UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Decision making in the property development industry during a business cycle Whitehead, Jimmy Carl


The property development industry in cities such as Calgary, Edmonton, Denver and Houston experienced a boom characterized by compulsive speculative growth in the 1970's and then a dramatic collapse in 1982. In the wake of the collapse came a crisis in the financial as well as the development sector, which to 1987 is nowhere near resolved. The expansion and decline in the property development industry is seen as a subset of a classical business cycle fueled by the world oil and gas economy, Canadian government regional and economic policies, and changes in money supply and interest rates. These factors are recognized as being contributory, but not a sufficient explanation for the property boom and bust. Additional understanding is offered by an analysis of the decision making process in the development industry. The research, focusing on key decision makers, revealed that repeated decision errors made by developers on strategies related to growth, diversification, and financing contributed significantly to the industry problems. The sources of strategic errors were found to be associated with the key developers' personalities and their perception of the business environment, as well as group and organizational behaviour. In 1976-77 opportunities to gain windfall profits in real estate development encouraged developers to travel from city to city continent wide in search of opportunities. Their fast-paced activity brought key developers stunning successes. Their perceived brilliance attracted followers from the rest of the industry and captured the imagination of the financial community. In 1979-80, as land values began increasing at rates far faster than interest rates, land banking superceded land development as a principal activity. Developers not only borrowed to the maximum under conventional project lending, but they also invented the concept of "appraisal surplus" (the difference between market value and debt) as a measure of their enormous "equity". This in turn permitted them to raise additional capital corporately through debentures and share offering to purchase even more land. By 1981 companies were highly levered financially making them extremely vulnerable to the slightest changes in the marketplace. Rather than recognizing that they were swept up in a property' boom developers, individually and as a group, chose to continue to believe that their "exceptional ability" to turn a profit was the basis for their successes. As the boom accelerated developers abandoned all caution committing to some of their largest and most daring acquisitions at the very peak of the boom. Then, in 1982 the inevitable happened, the bust in the property market. Those public companies with huge financially levered land banks, whose strategies were predicated on continuing inflation and ever increasing market share failed. Those companies, often private, with low debt to equity ratios, conservative financial practices, and income property portfolios survived. Since both sets of companies operated in a similar environment, but one failed and the other survived, the argument that decision making was a crucial factor in understanding the boom-bust property cycle is strengthened. The understanding of change in the activity patterns and in the structure of the built environment is elucidated by the study of decision processes. Insights into decision making and business cycles create a new awareness of the development process.

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