Overvalued Timber REITs: No Improvement on the Horizon

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Includes: PCH, PCL, RYN, WY
by: David Fessler

Ten years ago, it would be hard to imagine a more stable investment than timber, or those Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) that bought millions of acres of harvestable trees.

The 1990s were an ideal period to have timber as an investment:

  • Housing was doing well, and growth was beginning to take off in major cities.
  • The world was still pre-digital, and business still relied heavily on shuffling paper.
  • Electronic news was still a novelty; magazines and newspapers were still going strong.

What a difference a decade makes…

  • Housing is in the dumper, with no clear sign of a resurgence on the horizon.
  • Business has embraced the smartphone and has gone digital, shunning paper.
  • The world is increasingly getting its news in electronic form, as evidenced by the number of newspapers that are no more.

This shift away from stuff that comes from trees has resulted in an almost complete lack of demand for wood or wood pulp. As a result, prices for paper and lumber have hit multi-year lows. Lacking any catalyst for change, it’s the perfect setup for an extremely overvalued scenario in the timber industry.

Timber REITs… Look Out Below

Whereas timberland prices hovered in the $1,500 to $2,000 per acre range in the mid 1990s, a more realistic valuation today is less than half that. And therein lies the problem: Many of the timber REITs haven’t devalued their land.

If it sounds a little like the looming overvalued commercial real estate mess we’re in right now (a story we broke long before anyone else did), it’s no accident. The biggest problem? REITs are managed by human beings.

Just like they’ve been doing in the commercial real estate market, timber REIT managers have adopted a “wait it out” strategy, in the hope that timber values – and by extension the land it’s growing on – will suddenly reverse. Don’t bet on it.

Unfortunately for the REITs and their shareholders, hoping and praying for a resurgence in the housing market isn’t going to work.

It’s going to get even worse: Timber prices could drop another 50% in the next few years, as an anemic housing market – the only possible timber demand catalyst – isn’t looking at a recovery for as long as five years.

Most timber REITS, however, haven’t taken a big hit to their balance sheets. Not yet anyway. But that’s all about to change.

As a result of the aforementioned head-in-the-sand mentality, Plum Creek Timber (NYSE: PCL), Potlatch (NYSE: PCH) and Weyerhaeuser (NYSE: WY) are all on the verge of imploding. Weyerhaeuser isn’t a REIT, but it suffers from the same issues.

At a minimum, all are going to have to significantly cut their dividends, which aren’t based on anything remotely resembling ongoing operations. Nearly all of their 2009 income – and I use that term loosely – will come from land sales.

That’s a problem, too, and not just because of depressed prices for timber. Much of the hopes of the REIT management are that they will be able to sell land to real estate developers to generate cash. Huh?

You’ve got to be kidding: With the current depressed state of the housing market, developers aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to buy more land. After all, many of them are still writing down the value of land they already own.

Timber REITs Taking A Big Hit Before The Dust Settles

While it’s clear that timber REITs are going to take a big hit to their balance sheets before all the dust settles, there are others that will likely be the biggest losers of all.

You see, over the past few decades, university endowments, pension funds and Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMOs as they’re referred to) plowed an estimated $40 billion into timberland.

TIMOs are privately run organizations that hold and manage timber on behalf of institutional investors. Here’s the big problem: The funds that the TIMOs manage have predetermined liquidation dates, and many are coming due in the next several years.

When that happens, timber industry land prices could fall even further.

One notable exception to the REITs woes is Rayonier (NYSE: RYN). It has a much more diversified stable of holdings; namely its performance fibers division, which are used by customers around the world to make certain kinds of plastics, LCD screens, pharmaceuticals, food products and more.

The bottom line is that investors who own any of the timber REITs – with the exception of Rayonier – may want to consider lightening their position or eliminating it all together. Investors could also consider establishing a short position in Plum Creek, Potlatch, or Weyerhaeuser, the three stocks most likely to fall the hardest over the next 12 to 18 months.

Disclosure: None