A Ladder Over Pandemic Waters: Short Duration, Quality Loans Give $LADR Rung Up

Ladder Capital stock is a high conviction name for me. It is one where I see little downside and significant upside and also a situation where you are paid to wait (~10.8% dividend). Lastly, I can’t say enough how high I hold management (which also owns ~10-11% of the equity).

Ladder Capital is a mortgage REIT. Unlike typical REITs that specialize in the actual real estate, mortgage REITs specialize in… you guessed it… the mortgages that secure property.

Mortgage REITs have sold off significantly as the market becomes more concerned with commercial real estate. Several mortgage REITs used significant repo financing coming into the COVID crisis, so when there was a disruption in the mortgage market and all securities were crashing, several seemed unable to meet their margin calls…

That did not really impact LADR. In fact, management issued an unsecured corporate bond in 2019 to reduce reliance on repo funding… very timely. Did I mention management is A+ quality?

I tend to think of LADR as an investment company. We want them to make high earning, good risk/reward assets and we understand that they will use leverage in normal course of business. “Do what you think will make money, just don’t blow yourself up.” It’s clear to me they realize all of this.


LADR trades at a steep discount to book. In a hypothetical scenario, we need to ask ourselves that if we foreclosed on LADR, would we get book value or not. What price could we liquidate the assets for in an orderly liquidation. If we can get book value, the stock has 65%+ upside.

See, a lot of times investors buy financial assets below book value. But if the assets are earning a low ROE, the book value may be worth a low amount. Or you may not realize that book value for a long, long time (think of a 100 year bond with a 1% coupon when prevailing rates are at 6%… it will take a long time to get “book value”.)

My goal of this post is to show you that you can bank on book value here. And that because of the short duration of the assets, we know cash will be coming back in the door soon. As a friend put it, soon a large majority of Ladder’s book will actually be post-COVID loans…

Here is my thesis:

  • Ladder’s book is high quality; Stock at ~60% of GAAP book value, 52% when incorporating appreciation of real estate
    • Book consists of transitional first lien mortgages (which I’ll define later), but also investment grade CMBS, small amount of conduit loans, and they also have a portfolio of triple-net leased properties and other CRE that they own outright.
    • ~93% of their market cap in unrestricted cash; Or 14% of assets
    • 43% of asset base is unencumbered, 74% of which is either cash or first mortgages. This means the company has significant borrowing capacity as well (which is important, as LADR is like a bank – you want them to take $1 and make $2 or $3 of loans with it).
  • Mgmt is top notch and has history of deploying capital attractively. Dare I say, the Warren Buffett of mortgage REITs (patient, cash not burning hole in pocket)
  • Buying back both bonds and stock – both at discounts to par / book value
  • Cash is both a downside backstop, but opportunity as they deploy into distressed sectors

Let’s Break Down Ladder’s Book: Here I will detail the bulk of Ladder’s assets. Note, this is just the bulk. They also have a small amount of conduit loans (which means they make loans which will soon be bundled and sold into CMBS).

Transitional Mortgages (43% of Assets, 53% of Equity): These are loans to commercial properties undergoing a… transition. LADR has a first lien on the property, while the borrower uses the capital to bridge it through renovations, repositioning of the asset, lease-ups, etc.

While COVID has created “income uncertainty” for a host of real estate assets, these transitional properties are inherently not generating much income at the time of the loan! And here’s some commentary on that from Management’s Q2 call:

[Our transitional loans] are close to stabilization and require minimal capital improvements. Our balance sheet loans have a weighted average seasoning of 18 months, which is a little over 15 months remaining to initial maturity and 27 months remaining to final maturity. Further reflective of the lightly transitional nature of our portfolio, we have less than $150 million of future funding obligations over the next 12 months and less than $250 million in total, all of which we can comfortably meet with current cash on hand. The majority of these future funding obligations are conditional and are subject to the achievement of predetermined good news events like tenant improvements and leasing commissions due upon the signing of new leases that enhance the cash flow and value of the underlying collateral. We continue to have limited exposure to hotel and retail loans, which comprise only 14% and 8% of our balance sheet loan portfolio, respectively. Currently, almost half of our loan portfolio remains fully unencumbered, and our exposure to mark-to-market financing on hotel and retail loans is just 1% of our total debt outstanding.

As such, they typically are low duration (<2 years), lower LTV (67%), and as mentioned – 1st lien on the property. In a sense, the property value would have to be marked down 33% for Ladder to begin taking a loss. Here’s a comment from the Q1 call on the borrower – you have to think they’ll want to preserve that equity value if they can and have a long-term view:

These same loans currently have a 1.26x DSCR with in-place reserves. The significant third-party equity our borrowers have in these loans provides strong motivation for them to protect their assets and provides the company with a substantial protective equity cushion. Like all prudent lenders, we’ll be very focused on asset management to protect and enhance the value of our loans

Here is more commentary on the assets performance and the short duration:

The property types are highly varied too. In other words, it’s probably a good thing it’s not all Hotels right now. But even so, they have significant cushion above the loan value.

Let’s say you don’t like this situation. Well think about this: We are buying LADR today below book value. Therefore, you could look at as us buying 1L mortgages on a look-through basis of ~40 cents on the dollar (i.e. 60% of Book value * 67% LTV). Do you think a 60% haircut is coming across the board?


Securities (23% of Assets, 8% of Equity): These are primarily AAA-rated real estate CMBS that has very short duration (2.1 years as of 9/30/2020) and significant subordination (i.e. it would take a lot of losses for the AAA tranche to lose money). In fact, even at the height of COVID where gold, treasuries, investment grade corporate credit were all tanking, the company was able to sell assets at 96 cents on the dollar. This speaks not only to the quality of the loans, but also liquidity.

