So you’ve finally decided to stop dreaming about it and start your own business.  You have an idea, a solid plan, the right partners/vendors/contacts, and a gut full of determination. What’s left? Oh yes, coming up with the capital to get it all started. (It’s always the little details, right?)

Raising the money to start a new business is a challenge as old as entrepreneurship itself.  Unless you’re already financially independent (in which case you’re probably not looking to fund a start-up), most small businesses require more cash to get started than you’re likely sitting on right now.  Add to that an economy that is still sputtering, and you quickly realize you’re going to need to be creative.  Finding money can be such a frustrating task that it is the step where many ventures die without ever getting a chance to take off.

So in case you’re wondering if it’s worth the effort, let me share a story that might motivate you. Albert Ueltschi was still in high school during the Great Depression. His dream was learning to fly. So he opened a hamburger stand to earn some money. Using that stand as collateral, he later borrowed $3,500, learned to fly, and bought a bi-wing airplane. According to his profile in a book by Robert P. Miles, Ueltschi sold airplane rides, put on air-shows, and eventually was flying clients around the country. Then in 1951, he leveraged those earnings to borrow another $15,000 to start FlightSafety International, a company to train pilots. Fast forward many years, Ueltschi ended up selling the company to Warren Buffet in 1996 for a reported $1.5 billion and is now considered the father of modern aviation training.

While I’m not promising a sure-fire method for becoming a billionaire, there is at least one lesson to be learned from this college-dropout billionaire: It was worth the money he borrowed to open that hamburger stand.

In that spirit of entrepreneurship, this next series of blog posts is dedicated to discussing 8 practical ways to finance your own business.

#1 Your Own Money

Unfortunately, the U.S. still lags behind much of the world when it comes to personal savings. Projections for 2013 indicate that the average U.S. household will only save 4% of its total income. Compared to 16% in France and 31% in China, this leaves most Americans without the cushion they need when they need it.

Without getting too deep into the many personal and economic reasons for this, there is a bitter pill of truth we must acknowledge. For many of us, the discipline of setting aside a portion of our income for rainy days, future expenses, or, in this case, funding a small business has been sacrificed in exchange for a culture of instant-gratification and an insatiable lust for our daily coffee concoction or tech gadget du jour.

But if you truly believe in your vision, maybe it’s worth saving up to get it off the ground. From garage sales and side jobs to eating out less often, there are plenty of ways to put aside money each month. A little patience and some creativity will go a long way.

In some cases, would-be entrepreneurs already have savings, but prefer not to touch it if there is a way to use someone else’s money instead. I understand the logic, but keep in mind that most investors won’t help you fund your business if you aren’t willing to put any “skin in the game” yourself. Should you later require external funding sources (some of which we’ll cover in later posts), they will likely require you to put your money where your mouth is.  So maybe your first tough decision as Founder-CEO is to start saving so you can do just that.

Next week: #2 Lines of Credit

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I am often asked about what I think the future holds in terms of the energy market. In many respects, the energy outlook for the U.S. is somewhat grim. Political stalemate has really gone a long way to keeping us from developing a good energy policy. In the meantime other nations of the world are scrambling like mad to build energy infrastructure. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as the largest worldwide consumer of energy. Forecasts for energy consumption by country are available from the EIA.

China is building power plants as fast as they can go. China is buying coal contracts wherever they can find them. We are seeing pressure on the prices in other industries dependent on coal, like steel. As the developing world’s population urbanizes and becomes wealthier, demand for energy is going to be ever more acute. There is no evidence to suggest that supply can keep pace with demand, at least not in anything that could be considered short-term. So, I think it is inevitable that energy prices of all kinds will rise and there is a lot of evidence to suggest that they will rise sharply.

Surging demand for traditional sources of energy coupled with artificial political pressures from regulation like the RPS standards adopted in many states in the U.S. as well as countries around the world are likely to cause a disproportionate focus on renewable power. Despite drawbacks that have kept renewables in the background as cheaper and more efficient fossil fuels dominated the energy market, renewables appear well-positioned for favor as energy issues gain prominence worldwide.

