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Associated Estates Realty Corporation (NYSE:AEC)

Q3 2008 Earnings Call

October 28, 2008 2:00 pm ET

Executives

Jeff Friedman - President and Chief Executive Officer

Lou Fatica - Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer

John Shannon - Senior Vice President of Operations

Patrick Duffy - Vice President of Strategic Marketing

Kimberly Kanary - Vice President, Corporate Communications

Analysts

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Andrew McCulloch - Green Street Advisors

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Operator

Welcome to the Associated Estates Realty Corporation third quarter conference call. For your information all participants will be in a listen-only mode. (Operator Instructions) This conference is being recorded. At this time, I would like to turn the call over to Ms. Kimberly Kanary, Vice President of Corporate Communications for opening remarks and introductions; please go ahead ma’am.

Kimberly Kanary

Thank you, Denise. Good afternoon everyone I’d like to remind you that our call today is being webcast and will be archived on AEC’s website through November 11. Joining me on the call are Jeff Friedman, President and CEO, Lou Fatica, Chief Financial Officer; John Shannon, Senior Vice President of Operations and Patrick Duffy, Vice President of Strategic Marketing.

Before we begin, I would like to note that statements made during this call that are not based on historical facts are forward-looking statements. These forward-looking statements are based on current judgments and knowledge of management, which are subject to risks, trends and uncertainties that could cause actual results to vary from those projected.

The risk factors and cautionary statements identifying important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those in these forward-looking statements are detailed in the company’s third quarter press release.

At this time, I’d like to turn the call over to Jeff Friedman.

Jeff Friedman

We had a great third quarter. This is due to the dedicated professionals running our properties, well-positioned assets and a dynamic operating platform. With this being said, these are complicated times in the financial markets and clearly the uncertainty and volatility has created waves throughout every aspect of the worlds financial system. Our crystal ball is a bit cloudy with regard to the overall business environment, how things ultimately will turn out given the unprecedented recent government intervention and the changing landscape in the commercial, and investment banking arena.

However, with regard to the apartment business, the future appears a little more clear. Today on our call, in addition to providing the details of our third quarter performance and our expectations for the balance of the year, we will attempt to explain our perspective on how we expect market conditions to impact AEC’s business in the coming quarters.

As you’ve heard us say many times before, the number one driver of the apartment business is household formation. A slowing economy might keep some new households for making the lead to on an apartment, but the number of 18 to 24 year old is the highest in history. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, they are projected to be 15 million new households created over the next 10 years.

Consider the follow; there are an average 1.5 million new households per years and given the current economic issues, fewer new household are purchasing homes. Residents are staying in apartments longer and people who can afford to buy a home are choosing not to. With regard to these demographic and economic factors, we believe the dynamics for the apartment business are positive. We expect occupancy to continue to remain relatively high by any standard.

The challenge of course will be at what rent level. In spite of the improving demographics new apartment development have slowdown in practically every market. Titled land remains scarce and at a premium, construction cost have escalated. Banks are loaning less and requiring significantly more cash equity. There is some competition from new developments originally slated as for sale that are being brought online as rentals, but these units are at the highest price points and often our not direct comps for the most established properties.

It is also important to note that with the information available to all of us on renewal rates at AEC we are able to quickly adjust our rents to always be competitive. So, supply will not be an issue for the foreseeable future. With regard to jobs and wages, these two factors impact pricing more than demand, it’s true that in a slowing economy we will have less pricing power, but at the same time we expect operating cost increases to moderate and apartment buildings different than office buildings, shopping centers, malls. We don’t have to worry as much about staying full. The steady and predictable steam of cash flow continues to be attractive to investors and lenders. So, in my opinion if there is a suite spot in a real estate business today, the apartment business seems to be the one.

