When every investor in a sector says they're "cautiously optimistic," watch out.
Military planners describe moving equipment and personnel into a region where they plan to fight a war in as “setting the theater.” One might also apply the metaphor to hotel investment in 2023. Giant players like Blackstone and Starwood Capital Group are right now “setting the theater” for financial conquest, lining up capital and short-listing assets they want to buy in case optimal conditions fall into place later this year.
That was a recurring takeaway from panel talks at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) in Los Angeles that ended on Wednesday.
Some of the biggest investors said they’re waiting for a proverbial thunderstorm to clear the air. Today’s uncertainty about U.S. economic markets may remain for at least a few months. Once there’s clarity about the direction of equity and debt markets, then the big players will pull the trigger on billion-dollar hotel portfolio deals.
Blackstone, a private equity firm that historically has been involved in many of the hotel sector’s biggest deals in the past three decades, hasn’t committed to a deal in about seven months.
Uncertainty about interest rates makes potential hotel buyers and debt issuers nervous. Why take out a high-interest-rate loan now if rates may go down later this year?
“Inflation’s going to normalize,” said Scott Trebilco, a senior managing director at Blackstone. “Therefore, people’s real return requirements will come down. It’s a temporarily elevated cost of capital, and ultimately we’ll get to a better place. The macro [macroeconomic environment] is clearly a part of the equation, and the macro is extraordinarily difficult to predict right now.”
In one scenario floated by Morgan Stanley’s economists, a series of non-travel companies may fail to meet the earnings expectations of investment banking analysts when they report fourth-quarter results during the next few weeks, prompting further market turmoil. That, in turn, will make stakeholders too nervous to engage in sales processes for major hotel portfolios.
Bigger Players, Bigger Risks, Bigger Rewards
While “cautious optimism” was the most repeated phrase in the hallways and stages of the conference, institutional money doesn’t tend to think in baby steps. They have the scale to act in anticipation of major shifts in sentiment to get ahead of rivals. Right now, it appears that the smart money in hotel investment is preparing to hedge with a contrarian bet on a large swing toward either boom or bust.
“There’s going to be three or four months of nothing,” Jeffrey Davis, a senior managing director and co-head of the U.S. hotels investment sales capital markets team told a group of private equity and other big money investors. “Then people are either going to see a tidal wave coming, and we’ll see panic, or there’s going to be fear of missing out and everybody’s going to be rushing to buy.”
Assuming the mood music brightens later this year, investors and brokers forecast a boom in buying and selling by the largest private equity firms and asset managers.
“If you look at what’s available for investment right now in Europe, you could buy one of the world’s most attractive portfolios,” said Gilda Perez-Alvarado, global CEO, JLL Hotels & Hospitality, a broker. “There are assets that are irreplaceable and currently available for investment in Paris, London, Rome, Geneva, and Barcelona.”
Supply of the most desirable hotel assets could quickly be exceeded by demand.
Capital is piling up, waiting for hotel acquisitions. A few months ago, Blackstone closed a round of fundraising for one of its lines of investments, raising about $30 billion. The last time it did that, it only raised about $20 billion. A few years earlier, only about $10 billion.
“Demand from Blackstone and Starwood and Noble [Investment Group] to deploy capital is also very strong,” said Steven Goldman, managing director at Starwood Capital Group — whose fingerprints have been on many of the landmark hotel deals of the past couple of decades.
“The Clock Is Ticking”
“We’re all waiting for three or four months to see what happens,” Goldman said. “If it doesn’t look like a tsunami, we may all start to flow in because the fundamentals are inherently good.”
While the most attractive deals are on hiatus, some dealmaking of assets under pressure may begin to materialize soon.
“There are a lot of conversations that we’re starting to have with people who absolutely need to close the trade by the end of the year,” said Perez-Alvarado of JLL, an investment advisory firm that helps manage more than $6.8 billion in hotel assets.
“The clock is ticking,” Perez-Alvarado said. “We [in the hotel industry] have a lot of debt maturities. We have a lot of debt extension tests that are not going to be met. And most importantly, we have a lot of cap ex [capital expenditure, such as for property upkeep and refurbishment] needs in our sector. These are great catalysts for a great wave of product to move. I know there’s been talk about this for a while. But time’s up.”
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Photo credit: Lobby at Omni Los Angeles Hotel at California Plaza. Omni has funded its recent property growth out of cash flow. Source: Omni.