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Quarter-End Insights

REITs: Tread Carefully in This Low Interest Rate Environment

Rising interest rates could be a major valuation headwind for REITs, so investors should focus on moaty landlords with good growth prospects and attractive relative valuations.

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  • U.S. REITs appear overvalued as a group, with pockets of opportunity in the health care, retail, and cell tower property sectors. We maintain the view that security prices of listed Australian property stocks have generally decoupled from underlying fundamentals, and also generally appear pricey.
  • Capital is increasingly flowing across borders for property investments, and property values are high.
  • With acquisition prices high, more REITs are expanding their development pipelines, with initial yields projected to be 200 basis points or more above acquisition cap rates.
  • We generally expect REIT prices to move inversely with changes in long-term government bond yields, and we would expect REITs to generally underperform in a rising interest-rate environment.

 

U.S. REITs appear overvalued as a group, with pockets of opportunity in the health care, retail, and cell tower property sectors. Most Australian property stocks appear fully valued, but we see some value in the industrial and senior living sectors. In general, we think global commercial real estate investors should be cautious in the current environment, and focus on the highest-quality firms and property portfolios.

Although the Asia-Pacific property sector offers attractive yields relative to conventional yield plays, the risk of capital loss is elevated, as property values are likely to be hit hard if the yield curve eventually rises. In this context, our preferred long-term property exposures are firms owning quality assets in the most desirable locations. These firms should have negligible vacancy during periods of economic weakness and command rents at healthy premiums to others.

While property remains a business that requires local market knowledge, global capabilities are becoming increasingly important, as capital seeks diversification and opportunity across borders. This global flow of capital is not just intraregion, cross-border, but increasingly cross-continent as well. This, combined with the generally low interest-rate environment, is keeping cap rates low (and property values high), especially for the highest-quality assets in global gateway markets, where global investment flows are especially strong. Global capital flows typically introduce increased competition for property acquisitions, a slight negative for REITs. But global capital flows generally require specialized local-market knowledge for deployment, a boon for the largest global commercial real estate services firms.

With acquisition prices high, more REITs are expanding their development pipelines, targeting initial yields that exceed acquisition cap rates by 200 basis points or more. If such yields are realized, REITs can theoretically create immediate value upon stabilization of these developments, as the market recognizes the earnings power of the developments in light of lower cap rates for stabilized, operational properties. Although construction levels seem reasonable currently, oversupply of incremental square footage generally corresponds with commercial real estate downturns. Although we are not overly concerned with current construction levels, this is an area that bears watching.

We expect REIT prices to generally move inversely with changes in long-term government bond yields. Although higher interest rates would take some time to show up in REIT financial metrics, eventually higher rates could cause higher debt financing costs, put pressure on traditional after-interest expense measures of REIT cash flow (such as FFO, AFFO, and FAD), and lead to higher cap rates, which could pressure investment spreads. Also, to the extent that low interest rates have diverted investor funds to REITs searching for higher yield, funds could flow out of REITs if interest rates rise, pressuring commercial real estate and REIT valuations.

Although rising interest rates might signal a strengthening economy, which could benefit real estate fundamentals, we do not expect the macro environment to improve enough to offset what could be another 150- to 200-basis-point rise in U.S. government bond yields to levels nearer historical norms.

In a rising interest-rate environment, we'd prefer REIT investment exposure weighted toward reasonably priced, narrow-moat firms with attractive internal and external growth prospects, conservative capital structures, and well-laddered debt maturity schedules. Many property sectors with shorter lease durations (of a year or less) that REIT pundits traditionally favor during rising interest-rate environments look to offer investors an insufficient margin of safety today. In the U.S., we are generally cautious on multifamily and self-storage REITs, while we see relatively attractive valuations among health-care REITs and cell tower REITs, with pockets of opportunity in other property sectors.

Top Real Estate Sector Picks

Star Rating Fair Value
Estimate
Economic
Moat
Fair Value
Uncertainty
Consider
Buying
CapitaMall Trust SGD 2.20 Narrow Medium SGD 1.54
HCP $51.00 Narrow Medium $35.70
Goodman Group AUD 6.50 Narrow Medium AUD 4.55
Data as of 12-23-2014

 CapitaMall Trust (C38U) (Singapore)
CapitaMall Trust, or CMT, owns a portfolio of quality malls in Singapore and boasts the city-state's greatest market share. Its malls are well managed, situated in densely populated areas, and are close to mass transportation hubs with high foot traffic. These attributes are attractive for its diverse tenant base, resulting in high retention rates and near-full occupancy across its properties. The competitive position (and hence, moat) is also supported by the ongoing expansion and revitalization of CMT's malls, which strengthens the retail offering and discourages competitors from entering the market. This is achieved through better utilization of floor space, increasing net leasable area by expanding existing properties, and improving tenant and trade mix. We expect redevelopment activities to continue to feature as part of CMT's operations over the long term, supporting net rental income growth increasing to 4% per annum over the next five years.  

 HCP (HCP)
Health-care REITs in general are one of the most attractive property sectors among our U.S. real estate coverage on a relative valuation basis, and HCP--which owns senior housing facilities, skilled nursing facilities, life science properties, medical office buildings, and hospitals mainly in North America and leased to tenant operators on a long-term basis--is currently attractive. In general, U.S.-based health-care REITs should benefit from some favorable tailwinds, including an expanding population, an aging population, and potentially tens of millions of people added to the ranks of the insured because of the Affordable Care Act--all of which should drive incremental demand for health-care real estate relative to historical levels. Plus, health care is a property sector in which the vast majority of assets remain in private hands, so HCP should have opportunities to further consolidate ownership. We think HCP's current yield near 5%, combined with growth prospects in the low- to mid-single-digit range (if not higher, depending on external growth opportunities), provide investors with a compelling total-return prospect in the current environment.  

 Goodman Group (GMG)(Australia)
Goodman's geographically diversified and vertically integrated business model is well positioned to deliver solid medium-term earnings growth. The low global interest rate environment has piqued interest in property investments, and Goodman's strong relationships with large wholesale investors puts it in the enviable position of turning away investors. Goodman operates at the upper end of the industrial spectrum where there are fewer competitors because of higher capital requirements, supporting returns. Additionally, we believe the upper end of the market has the most favorable growth outlook given the importance of large-scale, modern warehouses in efficient distribution chains, playing to Goodman's strengths.

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Todd Lukasik does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.