Everything you think you know about REITs? Forget it before you put Realty Income (NYSE:O) under the microscope. Realty Income stock is far less subject changes in interest rates than most investors care to believe, and much more of a sentiment-driven trading vehicle than most investors care to concede.
To that end, now would be a good time to take profits on Realty Income stock if you’re long, and if you’re daring enough, perhaps even short it.
That’s a counterintuitive strategy for students of what makes the market tick. Rising rates are supposed to work against real estate investment trusts by increasing the cost of capital, while falling or stagnant interest rates help make and keep money cheap.
Right now the Federal Reserve seems mostly ready to let rates stand pat, with some whispers of a rate-cut circulating in the market’s ether. That’s supposed to be good for REITs.
In the real world though, we’ve rarely seen that relationship hold up. In the real world, Realty Income is uncomfortably vulnerable here.
On paper, it shouldn’t have happened. But it did. Against a backdrop of steady rate increases over the course of last year, Realty Income stock rallied from an early-2018 low near $47 to a high-near $74 just a couple of weeks ago. That’s a 57% gain.
Why didn’t the Fed’s four rate-hikes deflate the rally? Because there’s far more to the matter than mere interest rates. Many investors get the market’s easy stuff. Earnings growth is good. Bear markets are bad. Diversity staves off volatility.
Not all investors can fully process multi-faceted and sometimes arbitrary pressures on a stock though. Realty Income is one of those names with a lot of moving parts.
Chief among them is the fact that it rents space to some of the world’s most recognized and reliable companies. Its top tenants include Walgreens Boots Alliance (NASDAQ:WBA), FedEx (NYSE:FDX) and Dollar General (NYSE:DG). Those companies may ebb and flow, but for the most part they’re not going anyway. And, unlike 2008’s subprime mortgage meltdown, the underlying assets that make up realty income aren’t quite as subject to an implosion as on over-mortgaged home is.
If nothing else, Realty Income has been and always will be at least reasonably dependable.
There’s a much bigger (albeit related) tailwind that’s boosted the O stock price far more than rising rates have worked against it, however. That is, the solid economic growth that inspired last year’s quartet of interest rate increases in the first place.
While the tariff war, in addition to a long-lived government shutdown, has dialed back the impressive and consistent GDP growth, it still is growth.
After soaring to a pace of more than 2.0% in the latter half of 2017 and racing to annualized growth of 4.2% in the second quarter of 2018, Corporate America was humming. Corporate profits reached record levels during the third quarter of last year, prompting investment in more growth and the leasing of new profit centers.
Realty Income had no trouble finding and keeping consumer-facing tenants, boasting an occupancy rate of 98.6%. It was able to raise its average rental prices as well. Economic strength mattered more than rising interest rates, pushing shares upward.
The backdrop is changing now though, for fundamental as well as psychological reasons. Fundamentally, the economy may still be on a reasonably firm footing, but growth rates are undeniably slowing. International trade friction is very real, and the year-over-year comps translate into tougher comparisons.
In the meantime, Q4’s GDP growth was pared back to match multi-year lows near 2.2%. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly not red hot. There’s also no particular reason to suspect growth will turn red-hot again anytime soon.
Psychologically, investors may be starting to realize they got a little ahead of themselves with Realty Income last year. It’s not the first time it’s happened either. The weekly chart tells the tale. This REIT is really good at rallying for prolonged periods, but that rally is always unwound in a big way.
The relative slowdown in the very economic growth that catapulted Realty Income stock last year, will serve as the bearish fodder the market needs now that shares are uncomfortably overextended.
Bottom Line for Realty Income Stock
The great irony is, none of the stock’s past rises and falls nor any of its future gains and losses will actually be a full reflection of the REIT’s results. Revenue, operating income and funds from operations are all quite steady, and the real estate investment trust recently announced its 101st dividend increase.
It’s been a picture of consistency and reliability. The big swings of the O stock price are largely prompted by traders’ ever-changing perception.
Nevertheless, if that’s the game most investors are playing, then that’s the game would-be buyers have to play too. Anyone interested may want to let some of the froth burn off first. It could take a while to gauge the true strength of the economy here anyway.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can learn more about James at his site, jamesbrumley.com, or follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.