Mr Market trips on Mark to Market, Gives REITs Away

by REIT Wrecks on March 5, 2008

In this bountiful era of REIT wreckage, with liquidity having virtually disappeared from the mortgage market, the auction rate securities market, and last week, even the municipal bond market, it is helpful to be reminded of the irrationality that can sometimes rule daily trading gyrations.

According to Warren Buffett, Ben Graham said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your stock or sell you his.

At times he feels euphoric. When in that mood, he sets a very high price for your stock because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead. On these occasions he will set a very low price for your stock, since he is terrified that you will try to unload your stocks on him, bringing him immediate losses.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. Consequently, Graham said, you must heed one warning: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful.

In my opinion, Mr. Market – always fallible and never perfect – is now being blind-sided by mark to market accounting. The non-cash charges resulting from these “mark to market” write downs are causing our servant Mr. Market to see nothing but trouble ahead for business and the world. Thus, he is setting a very low price for REITs and many other financial stocks, and that is creating opportunities.

In a different post, I will add more fascinating detail on the rigors of the Other Comprehensive Income account found on the balance sheet of most Mortgage REITs. For now however, suffice it to say, this is the magic “now you see it now, you don’t” account for charges not affecting the income statement, because these charges are non-cash and in many cases, NOT permanent.

Furthermore, in the absence of a market for the securities held by many Mortgage REITs, most portfolio managers must use the CMBX and ABX indices to mark their portfolios to the market. As Fitch Ratings pointed out last month, the CMBX is currently indicating a default rate that is four times anything ever seen in the history of the CMBS market. So, managers must mark their portfolios to values that do not correlate with anything even close to actual performance. Does that seem rational?

Unfortunately, for REITs that are highly leveraged, these marks can also lead to margin calls which cannot be ignored – hence the aerial somersaults being performed by the funding desk at Thornburg Mortgage this week (with a perfect triple twist).

While Thornburg may yet make it (Larry Goldstone is clearly very talented and well-regarded), there are a number of well run, much less risky Mortgage REITs in the REIT Wrecks universe that Mr. Market has put on sale.

Companies such as NRF have funded nearly all of their assets on a long-term, non-recourse basis and are not subject to margin calls. They have cash available to reinvest in a vastly improved (less competitive) lending environment. Mr. Market is literally giving these stocks away, offering yields in the high teens and low twenties. Other attractive REIT stocks include NLY and AGNC.

The catch? You must be able to ignore Mr. Market while you push the button and buy from him. Let him serve you, not guide you.

Click here for an updated Mortgage REIT list, including current yields

REIT dividends
Disclosure: REIT Wrecks owns NRF at the time of publication

Update: More detailed information on how the “Other Comprehensive Income” account works can be found in this post on REIT Accounting.

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