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REITs attractive in turbulent market

KUALA LUMPUR: As market volatility drive investors toward defensive stocks, real estate investment trusts (REITs) have come under renewed interest as investors look to reduce risk of capital loss and seek stable returns.

Among the Malaysian REITs that have seen better days since the global market selldown in early August are Sunway REIT (SunREIT), Axis REIT and CapitaMalls Malaysia Trust (CMMT).

The three REITs have seen higher volumes traded since late July with their respective unit prices hitting their peak in August, while still maintaining high level of interests recently.

This appears to coincide with the weak and volatile sentiment in markets worldwide that drove investors to the sidelines.

On Thursday, Oct 20, CMMT's share price closed at RM1.30 (RM1.95 billion market cap), up from about RM1.02 in the beginning of the year. CMMT is a purely retail properties-based REIT while SunREIT's portfolio comprises retail, hospitality and office properties.

SunREIT and Axis REIT closed on Thursday at RM1.14 and RM2.46, respectively, giving them a market cap of RM3.07 billion and RM924.7 million. The former had gained about 10.7% year-to-date (YTD) while Axis was up about 3.8% YTD.

At Thursday's prices, CMMT and Axis were traded at about 6% and 7.1% annualised yield for FY11 ending Dec 31, while SunREIT was priced at 5.8% historical yield for FY11 ended June 30.

Nevertheless, not all REITs have fared well, with some registering a drop in their unit prices YTD. While lower unit prices could mean higher dividend yield, note that some have returned flat or lower dividend payments.

Hektar REIT, which owns several small malls, saw its unit price falling 6.7% YTD to close at RM1.26 on Thursday. While its annualised dividend yield was widened to 7.93% for FY11 ending Dec 31, its dividend payment for 1HFY11 was flat at five sen per unit.

The unit price of hospital-backed REIT Al Aqar KPJ REIT meanwhile has also fallen about 4.5% YTD to RM1.07 on Thursday. The REIT recently distributed 5.17 sen as the first income distribution for FY11 ending Dec 31, despite earlier proposing to pay 3.3 sen.

UOA REIT, which owns several office blocks, had hit a six-month high of RM1.48 on July 26 before market pressures pushed down its prices to RM1.33 on Thursday, falling about 11.3% YTD. UOA's 1HFY11 dividend has dropped to 4.89 sen (annualised yield of 7.4%) from 5.15 sen previously.

Analysts stress that the two most important factors to consider when evaluating the prospects of a REIT are the property segment it occupies and its proposed expansion plan to grow value and dividend returns.

REITs backed by office properties are currently not the flavour of the month due to the oversupply of office spaces and consequently, an expected pressure on earnings growth. Instead, many analysts prefer retail REITs particularly those that own quality retail malls in good locations.

Although retail REITs are still relatively attractive, analysts warn that this segment could in the longer term face higher supply and increased competition for tenants.

"Retail spaces should see some incoming supply but it will still be a better bet than office REITs," said a property analyst.

Axis REIT has also been featured as analysts' top picks for REITs who like its mix of office and industrial real estate.

"Aside from the industrial properties which we like, Axis REIT is secured by strong tenants and have an aggressive expansion plan," said the analyst.

Maybank IB Research analyst Wong Wei Sum noted that some REITs are currently looking attractive due to their more stable income stream and dividend yield at an average of 6% to 7%.

Nevertheless, as REITs return to focus, a fund manager pointed out that the increased interest can mostly be attributed to funds but not retail investors.

"Retail investors largely lack an understanding of REITs but REITs is quite useful to have in your portfolio when the market is unpredictable," he said.

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