Asset Allocation in Action–Should a Diversified Portfolio Include a REIT Mutual Fund?

We discussed REITs in the first part of this series. Now let’s look at why you should consider including them in your portfolio.

The main benefit of REITs, in my view, is diversity. REITs are one of the few asset classes that are not highly correlated to the S&P 500. That means that the performance of REITs doesn’t follow in lock-step the performance of the market. At the same time, REITs historically have performed very well. From 1989 to 2001, REITs returned 10.7% with a standard deviation of 16.1%, according to David Darst in his book, The Art of Asset Allocation : Asset Allocation Principles and Investment Strategies for any Market.

What this means is that REIT mutual funds during this period were highly volatile, with 95% of yearly returns ranging from -21.5% (the average minus two standard deviations) to 42.9% (the average plus two standard deviations). In a well diversified portfolio, however, REITs can improve returns with little added risk to the overall portfolio. I own two REIT funds:

  • Vanguard REIT Index (VGSIX)(6.2% of my portfolio)
  • Fidelity International REIT Index (FIREX)(2% of my portfolio)

So far in 2007, VGSIX has lost 13.6% and FIREX has lost 5.1%. From 2003 through 2006, however, VGSIX returned 35%, 30%, 12% and 35%. As I’ve repeated many times, with potentially greater returns comes potentially greater risk.

You will see that my allocation to REITs is about 8%, and my goal is 10%. You’ll read many books that recommend anywhere from 0% to about 20%. In William Bernstein’s book, The Intelligent Asset Allocator: How to Build Your Portfolio to Maximize Returns and Minimize Risk, he recommends 5% in one of his portfolios.

Should I own a REIT if I own real estate

This question comes up a lot. My answer is yes. I own four rental properties and my home, and I still put 10% of my portfolio in REITs. Why? Because REITs typically invest in office buildings, strip malls, apartment buildings and the like, not single family homes. Some REITs do invest in mortgages, so there can be some overlap with residential real estate, but for the most part, my REIT investments will behave differently than my rental properties. Others, however, believe that the investment in their home is sufficient exposure to real estate, and so avoid REIT mutual funds. You’ll obviously have to make your own decision on whether to own a REIT mutual fund.

One final thought. You probably own REITs even if you don’t own a REIT fund. Most REITs fall into the mid-cap category, so if you own funds in that category, those funds likely include some REITs.

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Topics: Asset Allocation

2 Responses to “Asset Allocation in Action–Should a Diversified Portfolio Include a REIT Mutual Fund?”

  1. Dusty Trails

    Do you consider a REIT an “alternative investment”? The low correlation factor of REITS make them a safer investment than Hedges Funds, private equity, gold? commodities. I am using an allocation model than suggests 8% hedge funds, 2% private equity. In retirement, I am much more comfortable with a non-correlated investment that throws off income. I am not sure REITS have to be in an IRA, 401k, etc. to be effective. IMHO, investors in their 30s pick one or two REIT vehicles to own and watch it through a boom/ bust cycle. Once you see what your personal performance was, you cherry pick the good REITs or learn how to rotate out of them at the top of the rental/retail/construction/medical Blgs. cycle. Your aim should be to build your position slowly, selectively, in your 40s thru midfifties. As you approach retirement, when REITS are out of favor, and the interest rates are, you ramp up your allocation towards that 8-10%, probably with an ETF REIT, or a low/noload fund. I assume you are at your peak earning years, so selling your old REITs are taxed at favorable capital gains rates. You hopefully now have a REIT pool throwing of greater than 6% income for you to eat off of in retirement. that income was a great cushion and comfort for me, in 2008.

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