Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Are we in a REIT bubble?

Low rates have made investors hungry for yield. As a result, traditional higher yielding investments such as utilities and real estate investment trusts are getting bid up by investors. If this madness continues, the possibility that many investors will get burned down the road increases exponentially.

Real estate investment trusts (REIT) are required by law to distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders. The REITs I own typically distribute somewhere close to 80 – 90% of their Funds From Operations (FFO) to shareholders. FFO is a commonly accepted tool to measure profitability for REITs, and is a more accurate indicator than earnings per share. FFO adds back for certain non-cash items such as depreciation, in order to determine the amount of profits that are available. Most REITs that I follow tend to have a FFO payout ratio between 80% - 90%. I own shares of Realty Income (O), Omega Healthcare Investors (OHI), Digital Realty Trust (DLR) and American Realty Capital Properties (ARCP).

As a result, I find it safe to assume that for REITs a low yield usually shows a stock that is overvalued, whereas a higher yield usually shows an attractively valued stock. I define a low yielding REIT in the current environment as a REITs that yields somewhere close to 4% or lower. A higher yielding REIT is one that yields at least 5%. This generalization only includes REITs whose primary business is to own physical real estate.

Some investors believe that current lower than historical yields on REITs are justified by record low interest rates. For example, yields on US 30 year Treasuries are close to 3%. These investors believe that today is the new normal, as low interest rates justify REIT valuations. The mentality that the this time it’s different might be costly to your portfolio.

Investors who purchase a REIT yielding 3% are generally receiving 80 – 90% of cashflows. In contrast, an investor in a typical dividend champion such as Procter & Gamble (PG) or Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) who gets a 3% yield today also gets a 5%- 6% earnings yield.

Even in the current environment however, there are reasonably priced opportunities for investors who are on the lookout for bargains. I have been able to use the weakness in Digital Realty Trust (DLR) to acquire a decent position in the stock. In addition, the following low yielding REITs seem to have very low FFO payout ratios:

Low yields could be justified by the expectation for higher distribution growth down the road. If your REIT slashed distributions to the bone during the 2007 – 2009 recession, they could not yield much today, but could have the potential to yield twice as much in a few years. In addition, REITs in different sectors have different yields. A healthcare REIT that might be overvalued at a yield of 4%, even though a 4% yield would be considered fair for other types of REITs.

Many REITs are able to sell ten year bonds at yields as low as 3-4%. They have particularly benefited from falling interest rates in the past five years. If you re-finance debt that used to cost 6%-7% with debt that costs half of that, the FFO bottom line will be instantly improved. However, the problem that REITs might get to in a decade is if interest rates are substantially higher than interest rates today. Many investors believe that rates will go up, which could be costly to real estate trusts that want to refinance debt a decade from now.

Another risk that we might see is if REITs bid up assets they purchase to yield below 6-7 percent. If the low cost of capital drives REITs to compete aggressively for new assets to purchase, without any regards to quality or future possibilities, this could spell disaster for REIT investors. If rates increase over next decade, this could result in reductions in FFO. This could mean trouble for REIT investors one decade down the road - low property returns relative to high interest rates in 10 years. The mitigating factor here is that interest rates might increase gradually, once they start increasing in 2- 3 years. As a result, REITs will have plenty of time to adjust their debt costs. In addition, many REITs would be able to raise rents if inflation increases alongside with interest rates.

In my personal portfolio, I have replaced National Retail Properties (NNN) with American Realty Capital Properties (ARCP). Check my analysis of National Retail Properties.  I used the fact that investors pushed yields on National Retail Properties below 4% to exit my position. I did not like the slow growth in FFO/share, as well as the slow growth in distributions. The slow growth over the past decade did not justify current valuations. Buying National Retail Properties was justified up until 2010, after which I simply held on and cashed the dividends along the way. In all reality, this REIT could probably go as high as yielding 3%, which translates to $52/share.

Based on FFO/share of $1.77 and annualized dividend of $1.58/share, the forward FFO payout for National Retail Properties comes out to roughly 89%, which is rather high. For American Realty Capital Properties, FFO is expected to be in the range of 91 - 95 cents/share in 2013, and $1.06 - $1.10 share by 2014. The annual dividend is 91 cents/share, which could make up for a forward FFO Payout of 95.80 - 100% in 2013. It looks high, but in reality the company just recently completed the acquisition of American Realty Capital Trust III, which will probably distort how financials look like this year.

I liked the fact that American Realty Capital Properties (ARCP) is a REIT that is trying to make strategic accretive acquisitions in order to expand and increase FFO/share. I view ARCP as a company that could potentially become the next Realty Income (O). Since this REIT has only been publicly traded for less than 2 years, it trades at a premium to more established REITs such as Realty Income (O) and National Retail Properties (NNN).

I also put Realty Income (O) on my watchlist for potential trimming of my position there. I believe that Realty Income is a fine buy at 43/share, which translates to a 5% yield. However, if it trades above 54 it is richly valued. At current valuations, I will consider selling some at the $62-$72/share zone. This is equivalent to a yield of 3% - 3.50%. In the meantime, I will be sitting tight and reinvesting my dividends in other stocks.

I do like the fact that the REIT has managed to maintain and grow distributions. I also like the diversified nature of the tenant base, and stability and quality of cash flows. I believe that Realty Income is the Coca-Cola of REITs, but at yields below 4% it looks overvalued. At yields below 3.50% I am going to start trimming my position in it. My last purchase was in 2011, when my entry yield of 5% made me afraid that I am purchasing at the top. The REIT has managed to boost FFO substantially since then, which is why a valuation in the low 40s is fair.

Full Disclosure: Long O, DLR, ARCP, OHI

Relevant Articles:

National Retail Properties (NNN) Dividend Stock Analysis
Five Things to Look For in a Real Estate Investment Trusts
The Case for owning Digital Realty Trust (DLR): When Hedge Funds Don't Know What They Are Talking About
Realty Income (O) – The Monthly Dividend Company

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