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Opportunities for the careful RE investor: ULI panel

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Real estate investors should stake out their deals, be patient and keep leverage to a minimum to succeed in today's uncertain economy, according to a capital markets discussion Thursday at the annual Urban Land Institute conference under way in Los Angeles. High unemployment in the U.S. and the sovereign debt crisis in Europe will translate into a long period of slow growth, but most on the panel didn't seem to think a double dip is in the offing. The audience of several thousand, at a show of hands, indicated the most important thing to fix in the economy is the unemployment situation, but panelists also noted that housing, banking and consumer consumption are all intertwined in the nation's moribund economy. Fixing housing will help what ails the economy, said Roy Hilton March, CEO of Eastdil Secured, suggesting that the government should consider ways to entice more investors into the real estate owned and rental markets. "If you could put together a program where you could introduce investors … to acquire distressed assets from the banks and turn those into rentals — that could produce a healing process," he said. Kelvin Davis, who runs TPG Capital's North America's buyout business, said working through the foreclosure crisis is key while keeping the lid on new home construction. Roy Sturzenegger, the panel's moderator and managing director of legacy asset servicing at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch (BAC), noted that the long foreclosure timeline, which is now roughly a 24-month process, is holding back a housing recovery. "People always talk about the foreclosure overhang, the issue isn't the foreclosure overhang, it's the foreclosure process," he said, suggesting that states help out by enacting policies that would enable a quick, 30-day foreclosure on unoccupied homes in foreclosure while taking more time on homes that are still occupied where issues like possible loan modifications would come into play. Mike McCaffery, CEO of Makena Capital Management, who also sits is on the KB Home (KBH) board, said he expects a long period of very muted growth as the economy works through a disjointed political process and bank issues. Panelists also said big, nonperforming loans coming out onto the market will impact fundamentals, but said for investors who stick to the fundamentals, next year could be a "golden year" of buying. "At the end of the day, if you are an opportunistic investor, it might be a good time to be coming into the market, March said. Still, Davis said investors need to be very selective and look for places where they can enhance value.  Davis said his firm invested in homebuilder Taylor Morrison, the North American arm of Taylor Wimpey, which was purchased in a joint deal with other investors this summer. "There are opportunities, but you have to be able to take a bit of risk and add value over time," Davis said. Write to Kerry Curry. Follow her on Twitter @communicatorKLC.

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