Investment Basics - Course 503 - Unconventional Equities
This is the thirty-second Course in a series of 38 called "Investment Basics" - created by Professor Steven Bauer, a retired university professor and still active asset manager and consultant / mentor.
Course 503 - Unconventional Equities
Our Basic Courses of the stock market would not be complete without an examination of what we might refer to as "unconventional equities." We lump three types of securities into this category: real estate investment trusts (REITs), master limited partnerships (MLPs), and royalty trusts. These securities trade like stocks but carry important differences, particularly with regard to tax treatment. Let's take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each security type.
Benefits of REITs
A real estate investment trust (REIT) is a company that owns and manages income-producing real estate. REITs were created by an act of Congress in 1960 to enable large and small investors alike to enjoy the rental income from commercial property. REITs are governed by many regulations, the most important being that they must distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders each year as dividends; the REIT is permitted to deduct dividends paid to shareholders from its taxable income. Other important regulations include:
- Asset requirements: at least 75% of assets must be real estate, cash, and government securities.
- Income requirements: at least 75% of gross income must come from rents, interest from mortgages, or other real estate investments.
- Stock ownership requirements: shares in the REIT must be held by a minimum of 100 shareholders.
REITs specialize by property type. They invest in most major property types with nearly two thirds of investment being in offices, apartments, shopping centers, regional malls, and industrial facilities. The rest is divided among hotels, self-storage facilities, health-care properties, and some specialty REITs that own anything from prisons, theatres, and golf courses to timberlands.
High Yields. For many investors, the main attraction of REITs is their dividend yield. The average long-term (15-year) dividend yield for REITs is about 8%, well more than the yield of the S&P 500 Index. Also, REIT dividends are secured by stable rents from long-term leases, and many REIT managers employ conservative leverage on the balance sheet.
Simple Tax Treatment. Unlike most partnerships, tax issues for REIT investors are fairly straightforward. Each year, REITs send Form 1099-DIV to their shareholders, containing a breakdown of the dividend distributions. For tax purposes, dividends are allocated to ordinary income, capital gains, and return of capital. As REITs do not pay taxes at the corporate level, investors are taxed at their individual tax rate for the ordinary income portion of the dividend. The portion of the dividend taxed as capital gains arises if the REIT sells assets. Return of capital, or net distributions in excess of the REIT's earnings and profits, are not taxed as ordinary income, but instead applied to reduce the shareholder's cost basis in the stock. When the shares are eventually sold, the difference between the share price and reduced tax basis is taxed as a capital gain.
Liquidity of REIT Shares. REIT shares are bought and sold on a stock exchange. By contrast, buying and selling property directly involves higher expenses and requires a great deal of effort.
Diversification. Studies have shown that adding REITs to a diversified investment portfolio increases returns and reduces risk since REITs have little correlation with the S&P 500. Maybe yes, maybe no!
Drawbacks of REITs
REITs also have some drawbacks, including:
Sensitive to Demand for Other High-Yield Assets. Generally, rising interest rates could make Treasury securities more attractive, drawing funds away from REITs and lowering their share prices.
Property Taxes. REITs must pay property taxes, which can make up as much as 25% of total operating expenses. State and municipal authorities could increase property taxes to make up for budget shortfalls, reducing cash flows to shareholders.
Tax Rates. One of the downsides to the high yield of REITs is that taxes are due on dividends, and the tax rates are typically higher than the 15% most dividends are currently taxed at. This is because a large chunk of a REIT's dividends (typically about three quarters, though it varies widely by REIT) is considered ordinary income, which is usually taxed at a higher rate.
Master Limited Partnerships
Benefits of MLPs
In recent years, many U.S. energy firms have reorganized their slow-growing, yet stable businesses, such as pipelines and storage terminals, into master limited partnerships, or MLPs. There are some important differences between buying shares of a corporation and buying a stake in an MLP. With MLPs, investors buy units of the partnership, rather than shares of stock, and are referred to as "unitholders."
There are two classes of MLP owner: general partners and limited partners. General partners manage the day-to-day operations of the partnership. An MLP technically has no employees, so all services, from management to bookkeeping, are provided by the general partner. All other investors are limited partners and have no involvement in the partnership's operations. Limited-partner units are publicly traded, while general-partner units usually are not. The general partner stake is often 2% of the partnership, though the general partner can also own limited-partner units to increase its percentage of ownership.
