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Office REITs Recovering

REITSIn the US the latest economic recovery has been very different from previous recoveries for office REITs, as job growth has been lukewarm and didn’t produce the anticipated demand for office space. In its place, tenants are using space more efficiently, so they require less space as their headcount grows. For example, banks, legal entities, consulting firms and accounting companies have all been growing their employee base, but their overall real estate requirements have actually reduced.

During last year, office market fundamentals improved moderately. Overall vacancy dropped to 16.0% from 16.7% a year earlier, and direct asking rents were up 2.2%, according to Cushman and Wakefield. Likewise, office REIT portfolios showed little, if any, improvement in occupancy and rent growth. Due to their high quality assets and professional management, REIT-owned properties started with stronger fundamentals and had less room for improvement.

• S.L. Green (SLG) occupancy for Manhattan properties was 91.7% at year-end 2012 versus 91.5% one year earlier. Its suburban portfolio occupancy was 81.3% in 2012, down from 82.6% in December 2011.

• Total occupancy for Boston Properties (BXP), the largest office REIT, measured 91.4% at year-end 2012. This was down slightly from 91.7% one year earlier. BXP’s CBD properties, with 96.4% occupancy, are performing significantly better than suburban properties, with 83.6% occupancy. (Source: REITCafe)

Limited new construction has helped maintain balance in the office market. Pipelines are growing, though few markets have had strong enough recoveries to rationalize significant office construction. Cushman and Wakefield reported 4 million sqm of new construction underway at year-end 2012. REITs are well positioned to undertake development projects because they can raise inexpensive money on the secondary market or borrow from lenders with confidence in their track records. Some REITs are turning to development because they can achieve better returns than by acquiring existing properties at aggressive price levels.

• Kilroy Realty completed the redevelopment of two projects in Southern California in 2012. Two additional projects totalling 50,000 sqm, which were 70% pre-leased, were close to completion at year end. The company is increasing its presence in the San Francisco Bay Area and has another four buildings totalling 1.4 million square feet under construction.

• Boston Properties is developing eight office projects in New York, DC, San Francisco, and Boston totalling 250,000sqm. The buildings were 66% preleased at year-end 2012. The Company, along with Hines Interests, recently broke ground on the 130 000sqm San Francisco Transbay Terminal Tower, which is scheduled for completion in 2017.

REITs have expanded through acquisitions by taking advantage of the current low borrowing rates. In 2012, Boston Properties acquired four properties totalling 240 000sqm that were 93% leased, while S.L. Green acquired a fee interest in four properties totalling 81,000 sqm that were more than 90% leased. Kilroy acquired 14 buildings totalling 163 000sqm in 2012 and two additional buildings totalling 30,000 sqm located in Seattle in January 2013.

Office REITs have been sturdy so far this year. As a result of high occupancies, the largest REITs have experienced limited improvement in occupancy and rent growth. Like all REITs, across the board, they are continuing to use their balance sheets, taking advantage of low interest rates, to grow their portfolios through acquisitions and to some degree new construction.

The Price of Converting to REITs

Many listed property companies are converting or considering converting to real estate investment trusts (REITs) in South Africa since the April 1st new tax regime for list REITs was enacted. Other countries have gone down this road and one may ask as to how their share prices fared as a result of such action.

 

U.S.-listed real-estate investment trusts, or REITs, are on track to issue more new equity in the U.S. than in any year since 2001, according to Ipreo, a capital-markets data and advisory firm. REITs have raised $16.8 billion in U.S. IPOs and secondary stock sales so far in 2013, a pace that would top 2012’s record $36.6 billion.

 

During the last couple of years, REITs, aided by investors’ rabid appetite for income-producing investments, consistently have trumped the broad market. In 2011, while the S&P 500 was flat, the FTSE Nareit U.S. index jumped 4.3%. Last year the S&P was up 3.8%; the REIT index, 5.9%. No wonder, then, that companies in industries including digital-transmission towers, data warehouses, private prisons, and health-care facilities are seeking to convert to REIT status. And there are attractive opportunities to play this trend through the shares of companies likely to undergo a conversion.

 

In the US, for example, and much of the world follows the lead, a company seeking to become a REIT must satisfy two main criteria: It must derive at least 75% of its revenue from rents and other direct real-estate activities, and it must pay out at least 90% of its profits to shareholders as dividends. In return, those profits are untaxed at the company level, and the hope is that yield-focused investors will flock to the shares.

 

One of the most prominent conversions last year was American Tower, the leading owner of mobile-communication transmission towers, which moved to become a REIT soon after it had used up its tax-loss assets. The switch, effective last Dec. 31, immediately made American Tower the second-biggest publicly traded REIT. Its current market value is $26 billion. The stock gained 14.7% in 2011’s second half, after it started the conversion process, and last year added another 8%.

