MORL Declares Monthly Dividend, The First Reflecting Recent mREIT Cuts In The New Interest Rate Environment


ETRACS Monthly Pay 2xLeveraged Mortgage REIT ETN (NYSEARCA:MORL) declared a monthly dividend of $1.1045 with an ex-date of July 11, 2013 and payable July 23, 2013. The previous monthly dividend in June was $0.1155. However, as was described in my article, MORL pays widely varying dividends each month, since most of the mREITs in the basket pay dividends quarterly on various different schedules. During any three-month period, all of the components would have paid their dividends. Thus, the key comparison is with the $1.3213 dividend MORL paid in April.

As I indicated earlier, I expected a reduction in MORL's dividend relative to April, since the two largest components of MORL, Annaly Capital (NYSE:NLY) and American Capital Agency Corp. (NASDAQ:AGNC) have recently cut their dividends. However, two of the components of MORL, Cypress Sharpridge Investments (NYSE:CYS) and Rait Financial Trust (NYSE:RAS) raised their dividends during the same period. This slightly mitigated the impact of the larger cuts by NLY and AGNC.

I think that the dividends of MORL and Market Vectors Mortgage REIT ETF (NYSEARCA:MORT) which is the basket of 25 mREITs but without the 2X leverage, can be sustained at these levels. For MORL, the annualized rate of the last three months dividends is $5.39 which is a 25% simple annualized yield with MORL priced at $21.56. On a monthly compounded basis, the effective annualized yield is 28%.

The questions that must be considered when evaluating the sustainability of an mREIT's dividend are what cause an mREIT to reduce or eliminate its dividend. As investors in non-agency mREITs are all too aware, defaults by the mortgages held by the mREIT can quickly reduce or eliminate dividends. iStar Financial Inc. (SFI) a component of MORT and MORL has still not reinstated its dividend. Credit issues are not a concern to the extent that an mREIT holds agency paper. Defaults on the underlying mortgages are the problems of the issues such as Federal National Mortgage Association Fannie Mae [FNMA] and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. [FMCC]. The mortgage securities of those GSEs (Government sponsored enterprises, the agencies) are still effectively guaranteed by the US Government.

Credit issues played no part in the dividend cuts by NLY and AGNC. There are other reasons why mREITs cut their dividends. One reason could be because they can. Remember that REITs must distribute at least 90% of their income, as defined in Internal Revenue Service regulations, in the form of dividends to the shareholders. In some cases, if there is any way that a REIT can avoid paying dividends, while not incurring a tax penalty, they will do it. A dollar not paid to shareholders in dividends is one more dollar of book value. Many REITs' management fees are a function of book value.

What allows REITs that want to avoid distributing income to reduce or eliminate dividends are realized losses. Most REITs today do not want to reduce dividends; rather they know that higher dividends can allow them to do secondary share offerings which can boost their assets under management and thus their fee income. The mREIT dividend reductions in the past year, except the most recent month, have been entirely due to declining spreads between the interest rates paid on the mREIT's assets and their cost of funds.

Declining long-term rates combined with prepayments of principal on their older higher yielding mortgage securities have reduced the spread and the incomes of the agency mREITs. They have reduced their dividends accordingly. However, the June 2013 dividend cuts by NLY and AGNC were not a result of the spread declining. As I indicated in higher long-term rates while short-term rates remain low actually increases the spread income of agency mREITs.

The June 2013 dividend cuts by NLY and AGNC were primarily due to caution or if you prefer fear, on the part of their management. They are conserving cash in order to reduce leverage and possibly use more cash for hedging activities such as buying swaptions. The worst fear for an agency mREIT is that they will not be able to roll-over their repo debt. If my forecast that short-term rates will remain low for much longer than many market participants occurs, the agency mREITs might gather up their courage and begin to increase their dividends as their spreads and income increase.

Disclosure: I am long MORL, AGNC, CYS, RAS. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.