Investment Opportunities in Apartment REITs
I have listened to the second quarter earnings conference calls for three of the largest apartment real estate investment trusts: Equity Residential Trust (EQR), AvalonBay Communities (AVB), and Mid-America Apartment Communities (MAA). Together they own over 250,000 apartments. I was struck by the generally positive tone in spite of our troubled economy. I have assembled a research report that you may find interesting.
If you’re pressed for time, here is the HEADLINE:
Using reasonable assumptions, apartment REITs are currently trading at discounts to the underlying value of their assets. In my estimation, at the current moment, purchasing a liquid security with low debt backed by the best multifamily properties in America yielding 4% is a better prospect than buying an apartment complex yielding 6% with 75% leverage.
LEASING MOMENTUM, DECENT RENT COLLECTIONS, LOWER TURNOVER
All three REITs reported collections from April to June that were ahead of projections made during the crisis moments of March. All experienced a decline of about 2% on collected rents. The unemployment insurance program and $1,200 stimulus checks certainly helped. Our experience in the Omaha metro area has been similar. Collections declined by 1% during the April-June period and even lower during July in our area. Executives claimed that June and July leasing activity had returned to 2019 levels. Resident turnover was 2-3% below the same period in 2019.
CAPITAL IS CHEAP
All companies took advantage of low interest rates. AvalonBay issued $600 million in bonds at 2.5%, Equity Residential received a $495 million secured loan at 2.6%, and Mid-America issued $450 million in senior secured notes at 1.7%. All companies have healthy cash positions and exhibit better credit ratings than during the 2008-09 recession. AvalonBay felt confident enough to authorize a $500 million stock buyback program. Low rates were not entirely a favorable factor: AvalonBay and Mid-America each noted that occupancy was hindered by home purchases driven by low interest rates. This trend has also been evident in our market.
CONSTRUCTION STARTS SUSPENDED
All three companies have cancelled new development projects with expectations of weakened rent growth and a belief that construction costs will decline as most commercial and hospitality projects are suspended indefinitely. AvalonBay had noted that construction costs in major coastal metros have declined by 5-7%.
URBAN PROBLEMS vs SUBURBAN SUCCESS
Equity Residential and AvalonBay have the majority of their portfolios located in major metropolitan areas on the coasts. The contrast in performance between urban and suburban markets was profound. AVB and EQR have 33% and 25% of their units in urban central business districts, respectively. Equity Residential and AvalonBay faced difficult headwinds in their urban properties. New leases in urban areas posted rent rates as much as 8% below earlier quarters, and renewal rents dropped by 1%. Vacancy levels approaching 9% were reported in central business districts of San Francisco, Boston and New York. The increase in work-from-anywhere employment has been compounded by a loss of foreign workers and college students in these areas. EQR noted that while 4% of revenues are attributable to commercial tenants, only 60% were paying rent – an ominous sign for central business district retail performance.
Executives at EQR and AVB were encouraged by positive summer leasing trends at their suburban communities. New lease activity was strong enough to help overall company-wide occupancy levels exceed 94%. Overall, company-wide quarterly revenues were down 2.4% at EQR and roughly flat at AVB.
Mid-America operates assets in the sunbelt: The Dallas metro, Atlanta, Nashville, the Carolinas, and Austin all feature prominently in their portfolio. MAA executives were ecstatic with their results. Effective rents for new leases at MAA were up 3.4% for the quarter. Occupancy exceeded 95%. Overall revenue for the quarter was up 1.4% over 2019 at MAA. Executives were confident that migration trends toward sunbelt metros would continue, and had seen evidence of acceleration.
All three companies are trading well below February levels. EQR trades at a 40% discount to the February high, AVB is down 34% and MAA is 20% lower. Meanwhile, EQR and AVB sport dividend yields in excess of 4% and MAA has a yield of 3.4%. In a world of zero percent Treasuries, the dividends are appealing.
The three apartment giants appear to be trading at a discount to their net asset values.
I present a table on the attached pdf comparing the three companies. Some of you may take issue with my simple methodology, but I think the calculations fairly portray a set of businesses that may be undervalued. For annualized revenues, I doubled the first half of 2020. Executives generally opined that markets had stabilized, so I am taking their remarks at face value. I included a $50 per unit capital reserve in my estimates to arrive at a pro forma net operating income level. The results show that all three companies have adequate dividend coverage between 1.38x for EQR to 1.78x for MAA.
I employed a 5% capitalization rate to arrive at a value. Some could argue that this is a low number on a risk-adjusted basis, but as the cost of funds drifts below 3% the cap rate seems reasonable. Cap rates in space-constrained urban markets were well below 5% heading into March. The results indicate that public market discounts to net asset values range from 6% for AvalonBay to 20% for Equity Residential.
Finally, I reduced my revenue assumption by 5% to determine the impact on values and dividend coverage. In this exercise, all three were comfortably able to maintain their shareholder distributions. Current share prices were roughly in line with net asset values in this example.
There is no question that the pandemic will continue to negatively impact the economy. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if MAA bosses are less optimistic on the next call as Covid cases sweep across the south. I do believe there will eventually be meaningful negative impacts on white collar employment that has thus far been spared the brunt of the layoff pain. Could revenues decline by 10%? It is very possible. I do not subscribe to the conventional wisdom that “everybody needs a place to live, so apartments will be just fine”. Young professionals under the age of 30 can find their parents’ homes just as welcoming as they did during the 2008-2012 period. However, I do believe much of the downside risks have been reflected in the current share prices. These three companies boast some of the finest apartment assets in North America. Their balance sheets are strong and the dividends are well-covered.
Please let me know if you have any comments or criticisms. I am interested in all perspectives. A disclaimer: These numbers represent my opinions and should not form the basis of any investment decisions.
Let’s hope for a vaccine. Take care.