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Amid positive signals emanating from the uptick in housing prices and an improving outlook for consumer spending, the housing sector is gradually stabilizing. Both new and existing home sales have increased during the last four consecutive months and are now 32% and 17% above their recent lows, respectively. Single-family housing starts have also risen 37% from their low point, and inventories of homes-for-sale have fallen sharply.

Equity REITs rebounded nicely in the third quarter, recording total returns of 33% (total return FTSE NAREIT Index) vs. a 15% gain each for the S&P and the Dow. The strong third quarter returns marked the second consecutive record-setting performance of equity REITs after a dismal performance in the first quarter of 2009.

In what has been a volatile year, equity REITs gained approximately 29% (total return FTSE NAREIT Index) in the second quarter after falling 32% in the first quarter. So far in October, equity REITs are down about 1%; the worst performing sectors in October have been Self Storage (- 3.4%), Retail (-1.6%), Industrial/Office (-1.6%), and Residential (-0.8%).

OPPORTUNITIES

Many REITs are still trading at discounts to NAV (net asset value), traditionally a good "buy" signal. Over the past seven or so years, REITs have traded near or in excess of NAV.

With dividend cuts and share price gains, the average yield for equity REITs during the third quarter was about 4%. Although yields have exceeded that of the 10-year Treasury, the spread has narrowed considerably over the past quarter. Most companies have been raising cash through asset sales and equity financing, with the proceeds being used to pay down debt.

The credit freeze will have a positive effect on commercial real estate down the road; new office, apartment and retail construction has slowed considerably, which will benefit owners in a couple of years. Many companies that we cover have stopped all-new construction.

In this environment, we like well-capitalized companies that have adequate liquidity and manageable near-term debt maturities. Currently, we are bullish on American Capital Agency Corp. ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/agnc]AGNC[/url]), a mortgage REIT that invests exclusively in agency securities for which the principal and interest payments are guaranteed by U.S. government agencies like Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/fnm]FNM[/url]) and Freddie Mac ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/fre]FRE[/url]). During the second quarter of 2009, American Capital reported net spread of 3.66% with 39.8% return on equity (ROE), and is one of the few companies to have increased the dividend.

Another stock worth mentioning is Vornado Realty Trust ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/vno]VNO[/url]), the largest publicly traded office REIT in the New York region concentrating on Class A office properties. The core properties of Vornado are still performing at a high level, maintaining strong occupancies and increasing rents in most property formats. We believe this puts the company well ahead of many competitors, and warrants upside potential.

We would also like to mention Simon Property Group Inc. ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/spg]SPG[/url]), the largest publicly traded retail real estate company in North America, with assets in almost all retail distribution channels. The geographic and product diversity of the company insulates it from market volatility to a great extent and provides a steady source of income. Furthermore, Simon Property’s international presence gives it a more sustainable long-term growth story than its domestically focused peers.

WEAKNESSES

REITs still depend on access to capital to fund growth, and with the credit markets still not fully back to normal, it is difficult to raise money for new developments/acquisitions. In this scenario, most REITs are raising capital through property level debt, dividend reductions and equity offerings. Although both debt and equity financings provide the much-needed cash infusion, they could potentially burden an already leveraged balance sheet and/or dilute earnings. Property level debt is also harder to obtain and more expensive as commercial real estate prices continue to remain under pressure.

Fundamentals are declining in many suburban office markets as corporate expansion continues to slow. More and more corporations are putting off leasing decisions until the economy recovers. Recent employment trends are also not encouraging as the U.S. economy continues to shed jobs at a rapid pace. To date, the U.S. has lost about 7.2 million jobs since the start of recession in December 2007. The national unemployment rate has surged to 9.8%. As the U.S. economy struggles with the economic downturn, REITs will have trouble holding tenants and leasing new space.

Given the market uncertainties, we are bearish on Developers Diversified Realty Corporation ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/ddr]DDR[/url]), which is primarily engaged in owning and leasing shopping centers across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Brazil, Russia and Canada. The current recession has led to increased tenant bankruptcies, which in turn have led to a decline in occupancy and an increase in vacancy rates. The possibility of store closings at many Developers Diversified centers further adds uncertainty to the earnings, and it might have to re-let large "big-box" spaces at significantly lower rents in a very tough leasing environment.

We would also avoid Post Properties, Inc. ([url=https://www.zacks.com/stock/quote/pps]PPS[/url]), an apartment REIT relying heavily on low-barrier markets such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Orlando and Tampa. We think the company will have a difficult time continuing to raise rents in a faltering economy, and expect flat rental rates and negative same-store revenue growth in 2009.


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