After accelerating each year since 2001, the flow of investment capital into REIT mutual funds slowed precipitously in 2005. Although positive, the $1.8 billion inflow total for 2005 marked a 76% reduction from the record $6.9 billion that entered the sector in 2004, according to AMG Data Services based in Arcata, Calif., which tracks mutual fund money flow and holdings data.

Some real estate watchers use AMG's data as a barometer for the larger market of investments in REITs and commercial real estate. In that sense, the retreat from REIT mutual funds could reflect waning investor interest in commercial real estate investments.

With much of today's high property values predicated on investors bidding up prices, a reduction in investment dollars chasing deals could conceivably bring reduced values for properties, or reduced share prices for REITs.

But real estate economists and researchers say it's too early to conclude whether large numbers of investors are beginning to divest REIT shares. And relative to the $335 billion U.S. REIT market, the fourth quarter's outflow represents only a fraction of a percent.

“What's significant is that the annual flow is still positive,” says Jamie Woodwell, senior director of commercial and multifamily research at the Mortgage Bankers Association. “You're not getting a record increase in 2005, but you're still seeing more money coming into the market. All that money that came in the previous years is still there, plus some.”

Woodwell cautions against reading too much into the recent negative flow of funds. Most other industry indicators, such as CMBS issuance volume and direct investment totals, suggest the demand for commercial real estate investments is as strong as ever, he says.

The recent outflow of capital from REIT mutual funds is surprising, but isn't likely to continue in 2006, says Dan Fasulo, director of market analysis at Real Capital Analytics. “I don't think there's any way not to have positive inflows this year,” he says. “For one thing, more and more companies are offering REITs as an option on 401(k)s, so more individuals will be adding that into their plans.”

How do observers reconcile last year's reduced fund flow with otherwise positive market indicators? One explanation may be that investors are drawing off earnings from the REIT industry's six-year run of outperforming the S&P 500, says Keven Lindemann, director of the real estate group at SNL Financial LC in Charlottesville, Va.

“In more than half of those weeks with negative fund flows last year, they were more than offset by market gains,” Lindemann says. “On Oct. 19, for example, there was an $86 million outflow, but the market was up $600 million that week. So parts of these outflows are just investors taking some money off the table in a strong REIT market.”

Lindemann and Fasulo both say the fourth quarter's negative fund flow may reflect investor disenchantment with REIT share prices, indicating that investors are pulling out of REITs in order to invest directly in real estate assets.

Average share prices are about 15 times funds from operations per share and well above the historical average multiple of eight to 10, but share values are low in relation to the value of a typical REIT's assets per share.

A number of high-profile REIT privatizations in recent months supports the idea that REITs are undervalued on the public markets, Lindemann says. “Those companies went private because the feeling was that the public market wasn't valuing public REITs properly, and that the collection of real estate in the REIT had a higher value on the private market.”

ARE CAPITAL INVESTMENTS IN REIT MUTUAL FUNDS TAPERING?

The flow of capital into REIT mutual funds slowed in 2005, turning negative for 14 straight weeks at the end of the year. Net inflow for 2005 totaled $1.7 billion, down from $6.9 billion the previous year. (Figures in billions)

2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
1st Quarter ($0.104) $1.123 $0.408 $3.499 $0.937
2nd Quarter $0.410 $1.538 $1.284 ($0.811) $1.486
3rd Quarter ($0.005) $0.785 $1.387 $1.332 $0.559
4th Quarter ($0.248) ($0.089) $1.674 $2.885 ($1.313)
Total $0.054 $3.356 $4.753 $6.906 $1.669
Source: AMG Data Services


In Progress: Collection at Vanderbilt retail community

PROJECT TEAM: Woolbright Development, Boca Raton, Fla.

LOCATION: Naples, Fla.

SIZE: 253,000 sq. ft.

COMPLETION: Summer 2006

BUZZ: The Collection at Vanderbilt shopping center will bring a mix of national and local retailers to the Naples/Fort Myers market. The project is Woolbright Development's first in the marketplace and calls for a Mediterranean revival-style retail community anchored by a 19,700 sq. ft. Fresh Market. The development, which broke ground in mid-January, is located near Greg Norman's Tiburon golf community and two Ritz-Carlton resorts.