Before I turn the call over to Lou, let me just touch on asset pricing and financing. We have accomplished practically all of our sales to rebalance our portfolio. Our current portfolio is well positioned as evidence by our year-to-date same community NOI growth of 6.7%. We are planning to market a few more Midwest assets and we believe there are many qualified buyers that remain interested in well-located proprieties at good yields.

We will only sell these proprieties at pricing inline with our internal expectations. As Lou will discuss we do not require sales proceeds for short-term funding our debt maturities. Freddie and Fannie are still very much in business.

Our discussion with the agencies further support there increasingly important commitment to provide permanent financing for apartments at attractive spreads to treasuries. This desirable, long-term non-recourse financing available to apartment owners will continue to be available to buyers as well as AEC as a source for our refinancing needs.

At this time I will turn the call over to Lou.

Lou Fatica

For the third quarter FFO was $0.31 per share or $0.01 per share higher than our internal forecast. Our same community NOI increased 6.9% driven by solid revenue growth of 3.3% coupled with a 1% decline in expenses. The NOI growth resulted from higher net collected rents as concessions continued to burn off in most of our markets and a reduction in non-controllable expenses with resulted from our favorable insurance renewal earlier this year.

Year-to-date same community NOI growth is 6.7% as a result of 3.5% revenue growth and relatively flat expenses. We continue to expect our full year same community portfolio to deliver NOI growth in the range of 4.5% to 4.9%. Additionally we have narrowed our full year revenue in expense growth ranges. We are also reaffirming our full year FFO guidance per share of $1.30 at mid point as adjusted for diffusions and another prepayment cost.

Additional assumptions related to our full year 2008 guidance can be found on page 25 of our supplemental. We want to remind everyone that we raised our full year expectations twice this year after Q1 and Q2. Our full year 2008, guidance is based on moderating macroeconomic and apartment fundamentals for Q4 as well as increased quarter-over-quarter real estate tax and insurance expenses.

Insurance expense in the fourth quarter will show an increase as a function of certain credits reported during the fourth quarter of last year resulting from the renegotiation of the self-insured portion of our propriety insurance program. Additionally we anticipate higher quarter-over-quarter real estate tax accruals. Moderating top line growth combined with increased expenses are expected to result in Q4, 2008 property NOI being down approximately $200 when compare to Q4, 2007.

I would now like to discuss the status of our capital recycling plan, cap rates in our liquidity position. Year-to-date we have completed the sale of $92 million of assets, including the sale of our affordable housing in Toledo portfolios.

Additionally we expect to complete the sale of two smaller assets by the end of this year bringing our total sales to approximately $100 million. On the acquisitions front year-to-date we have spent $76 million acquiring two communities in Richmond, Virginia with the total of 536 units. We are not forecasting any additional acquisitions in our 2008 guidance.

We are, however continuing to lay the groundwork for potential joint ventures that will allow us to leverage our operating platform as we expect that there will be several opportunities for transaction in the coming quarters. Cap rates have risen, recognizing this increase in cap rates we have adjusted our internal cap rates for our any calculation on average by 85 basis points when compare to January 2007.

We currently estimate our NAV to be $25 per share based on a 7.25% nominal cap rate or 6.19% economic cap rate after a 3% management fee and an average of $613 per unit in capital reserves. Our leverage is measured by debt-to-market value and our real estate is roughly 50% or is measured by debt to un-depreciated book value is approximately 58%.

With regard to our debt maturities, we have non-remaining in 2008. In 2009 we have four loans maturing totaling $72 million. In 2010 we have approximately $80 million maturing with an average weighted coupon of 6%. Given everyone’s focus on sensitive to debt maturities I going to provide a few more details on our 2009 maturities.

The interest rate on $37 million of CMBS debt maturing in May, and June 2009 is 7.5%. The year-to-date weighted average interest rate on the $35 million of variable rate debt maturing in February and April of 2009 is 4.2%. In order to be in earnings neutral we will need to refinance this 2009 maturing debt at an average interest rate of 6%, which is achievable today with the GSCs.

