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Do Timber REITs Lead or Ride the Coattails of Investor Interest in Real Estate Markets?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on the rush of investors buying into publicly-traded real estate investment trusts (“Real-estate investors target neighborhood that is looking up,” Wall Street Journal, 11/15/11).  According to Citigroup Global Markets, investors, year-to-date, invested 18% more capital into publicly-traded REITs than in all of 2010, and 400% more than in 2009.  Holy groupthink, Batman!

This stampeding herd of buyers returning to public real estate markets reminds me of the African proverb “you can’t run and scratch your foot at the same time.”  As a reluctant runner, I welcome an excuse to pause and scratch a puzzling itch or three.  First, why the interest in REITs generally?  Second, how does this look within the context of the overall market?  Third, how do timberland-owning REITs score during this investment cycle?

REIT investments satisfy the hunt for yields.  With capital looking for “relative” safety and valuing a return to fundamentals, public REITs attract investors eyeballing the steady cash flows and requirement to distribute earnings quarterly.  Within the REIT sector, certain sub-sectors have outperformed the broader REIT market.  According to NAREIT, total 2011 returns on apartment buildings and self-storage properties averaged ~10% and ~22%, respectively, through the first week of November.  Nice.

However, a closer look at the numbers indicates the article made a mountain out of a molehill.  Overall, REITs appear to be tracking the market.  REITs YTD through November 18th returned -2.25% versus -3.34% for the S&P 500 versus….-2.69% for public timber REITs according to the Forisk Timber REIT (FTR) Index.  While real estate often satisfies objectives to diversify portfolios, this has proven more difficult in the context of a European debt crisis, failing efforts to balance U.S. budgets, and lagging demand for homes and construction.

What about timberland investments?  Year-to-day through Q3, according to NCREIF, equity investments in timberlands returned 1.06% and -0.35% in the third quarter.  For reference, with dividends included, public timber REITs as measured by the FTR Total Returns Index generated 0.63%.

The FTR Index includes Plum Creek (PCL), Rayonier (RYN), Potlatch (PCH) and Weyerhaeuser (WY). As of 11/18/11, publicly-traded timber REITs comprise 4.99% of total public REIT capitalization.

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