Real Estate Investment Trusts

Monday, 31 December 2012

Royalty trusts, in Finance, are classic flow-through investments vehicles. The trust, like a mutual fund, holds a portfolio of assets, which can be anything from producing oil and gas wells to power generating stations to interests in land. The net cash flow, i.e. the total cash flow minus revenues, is passed on to the unit-holders as distribution.

The purpose of a Real Estate Investment Trusts is to reduce or eliminate corporate income taxes. In the United States, where they are generally more widespread as investment vehicles, Real Estate Investment Trusts pay little or no federal income tax but are subject to a number of special requirements set forth in the Internal Revenue Code, one of which is the requirement to distribute annually at least 90 percent of their taxable income in the form of dividends to shareholders.

Real Estate Investment Trusts are, therefore, a special type of royalty trust. They specialize in real property, anything from office buildings to long-term care facilities. For illiquid assets like real estate, closed-end funds of this type make good sense. Open-end or ‘mutual' real estate funds are subject to new money and redemption problems, entirely absent in closed-end trusts. The first Real Estate Investment Trust was introduced in the United States in 1960. The vehicle was designed to facilitate investments in large-scale income-producing real estate by smaller investors. The US model was simple, enabling small investors to acquire equity interests in vehicles holding large-scale commercial property.

But the birth of Real Estate Investments Trusts as a mass investment vehicle can be traced directly to the liquidity crisis encountered by open-end real estate mutual funds all the way back to 1991-92, during the slowdown of real estate that characterized those years. Faced with redemption demands on the part of unit-holders, real estate mutual funds were presented with the unpalatable option of selling valuable real properties into a distressed market to raise cash. Many of them, therefore, chose to close off redemptions and converted into Real Estate Investment Trusts, since then most commonly known as REIT's. Only a few open-end real estate mutual funds continue to own real estate directly. Most now invest in shares of real estate-related companies.

The typical REIT usually distributes about 85 to 95 percent of its income (rental income from properties) to the shareholders, usually on a quarterly basis. This income gets a special tax break, because REIT's shareholders are entitled to a deduction for the pro-rata share of capital cost allowance (depreciation on the real properties). As a result, a high percentage of the distributions are normally tax-deferred. However, the amount will vary from year to year and will differ depending on the particular REIT.

As with royalty trust, the value of tax-deferred income will reduce the adjusted cost base of the shares owned. For example, if an investor purchases 1,000 units at $15.50 per unit, receives $3,000 ($3.00 per share) in aggregate tax-deferred distribution over time, and the sells the shares for $17.50 each, the capital gain will be calculated as follows:

[1,000 x ($17.50 - $15.50 + $3.00)] = $5,000 before adjustments for commissions. In Canada, this gain will be subjected to capital gain treatment, so only 50 percent or $2,500 will be included in income and taxed accordingly. In fact, Canada allows preferential tax treatment to REIT's by making them RRSP-eligible and by not considering them foreign property (which would taxed at a higher rate), so long as the real estate portfolio does not contain non-Canadian property in excess of the allowable limit.

REIT's yields and the market price of units tend to be strongly influenced by interest rates movements. As rates drop, prices of REIT's rise thus causing yields to drop. On the other hand, when interest rates rise, prices of REIT's drop thus causing yields to rise.

For example, when interest rates were pushed up by both the Federal Reserve Board and the Bank of Canada all the way back in 2000, the typical REIT was yielding close to 14 percent as prices per share fell. When interest rates subsequently dropped, yields fell to less than 10 percent as demand for REIT's increased thus pushing share prices higher.

This is a very important consideration to be kept in mind when investing or otherwise trading units involving this type of trusts. If interest rates appear to be poised to rise, investors may want to defer purchases, and those who own this type of shares already may consider reducing their exposure by selling and take in some profit.

There are typically two catches with REIT's. The first is that since investors are ‘unit-holders' rather than shareholders, they are potentially jointly and severally liable together with all other unit-holders (plus the trust itself) in the eventuality of insolvency. Instead of limited liability, investors rely on the REIT's management to have property, casualty and liability insurance, prudent lending policies and other reasonable safeguards in place. Nevertheless there is always the possibility of a problem - say a catastrophic fire or a building collapse - that is not covered by insurance. This may have seemed like a very small matter prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Since then, however, it is something that has to be taken seriously.

The second problem with REIT's is less transparent. All real estate properties depreciate in value over time (not the land, only the buildings). Depreciation can be somewhat slowed down by earmarking at times significant amounts of money for maintenance and renewal of facilities. Since most of the REIT's income is being distributed and the capital cost allowance is being allocated to investors, investors are factually getting their own capital back over time. As such, the book value of the underlying real properties will be steadily depleting.

Obviously, if real estate markets are on the upswing the depreciation factor will not be overly important, since it will be offset by the appreciation of the underlying assets. But in essence, the point is that the long-term income stream is quite variable, certainly more variable than some managers would have investors believe.

As stated above, the inverse relationship between interest rates and prices of REIT's shares plays an important role. On average, it is safe to assume that interest rate increases are likely to be met by REIT's price declines in the Stock Exchange, because increasing rates correspond to a slowdown in the economic growth and less demand. But out of the context of the frantic buy and sell of Wall Street, even a slowdown in the market for single-family houses can actually benefit REIT's. This is so, because even though real property prices are in decline, it is still cheaper to rent than to own, especially during a period of rising interest rates. And REIT's thrive on rentals. In fact, no city is a better environment for REIT's to operate in than New York City, where some 70 percent of residents rent.

Luigi Frascati