We also have the additional flexibility of using our line of credit to pay off some or all this maturing debt. Our line has a $135 million available at quarter end and it’s currently priced at a 160 basis over LIBOR or about 4.8% using the current 30-day LIBOR rate.

As I remainder our expected FFO payout ratio of 52% at the mid point of our guidance is the lowest of our multi-family peer group. Our low payout ratio allows us to continue to invest in capital improvement at our properties, the addition to providing an attractive dividend yield to our shareholders.

Now let me turn the call over to John.

John Shannon

We are thrilled with the performance of our properties as evidenced by our same community revenue and NOI growth this quarter as well as for the year. Today I will discuss the details of our performance and comment further on how we view the current multi-family fundamentals in our markets. Our year-to-date results are better than expected. The most part, our communities continue to see traffic on par with historical levels, occupancy stable at approximately 95%, residents staying longer, average household income on the rise and no evidence of residents doubling up or downsize.

We are however, conscious of the many reports detailing the deteriorating job market, declining consumer spending, collapsing stock market, falling home values and tightening credit. While these factors in many cases can have a positive impact on apartment demand, we are beginning to see some resistance to rent increases in few of our market.

Now to review our specific market; Baltimore, Washington delivered revenue growth of 2.2% quarter-over-quarter with physical occupancy of 94% at quarter end. Baltimore, Washington market continues to have positive household formation and positive job growth. We expect rental demand to continue to be strong.

In Atlanta quarter-over-quarter revenue growth was down approximately 3% and quarter-end physical occupancy was 91.2%. Net rents are lower in most Atlanta sub-markets with the equivalent of three or six weeks of free rent being offered. New supply is down significantly when compared to historical levels. For 2008 in Atlanta no new job growth is projected as compared to 37,000 new jobs in 2007 and 60,000 jobs in 2006.

This pullback in jobs coupled with slowing economic growth should result in occupancies in the low 90% range and ongoing concessions. We expect limited opportunity for rent growth at our four properties in Atlanta over the next 12 to 18 months.

In Florida, our quarter end physical occupancy was 93.8%; in quarter-over-quarter total revenues were flat. In south Florida our three properties continue to be impacted by approximately 2% job loss and the competition from unsold condominiums and single-family homes. We believe we will continue to see softness in south Florida for the next few quarters. Our expectations are, that by the middle of 2009 employers will start adding jobs, and the significant number of homeowners, who will lose their homes to foreclosure, will migrate into apartments.

Our property in Norfolk, Virginia has been added to the quarterly same community portfolio. We have seen tremendous growth in Norfolk, with revenue up11.4% and quarter end occupancy of 98.5%. This property as well as our two properties in Richmond continue to outperform our acquisition performance and are benefiting from increases in household formation and steady job growth.

Our Midwest portfolio, consisting of 36 properties in 8,200 units continues to generate strong NOI growth. For the third quarter, revenue increased 5.2% and NOI increased an impressive 11.7%. Midwest finished the quarter at a strong 97.1% physical occupancy. Our Midwest properties have benefited from new rental supply, their proximity to excellent schools and employment centers, increasing residential foreclosures, home prices that continue to fall and flat to modest job growth. We anticipate ongoing strong apartment demand at these properties and believe they will continue to perform extremely well for the balance of the year and well into 2009.

Turning to our financial performance for Q3, we had another strong quarter with same community NOI up 6.9% quarter-over-quarter. This growth is due to a number of factors. Average physical occupancies remained unchanged on a quarter-over-quarter basis, with quarter end occupancy at 95.8%. Average net rents increased 2.8% portfolio wide with 4% rent increases in the Midwest and rents that were up almost 1% in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Although concessions were up in some markets growth quarter-over-quarter, total company-wide concessions reflect a reduction of $460,000 for the quarter, where nearly 20% all coming from the Midwest.