 

Now, American Tower’s smaller rival, SBA Communications (SBAC), is setting the stage for a conversion, already reporting adjusted funds from operations, or AFFO, as REITs do, alongside its usual operating-company results.

 

According to REIT commentators Online Barrons, Jeff Kolitch, portfolio manager at the Baron Real Estate Fund (BREFX), says that the average REIT fetches 22 times AFFO, a measure comparable to operating cash flow. At a recent price of around $50, SBA was trading at about 17 times this year’s forecast operating cash flow. At 22 times, the stock would be around $66.

 

Datacentre REITs are currently performing well and are popular among investors who are attracted by their high dividend pay-outs as well as by growing demand for datacentre real estate. The strength of the sector could push other datacentre companies to go public or adopt the REIT format. One example of this is Equinox, a company operating datacentres for the likes of AT&T and Amazon.

 

The following three datacentre REITs are good examples of REIT switching success stories;

 

• CoreSite Realty (COR), with market capitalization of $580 million, is most similar to CONE. COR is the smallest datacentre REIT, but its stock value has increased 33% since the end of October, and its dividend yield measures 3.6%.

 

• Digital Realty Trust (DLR) is the largest of the three data centre REITs with market capitalization of about $8.4 billion. Its stock value increased more than 16% since the end of October, and its dividend yield is 4.1%.

 

• DuPont Fabros Technology (DFT), with market capitalization of $1.5 billion, is the second largest data centre REIT. Its stock value grew 14.8% since the end of October, and its dividend yield measures 3.3%.

 

Finally Corrections Corp. of America converted to a REIT and is the nation’s largest operator of private prisons. The company operates 66 correctional and detention facilities, and has a total capacity of about 91,000 beds, yes, that’s real estate, in 20 states.

 

Correction Corp.’s funds from operations (FFO) per share, a key REIT cash flow metric, grew 7% to $2.34 in 2012 from $2.19 a year earlier. Corrections Corp. has provided guidance for a 16% rise in 2013 FFO per share to between $2.72 and $2.87. Some of this growth will likely come from a one-time tax benefit of between $115 million and $135 million from converting to a REIT. Corrections Corp. plans to pay quarterly dividends at an annualized per-share rate of $2.04 to $2.16 this year. At the mid-point of this range, shares yield almost 2%. In addition, the company will pay a special one-time dividend of at least $650 million to investors during 2013. The special dividend will be a combination of cash and stock.

 

The lofty valuations that REITs now command in the US might not be sustainable over the longer term, especially if interest rates rise, offering good alternative income investments. And the requirement that 90% of earnings be paid out to shareholders means earnings can’t be accumulated for future investment, necessitating that still-growing REITs sell equity or debt to buy or build additional properties. REIT conversions could boomerang down the road. But at the moment, the haste to be a part of the REIT club holds rewards for discerning investors.

REITS: Internal Verses External Property Managment.

They’re like non-identical twins, opposite sides of the same coin – internal and external management of REITs seems to be very much a case of “what you lose on the swings you gain on the round-abouts.’

Generally, REITs are either internally managed, with management as employees of the  REIT/operating partnership, or “externally managed” pursuant to a management contract with no direct  employees. Usually, private REITs and registered-but-not-traded REITs are externally managed for a fee by a related party manager. The related party fees for these types of vehicles can be significant and will vary based on the underlying investment premise and effort involved (e.g., “core” investment portfolio strategies typically have lower fee arrangements than those of more “opportunistic” vehicles).

In a REIT with an internal management structure, the REIT’s own officers and employees manage the portfolio of assets. A REIT with an external management structure usually resembles a private equity style arrangement, in which the external manager receives a flat fee and an incentive fee for managing the REIT’s portfolio of assets. The debate over which management method is preferential is favouring the internal management model. The controversy has centred on which method of management produces higher returns for investors, with some arguing that conflicts of interest underpinning compensation arrangements for external managers create incentives not necessarily in the best interest of the shareholders. Internalising management has emerged as the conventional wisdom for removing any conflict of interest between management and investors.

An external manager will typically receive a flat fee and an incentive fee. Generally, the flat fee is based on the asset value under management, which gives the manager incentive to purchase assets, while the incentive fee is based on the returns from the sale of assets. Most incentive fees for external managers are structured with a high water mark. Therefore, external managers will receive incentive fees only when the net asset value of a REIT increases above its highest historical net asset value.

External structures can create governance risks (at least when compared to REITs that are internally managed) and these governance risks can translate into credit risks. The central governance risk is that the external manager uses its control to extract value from the REIT to the detriment of shareholders and bondholders.

