The real estate investment trust (REIT) is an investment vehicle with a particular sensitivity to borrowed capital. REIT risk tied to capital source is heightened because the legal structure of a REIT is centered on distributing the vast majority of its earnings to shareholders. This means the REIT is prevented from holding back significant capital reserves, which in turn means it must borrow to finance its acquisitions and operations. That borrowing takes the form of credit from bondholders and from banks.
Taken by itself, the REIT structure’s dependency on external capital need not present untoward risk to the REIT, but the borrowing side needs balance to protect the REIT from overexposure to a certain type of borrowing. Between the two tradition avenues, commercial banks and bond issuance, US REITs are increasingly exposed to bank credit.
According to a new REIT risk report by investment ratings agency Fitch, US REITs have doubled their exposure to bank borrowing over the past seven years. Fitch put the borrowing from commercial banks at 8.5% of total REIT debt in 2010. That figure is now 16.5% as of year-end 2016.
Access to multiple forms of capital is a characteristic of investment-grade REITs, and a weakening in the unsecured bond markets would challenge REITs to tap additional unsecured bank borrowing. Fitch has viewed negatively companies with less mature capital structures that rely on fewer sources of funding. The inability of issuers to obtain cost-effective unsecured funding via the bond or bank market could cause rating downgrades or negative outlook changes.
Two Environmental Factors: Low Interest, High Profile
The changes come as REITs have literally come into their own as an equity investment — 2016 was the year that REITs received their own sector classification from Standard & Poor, taking them out of the wider category of “finance” and into a spotlight of their own. That move boosted REIT stocks in the investing public’s eye at the same time that very low interest rates have prodded REITs seeking capital toward corporate bond issuance and the risk premiums that go with these bonds.
Both factors have emphasized the viability of REITs as an investment class, but the rise in one kind of vital borrowing that will be sensitive to Federal Reserve interest rate moves, which can almost go nowhere but up — is seen as a signal by Fitch that balance in borrowing sources is something REITs need more of as a class.
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