Tag Archives: nly

UPDATE: Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve

In June we wrote an RIA Pro article entitled Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve, in which we discussed the opportunity to profit from a steepening yield curve with specific investments in mortgage REITs. We backed up our words by purchasing AGNC, NLY, and REM for RIA Advisor clients. The same trades were shared with RIA Pro subscribers and can be viewed in the RIA Pro Portfolios under the Portfolio tab.

We knew when we published the article and placed the trades that the short term risk to our investment thesis was, and still is, a further flattening and even an inversion of the yield curve. That is precisely what happened. In mid to late August the curve inverted by four basis points but has since widened back out.

The graph below compares the 2s/10s yield curve (blue) with AGNC (orange) and NLY (green). Beneath the graph is two smaller graphs showing the rolling 20-day correlation between AGNC and NLY versus the yield curve.

Since writing the article and purchasing the shares, the securities have fallen by about 5%, although much of the price loss is offset by double digit dividends (AGNC 13.20%, NLY 10.73%, and REM 9.06%). While we are not happy with even a small loss, we are emboldened by the strong correlation between the share prices and the yield curve. The trade is largely a yield curve bet, so it is comforting to see the securities tracking the yield curve so closely.

We still think the yield curve will steepen significantly. In our opinion, this will likely occur as slowing growth will prompt the Fed to be more aggressive than their current posture. We also think that there is a high probability that when the Fed decides to become more aggressive they will reduce rates at a faster clip than the market thinks. As we discussed in Investors Are Grossly Underestimating the Fed, when the Fed is actively raising or reducing rates, the market underestimates that path.

To wit:  If the Fed initiates rate cuts and if the data in the graphs prove prescient, then current estimates for a Fed Funds rate of 1.50% to 1.75% in the spring of 2020 may be well above what we ultimately see. Taking it a step further, it is not farfetched to think that that Fed Funds rate could be back at the zero-bound, or even negative, at some point sooner than anyone can fathom today.

Heading into the financial crisis, it took the Fed 15 months to go from a 5.25% Fed funds rate to zero. Given their sensitivities today, how much faster might they respond to an economic slowdown or financial market dislocation from the current level of 2.25%?”

Bolstering our view for a steeper yield curve is that the Fed, first and foremost, is concerned with the financial health of its member banks. The Fed will fight an inverted yield curve because it hurts banks profit margins and therefore reduces their ability to lend money. Because of this and regardless of the economic climate, the Fed will use words and monetary policy actions to promote a steeper yield curve.

We are very comfortable with the premise behind our trades, and in fact in mid-August we doubled our position in AGNC. We will also likely add to NLY soon.

For more on this investment thesis, please watch the following Real Vision interview Steepening Yield Curve Could Yield Generational Opportunities.

Steepening Yield Curve Could Yield Generational Opportunities : Michael Lebowitz on Real Vision

On July 1st, Michael Lebowitz was interviewed by Real Vision TV. In the interview he discussed our thoughts on the yield curve, corporate bonds, recession odds, the Federal Reserve, and much more. In particular, Michael pitched our recent portfolio transactions NLY and AGNC, which were both discussed in the following RIA PRO article: Profiting From a Steepening Yield Curve.

Real Vision was kind enough to allow us to share their exclusive video with RIA Pro clients. We hope you enjoy it.

To watch the Video please click HERE

Profiting From A Steepening Yield Curve

What is the yield curve and what does it mean for the economy and the markets?

Over the last few months, the financial media has obsessed on those questions. Given the yield curve’s importance, especially considering the large amount of debt being carried by individuals, corporations, and the government, we do not blame them. In fact, we have given our two cents quite a few times on what a flattening and inversion of various yield curves may be signaling. Taking our analysis a step further, we now look at investment ideas designed to take advantage of expected changes in the yield curve.

An inversion of the 2yr/10yr Treasury yield curve, where yields on 10-year Treasury notes are lower than those of 2-year Notes, has accurately predicted the last five recessions. This makes yield curve signaling significant, especially now. It is important to note that in the five prior instances of yield curve inversions, the recession actually started when, or shortly after, the yield curve started to steepen to a more normal positive slope following the inversion. In our opinion, the steepening, and not the flattening or inversion of the curve, is the recession indicator.  

