With the housing market a mess, credit tight, and default rates for commercial mortgages growing by the week, it’s hard to get excited about real estate. As the old saying goes, “They may not be making any more it,” but they’re not making any less, either. Chicago-based General Growth Properties, one of the largest shopping mall owners in the United States, found that out the hard way in December 2008 when lenders refused to refinance $900 million in maturing debt and pushed the company into bankruptcy.
This gloomy operating environment, however, didn’t deter investors from ponying up some $10 billion in new equity for U.S. real estate investment trusts (REITs) since the stock market hit a low in March 2009, according to Standard & Poor’s Rating Services. Most of those REITs then turned around and used that money to pay down debt. While some real estate companies will encounter severe difficulties during the remainder of 2009 and 2010, those that are well capitalized and astutely managed may find opportunities to acquire high quality assets at distressed prices, according to S&P Equity Research.
Allowing for the weak economic background, real estate investments have several attributes that may be attractive in late 2009. Real estate is a distinct asset class compared to equity or debt, and therefore offers meaningful portfolio diversification. Real assets tend to perform well during periods of stronger inflation, which may result from the massive stimulus packages the United States and other governments are funding. Real estate companies often pay attractive dividends compared with other companies, providing for steadier returns during periods of extreme market volatility.