Global REITs Gain Attention

The strong performance of international real estate stocks remains a hot topic, with Dow Jones launching several new global real estate indices Tuesday. Meanwhile, the first exchange-traded fund featuring international real estate stocks is set to be launched soon by State Street Global Advisors.

With concern that U.S. REITs are getting too hot, international real estate stocks are touted as a means to diversify, reduce risk and boost returns. Besides buying the stocks directly, there previously weren't many options for U.S. personal investors seeking exposure to international real estate.

The more noteworthy funds currently available include Cohen & Steers' International Realty Funds (IRFAX, IRFCX, IRFIX), which are a series of three open-end funds; the Alpine International Real Estate (EGLRX) fund; and the ING Clarion Global Real Estate Income ( IGR) fund.

Alternatives are coming. Cohen and Steers filed papers with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week for its new closed-end Cohen & Steers Asia Pacific Realty Fund, which will mostly own REITs and other property companies in that region (including New Zealand and Australia).

On Tuesday, Dow Jones launched two new indices that track international real estate stocks: the Dow Jones Wilshire Global Real Estate Securities Index (which includes non-REITs) and the Dow Jones Wilshire Global REIT Index. Both indices include U.S. companies.

Also launched was the Dow Jones Wilshire ex-US Real Estate Securities Index and the Dow Jones Wilshire ex-US REIT Index, which exclude U.S. companies.

An ETF focused on international real estate stocks is set to follow, according to Amos Rogers, managing director of the Tuckerman Group, a State Street Global Advisors company focused on real estate investing. State Street already offers the streetTRACKS Wilshire REIT ( RWR) ETF, which tracks the Dow Jones Wilshire REIT Index.

Rogers told TheStreet.com that State Street will definitely be launching a global REIT ETF, but said it is too premature to give full details.

Last year, global real estate stocks, including U.S. companies, posted a total return of 25%, according to Citigroup's real estate analysts. Citigroup projects that stocks will post a total return of 10% in 2006, driven by stronger gains in Japan, China and Singapore, offsetting underperformance in the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong.

Ted Bigman, head of global real estate securities at Morgan Stanley, touted international real estate investing in a recent article in Investment Management Journal.

"The approximately US $600 billion global real estate securities market provides investors with a significant investment universe to achieve diversified exposure to real estate properties on a global basis," Bigman wrote. "Global real estate securities may provide investors with attractive risk-adjusted returns and the potential to enhance portfolio diversification due to its low correlation to other asset classes."

In the past five years, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and France have established REITs. Next up are the U.K. and Germany. (Each country's structure is a little different and doesn't exactly replicate the U.S. REIT model). With REITs still making up a small piece of the overseas property market, the future looks wide open.

"To date less than 10% of institutional real estate is held in the public markets, providing ample room for growth," Citigroup wrote.

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