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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.

A Preferred Way to Generate Yield

In the current environment investors must dig a little deeper and into less traversed areas of the capital markets to find value. In this article we provide a base knowledge of preferred equity shares, discuss the benefits and risks associated with owning them, and provide comparisons versus other asset classes. This article lays the groundwork for a forthcoming article that will analyze a sub-sector of the preferred market and make a specific trade recommendation.

Fixed-income investors in search of stable income and sufficient yield but wary of excessive risks are likely settling for assets that are sub-optimal. For instance, High-yield corporate debt yields have fallen to near record low levels and yield spreads versus safer fixed-income assets are at their tightest levels in at least the last 20 years. As stated in “High Risk in High Yield” – “As such, the risk/reward proposition for HY appears negatively skewed, and chasing additional outperformance at this point in the cycle appears to be a fool’s errand.”

Equity investors can find somewhat dependable, high-single-digit/low- teen dividend yields in the Master Limited Partnership (MLP) and Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) sectors. The primary risk of these investments is price volatility which can frequently negate the dividend and much more in adverse conditions.

Fortunately for higher income seekers, there is the preferred stock sector that lies between equity and fixed- income assets in corporate capital structures. This sector tends to be largely underfollowed and not well understood. Because of its relative obscurity and inefficiencies, it can present rewarding options versus other highly followed markets.

What is Preferred Stock? 

Preferred stock is a class of equity issued primarily by financial companies. In a textbook corporate capital structure, preferred shares are a hybrid of debt and equity. In the event of a corporate default, preferred shareholders have a claim on the company’s assets that is secondary to unsecured creditors, such as debt holders, but superior to common equity holders. This hierarchy applies to the distribution of dividends in the normal course of business as well. Debt coupons are paid in full first, then preferred dividends and lastly common equity dividends.

To help offset the risk of non-payment of a preferred dividend, most issues are cumulative, meaning that any missed dividends must be paid before any common equity dividends are paid.

Preferred stock is most commonly issued at a $25 price (par value) and price changes from that point are based on changes to the dividend yield. For example, if a company’s credit conditions are deteriorating or if interest rates in general rise, the price of preferred shares will decline to produce a higher current dividend yield. Prices of preferred shares tend to be relatively stable compared to underlying equity shares. In this respect they are much more bond-like, with price changes a function of the general creditworthiness of the issuer, supply and demand for the issue and the general level of interest rates.

Unlike bonds, most preferred offerings do not have a fixed maturity date.  However, most issues are callable, which allows the company to repurchase the shares at par ($25) after a specified call date. Dividends paid on preferred shares are taxed as long-term capital gains, in contrast with bond coupons which are taxed as income.

The following are key risks to preferred shares:

  • Callable- The ability of the issuer to call, or repurchase, the securities at par ($25) is a risk if the shares are trading above $25. Obviously, the incentive to call preferred shares increases as the price rises. In assessing this risk, the yield – to -call should be calculated.
  • Interest Rate Risk- Like bonds, the price of preferred shares will rise as interest rates fall and fall as rates rise.
  • Credit Risk- Preferred shares fall behind debt in the credit structure. As such, the loss in the event of default could be severe. Further, deterioration of a company’s credit situation will likely push prices lower.
  • Voting Rights- Preferred shareholders do not have voting rights and therefore the holder’s influence on the company’s management is greatly limited.
  • Liquidity- Shares are not as frequently traded as those of common stock. Therefore, bid/offer spreads can widen at times. For those looking to trade in large share blocks, patience over a longer period is required, a contrast with the immediacy of execution for most common shares.

Performance and Risk Comparisons

The table below compares total return performance and yields for the ETF’s of preferred shares and other comparable asset classes. We include a modified Sharpe Ratio which calculates the current dividend/coupon yield to price volatility (risk). This ratio provides a gauge of the amount of risk incurred per unit of dividend. The traditional Sharpe Ratio is backward looking, comparing prior total return performance versus volatility over the same period.

Performance over the last five years has favored preferred shares over corporate debt and has been mixed versus higher yielding equity choices. Importantly, if we presume that price volatility stays at current levels, preferred stocks offer the highest dividends/coupon per level of risk (modified Sharpe).  It is important to note that volatility has been abnormally low for all asset classes over the last five years, and investors in all of the assets shown should expect and account for higher volatility going forward.

Summary

Since preferred shares are not widely followed, they can offer investors a value proposition that is elusive in the more traditional markets at times. However, like all higher-yielding securities, they offer above-average yields for a reason. In the case of preferred shares, this is attributable to lower levels of liquidity, and the real and present danger of credit risk. Given the credit assessment required to invest in preferred shares, experience in the fixed- income markets is beneficial in assessing the risks.

As stated above, financial companies are among the most frequent issuers of preferred shares. As such, a bank/financial system-centric economic crisis as experienced in 2008 could be devastating. The preferred ETF (PGF) declined nearly 70% through 2008 and early 2009. Once the Fed halted the decline in the financial sector with the provision of excess liquidity, bailouts, and favorable accounting changes, the sector roared back. By January 2010, PGF had totally recovered all losses while the ETF representing equities of the financial sector (XLF) was still down over 50% from its 2008 highs. Importantly, PGF made all dividend payments during the crisis, and the dividend amounts were on par to slightly higher than those preceding the crisis.

As mentioned, we will soon follow-up to this article with a recommendation of a unique preferred sector and specific shares.