Macquarie research put out a comparison of REITs vs direct (condo) ownership in Toronto and Calgary. The story was picked up by the Globe and others. It’s an interesting comparison, especially the part about leverage, when another article this week warned of the dangers in leverage.
“Unbeknownst to most of these families, their theory of home ownership as a safe, low volatility investment is based on the often-mistaken premise of no or little debt. This is a crucial blind spot because the moment that a large amount of debt is used to buy a home, that safe investment theory goes completely out the window. […] What happens when that family buys that house with just 10 per cent cash down and a 90 per cent mortgage that promises an interest rate of 3 per cent to the bank over the long term? Amazingly, the equity in the house has now become dramatically more risky than before. The equity is now three times as risky as the overall market rather than 30 per cent as risky. This is more risky than an investment in nickel mining stocks or Internet start-ups.”
I was asked after these reports about REITs, and specifically if they’re as risky as the housing market, given my views there. Briefly, a REIT is a real estate investment trust, a type of investment that owns real estate that it rents out. The majority of the cash flow is paid out as a distribution to the investors. I tend to view them as a step up from fixed income: essentially all of the anticipated return will come from the distribution (rather than capital gains), and though that can be cut or expanded depending on circumstances, it should for the most part be stable.
I do invest in REITs (until late last year they were a huge part of my portfolio, but now are down to ~3% as I was selling as the prices appreciated), and don’t think that they’re in for the pain that residential housing is, due to several key reasons.
The first is diversification: both personally and for the REIT. Even if I wasn’t hugely negative on housing, I’d be somewhat uncomfortable having my house be the entirety of my net worth for the better part of a decade. With a REIT, I can get some exposure to real estate without risking it all. Also, the REITs themselves are diversified, holding many buildings all across the country. Even if I think Vancouver and Toronto are bubbles, Canada on the whole is not quite as bad.
The second is the sector: most REITs I invest in lease retail and commercial buildings (plus some industrial and government properties). Even the REITs that invest in residential apartments are not buying individual houses or condos. The housing market has been blown up by speculation and cheap-as-free CMHC financing, but those factors haven’t applied to multifamily residential (i.e.: apartment buildings of 5+ units) or industrial/commercial/retail buildings.
The third is return: REITs are investment vehicles for professionals, run by professionals. Before investing money, a building is evaluated for its investment return, and only its investment return (not how nice the school district is or how grown up you’ll feel buying it or how only scumbags rent or how pretty the countertops are). A common measure of investment return is the cap rate: the rent less the expenses divided by the price. The lowest cap rate I’ve seen on a REIT purchase in the statements I’ve read for the last few years was 5%, but 6-8% is more typical. For residential housing, buyers don’t evaluate it for its investment return (often at all, but certainly not as a top priority) — some people don’t even investigate what their housing alternatives are, and I kid you not, more than one person (on the internet, granted, so trolling is a possibility) didn’t even know that you could rent detached houses/townhouses/anything but apartments — and if they try, don’t typically do a very good job of it (innumeracy at work). In Toronto, a typical residential condo cap rate is something like 2% right now, with gross yields at 5%.
And the fourth is liquidity: if I buy a house and I’m wrong, I’m sunk: up to 10% just in transaction fees, and in a down market it can take a long time to sell (or a big discount). Even if I could recognize a downturn early on (say after only a 5% drop in prices), I’d probably lose 20% by the time I got out, not even accounting for the risk-layering of leverage. For a REIT, transaction fees are the same as for other stocks: small (for the position sizes I take, I try to keep fees to less than 1%). If I’m wrong, I can sell as soon as I decide to — again, if I could recognize a downturn after only a 5% drop in prices, I could get out losing only 5-7% (depending on transaction fees).
The third point in particular explains why I don’t think REITs are as prone to a real estate crash as residential housing: the over-valuation simply isn’t there in the first place. Plus, unlike residential housing speculators, they don’t rely on flipping property to make money: even if property valuations slide, as long as it’s not so far as to threaten the ratios on their loans, the income should continue to flow.
That said, REITs have had a big run up from the financial crisis lows, and since they are leveraged, they are somewhat interest-rate sensitive. They’re not without their own set of risks. For residential REITs, if rents come down due to competition from accidental landlords, they could take a hit. Even if there was zero spill-over from the coming condocalypse to commercial/retail values, REIT pricing could suffer if crowd psychology caused people to jump ship from anything with “real estate” in the name. A downturn in the economy that causes businesses and shops to close means they have higher vacancies, and thus less income.
There’s been some discussion over whether to hold individual REITs or the iShares REIT ETF XRE. XRE has a 0.58% MER, and not a great amount of diversification, with only a few names making up three-quarters of the fund (Riocan alone is a quarter!). For zero MER, one could buy the top one (or two or three) holdings and get the same basic exposure, it’s argued. Though the MER is a touch high for an ETF, it’s still nice to get the diversification… but I personally wouldn’t/didn’t go the XRE route for a different reason entirely: I just don’t like RioCan (REI.UN). It only yields 5.5% (as of today), and that’s with over-distributions (paying out more than cash flow as they hope that future income growth will close the gap). I know yield-chasing for the sake of yield-chasing isn’t a good thing to do, but there are other (smaller, ‘natch) REITs paying substantially more with, IMHO, the same riskiness as RioCan. Either way though, not a bad way to go for a part of your portfolio, especially as a renter without other real estate exposure.