Opportunists will find a silver lining in the energy cloud however, as demand increases the pressure in the market. It could be a strong play to invest in countries with proven coal reserves (fossil fuel sources of energy, coal, natural gas and oil are likely to remain significant until supplies become constrained). Ancillary industries involved in carbon sequestration, transportation of energy products, or strong low-cost leaders in the green energy space could be wise investment opportunities.

For more information, I recommend former Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham’s latest book, Lights Out!: Ten Myths About (and Real Solutions to) America’s Energy Crisis
.

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Well, looks like it might. Angels Out of America.

This is one of the most hurtful and foolish suggestions under the notion of “reform” that I have ever seen. Let’s protect people by cutting off their access to funds for creating commerce, jobs, and contributing to the limping economic recovery.  Who thinks these things up? If you are reading this before something this harmful to entrepreneurs passes, please contact your representatives and appeal for clemency.

Follow up:

A stroke of good news for entrepreneurs and investors, the proposed changes noted above did NOT make it into the Senate version of the bill passed last week.  Read about it from the Wall Street Journal.

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On November 17, 2009, I was invited to give a lecture at Utah Valley University as part of the Entrepreneurship Lecture Series put on by the Entrepreneurship Institute, part of the University’s Woodbury School of Business. My remarks were titled Successful Funding: Thinking Like an Investor, and they included many of the concepts and principles that I have used both in my teaching and consulting as well as with the many companies I have started, funded or participated in during my career.

Lecture Notes:

1. I truly believe that entrepreneurs are at the heart of the nation’s economic recovery. They provide job growth, are the engine of creative enterprise and fuel growth in the GDP. When everyone else sees despair, entrepreneurs see hope.

2. So, why do entrepreneurs find it so difficult to raise money? Well, these are difficult times for anyone to raise money, but I believe that one of the biggest reasons entrepreneurs fail in their fundraising efforts is that they do not think like their investors. They are enamored with their venture and forget to look out for the interests of those that they would like to invest with them. Investors intuitively evaluate risk and entrepreneurs often fail to adequately address that risk for investors—or more importantly, how they will execute their business plan to replace those risks with increases in fundamental value.

3. Entrepreneurs may also limit their opportunities for raising capital by making mistakes in how they found the company in the first place or in how they raise their first investment capital. Venture capitalists are interested in companies that fit certain criteria in which they specialize.

4. With the first dollar of investment money, the Senior Management of the company no longer run only one business—they run two. One business (or one side of the business) is the revenue and earnings side that they have been managing all along. The other is the business of understanding and managing their shareholders. I discussed this in greater detail in my post entitled The Kiss of Death.

5. Volatility in the price of your stock can negatively impact the growth of a young company. Understanding the psychology behind investment decisions, including the intense psychological pressure to sell as the delta between what was paid for the stock and the current price increases, can be a key to sparing your company big headaches.

6. Companies are always looking for (and predicting for themselves) inflection in their growth.  No business plan includes a chart of market shrinkage or stock price decline.

7. What many entrepreneurs fail to realize is that inflection and subsequent growth, the hockey stick, is not so much the result of good fortune as it is the result of building a solid base of fundamental value. This is the premise upon which much of my consulting is based: the Pillars of Inflection Success Model. As fundamental value is built within a company, risk decreases and inflection and growth follow naturally.

8. In order to understand the economic landscape in which you are attempting to raise money, you need an understanding of the mechanisms driving the economy. The macroeconomic picture is a sum of all the microeconomic transactions taking place. The current administration is devoted to economic and monetary policies that are more in line with John Maynard Keynes, than the free-market principles of Milton Friedman. That plays a big role in establishing the economic climate as you go out to raise money.

9. At the beginning, I mentioned that entrepreneurs see hope when others see despair. Even in these rather challenging economic times, entrepreneurs who seek for the opportunities that are created as economic forces shift are the ones who will be successful and who will play the biggest role in the economic recovery.

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appraiserHousing starts are up, signs for foreclosure and loan mod help are springing up like weeds, government money is available for first time buyers, prices are extremely favorable, so why isn’t the real estate market making a speedy recovery? Well on top of record joblessness and frightening indications that the commercial market is about to follow residential in its landslide of foreclosure activity, appraisers are taking increasingly more heat for clogging up the real estate market recovery.