Companies that use the MLP format tend to operate in very stable, slow-growing industries, such as pipelines. These types of firms usually offer dim prospects for unit price appreciation, but the stability of the industries that use the MLP format means below-average risk for investors. Cash distributions usually stay relatively steady over time (growing at little more than overall inflation), causing MLP units to trade somewhat like bonds, rising when interest rates fall and vice versa.
High Yield. Most MLPs offer very attractive yields, generally falling in the 6%-7% range.
Consistent Distributions Over Time. The businesses operated as MLPs tend to be very stable and produce consistent cash flows year after year, making the cash distributions on MLP units very predictable.
Capital Gains. Firms primarily switch to the MLP structure to avoid taxes. While shareholders in a corporation face double taxation -- paying taxes first at the corporate level, and then at the personal level when those earnings are received as dividends -- owners of a partnership are taxed only once: when they receive distributions. There is no partnership equivalent of corporate income tax. Cash distributions to owners often exceed partnership income, and when they do, the difference is counted as a return of capital to the limited partner and taxed at the capital gains rate when the unit-holder sells. Not only are capital gains deferred until an owner decides to sell, but capital gains tax rates are lower than income tax rates. In fact, we're particularly fond of pipeline MLPs, which have ample growth opportunities thanks to shifting sources of supplies of crude oil and natural gas. However, unlike other energy companies, MLPs tend not to take on commodity exposures, reducing risk and cash flow volatility. With distributions typically yielding 6-8% (and growing by 5-10% annually) and offering the opportunity for capital gains, MLPs could provide a compelling total return to investors.
Lower Cost of Capital. The absence of taxes at the company level gives MLPs a lower cost of capital than is typically available to corporations, allowing the MLPs to pursue projects that might not be feasible for a taxable entity.
General Partner Compensation Aligned with Limited Partners' Interest. Most general partners are paid on a sliding scale, receiving a greater share of each dollar of cash flow as the limited partners' cash distributions rise, giving the general partner an incentive to increase limited-partner distributions.
Drawbacks of MLPs
Investors should also consider the downsides to MLPs, which include:
Personal Tax Liability. Each unit-holder is responsible for paying his or her share of the partnership's income taxes, which can make filing taxes more complicated. This is particularly true for larger unit-holders, who may have to pay taxes in the various states in which the partnership operates. Moreover, limited partners might owe taxes on partnership income even if the units are held in a retirement account.
Limited Pool of Investors. MLPs face a smaller pool of potential investors than traditional equities because institutional investors, such as pension funds, are not allowed to hold MLP units without incurring tax liability. These large investors do not ordinarily pay taxes, so they tend to shy away from MLPs.
Institutional investors represent the majority of investor dollars in the market, so eliminating them reduces the potential demand for MLP units. Congress recently approved a provision allowing mutual funds to buy MLPs, which should dramatically increase the number of potential investors.
Benefits of Royalty Trusts
Royalty trusts, like MLPs, generally invest in energy sector assets. Unlike the steady cash flows at MLPs, royalty trusts generate income from the production of natural resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas. These cash flows are subject to swings in commodity prices and production levels, which can cause them to be very inconsistent from year to year. The trusts have no physical operations of their own and have no management or employees. Rather, they are merely financing vehicles that are run by banks, and they trade like stocks. Other companies mine the resources and pay royalties on those resources to the trust. For example, Burlington Resources, an oil exploration and production company, is the operator for the assets that the largest U.S. royalty trust, San Juan Basin Royalty Trust SJT, owns the royalties on.
Royalty trusts end up on most investors' radar screens because of the incredibly high yields some of them offer, many in excess of 10%. In a low-interest-rate environment, it's easy to understand why such an income-producing investment might be garnering more attention.
Many of the positive and negative attributes of owning a royalty trust are similar to those faced by MLP unit-holders. The benefits are:
High Yield. Trusts are required to pay out essentially all of their cash flow as distributions. Because of this, nearly all royalty trusts have above-average yields, many wildly above average.
Tax-Advantaged Yield. Due to depreciation and depletion, distributions from most trusts are not considered income in the eyes of the IRS. Rather, these non-income distributions are used to reduce an owner's cost basis in the stock, which is then taxed at the lower capital gains rate and is deferred until an owner sells.
No Corporate Income Tax. Trusts are merely "pass-through" investment vehicles. The issues surrounding double taxation of dividends do not apply.
