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Digital Realty Disappoints

|About: Digital Realty Trust, Inc. (DLR), Includes: CONE, COR, DFT, EQIX, QTS

Summary

Despite impressive historical growth, Digital Realty’s revenue and funds from operations (FFO) growth rates have slowed significantly over the past three years.

In 2014, Digital promoted positive initiatives to increase return over invested capital.

However, net rentable square footage increase was weaker, and development space was proportionately lower.

Inorganic growth could be a real game-changer and alter Digital’s trajectory towards mediocre performance in an industry full of growth opportunities.

Despite a 15 percent FFO and 14 percent dividend compounded annual growth rate over the past ten years, Digital Realty (NYSE: DLR) has disappointed lately. Digital is one of the largest REITs in a fragmented industry with growing opportunities such as multi-tenant data centers, so I'd been hoping to see stronger performance. This is not in line with their target markets (mobile, social media, cloud, big data, and so on).

Source: Q4 2014 Earnings Conference Call Presentation

In public appearances Digital has been trying to live off its glorious past (which demonstrates management commitment to growth), but unfortunately the underlying truth is that the revenue, FFO, and dividend growth rates have slowed significantly over the past three years, and there hasn't been any indication this will turn around in 2015.

Source: 10-K and Supplemental

On one hand, in 2014 Digital promoted a number of positive housekeeping initiatives to increase return over invested capital. The company reduced finished inventory, initiated a program to strengthen the quality of its capital by selling non-core assets, reduced total debt and preferred stock to enterprise value from 47 to 39 percent, and incrementally boosted its portfolio occupancy from 92.6 to 93.2 percent. Kudos to senior management for these great efficiency-boost results (although they would be more suitable in a mature industry).

On the other hand, Digital's latest size numbers simply haven't been compelling. 2014 marked the company's lowest expansion rate in net rentable square footage over the past ten years.

Further, development space is at its lowest in a decade in proportion to total net rentable square footage.

Note: '13 and '14 use the most conservative published numbers.

Source: 10-K and Supplemental

In addition, Digital's leverage has been higher than its data center REIT peers' - despite the company enjoying one of the lowest interest rates in the industry due its BBB investment grade rating. For Q4, Digital's average debt rate was 3.99 percent, as opposed to QTS - Quality Realty's 4.74 percent, DFT - Dupont Fabros's 4.1 percent, and EQIX - Equinix's 4.93 percent. COR - CoreSite is the only competitor that enjoys a lower rate, at 2.5 percent.

Note: CONE - CyrusOne

Source: 10-K and Supplemental

Moreover, Digital's dividend has stalled. Annualized Q1 2015 dividend grew only 2.4 percent compared with 2014 annualized dividend.

Last but not least, 2015 guidance has been disappointing. Digital's management believes that both FFO and Core FFO (which has been tracked by the company since 2012) will stay at current levels, despite pronounced growth rates in previous years.

Although size might be a reason for underperformance compared with Digital's smaller peers, Equinix - which also targets enterprise - has been enjoying better revenue growth rates.

Source: MarketWatch

Overall, Digital Realty isn't a bad company. Quite the opposite, in fact. It enjoys healthy margins (Adjusted EBITDA has been flat at around 60 percent), and has been distributing most of its adjusted FFO. Dividend yield is currently at 5.3 percent, price-to-FFO has been around 13 (lower than its peers), and annualized rents have been growing. That should explain why some analysts are still bullish about Digital. See chart below.

Source: Benzinga, March 13, 2015

Digital's management seems to be committed to finding a path to rapid growth. They've been trying new products and attracting small to mid-size clientele. Also, they decided to begin a strategic evaluation. The only downside is that it might take a while for Digital to figure out which direction to pursue next.

If organic growth is slowing down, inorganic growth could be a real game-changer and alter Digital's trajectory towards mediocre performance. Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer William Stein hasn't discarded the possibility of opportunistic acquisitions in 2015. However, I personally have made up my mind, and will wait for the next ride - this one won't lead me to the express lane.

Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.