Curiously, data is not supportive of the thesis that internally managed vehicles outperform externally managed vehicles, despite popular opinion to the contrary. The potential for conflicts of interest are still greatest in externally managed vehicles and thus will continue to be actively debated. Ensuring maximum alignment of interests between investors and managers seems to be the key to regaining investor trust and support for externally managed REITS.

Having said that the following benefits for external management have emerged:

  • An external manager has larger scale than the individual REIT, so it can provide services at a more economical cost than managing the REIT internally.
  • With regards to management succession, externally managed REITs have a broader set of employees from which to select senior executives, thereby broadening the skills and experiences available to the REIT.
  • When external manager service agreements are specific and outline strict performance criteria, boards of REITs are better placed to oversee the manager’s performance. (Source: Moody’s)

On the other hand the external manager uses his/her influence over the REIT to further his/her own interests over those of the REIT’s shareholders or bondholders; external management representation on boards limits the board’s capacity to independently oversee the external manager and there are few, if any, independent control structures.

As South Africa is still feeling its way into the REITs market it may be worth our while examining what the trends are internationally: The US has typically internally managed, with a few externally managed REITs. External managers are often controlled by owner managers and may manage multiple and related REITs. In the United States, most REITs have now adopted the structure of internal management.

Australia seems to value both internally and externally managed REITs however a large portion of REITs have transitioned to internal management structures over the last few years.

Canada has some externally managed REITs but most are internal as are European, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Good governance is essential for the continuing success of the REIT, as the market places a premium on this attribute. The market needs to be made aware of the REIT’s commitment towards a strong corporate governance mandate.

Clearly the advantages and disadvantages speak for themselves and there’s no doubt that internal management is the favoured option around the world. South Africa is already following that trend it seems as emerging REITs are internally managed.

Three US Student Housing REITs Dominate through Growth and Acquisition

Three public REITs, with total market capitalization of $6.4 billion, focus on student housing. The fragmented nature of the industry provides room for growth through acquisitions.  These REITs represent just 1.0% of the overall REIT industry. Student housing is a specialized real estate sector that experienced significant acquisition and development activity in 2012 and that continues to shine in 2013.

Solid dividend yields that currently range between 3% and 5% reflect the main attraction of the public student housing REITs. Investors envisage long term growth for the sector fuelled by positive demographic trends, including growth in the college-aged population. Colleges and universities have become less willing to invest their capital in housing for students, creating an opportunity for private owners and developers.

Student housing proved relatively recession resistant during the credit crisis because college enrolment did not decline. Students stayed in school during the recession rather than face the uncertainty of the job market.

  • Campus Crest Communities (CCG) recently announced an acquisition that will make it the second largest student housing REIT. CCG is purchasing a 48% stake in Copper Beech Townhome Communities with an option to acquire the remainder of the company over several years.
  • Education Realty Trust (EDR), which owns and manages 34 communities with more than 25,400 beds and provides management services for an additional 10,000 beds, is repositioning its portfolio through acquisition, development, and sales activity.
  • American Campus Communities (ACC) is the largest student housing REIT and has been one of the most active buyers and developers of student housing. ACC added 51 properties with more than 30,000 beds totalling $2.2 billion in 2012. Its acquisitions included a 19-property portfolio containing 11,683 beds and 366 beds under development at an existing property.{Forbes}

The supply of student housing is also increasing, as illustrated by the REITs’ aforementioned strong construction pipelines. This risk is highly location specific. Supply and demand conditions vary widely by campus. Additionally, projects closer to campus bear less risk.

Notwithstanding the hazards, it is important to note that the sector’s positive influences compensate for the negative implications. Healthy dividend yields should attract investors while interest rates are low. The solid outlook for long term demand is another important factor that should attract investors. While supply is high, the risks are limited and location specific, since many colleges and universities need new student housing to accommodate growth, or to replace outdated housing. All these factors combine to ensure that public student housing REITs should remain well sort after by investors.

US REITs Reward Investors With Solid Growth and Strong Dividend Pay-outs

REIT

REIT

Believe it! The FTSE NAREIT ALL REIT Index returned 6.05%, outperforming the NASDAQ (+5.53). So far this year the US REIT sector has experienced steady, healthy growth. Analysts’ predictions, looking into 2013, range from a firm thumbs-up to cautiously optimistic.

To kick off, there seems to be an increased demand for warehousing which is being attributed to the US general economic recovery. Industrial REITs are benefiting as a result.  Year-to-date, the sector posted 8.90% return. Many believe that Prologis (PLD), whose $16.75 billion market capitalization represents almost 75% of the US industrial REIT sector, has driven the sector’s expansion.

