Real Estate Moguls Still Seek Riches Overseas

Sam Zell
Sam Zell

It's not surprising that five guys who've gotten very rich in commercial real estate still love investing in commercial real estate. It's where they are investing that may surprise you.

At the Milken Institute Global Conference, a few of the world's top real estate investors laid out some of their favorite global real estate investing bets.

Sam Zell, chairman of Equity Group Investments, continues to love Brazil. A few years ago at the conference he advised attendees to look south, and he was right. He said: "180 million people have scale."

Zell said Colombia "may be the best country to invest in" in South America today for a number of reasons, including its growing oil production. Zell added that [Hugo] Chavez's passing is "really good for Latin America."

Thanks to the Fed, Zell added, "there's so much money floating around there's no distinction based on quality."

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Barry Sternlicht, who brought us the W Hotel chain and now runs Starwood Capital, is a bit less bullish and has some interesting concerns. Foremost, he thinks social unrest in Europe may be the greatest global threat. He bought a $3 billion company in France but says he'll never buy another company there because doing business in France is "nuts."

Sternlicht also wasn't as bullish investing in Latin America as Zell and some of the others. He noted overbuilding in Brazil and called Argentina President Christina Kirchner a "crazy lady."

Aussie Peter Lowy of mall giant Westfield Group said his firm is going heavier into downtown London and even Milan, Italy. This is one of the first times in a while I've heard anyone mention anything positive about investing in in Italy. He also loves investing in America, adding the best risk-adjusted returns are right here in the States.

Surprisingly, Ireland was discussed as an opportunity. Kennedy Wilson Chairman and CEO William McMorrow, noted that office rents in Dublin are benefiting from the boom in technology in California, as many U.S. tech firms also have a presence in Ireland.

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Nicholas Schorsch of American Realty Capital talked about what we all have come to learn—that the Fed is helping rich people get richer. The cost of capital is so low it makes sense to borrow and invest because the spreads are so favorable, he said.

Five rich guys getting richer around the world, in large part thanks to our Fed.

If you're thinking of following their lead, keep in mind that the easy money may have already been made. Real estate investment trusts, known as REITs, have been on fire. REIT returns now exceed peak 2007 levels, topping most every asset class over the past few years. Many are at all-time highs so there's reason for caution overall.

Follow Brian Sullivan on Twitter @SullyCNBC