As discussed in Yesterday’s Perfect Recession Warning May Be Failing You, we believe the 2yr/10yr curve may not invert before the next recession. It may have already troughed at a mere 0.11 basis points on December 19, 2018. If we are correct, the only recession warning investors will get could be the aforementioned curve steepening. Another widely followed curve spread, the yield difference between 3-month Treasury bills and 10-year Treasury notes, recently inverted and troughed at -25 basis points, which makes the likelihood of a near-term recession significant.

The remainder of this article focuses on REITs (real-estate investment trusts). Within this sector lies an opportunity that should benefit if the yield curve steepens, which we noted has occurred after an initial curve inversion and just before the onset of the last five recessions.  

What is an Agency Mortgage REIT?

REITs are companies that own income-producing real estate and/or the debt backing real estate. REITs tend to pay higher than normal dividends as they are legally required to pay out at least 90% of their taxable profits to shareholders annually. Therefore, ownership of REIT common equity requires that investors analyze the underlying assets and liabilities of the REIT to assess the potential flow of income, and thus dividends, in the future.  

The most popular types of REITs are called equity REITs. These REITs own equity in apartments and office buildings, shopping centers, hotels and a host of other property types. There is a smaller class of REITs, known as mortgage REITs (mREITs), which own the debt (mortgages) on real-estate properties. Within this sector is a subset known as Agency mREITs (AmREITs) that predominately own securitized residential mortgages guaranteed against default by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae and ultimately the U.S. government.

From an investor’s point of view, a key distinguishing characteristic between equity REITs and mREITs is their risk profiles.  The shareholders of equity REITs are chiefly concerned with vacancy rates, rental rates, and property values.  Most mREIT shareholders, on the other hand, worry about credit risk and interest rate risk. Interest risk is the yield spread between borrowing rates and the return on assets. AmREITS that solely own agency guaranteed mortgages assume no credit risk as timely payment of principal and interest is advanced by the security issuer (again either Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Ginnie Mae, all of whom are essentially government guaranteed). Therefore, returns on AmREITs are heavily influenced by interest rate risk. Almost all REITs employ leverage, which enhances returns but adds another layer of risk.

Agency mREITs

Earnings for AmREITs are primarily the product of two sources; the amount of net income (yield on mortgages they hold less the cost of debt and hedging) and the amount of leverage.

A typical AmREIT is funded with equity financing and debt. The capital is used to purchase government-guaranteed mortgages. Debt funding allows them to leverage equity. For example, if a REIT bought $5 of assets with $1 of equity capital and $4 of debt, they would be considered 5x leveraged (5/1). Leverage is one way REITs enhance returns.

The second common way they enhance returns is to run a duration gap. A duration gap means the REIT is borrowing in shorter maturities and investing in long maturities. A 2-year duration gap implies the REIT has an average duration of their liabilities that is two years less than the duration of their assets. To better manage the duration gap and the associated risks, REIT portfolio managers hedge their portfolios. 

The Fed’s Next Move and AmREITs

With that bit of knowledge, now consider the Fed’s quickly changing policy stance, how the yield curve might perform going forward, and the potential impact on REITs.

Recent speeches from various Fed members including Chairman Powell and Vice Chairman Clarida are leading us and most market participants to believe the Fed could lower rates as early as the July 31st FOMC meeting. Most often, yield curves steepen when, or shortly before, the Fed starts lowering rates. While still too early to declare that the yield curve has troughed, it has risen meaningfully from recent lows and is now the steepest it has been since November of 2018.  

If we are correct that the Fed reduces the Fed Funds rate and the yield curve steepens, then AmREITs should benefit as their borrowing costs fall more than the yields of their assets. Further, if convinced of a steepening event, portfolio managers might reduce their hedging activity to further boost income. The book value of AmREITs have a strong positive correlation with the yield curve, and as a result, the book value per share of AmREITs should increase as the curve steepens.

The following two graphs compare the shape of the 2yr/10yr yield curve versus the book value per share for the two largest AmREITs, Annaly Capital Management (NLY) and AGNC Investment Corporation (AGNC). The third and fourth graphs below show the same data in scatter plots to appreciate the correlation better. The current level of book value per share and yield curve is represented by the orange blocks in each scatter plot. Statistically speaking, a one percent steepening of the yield curve should increase the book value per share by approximately $2 for both stocks. Given both stocks have dividend yields in the low double-digits, any book value appreciation that results in price appreciation would make a good return, great.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

While a steepening yield curve will likely create more spread income and thus a higher book value for these REITs, we must also consider the role of leverage and the premium or discount to book value that investors are currently paying.  