Why turn the heat up on appraisers? Well, appraisers took some of the blame for the sub-prime collapse since their appraisals were used to determine the value of homes that in hindsight were clearly overvalued. Some resisted the pressure to deliver high appraisals and some played along. It is probably a little heavy handed to call appraisers out for not preventing the market bubble, but I think it is much more relevant to call them out for not aiding the recovery.  In the New York Times article Realtors: Blame the Appraisers, real estate agents are complaining that there is a ready supply of sales between willing buyers and sellers, but appraisals are fouling up the transaction with appraisals that are safe and designed to protect the appraiser–i.e., too low. This prevents the real estate transaction as a result of preventing the mortgage lending transaction.

Wall Street Journal reporters James Hagerty and Ruth Simon recently noted in Appraisals Roil Real Estate Deals, that “Appraisals are becoming one of the biggest obstacles for Americans trying to sell their homes, refinance their mortgages or tap into home-equity credit lines.”

I wonder if it isn’t time to rethink the role of appraisers and appraisals in the marketplace. The lenders who used appraisals to underwrite sub-prime NINJA (No-Income-No-Job-or-Assets) loans had no claim on the appraisers when these loans went into foreclosure. So, what purpose did the appraisal serve? Even though the loan was conditioned on the appraisal, there was no protection or accountability afforded by it. In years past, and certainly during the building of the bubble, the sale itself was part of the appraisal—after all what better indicator of a home’s value was there than that someone was willing to pay the asking price.

Fraud by both lenders and borrowers, and fear by the appraisal industry changed all of that and comparable sales were given the lion’s share of the weight for appraisal valuations. It appears that the system has broken down again. In a market flooded with foreclosures and distressed sales, with unprecedented volatility (since last year existing home values have fallen 15.4%), and the objectivity of appraisers compromised on every side, how can an appraisal possibly reflect a property’s value accurately. More importantly, how can it even be considered a relevant underwriting criterion?

Appraisers face pressure from lenders to be conservative and from buyers and sellers to simply get out of the way of the sale. The value of their traditional tools is eroding. Historical comparable sales may be irrelevant because of market price volatility. Fewer total sales and more sales being transacted privately, means less information about real comparable sales activity is available for appraisers on the MLS.

In the midst of these difficulties for appraisers, Freddie Mac (FHLMC) has issued a new appraisal “code” which effectively says that the secondary mortgage market will only buy loans where the appraisal was ordered by the lender. Also, you better hope you get the right appraisal the first time, because ordering a second appraisal just because the first one came in low (even if you suspect the first appraiser was misinformed or was biased for some reason) is no longer allowed.

The impact of appraisers in the marketplace is certainly underreported. In my opinion, the entire appraisal industry could use an overhaul, but thanks to new legislation it looks like that will take an act of Congress. If you are looking for a mortgage, you might want to check out your lender’s track record of rejections due to appraisals. This becomes just one more reason that I have focused my real estate investing on REOs–at the bottom end of the price spectrum and with lenders as the seller instead of the one dictating terms to the borrower, appraisals are almost never even an issue.

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yin-yang“Take care of the business you know and the stock price will take care of itself.”

Every time I hear this line, I cringe. This perspective is so damaging to a company with a shareholder base of any size, it truly is the kiss of death. What most senior managers don’t understand is that the moment they accept equity funding, they now run two businesses: one designed to create value for customers and another whose sole aim is to build value for shareholders. (You can read more about best practices for increasing shareholder value in my article: What About Those Pesky Shareholders?) The first key to success in leading a growth company with a shareholder market is to recognize that you are running two sides of the business. It is like you are running two companies with linked but separate goals—and neither one can really succeed without the other.

First, you manage the business you are used to—the revenues and earnings side that comes from solid execution and smart decision-making. Leadership teams may be already adept at this. After all, this is part of the reason they attracted the shareholders in the first place. Second, you manage the shareholders and the stock price. Why is the second side so critical? Success in managing the stock price means you have fulfilled the purpose of your company (add value for
shareholders) and increased the value of your company. Senior Management likely do not even understand that this side of the business exists, let alone how to execute their obligations to it. Familiar or not, Senior Management
must embrace the fact that they have this dual responsibility or else reap the weighty and unpleasant consequences of ignoring it.

I have seen many many companies led by individuals who professed the attitude that somehow “the stock price will take care of itself.” Of the many examples we could cite, perhaps none is more illustrative than that of Robert L. Nardelli.

