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iShares Mortgage Real Estate Capped ETF (REM) declared a quarterly dividend of $0.420583 with an ex-date of September 24, 2013 and payable September 30, 2013. Declare may not be the correct word, since REM management has no discretion in the manner as the dividends are simply a pass-through of the dividends declared by the mREITs that comprise the portfolio. The previous quarterly dividend was $0.527335. The September payment is a decline of 20.2% from June. Clearly the decline in mREIT dividends is accelerating

Major components of the portfolio, Annaly Capital (NLY) and American Capital Agency Corp. (AGNC) have recently cut their dividends. However, two of the components, Cypress Sharpridge Investments (CYS) and Rait Financial Trust (RAS) raised their dividends during the same period. This slightly mitigated the impact of the larger cuts by NLY and AGNC and smaller components such as Amour Residential REIT (ARR).

ETRACS Monthly Pay 2xLeveraged Mortgage REIT ETN (MORL) and Market Vectors Mortgage REIT ETF (MORT), contain very similar baskets of mREITs as REM. However MORL has 2X leverage. The 20.2% quarterly decline in the dividend of REM gives us an indication of what is in store for MORT and MORL.

MORT will probably have a decline in its dividend close to 20% from the previous quarter.. Since MORL is 2X leveraged, its dividend decline for the similar quarter should be a least twice that of MORT which has the same portfolio. In addition to the decline in the dividend due to the reduction in the dividends of a many of the mREITs, MORL is further impacted by the rebalancing of the portfolio each month to bring the amount of leverage back to 2X. As the value of the mREITs in the portfolio declines, portfolio assets must be sold to maintain the leverage level. This reduces the dividend in addition to any reductions from cuts by the mREITs in the portfolio. This factor is of course a major cause of the reductions in the dividends in the mREITs in the portfolio. The individual mREITs having been selling assets to bring their leverage down to their targets and in some cases reducing the leverage beyond that in response to the market volatility.

MORL which pays dividends monthly has already paid some dividends for the quarterly period for which REM just declared. MORL pays widely varying dividends each month since most of the mREITs in the basket pay dividends quarterly on various schedules. ARR being one of the few mREITs in the basket that pays monthly. During any three-month period all of the MORL components would have paid their dividends. Since we already know how much the MORL dividends were reduced in August and September we can extrapolate and predict that the October dividend should be about 45% below the $1.1045 paid in July.

In the coming months there should be some beneficial impact from the reinvestment of higher yielding mortgage securities entering the mREITs portfolios. Newly issued mortgage-backed securities usually settle about two months after the purchase date. Each month an mREIT generally receives principal payments on its mortgages of about 3/4 of a percent of the outstanding balance. So newly issue issued mortgage-backed securities bought in June with the receipts of the principal payments, that are yielding about 100 basis points more than earlier this year, are starting to settle and be including the mREITs portfolio.

The questions that must be considered when evaluating the sustainability of an mREIT's dividend are what causes 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 (OTCQB:FNMA) and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (OTCQB:FMCC). The mortgage securities of those GSEs (Government sponsored enterprises, the agencies) are still effectively guaranteed by the U.S. Government.

Credit issues played no part in the recent dividend cuts by mREITs. 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.

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 months, 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 principle 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 recent dividend cuts by mREITs were not a result of the spread declining. As I indicated in my article: Federal Reserve Actually Propping up Interest Rates: What this means for mREITs, higher long-term rates while short-term rates remain low actually increases the spread income of agency mREITs.

The recent dividend cuts by mREITs were due to the need to reduce leverage back to the levels that existed before the decline in mortgage securities prices plus 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 it will not be able to roll-over its repo debt. If my forecast that short-term rates will remain low for much longer, the agency mREITs might gather up their courage and begin to increase their dividends as their spreads and income increase.

Source: REM Dividend Cut's Implications For mREIT ETFs And ETNs