Total operating expenses were down 1%, with controllable expenses up 2.8% and taxes and insurance down 8%. While some of this is due to timing, the savings are primarily a result of strict adherence to budgeted expenses in a favorable year-over-year property insurance renewal program, and on a sequential quarterly basis total revenues increased 1.5%, while physical occupancy remained stable and relatively unchanged.

Our success for the balance of the year, and into 2009 will continue to be driven by focusing on the basics of good property management and providing superior customer service.

At this time, I’ll turn the call back to Jeff.

Jeff Friedman

Thank you, John, Lou. Let’s open up the call for question. Denise.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

Could you talk a little bit about what you are seeing in terms of traffic coming into the properties by market, are you seeing any deterioration and credit quality for example you having to turn away higher percentages?

John Shannon

Our traffic has been relatively similar to historical levels and the credit quality of those prospects have been very similar, in fact we stay on top of that with our credit screening company to make sure that all have the right criteria in place and if we want to adjust that at given time we can and to-date we have not have to adjust our credit selection criteria.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

Okay and tangentially to that, are you seeing any increase in your collection of late fees or slipping in pay dates that sort of thing?

John Shannon

No, our late fees in our concession paybacks again have been pretty much and par of what we’ve seen in the past. Our month end 30 day receivables stay in the average of 2% to 2.5%, that’s what we’ve see in this month and that’s what we’ve seen historically and really our net bad debt is at between 0.8%, again very similar to where we were in 2007. So, I would say with the credit quality of our residents, it’s very much on par to 2007.

Operator

Your next question comes from Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

John or Jeff, specifically Jeff actually; in your comments you talked about the outlook for the next 18 to 24 months, just on the overall macro side. Given the moderation you’re expecting, your guidance is now anticipating for the fourth quarter on the revenue front. I was curious to get your initial thoughts on 2009 as it relates to one rent growth and maybe two revenue growth.

Jeff Friedman

Well, this is Jeff. I’ll let John or Patrick talk about the rent growth and revenue growth. We are just as we speak literally completing the budget process and this is rolled off on a property-by-property basis. We have not given any guidance for 2009 not because that’s any difference than anything else we’ve ever done, but until we meet the compilation of the budget, we just aren’t in a position to do it.

Your question reminds me of, I guess there is a joke - do you believe what you see or do you believe what I tell you; in the sense that based on what we are seeing in the fundamentals of the apartment business, the fundamentals are very strong. Everything leads us to believe that what we should continue to see is strong demand. The concerns we have are based on what we read and what we hear and to a certain degree I believe as John said what we are beginning to feel and that we are getting some push back, what we call resistance in pricing power or increasing rents.

Now, interestingly enough that push back is coming from the new resident, when they apply and not the existing residents as much. We are getting solid rent increases from our existing resident base and we are seeing a little more difficulty in terms of competing for those vacancies that we have. So just to sum that up, having been in the business for a long time, our gut tells us these are very good times for the apartment business, but we can’t help that the impacted by the overall negative sentiment in our world and our financial world today, the concerns we each have for the economy and that it will show up in our difficulty passing through the rents.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

Just breaking that down a little bit more you talked about you’re able to pass along very good renewal increases, yet your turnover this quarter was actually up after having declined for several quarters it seemed. Was it rental rate increases, was it people doubling up? I guess what was the big driver of the increase in turnover?

John Shannon

Michael this is John. We don’t think that the quarter really makes for a trend, yes it was up on a quarter-over-quarter basis, but when we look back for the first quarter and second quarter and what we think our exposure and turnover rate’s for the balance of Q4. In 2007 our turnover was 63%. We think that we are going to be about a percent and a half, 61.5% turnover for this year. So, taking that one snapshot of the quarter we don’t think establishes the trend.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

In terms of the turnover there, I mean was there any specifics of why people are moving out, was that anything that you guys track? Was it rate increases? Was it job losses?