Bob Nardelli, was a talented executive who joined GE in 1971 and climbed the ranks to become the President and CEO of GE Power Systems. He was mentored by famed GE CEO, Jack Welch, and was even referred to as “Little Jack.” When Jack Welch retired as CEO, Bob Nardelli was one of a threesome on the shortlist to be Jack’s successor. In the end, Bob came in as a runner-up. Being passed over for the top spot at GE, however, was anything but a career killer for Nardelli. Bob was a man in demand, and was almost immediately extended an offer to take the helm of The Home Depot (for a paltry $38 Million, plus bonuses).

The Home Depot was struggling, but Bob was off and running. He was righting the Home Depot ship operationally and turning it into a real money maker. Under his leadership, The Home Depot doubled its sales and profits between 2000 and 2005 (revenue jumped from $45.7 billion to $81.5 billion, while profits leapt from $2.6 billion to $5.8 billion). Operationally, Nardelli was a rock star.

But, what about Bob’s other business?

During the same period, share price fell 6%. By contrast, shares at Lowe’s had grown by 200%. Pressure from shareholders forced the board of directors to push for Nardelli to alter his compensation package in order to tie his salary more closely to stock price performance. Nardelli countered complaining that “share price was outside his control.” He was not without support in this position with many crying that his charge was to run the company, not the stock price.

The shareholders disagreed. Their scrutiny may have been attracted by Bob’s generous compensation package—CEO compensation is a favorite bone to pick with shareholder activists. Truthfully, his pay wasn’t the key issue, theirs was. The shareholder’s value wasn’t growing despite increasing profits and revenues, and Nardelli was forced to resign. Now there will probably be few tears shed for Nardelli’s fall from grace. After all, an estimated $210 Million in severance has made him the poster child for golden parachutes.

It appears Nardelli will continue to swim in deep water. In 2007, after his departure, Bob was offered the job of CEO at Chrysler (where, incidentally his pay was tied to a successful turnaround after the Daimler Benz divestiture), and he spent much of the end of 2008 before Congress alongside GM and Ford requesting a Federal bailout of the auto industry.The end of that story has been all over the news during recent months. Let’s hope Bob develops a shareholder value perspective under the thumb of Fiat and the U.S. governemnt.

The moral of the story is that once Bob declined his responsibility to increase shareholder value, it was the kiss of death and no matter how stellar earnings were, it could not save him from the repercussions of not shepherding the
share price.

Senior management teams are obligated to understand that shareholders drive the value of the company! The behavior of the shareholders directly affects the value of the company whether you have ten shareholders or ten
thousand. Managing your shareholders directly affects the stock price and your ability to raise money and grow the business. What is the mechanism for this relationship? The value of a company is a function of the price and volume
of its stock. The behavior of your shareholders—past, present and future—affects the supply and demand of your stock, and ultimately the value of your company. Do they buy? Do they sell? What are their intentions? When you truly look at managing shareholder value as the second side of your business, you are not satisfied with paltry Investor Relations efforts. When I ask companies about their relationships with shareholders, I sometimes hear back, “Oh, we hire that out.”

What!?

If you understand that investor relations is more than just a department (and is in fact more than merely “investor relations”), that it truly is the second half of your business, if you understand that it is like the Yin to the Yang of serving your
customers in order to create revenues and earnings, then you have to ask yourself, does it really make sense to subcontract out such a vital part of your company’s success? Would you try to hire out your company’s ability to generate earnings? Of course not.

The shareholder side of the business is at the heart of the strategic vision senior management has for the company. It must be done right in its totality. Which means that it simply requires too much care and attention to allow someone else
to do it for you.

Another question I often ask is, how much do you spend on marketing and selling your product or service? Answers vary, of course. Then I ask, Now tell me what your budget is for improving your stock price—how much are you willing
to spend to market your stock? Consider a company with 10 million shares. If they could get the stock price to go up even $1 per share, it would be worth ten million dollars in valuation. But, how many companies dedicate even $50,000
or $100,000 to this side of the business?

If you would like to read more about my best practice methodologies for understanding and communicating with shareholders as well as developing your stock price, I recommend you read What About Those Pesky Shareholders, which is my free gift to you. If you like what you see, please feel free to contact me and let’s see if our Pillars of Inflection consulting model, which advises growth companies on the implementation of best practice methodologies for increasing shareholder value, is right for you.