As I think about this portfolio and the low duration, you should think of it this way: in 2 years, if the company did not re-deploy this capital, they’d have ~$1.45BN on loans that would pay off. They do have ~$1BN of leverage against them, so you’d have $383MM of equity back in cash. Keep this in mind for later.

Commercial Real Estate (16% of assets, 6% of equity though the assets are carried at historical cost, so there is significant unrealized gains not captured by GAAP)

  • Net Leased Commercial Real Estate (~65% of CRE): Ladder outright owns triple net leased properties, where the primary tenants are Dollar General, BJ’s, Walgreens and Bank of America.
  • Diversified CRE (~35% of CRE): these are other properties Ladder owns across office buildings, student housing and multifamily.

Now that I’ve discussed the book, it’s important to quickly discuss how they capitalize themselves. Again, very limited repo facilities and that source of funding continues to decline.

Note the unsecured corporate bonds. This brings me to one of my investment points: Ladder issued these opportunistically and has since been able to repurchase them at a discount to par. Ladder has repurchased $175MM of bonds.

At the time of writing, their 2027 4.25% unsecured notes trade at ~86 cents on the dollar. Every dollar used to repurchase these notes at a discount builds equity value on the balance sheet. There’s also the added benefit of decreased interest, which is a drag when they have so much cash.

As an example, let’s say we had a company with $200MM of assets ($100MM of which is cash), $100MM of debt, which would imply $100MM of equity. Using $25MM of cash to pay down $25MM of debt at par would not build book value on the balance sheet. However, if you paid down debt at a discount, it would.

Here’s that illustration shown below. Notice you actually build incremental equity. Given financials typically trade on a P/BV, I feel like this topic is warranted.

As mentioned, Ladder also has around ~90% of its market cap in cash… so as the market has firmed, they are buying back stock as well (though it’s still small). Buying back stock at a discount to BV also increases BV per share.

But obviously more importantly, it’s an attractive return of capital to shareholders if you think the stock is worth at or above book value. However, management may have opportunities to deploy this in attractive assets, noted below in the management section. 


Adding up the pieces:

I wanted to do a build up of “what you need to believe” here. Maybe you don’t like the assets, even though I personally view them as very low risk. Well, the securities portfolio itself is worth $3/share. That’s very liquid and something you can take home in a few years if they decided not to reinvest the proceeds. We could get those assets tomorrow.

I also started with the corporate debt, subtracted cash, and looked at the equity value after paying that all back against the balance sheet loans (the transitional mortgages). I didn’t assume this debt was retired at a discount at all.

As we discussed, the transitional mortgages are low LTV properties and worth ~$6 share. You could haircut this by 40%, add in the securities portfolio and everything else is free.

Next you have the real estate assets, worth $1.8 share on the books. Fine, don’t give credit to the unrealized value here (another $1.8), but the company did sell 3 properties in Q3’20 for a gain relative to BV.

Our downside is very well protected. Given the short tenor of the loans, we will either see Ladder receive cash or take-over properties and sell above the loan amount (which they did with a hotel in the quarter, one of a few assets in trouble per mgmt).


Management

Often, the missed piece of any thesis is management. Boy, all I can say is go read their calls. These are truly savvy investors, which is what you want in an mREIT.

Here are some examples of great quotes from mgmt:

From the Q2 Call – I get Buffett vibes:

My instincts are telling me that it might be better to actually be the borrower in a market like this as opposed to be a lender. Occasionally, we’ve talked about that on some of our calls. Conduit lending is back in a very soft kind of way. And a lot of cleanup from inventory that was sitting on the shelf is getting done. But I would say the typical conduit loan today that’s getting written is a 3.5% to 4% 10-year instrument at 50% LTV.

I think if we begin to deploy capital, and I think we will, we’ll probably be a borrower of funds like that because I think we can find some attractive situations where, perhaps, somebody has to sell something. And in addition to that, I would say that a stretched senior used to be, if a guy bought a property for $100 million, he could borrow $75 million. I think $100 million purchase today, you can probably borrow about $60 million. And so a stretched senior now goes from maybe 60% to 70%, 75%, and I think that is a sweet spot for risk/reward right now on the debt side.

If you remember, in 2008, when we opened, we had quite a few mezzanine loans in our position because we felt that the capital markets were very fearful and maybe too fearful. And so then once we got to around 2012 or ’13, we stopped writing mezzanine loans because we felt at that point, markets were priced right. And then around 2016, we felt that mezzanine money was too cheap. So I would imagine it will feel and smell like equity in some cases, or at least in some scenario where somebody is forced to transact.

And another from Q3’20 from Pamela McMormack, the other Co-Founder

I’ve been with Brian, forgot, I’m turning 50, I think, since I was 30. And so I’m a little bit of the cycle in that regard. But what I’ll say is, I remember, when we opened the doors in 2008 with the private equity guys, and they were begging us to make loans, make loans, make loans. And we were sitting on a lot of cash, we had raised over $611 million back without placement agent in 2008. And Brian was very patient, had a set up to become a (inaudible) borrower. We’re buying securities, and they said they don’t pay people to invest in securities.

And we were very patient about making loans until we felt like the market was right. We’re not incapable, we’re not afraid. We are intentionally and purposely waiting for what we think is a better risk-adjusted return.

There in lies WHY they have so much cash right now. Unfortunately, COVID is not going away tomorrow and there will be some desperation out there. I like this management team’s ability to take care of it.

Here is LADR’s ROE over the years. Not too shabby! I’d add this to the rationale that the company should trade at at least 1x BV (this ROE excludes gains on sale).

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