Investing, Indirectly, in Real Estate

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Stocks in my portfolio often have meaningful exposure to real estate. Sometimes, these assets -- be they land, buildings or both -- are part of the business, but real estate, itself, is not the business.

Casual-dining company Ruby Tuesday ( RT) is an example. The sometimes-struggling restaurant chain happens to own the land and buildings for 368 of its locations.

Ruby Tuesday is not in the real estate business, but this portfolio may provide some opportunity and options down the line. Of course, the company needs to improve operating performance first and foremost in order to benefit shareholders, but the real estate is a potential sweetener.

There are other names where the land -- or more specifically, what's grown on that land -- is the business. In the past several years, farmland has become a mini-asset class unto itself. It's an important asset, too. They aren't making any more of it, and it's actually been disappearing as populations have pushed into rural areas over the decades. It's also vital to our survival.

Unfortunately, there are not many pure plays on agricultural land available to investors, short of actually buying farmland. But there are enough to at least get some exposure. Many of these names are very small in terms of market cap, and they can be volatile.

Argentine farming company Cresud ( CRESY), owns 34 farms with nearly 1.6 million acres of land. That's about 2,500 square miles, or an area half the size of Connecticut and larger than Delaware. The land is used to grow corn, wheat, soybeans, sugarcane and other crops.

Cresud also has a herd of beef and milk cattle that was nearly 77,000 strong at the end of March. Other assets include a 64% stake in in Argentine real estate company IRSA Investments and Representations (IRS) that's worth about $250 million at that company's current market cap.

CRESY Chart CRESY data by YCharts

That's a compelling package of assets, especially considering Cresud's current market cap of about $400 million, but this one is not for the faint of heart.

First, there is risk in owning Argentine names, especially considering that country's recent move to seize control of YPF Sociedad Anonima ( YPF), the nation's largest oil-and-gas company, from Spain's Repsol ( REPYY). Argentina was already a challenging economic environment without a government willing to seize businesses. This only heightened the risk.

Second, and less concerning, the company does have a decent amount of debt, in my view anyway, of about $570 million.

Of course, Cresud was hit hard in the spring, primarily due to fears of nationalization. Shares fell from about $13 in late March to below $7 in June.

While I was initially very concerned about the business environment in Argentina at that time, Cresud shares at $7 and below were simply too good to pass up, for me anyway. I had owned Cresud previously, but closed my position in the $19 range in late 2010. This was a chance to re-enter the name on the "cheap," knowing the risks.

I also own a few domestic agriculture names, although these are even smaller than Cresud. They include Limoneira ( LMNR), which left the pink sheets to list on NASDAQ in 2010 and is California's largest provider of citrus and avacados.

I also own Alico ( ALCO), which owns about 140,000 acres in central and southwest Florida and produces citrus and sugarcane and also does some cattle ranching.

LMNR Chart LMNR data by YCharts

ALCO Chart ALCO data by YCharts

Neither is as exciting as Cresud, but not all investors enjoy that kind of excitement.

At the time of publication, the author was long CRESY, LMNR and ALCO.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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