  • NLY is employing 8.2x leverage, which is slightly higher than their average of 7.6x since 2010, but less than their 20+ year average of 9.94.
  • AGNC uses more leverage at 10.2x, which is higher than their average of 8.8x since 2010. The REIT was formed in late 2008, therefore we do not have as much data as NLY. 
  • NLY trades at a discounted price to book value of .94, slightly below their historical average
  • AGNC also trades at a discounted level of .92 and below their historical average.

The risks of buying AGNC or NLY are numerous.

  • We may be wrong about the timing of rate cuts and the curve may continue to invert, which would decrease book value. In such a case, we may see the book value decline, and potentially even more damaging, the discount to book value decreases further, harming shareholders.
  • Even if we are right and the yield curve steepens and the REITs asset/liability spreads widen, we run the risk that investors are nervous about real-estate going into recession and REITs trade to deeper discounts to book value and effectively offset any price appreciation due to the increase in book value.
  • Leverage is easy to maintain when markets are liquid; however, as we saw a decade ago, REITs were forced to sell assets and reduce leverage which can also negatively affect earnings and dividends. It is worth noting that NLY had an average of 12.90x leverage in 2007, which is significantly larger than their current 8.20x.


Despite double-digit dividend yields and the cushion such high dividends provide, buying NLY or AGNC is not a guaranteed home run. The two REITs introduce numerous risks as mentioned.  That said, these firms and other smaller AmREITs, offer investors a way to take advantage of a steepening yield curve while avoiding an earnings slowdown that may hamper many stocks in an economic downturn.

While NLY and AGNC are in the same industry, they use different portfolio tactics to express their views. As such, if you are interested in the sector, we recommend diversifying among these two companies and others to help reduce idiosyncratic portfolio risks. We also recommend investors assess the IShares Mortgage Real ETF (REM). Its two largest holdings, accounting for over 25% of the ETF, are NLY and AGNC.  It is worth noting however, this ETF introduces risks not found in the AmREITs. The ETF holds the shares of mortgage REITs that contain non-guaranteed mortgages as well as mortgages on commercial properties.

A Preferred Way to Generate Yield – Part 2 Trade Idea

The following article expands on, A Preferred Way to Generate Yield, by exploring the preferred shares of Government Guaranteed Agency-Backed Mortgage Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) and discussing a compelling trade idea within this sector. Neither the common nor the preferred equity classes of this style of REIT are widely followed, which helps explain why the opportunity of relatively high dividends without excessive risk exists.

What is a Mortgage REIT?

Real estate investment trusts, better known as REITs, are companies that own income-producing real estate and/or the debt backing real estate. REITs are legally required to pay out at least 90% of their profits to shareholders. Therefore, ownership of REIT common equity, preferred equity and debt requires that investors analyze the underlying assets and liabilities as well as the hierarchy of credit risks and investor payments within the capital structure.

The most popular types of REITs are called equity REITs (eREIT). They own apartment and office buildings, shopping centers, hotels and a host of other property types. There is a smaller class of REITs, known as mortgage REITs (mREIT), which own the debt (mortgage) on real-estate properties. Within this sector is a subset known as Agency mREITs that predominately own securitized residential mortgages guaranteed against default by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Ginnie Mae and ultimately the U.S. government.

The main distinguishing characteristic between eREITs and mREITs is in their risk profiles.  The shareholders of eREIT securities primarily assume credit risk associated with rising vacancies and declining property values. Most mREITs, on the other hand, take on less credit risk. Instead, their dividends are largely based on interest rate risk or the yield spread between borrowing rates and the return on assets. Agency mREITS that solely own agency guaranteed mortgages take on no credit risk. Mortgage and equity REITs frequently employ leverage which enhances returns but adds another layer of risk.

Mortgage REIT Capital Structures

MREIT’s use debt, common equity, preferred equity and derivatives to fund and hedge their portfolios. Debt is the largest component of their capital structure, often accounting for more than 75% of the financing. Common equity is next in line and preferred equity is typically the smallest. The REITs choice of financing is generally governed by a balance between cost and desired leverage.

