Investors, Know Your REITs


Real estate stocks have prospered over the past few years, as interest rates hit historic lows and investors sought out stable, high-yielding real estate investment trusts (REITs) to escape the tech meltdown. Now, as interest rates start to ascend, some worry about REITs. The relationship between interest rates and REITs, however, is quite complex.

John Wenker and Julene Melquist, co-managers of the First American Real Estate Securities Fund (FREAX), believe as the economy improves and real estate occupancy rates eventually rise, any harm from higher interest rates will likely be mitigated by REITs' higher earnings.

For the one-year period through July, the $433-million fund gained 21.2%, while its benchmark, the Morgan Stanley REIT Index, rose 20.6%, and the average real estate fund was up 21.6%. Over the longer term, the fund climbed 17.3%, annualized, for the three-year period through July, while the peer group rose 16.3%. For the five-year period, the fund gained 16%, while the peer group was up 15.3%. Based on risk and return characteristics during the last three years, S&P gives the fund its highest overall rank of 5 Stars.

Wenker and Melquist began co-managing the fund in October, 1999. Palash R. Ghosh of Standard & Poor's Fund Advisor recently spoke with them about their strategy. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: What kind of REITs do you invest in?

Melquist: We focus on quality, such as REITs with strong managements, growing cash flow, and reasonable valuations. We tend to sacrifice some yield, as lower-quality REITs provide greater yield. The average REIT currently has a yield of about 5.5%, while our fund's average yield is closer to 4%.

Q: Aside from low interest rates, why have REITs performed so well over the past few years?

Melquist: In the late 1990s, REITs were sluggish because their yields were much less than [returns from] soaring high-tech stocks. When the tech bubble burst in early 2000, REITs became attractive because of their stability and yields. REITs are required to pay out at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders in the form of dividends. When the Fed started slashing interest rates in early 2001, REITs became even more popular.

Q: How do interest rates affect REITs?

Wenker: In the short term, REIT returns are hurt by higher interest rates, as in April when long-term rates -- the 10-year Treasury bond yield -- started rising after a bullish employment report. However, quantitative studies have shown that interest-rate changes have little or no impact on REIT prices over the long term.

Melquist: REITs can benefit as interest rates rise. When the Fed raises rates, the economy usually is improving, more people are getting jobs, and occupancy rates for offices and apartments are rising.

Q: The Morgan Stanley REIT Index fell sharply in April. Was that an overreaction?

Wenker: We think it was a healthy correction. For the 15 months from January, 2003, through March, 2004, the index surged 54.6% to an all-time high on Apr. 1. At that point, we figured many REITS were trading at 15% to 20% premiums to their respective net asset values. But after the strong jobs report, the index fell about 20% from Apr. 2 through mid-May, leading to more reasonable REIT valuations. Since then, the index rebounded about 15% or so, boosting valuations to about 5% to 6% less than their all-time highs.

Q: What are your largest holdings?

Wenker: As of June 30: Public Storage (PSA), 4.6%; Vornado Realty Trust (VNO), 4.1%; Boston Properties (BXP), 3.9%; Developers Diversified Realty (DDR), 3.8%; Newcastle Investment (NCT), 3.5%; LaSalle Hotel Properties (LHO), 3.3%; Apartment Investment & Management (AIV), 3.2%; Mills Corp. (MLS), 3.0%; Rouse (RSE), 2.9%; and Simon Property Group (SPG), 2.9%.

Melquist: We typically hold 45 to 75 stocks, and we currently have about 60 holdings. The top 10 stocks represent about 35% of the fund's total assets.

Q: How large is the universe of publicly-traded U.S. REITs?

Melquist: There are about 150 investible REITs. It's a relatively small industry, less than 0.5% of the S&P 500-stock index.

Q: What are your top sectors?

Wenker: As of June 30: offices, 18.5%; malls, 14.8%; hotels, 13.3%; industrials, 12%; community centers, 10.3%; diversified, 7.7%; apartments, 7%; specialty, 6%; self-storage, 5%; and health care, 2.7%.

Broadly speaking, we consider sectors based on pricing power. In a generally improving economy like [we have] now, we're more heavily-weighted toward properties, such as hotels, that respond rapidly to better economic conditions. Currently, we're also underweight in apartments. Although apartments have shorter leases, they have little pricing power. They have been hurt in the past few years by low interest rates (which prompt people to buy homes rather than rent), low job growth, and a greater supply of new apartments.

Q: Can you discuss some of your favorite holdings?

Melquist: Unlike most REITs this year, LaSalle Hotel Properties wasn't hurt in April. LaSalle is more geographically concentrated than most hotel companies, because it has several hotels in the Washington, D.C., area, which is flourishing. LaSalle made some smart acquisitions, and we're confident about their management. The stock has gained 36% this year, but we think it has further upside.

The hotel sector goes through four- or five-year cycles, and we think we're currently in an up cycle. Earnings from hotel stocks are increasing dramatically, as the hotel subsector is benefiting from the economic recovery and more business travel.

Wenker: We also like Corporate Office Properties Trust (OFC), although we aren't too bullish on the office subsector. OFC has focused on Washington, D.C., suburban Northern Virginia, and Maryland, areas that are doing extremely well.

Q: What would make you sell a stock?

Melquist: We will sell a holding when a company's growth prospects weaken relative to its peers, when its management team changes significantly, or when the stock reaches the upper end of our price target.

Q: Can you cite a stock you recently sold?

Melquist: We sold Apartment Investment & Management (AIV) last October. We believed consensus earnings estimates were too high, and we were concerned that they would cut the dividend. We got out of it entirely, as the stock price was too high.

However, we recently repurchased AIV, because they've since made some management changes and refocused on their core businesses. The company's stock price declined from about $41 last November, to the high $20s in May, 2004, so this was mostly a valuation bet.

Q: What's your annual

turnover?

Wenker: The average annual turnover is typically about 90%, but this mostly reflects adding or trimming of existing positions. We don't sell holdings outright very often. REIT stocks, as a group, tend to move up or down in tandem, so we add or cut back based on valuations.

Q: What place should REITs have in an investor's portfolio?

Wenker: REITs provide great diversification, because they show very low correlation with other stocks or bonds.

Q: What's your outlook for REITs for the rest of 2004?

Wenker: It's a mixed picture. Investors should be cautious about high valuations, which exceed the industry's fundamentals. However, we feel interest rates will rise at a modest pace, so investors probably won't abandon REITs.

Melquist: In addition, REITs had higher second-quarter earnings, leading to higher dividends and better yields. Occupancy rates are also increasing slightly around the country, although pricing power has not appreciably improved.


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