Peculiar Tax Credits. Have you ever received a tax credit for producing fuels from non-conventional sources? If you own a royalty trust, you might qualify for such credits. The laws on this issue are in flux, and the credits are generally small, but it's still a nice potential perk.
"Pure" Bets on Commodities. Want to bet on the future price appreciation of natural gas but don't want to get involved with the futures market? An excellent way to do that would be to buy a royalty trust that owns gas. The value of any given trust and the distributions it pays are directly tied to the prices of the underlying commodity. Just remember the sword cuts both ways here. The trust's income (and therefore probably the trust's stock price) could end up falling if commodity prices go down instead of up.
Drawbacks of Royalty Trusts
The downsides to royalty trusts include the following:
Depletion, Depletion, Depletion. Royalty trusts own royalties on a finite amount of resources. Once those resources are gone, they're gone. As the resources deplete, royalties and distributions will fall and will, eventually, go to zero. In financial terms, there is no terminal value. Granted, most trusts won't hit this point for two or three decades (or more), but it's still incredibly important to consider that distributions will eventually contract and disappear.
Volatile Distributions. Trusts typically pay out their distributions on a quarterly or monthly basis. If royalties fall in that period due to the underlying commodity price tanking, distributions will also fall. It's entirely conceivable that a trust that yielded 15% in the last 12 months could yield 3% in the next 12.
Tax-Filing Complexity. Owners of royalty trusts are required to report the pro rata portion of a trust's total income and expenses on their tax returns. This typically means filing Schedules E and B as well as having additional work with Form 1040.
State Income Taxes. Owners of trusts are liable for paying income taxes in the states in which the trust generates its royalties. Different states have different thresholds for when taxes have to actually be filed and paid, and the likelihood of owing income tax in multiple states increases with the size of a given ownership position.
The Bottom Line
Though they require a bit of work to understand and may increase tax complexity, investing in REITs, MLPs, and royalty trusts can boost the income-producing power of most portfolios.
Prof's. Guidance: Before you get too excited - do your homework before buying! I have never been able to get excited about these kinds of investments, but that is a personal thing and should not keep you from learning as much as possible about them.
Thanks for attending class this week - and - don't put off doing some extra homework (using Google - for information and answers to your questions) and perhaps sharing with the Prof. your questions and concerns.
Investment Basics (a 38 Week - Comprehensive Course)
By: Professor Steven Bauer
Text: Google has the answers to most all of your questions, after exploring Google if you still have thoughts or questions my Email is open 24/7.
Each week you will receive your Course Materials. There will be two kinds of highlights: a) Prof's Guidance, and b) Italic within the text material. You should consider printing the Course Materials and making notes of those areas of questions and perhaps the highlights and go to Google to see what is available to supplement those highlights. I'm here to help.
Course 101 - Stock
Versus Other Investments
Course 102 - The Magic of Compounding
Course 103 - Investing for the Long Run
Course 104 - What Matters & What Doesn't
Course 105 - The Purpose of a Company
Course 106 - Gathering Information
Course 107 - Introduction to Financial Statements
Course 108 - Learn the Lingo & Some Basic Ratios
Course 201 - Stocks & Taxes
Course 202 - Using Financial Services Wisely
Course 203 - Understanding the News
Course 204 - Start Thinking Like an Analyst
Course 205 - Economic Moats
Course 206 - More on Competitive Positioning
Course 207 - Weighting Management Quality
Course 401 - Understanding
Course 402 - Using Ratios and Multiples
Course 403 - Introduction to Discounted Cash Flow
Course 404 - Putting DCF into Action
Course 405 - The Fat-Pitch Strategy
Course 406 - Using Morningstar as a Reference
Course 407 - Psychology and Investing
Course 408 - The Case for Dividends
Course 409 - The Dividend Drill
Course 501 - Constructing
Course 502 - Introduction to Options
Course 503 - Unconventional Equities
Course 504 - Wise Analysts: Benjamin Graham
Course 505 - Wise Analysts: Philip Fisher
Course 506 - Wise Analysts: Warren Buffett
Course 507 - Wise Analysts: Peter Lynch
Course 508 - Wise Analysts: Others
Course 509 - 20 Stock & Investing Tips
This Completes the List of Courses.
Wishing you a wonderful learning experience and the continued desire to grow your knowledge. Education is an essential part of living wisely and the experiences of life, I hope you make it fun.
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