When a REIT issues common or preferred equity, leverage declines. Conversely, when debt is employed, leverage rises. The decision to increase or decrease leverage is often a function of balance sheet preferences, hedging strategies, market views and the respective costs of each type of financing. The choice between preferred and common is frequently a function of where the common stock is trading versus its book value as well as the financing costs and liquidity of the two options.

Selecting Agency mREIT Preferred Shares

Agency mREIT (again holding predominately government-guaranteed mortgages) preferred shares currently offer investors a reasonable return with manageable risk. In the current environment there are two primary reasons why we like preferred securities versus their common shares:

  • Discount to Book Value- Currently, several of the Agency mREITs that offer preferred alternatives are trading at price -to- book values below 1.0. While below fair value, we are worried shareholders might get diluted as they are at or near levels where new equity was issued in the past. We prefer to buy the common shares at even deeper discounts (in the .80’s or even .70’s) for this reason. Discriminating on price in this way offers a sound margin of safety where the upside potential is enhanced and risk of new share issuance diminished.
  • Interest Rate Risk- The Fed is raising rates and the yield curve is generally flattening. Profitability of mREITs is largely based on the spread between shorter-term borrowing rates and longer-term mortgage rates. As this differential converges, mREIT profitability declines. Also, as mentioned in our Technical Alert – 30 Year Treasury Bonds, longer-term yields might be reversing a multi-decade pattern of declining yields. While the funding spread is a key performance factor, rising yields introduce complexities not evident in a falling rate environment. Namely, hedging is more difficult and asset prices decline as rates rise. While we still think probabilities favor lower yields, a sustainable break in the long-term trend must be given proper consideration as a risk.

Before selecting a particular REIT issuer and specific preferred shares, we provide a list of all Agency mREIT preferred shares that meet our qualifications.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

As shown in the Yield -to- Worst column (far right), the lowest expected yields are somewhat similar for all of the issues with five or more years remaining to the next call date.

To help further differentiate these issues, the table below highlights key risk factors of the REITs.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

The bullet points below describe the four factors in the table:

  • Leverage Multiple– This is the ratio of total assets to common and preferred equity. Higher leverage multiples tend to result in bigger swings in profitability and the potential for a reduction in common and preferred dividends. It is important to note that leverage can change quickly based on the respective portfolio managers view on the markets.
  • Price -to- Book Value (P/B)– This is the ratio of the market capitalization of the common stock to the value of the assets. As the P/B approaches fair value (1.00) the odds increase that common or preferred equity may be issued, putting shareholders at the risk of dilution. The column to the right of P/B provides context for the range of P/B within the last five years.
  • 1 and 3 Year Price Sensitivity– This measures the change in book value as compared to the change in U.S. Treasury yields over selected time periods. This is an indication of hedging practices at each of the firms. The lower the number, the more aggressively they are hedging to protect against changes in yields. This measure, like leverage, can change quickly based on the actions of the firm’s portfolio managers.
  • Preferred as a Percent of Total Equity– This metric offers a gauge of the percentage of preferred shares relative to all equity shares. Preferred shareholders would rather this ratio be small. However, if the number is too low versus competitors, it might mean that preferred shares will be issued soon which would temporarily pressure the price of existing preferred shares.

Trade Idea

Given the current interest rate volatility and the potential for large binary moves in mortgage rates, we think Two Harbors Investment Corporation (TWO) appears to present the least overall risk based on the measures above. In particular, we are focused on their aggressive hedging strategy which has resulted in the lowest interest rate sensitivity over the one and three year time periods. A closer look at performance since June 2016, the point at which interest rates began to rise, also argues in favor of TWO as they have produced superior risk-adjusted total returns.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

We are largely indifferent between the preferred issues of TWO (A, B and C) shown in the first table. The investor must choose between a preference for a higher coupon and a price above par ($25), and a lower coupon but price below par. On a total return basis, they yield similar results.

TWO spun off Granite Point in the fourth quarter of 2017 and therefore data related to that transaction was adjusted in the table to compensate for the event.

Disclaimer: This material is subject to change without notice. This document is for information and illustrative purposes only. It is not, and should not be regarded as “investment advice” or as a “recommendation” regarding a course of action, including without limitation as those terms are used in any applicable law or regulation.