’t robustly provide chattel and other lending for manufactured housing is a gift to Berkshire Hathaway.

Bingo.

Continuing from the Buffett 2009 annual letter:

Even under these conditions, I believe Clayton will operate profitably in coming years, though well below its potential. We couldn’t have a better manager than CEO Kevin Clayton, who treats Berkshire’s interests as if they were his own. Our product is first-class, inexpensive and constantly being improved. Moreover, we will continue to use Berkshire’s credit to support Clayton’s mortgage program, convinced as we are of its soundness. Even so, Berkshire can’t borrow at a rate approaching that available to government agencies. This handicap will limit sales, hurting both Clayton and a multitude of worthy families who long for a low-cost home. In the following table, Clayton’s earnings are net of the company’s payment to Berkshire for the use of its credit. Offsetting this cost to Clayton is an identical amount of income credited to Berkshire’s finance operation and included in “Other Income.” The cost and income amount was $116 million in 2009 and $92 million in 2008.

 

Summing Up “Smoking Gun 3”

Tim Williams claimed in the letter sent to retailers that 21st didn’t have sufficient access to money.

Yet, Warren Buffett said that money was being provided to Clayton and affiliates.

Buffett also said that same year, that they loaned money to others.  If they loaned it to others, then why not to 21st and through them, to independents? ## (News, analysis, and commentary.)

(Third-party images are provided under fair use guidelines.)

Related Reports:

Manufactured Housing – Regulatory, Other Roadblocks and Potential Solutions, Up for Growth Research, plus Urban Institute Report Revisited

 

LATonyKovachMHProNews-com-

L. A. ‘Tony’ Kovach addressing industry professionals in an educational session.

By L.A. “Tony” Kovach – Masthead commentary, for MHProNews.com.

Tony is the multiple award-winning managing member of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC, the parent company to MHProNews, and MHLivingNews.com.

Office 863-213-4090 |Connect on LinkedIn:
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