John Shannon

Well, we do track that very closely and as a portfolio Q3 ’07, 20% of the people left to buy homes. This year it was 17%, so we are seeing that trend and we are also seeing a slight trend of an increase of people just saying that the rent is getting is too high for them and partially we think that’s okay, because as we’re pushing rents on renewals it allows us to keep growing, the revenue. Certainly we are not going to price ourselves out of the market, but we have seen a slight up-tick for that reason.

Operator

Your next question comes from Andrew McCulloch - Green Street Advisors.

Andrew McCulloch - Green Street Advisors

You reduced your acquisition guidance, is this a function that you aren’t seeing attractive acquisition candidates or you’d just rather hold on to that cash?

Jeff Friedman

It is the combination of both. We continue to underwrite opportunities, but we are finding that our pricing is significantly below sellers expectation and we think that over the next six to 12 months there should be some good opportunities out there for us.

Andrew McCulloch - Green Street Advisors

Can you quantify that GAAP between your expectations and the sellers?

Jeff Friedman

It’s been as much as 15%.

Andrew McCulloch - Green Street Advisors

And then a question for Lou. You guys had made adjustments to your covenants on your line when you increased it to $250 million; can you walk us through some of those basic covenants?

Lou Fatica

Sure, our covenants consist of I would say probably four significant categories. One, is (a) maintaining an unencumbered pool that will support the borrowing capacity on the line of a $150 million. (b) it would include our debt service coverage covenant and I guess lastly it would include our ability to borrow against that on encumbered pool.

Operator

Your next question comes from Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

You have a redevelopment going on at reflections, can you comment on how that’s progressing versus your expectations and whether you plan to roll that program out further at this point?

John Shannon

Sure, Michael this is John. Let me first talk about the reflections, that’s the 184-unit property that we have in Columbia, Maryland. We have completed all 184-unit portion of them being vacant, there is the balance or the majority of them doing in unit are occupied renovations there.

We at the end of the day, $13,500 per unit, which was slightly more than I think what we had reported in the past, the 12,500 and that’s due to some upgrades, additional cabinetry and an upgrade in the appliances, so not kind of a cost over on it, but a conscious decision to increase that.

We have said that we would get $85 per unit, we’re averaging now in the $50 range, what we have not had is much turnover to really see what the impact will be as we push rents through the Q4, but we do think that we’re well positioned for 2009 to take the opportunity of pushing rents in that market as demand continues to be strong.

Regarding doing additional renovations, we’re going to look at that market-by-market and see what the returns are for that. So, we really haven’t income out with guidance yet on 2009 and it will all be based on where our budget is for 2009.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Okay just staying on the capital fund here, just given this decline in stock price we’ve seen over the past month here, just to get your thoughts on share repurchases at this point?

Jeff Friedman

Well this is Jeff, Mike. All these things remind me of stories. In ’93 someone said are you thinking about forming a REIT, someone else said you’ve have to be in coma not to think about forming a REIT in ’93 and today, you’d had to be the in the coma not think about at least for us buying back our stock, just from a price standpoint, a multiple standpoint, however given the uncertainties in the capital markets and the focus that we at AEC have had on balancing our maturities, not being constrained in anyway with regard to capital on our borrowings. We have to carefully balance that and we are looking at that very carefully.

At AEC, until a few weeks ago, we were the number one performing apartment company in terms of total return on a year-to-date basis one, three and five years. With the precipitous drop and the stock price that we had, we know that we believe that it’s not in any way related to our performance, but more so impacted by what’s going on, on a broader basis to both realistic company as well as those painted with the financial brush.

So we’re looking at it, we understand what that does on an accretion basis per share. Ultimately it will be the board’s decision, but we’re looking for that.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Lou, in your comments, you talked a little bit about your discussions with Fannie and Freddie and 2009 maturities. How far along are those right now, in terms of discussions and has there been any change, any noticeable change maybe in the past call it six weeks, just given what we’re seeing in the market?

