Real Estate Funds: Beyond the Bubble


By Carol A. Wood For the past five years, mutual funds investing in various types of real estate securities have been stellar performers, while housing prices in many metropolitan markets have skyrocketed. For the five-year period through June 30, 2005, real estate funds returned, on average, an annualized 12.5%, vs. an 0.04 % drop for the average domestic stock portfolio. The S&P 500 index declined 2.4% in that period.

Despite growing anxieties about a housing bubble, some portfolio managers predict that real estate funds will remain insulated, or even thrive, should house prices fall back to Earth.

The sector's top-performing fund, the $526-million Alpine U.S. Real Estate Equity Fund/Y (EUEYX), is concentrated in homebuilder stocks. Managed by Samuel Lieber, this portfolio topped all real estate mutual funds for the one-, three- and five-year periods ended June 30 (see table below).

EXPANDING MARGINS. The correlation between the housing market and homebuilding stocks is "pretty strong, but not always evident," Lieber says. While homebuilders benefit from rising home prices, Lieber attributed the subsector's 586% cumulative five-year stock price appreciation to having been "significantly undervalued" in 2000. Additionally, homebuilders today are "dramatically better companies, and they will not go into the red if there's a slowdown," he says.

Lieber doesn't regard homebuilder stocks as overvalued because these companies have expanded their market shares and margins. Five years ago, the shares were trading at just a 4.5 price-earnings (p-e) ratio. Now they're at a 8.5 p-e, according to Lieber. He thinks they should be selling for 11 times earnings, given that they've historically traded at two-thirds of the S&P Index average p-e.

With demand for homes outstripping supply, Lieber thinks housing markets could survive a drop in price. He expects stock prices to dip slightly, and would likely buy more shares if they do. Lieber is so bullish on homebuilders that one of his firm's private funds is composed entirely of such stocks.

LESS SENSITIVE. Because condominiums are in greater supply and more of a commodity than individual homes, Lieber believes that a "temporary scare" could occur in that market. However, because mortgage risk has been widely spread through securitization, it would likely "mitigate" the risk of default in the subprime market (15% of all mortgages) and among over-stretched homeowners who lose their jobs.

David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's, believes we're unquestionably in the midst of a housing boom. "When real interest rates are low, housing always has a boom, and then when interest rates go up, it has a bust," he observes. "Homebuilder stocks will definitely follow suit" if the housing market softens, he says. But the "multiplicity of ways of financing a house means that housing isn't quite as sensitive to financial markets," he says. "It still counts, but not as much as it used to."

Wyss doesn't expect home prices to decline nationally, though they might stop rising. "I think you do have some local markets that are overpriced," he says. "But historically, the only time we've seen prices decline significantly is when there's a loss of employment in an area -- like Texas in the mid-'80s, and the Northeast in the late '80s."

WIDE NET. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) follow a different set of fundamental factors. In some cases, REITs have benefited indirectly from the residential housing boom, but their returns are generally driven by the health of commercial real estate.

James Corl, co-manager of the $78.6-million Cohen & Steers Realty Focus Fund/Instl (CSSPX), sees "very little" correlation between what happens in the housing market and how REITs perform. "REITs invest in income-producing property -- office, industrial, warehouses, retail space, and multi-family apartments," he explains, adding that these four areas represent 80% of the value of the commercial real estate sector.

"Income-producing types are owned by investors, who buy and sell based on income stream," he says. In contrast, owner-occupied homes are purchased for habitation, depending on what the owner can afford. There's an implied return in home ownership, based on the rent that one would otherwise pay, but it's theoretical and not the primary purpose of buying, he says.

RECOVERY IN PROGRESS? Corl's fund invests exclusively in commercial properties, including REITs and "C corporations" that own and manage property. Both businesses offer advantages -- REITs don't pay taxes on their net income, but must pay out 90% of it in the form of dividends to shareholders and are restricted as to how fast they can trade or sell assets. C corporations must pay 35% tax on net income, but do not face the same restrictions on selling and trading.

The Cohen & Steers fund has never held homebuilder stocks, Corl says, because their "volatility profile is very different" from what his investors expect. "Homebuilders are really traders -- they buy land, sell lots, or put up houses and sell them," he notes. "The holding period is brief. REIT stocks have high income, with stable long-term leases underpinning their income streams."

The income generated by REITs has been somewhat constrained due to the soft U.S. economy and weak demand for commercial space in the wake of the tech bubble and recession. However, things have picked up since mid-2004. "We're in the very early stages of a real estate recovery," Corl says. "Retail is close to peak occupancy. Across the country, the occupancy level, which bottomed last year, started to go up."