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The deluge of foreclosures on the market are not just impacting over-leveraged, underwater homeowners. Renters and the rental market are taking quite a beat down in several different directions.

You might think that a rash of foreclosures would bolster the rental market. All of those evictees have to live somewhere, right? Landlords should be flooded with applications. But, they aren’t. Actually, in the economics of a recession, rental vacancies typically go up. In fact, the NLIHC estimates that rental property foreclosures may account for as high as 40% of all foreclosures. Some of that is due to the fact that rental rates mirrored home sales during the bubble, also becoming bloated and overvalued. Some of it is due to the fact that systemic job losses rooted in the housing crisis are now an equal oportunity plague on renters and homeowners. A job loss affects ability to pay for housing (typically the largest single expense) of any type. When times get tight, everyone sucks it in, tightens their belt, and young renters move home or double up with roommates. Families scale down to more affordable housing (the most affordable rental properties are experiencing the lowest vacancy rates as you would expected). Areas of California and elsewhere around the country are seeing “tent cities” and shanty towns spring up as foreclosure victims simply camp out.

In a double-whammy, renters who carry no blame—they make their payments on time, they follow the terms of their contract—can still fall victim to the financial difficulties of their landlords. Renters living in properties that have been lost to foreclosure often suffer as repairs and maintenance needs go unmet and in some cases unexpected eviction notices come from new property owners. Renters often don’t even get the grace period for eviction that homeowners would receive.

New legislation is mitigating some of the risk for renters as long as they meet the right conditions. Local governments led the charge by introducing measures requiring notices to renters of foreclosures, requiring new landlords to negotiate new rental contracts and implementing grace periods for renters before they can be forced to move.

Then earlier this week, President Obama signed a new bill into law that includes provisions for renters on the federal level. The bill prohibits renters from being kicked out of their home if they have a lease. Tenants are allowed to stay until their lease expires. Even if the renter doesn’t have a lease they are allowed to stay living there for 90 days after the property has been foreclosed on. In an exception, renters could still have to move before their lease is up if the bank sells the property to someone who wants to move into the property themselves.

What does this mean for real estate investors? Well, the distressed real estate market can be a thorny place and the breadth and depth of the emotional distress can often overshadow the basic economics of financial distress which create the opportunity for investors. In Distressed Property Investing, I show readers how to navigate the tempestuous waters of investing in foreclosures. My new book, Foreclosure Investing in the New Economy delves even deeper and gives readers a wealth of information on avoiding common pitfalls and stacking the deck of probability for success in their favor.

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Point of Inflection

Point of Inflection

In my consulting work we use a proprietary methodology designed to teach companies about the fundamental value drivers that underpin topline growth, essentially balancing the purpose of the company to create value for customers and shareholders. We call this methodology the Pillars of Inflection™ because they represent critical supports to the hockey stick growth everyone is hoping to achieve.

An inflection point is the fulcrum of hockey-stick growth and inflection is caused by increasing fundamental intrinsic value. As we start taking companies through their initial diagnostic, we lead with five question designed to get at the heart of their understanding about the interrelated parts of their business that impact their capacity to deliver both customer and shareholder value. The first pillar is “Service,” and the five questions are these:

  1. Whom do you serve and what is it that they want to do?
  2. What solution(s) do you provide so that they can do what they need to do?
  3. How do you know you are doing a great job?
  4. How do we provide this solution?
  5. How do we organize in order to provide this solution?

Honest answers to these questions tell us a lot about how clear the vision is within the company. In order to translate these questions from merely a diagnostic into a plan of action, we ask the same questions again, with the following variation:

  1. Whom should you serve and what is it that they want to do?
  2. What solution(s) should you provide so that they can do what they need to do?
  3. How should you know that you are doing a great job?
  4. How should you provide this solution?
  5. How should you organize in order to provide this solution?

A relentless focus on the customer at the center of the business is one key to dramatic growth. Customer value is the first chapter in the story of inflection. More about the key elements in the Pillars of Inflection methodology is forthcoming. Subscribe to this feed if you don’t want to miss it.