In January, Prologis announced plans to set up a REIT in Japan through Nippon Prologis. PLD has also announced an agreement with Amazon.com to build a more than one million square foot distribution centre in Tracy, California!

Lodging REITs are also performing well in the new year, most probably based on the anticipated economic strengthening in 2013. Year-to-date through February 15th, the lodging sector returned 9.74%.

As the U.S. housing markets strengthen, the demand for lumber is growing. In December, housing started climbing to an annual rate of 954,000, the highest rate in more than four years. (In the US most houses are made of timber.) The result sees the timber REIT sector growing by  (8.89%).

Bucking the trend slightly is retail. Despite an improving economy, concerns remain about growth in the retail sector. The overall return for retail REITs so far in 2013 is 5.59%. Market fundamentals have benefitted from the lack of new construction (of retail), but retailers are cautious about expanding. Retail sales growth in early 2013 is positive.

On the other hand Office REITS are up (5.59%) – looking steady. Office market fundamentals in the large coastal markets are good, but office returns have been moderated by many markets that have not yet recovered.

Returns for healthcare (6.42%) REITs are solid. Many believe that the healthcare sector received a boost from Obama’s November victory and the early stage implementation of Obamacare, with increased demand for health services.

Of all the REIT subsectors, mortgage REITs are among the strongest, with a return of 11.44% year-to-date. Coming into the New Year, Annaly Capital Management (NLY), a residential financing REIT, announced plans to merge with CREXUS (CXS), a commercial mortgage REIT in late January.

” The real estate sector is currently benefiting from a number of tailwinds that include the general search for higher yield (REITs pay dividends) and lower volatility, better data emerging from key markets and the U.S. Federal Reserve’s continued focus on the mortgage and housing markets, EPFR Global said in a press release on Friday,” Kenneth Rapoza wrote for Forbes

The positive effects of low interest rates for mortgage REITs continue to outweigh the negative implications of mortgage prepayments that drew the sector down in 2012.

So it’s clear that Lodging and Industrial REITs are benefitting for the US economic recovery. Retail and apartment fundamentals are good, though a little uncertain. Housing market recovery is fuelling growth among timber REITs. Due to their strong dividend pay-out and improving market fundamentals investors continue to favour REITs.

 

 

Datacentre REITs Take Off

Datacentre

Datacentre

Demand for datacentre space has grown as more companies are using cloud-based data storage. Growth in Internet traffic and smartphone usage, including mobile apps and online video, is also driving demand. Datacentre REITs are currently performing well and are popular among investors who are attracted by their high dividend pay-outs as well as by growing demand for datacentre real estate.

The sector became overbuilt during the dot.com bubble and suffered when the bubble burst and demand dried up. The strength of the sector could push other datacentre companies to go public or adopt the REIT format. One example of this is Equinox a company operating datacentres for the likes of AT&T and Amazon.

REIT watches, REIT Café, recently drew attention to three particularly strong datacentre REITs:

• CoreSite Realty (COR), with market capitalization of $580 million, is most similar to CONE. COR is the smallest datacentre REIT, but its stock value has increased 33% since the end of October, and its dividend yield measures 3.6%.

• Digital Realty Trust (DLR) is the largest of the three data centre REITs with market capitalization of about $8.4 billion. Its stock value increased more than 16% since the end of October, and its dividend yield is 4.1%.

• DuPont Fabros Technology (DFT), with market capitalization of $1.5 billion, is the second largest data centre REIT. Its stock value grew 14.8% since the end of October, and its dividend yield measures 3.3%.

“This combination of low leverage and adequate liquidity places datacentre REITs in a good position to take advantage of acquisition and development opportunities that are in the best interest of the company,” said Jim Stevens, an analyst with SNL Financial. The data centre sector could double in size in the next few years, according to Stevens.

Exciting news concerns a new kid on the block CyrusOne (CONE). CyrusOne has raised $313.5 million when it sold 16.5 million shares at $19 on January, 18th. CyrusOne hails from Texas with 24 data centres in Texas and Ohio. The company is 72% owned by Cincinnati Bell, therefore bringing the total market capitalization to around $1.3 billion. Cyrus One has performed well during its first week. By Thursday, January 24th, shares of CONE were up more than 15% to $22.01. Cincinnati Bell, who purchased the company in 2010 for $525 million, will make a significant profit from the sale.

Notwithstanding on-going growth in the data centre industry, the sector faces increased competition, as firms like CONE show up on the doorstep and existing REITs look to grow. The increased competition could effect future expansion opportunities and result in lower returns. Although oversupply hasn’t emerged yet, investors ought to caution on the side of future overbuilding.