Conversely, the vacancy rate is now about 17% nationally, Corl says, leaving a lot of room for growth. When the vacancy rate last hit bottom in 2000, it was about 7% to 8%.

DOWN TO THE LINE. Corl sees the greatest chance for growth in hotel and office properties, as well as in manufactured homes. REITs generally are now "inexpensive relative to the broader market, by virtue of their growth and dividend yield, and are trading at small premiums" compared with where they might be at this point in the economic cycle, he says.

Raymond Mathis, one of three analysts covering REITs for Standard & Poor's Equity Research, is also bullish on the sector, especially retail and lodging, regarding it as somewhat defensive if the housing bubble bursts. "Prices within commercial real estate have appreciated, but they've come back to the long-term trend line," he says. "They're not out of whack, and they have strong fundamentals."

Mathis likes the fact that REIT dividend payouts can never be negative. "It goes a long way to decreasing volatility in your investment portfolio," he says.

ARMED AND DANGEROUS. Though they're generally bullish on real estate, most of our experts voiced concerns about unpredictable events that could affect it. Wyss sees housing speculation as only a "minor concern," though he's bothered by the proliferation of risky "creative banking" products, such as interest-only adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs).

With the average home selling for 3.1 times average household income (vs. 2.6 times historically), Wyss expects that ratio will fall as mortgage rates eventually rise. "If mortgage rates go up gradually, housing prices will flatten out while income catches up," he says. "But if they jerk up, then those prices will have to drop."

Some homeowners with ARMs might not be able to meet their mortgage payments. Wyss sees the major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, along with the West Coast and Florida, as being the most vulnerable to this scenario, while housing prices elsewhere are "still pretty realistic."

MARKET WATCH. Corl says a slowdown in housing price appreciation would be "fantastic" for the apartment sector by encouraging more new families to rent rather than buy. But at the same time, by reducing the wealth effect that has been buoyed by "cash-out refinancing," retail sales may be hurt and dampen REITs in that sector.

Mathis is cautious about REIT funds that are overexposed to weak income-producing or inflated property markets like San Francisco, San Jose, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Denver. But such information can be difficult for the average investor to obtain. "They would have to know each REIT in the mutual fund's portfolio," he says.

Mathis also advises avoiding "larger-cap names not covering their dividend from cash flow from operations," such as Equity Office Properties Trust (EOP), Crescent Real Estate Equities (CEI), and Apartment Investment & Management (AIV).

HARD KNOCKS. Taking a broader view, Lieber points out that the current account deficit gives U.S. policymakers "less of a cushion" to counteract a weakening economy, a rapidly falling dollar, or spiking interest rates, should any of these events occur. Also, job losses could lead to mortgage defaults, though the distribution of risk would soften the impact. "But if the scale is bigger, you've got more problems," he says. "A bust in housing would blow the economy."

Here are the top-performing real estate funds by one-year, three-year, and five-year returns, through June 30.

Top 5 Real Estate Funds, 1-year Period

Fund Name

S&P Star Ranking

Return (%)

Expense Ratio (%)

Alpine U.S. Real Estate Equity Fund/Y (EUEYX)

5

52.6

1.31

PIMCO Funds: Real Estate Real Return Strategy/I (PRRSX)

N.R.

44.3

0.74

ProFunds: Real Estate Ultrasector/Inv (REPIX)

1

43.8

1.55

CGM Realty Fund (CGMRX)

3

38.4

0.96

Morgan Stanley Instl: US Real Estate/A (MSUSX)

4

39.1

0.97

Top 5 Real Estate Funds, 3-year period

Fund Name

S&P Star Ranking

Annualized Return (%)

Expense Ratio (%)

Alpine U.S. Real Estate Equity Fund/Y (EUEYX)

5

34.3

1.31

CGM Realty Fund (CGMRX)

3

32.5

0.96

Cohen & Steers Realty Focus/Instl (CSSPX)

5

26.9

1.43

Strategic Partners Real Estate Securities/A (PURAX)

5

26.1

1.53

AIM Real Estate Fund/A (IARAX)

5

23.5

1.65

Top 5 Real Estate Funds, 5-year period

Fund Name

S&P Star Ranking

Annualized Return (%)

Expense Ratio (%)

Alpine U.S. Real Estate Equity Fund/Y (EUEYX)

5

34.1

1.31

CGM Realty Fund (CGMRX)

3

27.8

0.96

Cohen & Steers Realty Focus/Instl (CSSPX)

5

24.6

1.43

Strategic Partners Real Estate Securities/Z

5

23

1.28

Scudder RREEF Real Estate Securities Fund/Instl (RRRRX)

5

22.2

0.54

Wood is a reporter for Standard & Poor's Fund Advisor


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