“Sometimes it’s best to hide in plain sight.” – David Estes.
Warren Buffett’s ‘moat principle’ has been laid out by others in their investment commentary, such as was covered by Seeking Alpha in last night’s market report.
The structure and operations of Buffett’s brands that he owns outright, or has a significant stake in, lends itself to this moat principle that he’s spoken about.
There are industry voices that have expressed the concern that the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) lends itself as a vehicle by which Buffett can dominate manufactured housing. MHI’s structure is powered by dues and an executive committee that is made up of four people. Two have been Berkshire Hathaway team members for years, the current chairman is a prior Clayton Homes division president. Buffett’s dominating MHI in plain sight.
Progressive and conservative thinkers and sources alike have observed, criticized, and analyzed how MHI does the will and work of Buffett.
Other recent MHI executive committee members have included companies that have significant business ties with one or more Buffett-dominated manufactured home brands. That’s included Nathan Smith, SSK Communities, and Howard Walker, JD, Equity LifeStyle Properties.
An issue that MHProNews spotlighted some years ago has been the relatively slow growth, low volume, and high regulatory risks in the manufactured home industry. These are factors that were named by U.S. Bank when they withdrew from actively pursuing their otherwise profitable lending in manufactured housing.
We’ve heard for some time the whispers about the now announced closure of U.S. Bank’s indirect manufactured housing lending program. To protect sources, we’ve been unable to do more than hint before today about what is now a done deal. We didn’t have a date, but knew it was ‘coming.’
When MHI’s president, Richard “Dick” Jennison was asked about growth rates with a softball interview question, (see video, below) Jennison argued for slow growth.
Why? Isn’t it obvious that more rapid growth could have been done sustainably and responsibly?
What other major industry association executive wants to argue for slow growth for an industry that was previously projected to become the dominant form of housing in the U.S. by 2010?
The Moat Formula Elements, Applied to Manufactured Housing…?
The formula for slowing and/or choking off manufactured housing growth, and gaining a bigger control over the industry has been expressed like this.
- Relatively low sales volume, compared to potential and the demand for affordable housing.
- High regulatory burdens and risks.
- For a time, choking off lending.
Each of these factors forced closures, and sparked consolidations. That’s arguably a polite way of saying that small businesses were forced to sell out to larger ones.
Aren’t these elements in keeping with Buffett’s moat principles?
Manufactured Housing Industry Potential
The National Association of Realtors (NAR) ® Chief Economist Lawrence Yun estimates there is a need for some 8 million affordable housing units.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has a very similar estimate of 8 million affordable housing units needed.
Several tech giant current and/or prior owners managers have concluded that factory built homes is the best way to close that gap.
Contradictions and logical conflicts have been spotlighted by MHProNews that can be boiled down to some basic principles, explained to us by various MHI and other industry members.
1) Berkshire Hathaway choked off lending, as the Smoking Gun Parts One and Two from 21st Mortgage documents. That forced hundreds of manufactured home retail closures.
2) ‘The big companies have figured out how to use MHI to get the smaller companies to pay for what the big companies want.’ Ouch, that would mean those small to mid-sized companies are feeding the hand that bites their own.
3) ‘Whether or not MHI succeeds at passing the Preserving Access to Manufactured Housing Act, the Berkshire Hathaway units benefit.’ Why? Because either regulatory burdens force consolidation, and if they ever pass it, they can then charge higher rates and fees on their loans.
4) More than 3 dozen were in the room in San Antonio when then MHI Chairman Tim Williams explained why he didn’t neither 21st nor Vanderbilt provided the GSEs with the data they said they said they needed to more responsibly and robustly enter manufactured housing chattel (home only, personal property) lending. Yet, MHI claimed to be working to advance DTS. Really? When their chairman, and two largest personal property lenders failed to practically support it? How does that apparent contradiction work in practice?
5) MHI was pushing for the DOE energy standards, even though MHARR and third party research demonstrated the harm it could cause the industry and hundreds of thousands of potential consumers. They eventually pivoted, but only after months of public pressure.
6) MHI was silent on replacing Pam Danner at HUD, again until months of pressure apparently forced them to pivot. Note that MHI doesn’t typically admit they are pivoting, they just do it.
7) MHI had a reported opportunity to favorably modify the MLO rule by agreement, which hurt all sized operations, but disproportionately hurt the independents.
They declined the negotiated deal, and have pursued enactment of Preserving Access for over 5 years and at a cost of millions of dollars. They did so, even though a former MHI Government Relations VP stated in writing to MHProNews that the odds of changing Dodd-Frank under the Obama administration were low.
People can look at the facts, and are obviously free to come to various conclusions about what these concerns and allegations mean.
But if MHI was correct, why do they duck questions or offers to publicly debate via video their performance?
Housing is one of the biggest economic sectors, and manufactured housing has amazing upside potential. While labor challenges are slowing the short-term potential all types of building, a factory-building environment is arguably the most logical way to address it successfully, rapidly, and profitably.
Are there other factors – such as misimpressions caused by errant research and reporting? Yes, and MHProNews and MHLivingNews have covered those too. But that good media can be obtained is demonstrated by the report below.
Bloomberg, HousingWire, Realtor and Fox all suggest Manufactured Homes as Important Solution for Affordable Housing in America – manufacturedhomelivingnews.com
While housing becomes more and more expensive across the United States, there’s a simple solution. For those who either want to be frugal and still get great quality or those who have limited funds, but desire to be a homeowner – the answer, suggests and HousingWire – could be modern manufactured homes.
But as Frank Rolfe and others in the industry have observed, MHI has played a roll by so often failing to respond to so many incorrect reports.
For years, as an MHI member this writer proposed solutions to issues that the industry faced that were routinely ignored, delayed or sidelined. Efforts to advance their desired agenda were sidelined, or undermined.
That and other allegedly problematic and controversial patterns took place even during the time this writer was an elected MHI Suppliers Division board member. As we called for more transparency, correcting inaccurate ‘weaponized’ reporting, and other issues, MHI didn’t reform, they arguably doubled down.
MHI’s response was to threaten this platform’s managing member via third parties, including attorneys, that were arguably MHI cat’s paws. When that failed, a threatening anonymous package was sent via U.S. mail, which is a potentially criminal act. Contents in that anonymous package named MHI, plus there’s been another MHI ‘finger print.’
It should be noted that Buffett’s voiced concerns over anti-trust (anti-monopoly) action is reportedly the biggest concern for the future of Berkshire Hathaway after he passes away.
Summing Up on the Buffett/Manufactured Housing “Moat”
Warren Buffett’s own words,
the words and often contradictory deeds of MHI leaders (elected and appointed),
facts from left-and-right,
demonstrate how the industry was throttled, and consolidated using crony-capitalist control of big government, barriers of entry and staying in the business.a
It all fits the Warren Buffett theory on moats, doesn’t it?
That begs the question, if all this is so, then doesn’t the industry need a new post-production trade association to represent independents?
And with various lending and other options in theory or actually available today, isn’t this the time for the industry to break the hold of Berkshire Hathaway over the industry?
Several industry firms are showing the path ahead.
What is certain is that if the behavior isn’t changed, then the pattern going into 2018 and beyond will likely continue. ## (News, fact checks, analysis, commentary, satire).
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Kovach is the award-winning managing-member of LifeStyle Factory Homes, LLC,
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