Real Options And Property Development Decision Making

Real options are increasingly being promoted in the academic world for use by developers to make more informed decisions on the timing of property development and the valuation of development land. The proponents of the theory propose that property development investments provide developers with several options that can increase value through flexibility of decision-making.

Decision-making under conditions of uncertainty requires managers to make financial decisions that affect the future, whilst they are unable to predict future events with absolute certainty. Any decisions that are being made now assume a certain amount of inefficiencies arising from the risk of making a partially incorrect decision due to the inability of managers to predict the future with absolute certainty. The converse statement to this is that one can wait a bit longer for more information to make better decisions, which delay gives rise to an option. Real options theory claims to be able to value the option contained in this delay.

Various decision-making methods, like the discounted cash flows (DCF) are used extensively to forecast the future. One of the most common DCF techniques is the net present value (NPV) technique. This technique holds that an NPV calculation that returns only a positive result means that a development should go ahead. An NPV calculation only uses information that is known at the time of the calculation, whereas property development is an at-least 50-year decision. NPV evaluates a development project as if it will be completed, regardless of whether they it still makes sense mid way through the project or not. Cash flow and discount rate variables change over time and as a result the NPV should also change. A project that may look positive now may not be attractive a few months later and vice versa, thereby increasing the chance that the wrong decision can still be made.

Property development is an extremely complex activity which involves significant numbers of people and skills, utilising extensive resources over an extended period, for the provision of physical buildings in the future. It all starts with the provision of development land. The most popular method of valuing the land component in a development is the residual valuation method. Briefly, this method works by calculating the development’s NPV and confirming that the project should be embarked upon. Thereafter the building cost must be subtracted from the total investment outlay, thereby arriving at the residual value of the land. It therefore not scientific in that it works in reverse logic.

Other questions arise when the DCF is used, for example: what discount rate should be used on the future cash flows? What are the variables used to build up the discount rate? What time period must the calculation be done over? How is the risk premium to be calculated? Practitioners often do away with the complexities of the NPV and dispense with the investment decision by capitalising the first year’s projected net income with an appropriate rate to arrive at a value estimate.

NPV gives no indication as to when the decision should be implemented, whereas real options can help with such a determination. The decision as to when to proceed with a particular development has generally been based on the position of the rental growth curve in relation to the building cost growth curve, as observed over a period of time. However, the exact timing as to when this condition will be reached and for how long it will last can never be predicted accurately. Another trigger used to to time hotel development is to observe what is called the hurdle rate, and again, as with NPV, once discount rates get used then the chance exists that an incorrect decision could be made. The hurdle rate is tied to to the company’s cost of capital.

Real options mean various things to various people. The synthesis below explains what they say about real options as they could be applied to property development. In finance, an option is a contract between a buyer and a seller that gives the buyer of the option the right, but not the obligation, to buy or to sell a specified asset (underlying) on or before the option’s expiration time, at an agreed price, the strike price. Real options are an off-shoot of financial options, and can be defined thus: A situation in which an investor is able to choose between two different decision options where both choices involve tangible assets, such as real estate. Real options allow developers the ability to treat vacant lots of land as options to wait to develop. By considering developments which provide the ability to react accordingly to the uncertainty of future forces, developers can better manage the risk associated with a potential weak market while also gaining the potential to benefit in a strong one. Flexibility of this type in real estate is generally known as a real option. Real options add value to a project by providing developers with flexibility to minimize downside risk or take advantage of upside potential as conditions change from deterministic expectations. The model proposed values these managerial flexibilities and shows improved risk management, identifying the optimal strategy and timing for the construction phases.

The assumption with NPV is that the investment decision must be made now or never. However, many projects create future opportunities or threats, which may be a significant source of value or loss. These opportunities can be modelled as real options. With this view, an investment decision can be considered as a call option. The value of the project is just the value of the option to invest. The exercise price is the cost of the investment, and the gross option return is the discounted expected value of the investment returns. This option is exercised when the gross return is high enough. The DCF method fails to evaluate this option correctly.

Short term land speculators also use options extensively whereby they pay a fixed sum to a seller of a prime parcel of land, subject to a higher, final payment should a development be proceeded with on the land. If the development does not go ahead then the option lapses and the land reverts to the seller, together with the initial payment.  This is a powerful example of how options can be used in property development. However if the entire development decision is treated as an option, even better land-banking decisions can be made. Banks have, much less now than in the past, used financial options to facilitate loans to their blue chip corporate clients for property developments. Real options are different in that the option is integral to the entire development and the valuation methods used to value the options do not rely on discounted cash flow analyses.

Real options use some intricate mathematical tools, which are not the subject matter of this article, to value the subject land and the development. Suffice it to say that the list includes decision-tree analysis with probability theory, binomial theory, derivatives and stochastic processes and others. However the techniques seem to cover most of the abstract mathematical concepts that DCF does not cover. Perhaps in a later article I will attempt to explain the mechanics of the proposed theory works in practice.

The flexibility inherent in real options is the cornerstone of this theory in that it allows developers to make better decisions as they have the option to delay making a decision. The abandonment option is a problem because most construction contracts do not allow for abandonment, especially when the contract is of the fast-track kind. The disadvantages of real options at the moment are that developers are still content to use the NPV. South African developers are not quick at adopting new methods of doing things, as evidenced by the slow adoption of the NEC construction contract documents.

Real options theory has been written about extensively in property development journals. Some reputable Universities are teaching real options as part of their property education curricula. Through the way that real options promise to deal with the problems inherent in NPV analysis, developers should at least look to see if its applicability in their projects can be justified.

November 16, 2010 by tshepomakhudu


Real Options And Property Development Decision Making

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