Thanks to Eric Denna for his contribution to this process.
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The housing bubble is a totally ubiquitous concept. Everybody has heard about it now, and most are even happy to share their opinions (I am no exception). But what about the Municipal Budget Bubble? County governments and cities to some degree receive revenues from property taxes. Housing values across the country have fallen 21.8% since 2006. Urban areas have fallen 30.7%, and some areas have fallen 50% or more. Economists for the Wall Street Journal report that housing may have another 10% to go before it hits bottom. 20% of homeowners are now upside down on their mortgages and affluent homeowners with homes too expensive for government backing are being pummeled.

So, what happens to the property tax base when housing values plummet? Property tax revenues also fall. There are lots of folks out there who don’t feel right paying the same amount of property tax as they did when their homes values were 30% higher. Some counties have taken measures to stabilize their budgets during volatile markets, but only to the chagrin of residents chafing at paying a marginally higher tax rate instead of seeing the millage rate float with their property values.

With municipal budgets feeling the pinch, what happens to local school districts? What happens when local government budgets no longer allow debt service on municipal bonds? (These bonds have long been considered a safe haven for investors looking for a protected stream of income.) Well, for one thing they lose their credit rating; Moodys just gave a negative outlook to the credit of ALL local governments. They can default on their obligations and even declare bankruptcy as Jefferson County, Alabama is likely to do after its $3.2 billion in sewer bonds were rated as junk when Jefferson reported that it could not pay. Anyone remember the Orange County bankruptcy in 1994?

I am convinced that the next 18 months will bring increasing distress to over-leveraged municipalities, the burden of borrowing money will increase for taxpayers as municipal bond rates increase. We will likely see municipal bankruptcies and feel a very localized pinch in services provided by our cities, counties and school districts. City and county job losses will rise as the aftershocks of the housing bubble ripple through our communities. For investors, I believe that muni bonds are no longer the safe haven they might have been in the past. In an economy headed for inflation, the best investments will continue to be hard assets, which is why I am focused on REO real estate where the purchase price falls below replacement costs.

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In my recent article Opportunity in Troubled Times, I made the case that foreclosure volume is headed up before it heads down. There has been a recent trend to view pre-foreclosures–short sales, loan modifications, workout agreements, etc.–as an area of focus both for individuals scrambling to avoid foreclosure and for investors looking to capitalize on the distressed property opportunity. So which end of the pool should you play in? Where is the best opportunity to make money and how can you tell?

Big disclaimer first: I am not, nor do I have access to, a crystal ball. I can’t tell you what the future holds at the macro level any more than I can tell you what the right move is in your particular situation.  BUT, I can point to a few data points that I am using to guide my decisions in a marketplace as rife with opportunities as any I have lived through (like the 8 to 1 ratio of REOs to short sales).

First, I truly believe that most of what we see in the news, like HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan’s wistful hope for price recovery in 2009, underestimates the magnitude of the foreclosure situation. For example, in California and uptick in home sales is reported in a way that offers false hope in light of the deluge of overhanging foreclosures about to hit that state.

Second, are short sales theoretically better for banks and borrowers than foreclosure? Sure. Borrowers keep a full blown foreclosure off their record and banks can avoid the cost of foreclosure (as much as $50,000 or more). But short selling is also a gamble. As Mike Bell nicely points out, attempting a short sale often can’t be completed before foreclosure sets in. I would add simply that the volume of defaults we are seeing now makes what was difficult for banks before–evaluating short sale offers ahead of foreclosure auctions–now impossibly difficult.

Third, loan mods aren’t necessarily preventing foreclosures. In 2008, the redefault rate was nearly 60% within 8 months. In other words, when the Administration calls for more loan mods, they are not fixing anything, they are just delaying the inevitable.

Fourth, I believe that you capture your margins as an investor when you buy distressed property, not when you sell. Your selling price is nearly always a function of the market you are in. So, are overwhelmed lenders more likely to sell low during pre-foreclosure? Or, after the property hits their books as REO? In the spectrum of pain that banks feel over properties in some stage of distress and foreclosure, where is it the most acute? My contention is that as banks exhaust every alternative, they are forced to abandon the belief that the value of their loan has any resemblance to the real value of the property.  For that reason, my efforts continue to be focused on REOs as the best opportunity to buy at a level that gives me the highest chances of a return.

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