Lou Fatica

Spreads continue to remain in the 200 to 225 level for us. For us, we’d probably be a tier 3 or tier 4 borrow on the maturing debt that we have with Fannie or the maturing debt that we have that we would borrow with Fannie. So, as far as how far along they are in the process, we’ve given them preliminary underwrites of those deals and gotten some preliminary indications earlier in the year and we are just in the kind of finalization process of developing a plan to replace that debt as it matures.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Okay, then finally I think in the NAV comments you said you quoted 613 per unit recurring CapEx number. Just curious as to what your expecting for 2008 here, just given that you’ve done 565 by my calculation to the third quarter?

Lou Fatica

We would expect our recurring CapEx number to be in that 575 to 650 range.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Even though you’ve done 565 to the third quarter? So, should we expect a significant pullback in the fourth quarter?

Lou Fatica

I’m sorry Mike, I didn’t get the last part of it?

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Just looking at the numbers that you’ve done so far year-to-date, its 565; if you are saying 575 to 650 for the full-year?

Lou Fatica

Yes, we’re probably closer to the 650 on a recurring basis. Yes.

Michael Salinsky - RBC Capital Markets

Okay and is that a good run rate going forward?

Lou Fatica

We think the run rate is the 613 that we have in our NAV calculation. If I could take this, I could just go back to Andy’s question and Andy just to tie that back and I don’t think I addressed that specifically, one of the comments and in terms of the leverage on the line, currently it stands at about 50% and the line allows for leverage up to 65% and the other important point to note would be that there are no covenants that are tied to share price and so there’s no covenant that would be tripped because of where our share price would ultimately end up at.

Operator

Your next question comes from Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird

Just a follow-up; are you seeing any change in your employee turnover?

John Shannon

Paula this is John. We really have not seen any change and we’ve been very proud of our low turnover rate averaging about 40% at the site level, certainly much lower than that here at the corporate level, but we have not seen any drastic change in the employee turnover out at the properties.

Paula Poskon - Robert W. Baird & Co.

Are people staying longer? I mean, if you sort of plan for certain amount of vacant headcounts and then they choose to stay, are you seeing any increase in your payroll dollars even if headcount is stable?

Jeff Friedman

This is Jeff. I’m in a position to respond to this because just a few hours ago I said down with Kara Florack, our Vice President of Human Resources as we are going through the budgeting process for 2009; John and Patrick to have some real good numbers.

From the full time employee equivalent standpoint, we are right on line with the standards that we have created on a per unit basis. We look at it both on an FTE basis as well as on a year-over-year basis and Paula we made a concerted effort three years ago to pay at the high end of practically all of the salary ranges at the position that we identified as a critical position to deliver that kind of customer service that we believe was important.

You might recall our dialog about spending money our properties, so when the markets did turn for us we would be positioned to take advantage of it. So, that was a combination of the capital we invested in the properties and then the people that deliver the service. So, we are seeing increases when we looked at the year-over-year expenses. We look at 2008, year-to-date, plus the annualized numbers for the balance of the year and when you compare that to 2007 we will be up about 7.5% on base salaries; 7.5% not including incentive compensation.

Incentive compensation will be up of more than 10% and that has been structured and relates to our substantial NOI performance, same community NOI performance. So, there was a relationship between what we pay these folks at the properties and how the properties do. So just to sum that up from a full time equivalent standpoint, we don’t have a lot of open positions, we don’t see operating our properties with open positions and we would expect that 2009 over 2008, that payroll increases will reflect more closely with inflation in the 3% to 3.5% range, not including incentive compensation which is tied to how the properties perform.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) At this time I would like to turn the call back over to Jeffrey Friedman for closing remarks.

Jeffrey Friedman

Thank you Denise and thanks to every one for joining us on our call today and your interest in AEC. This concludes our call.

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Source: Associated Estates Realty Corporation Q3 2008 Earnings Call Transcript
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