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Three Rs for Risk Control: Retirement, Recession and REITs

Tickers in this article: AGNC EXR HTA MPW NLY NNN O OHI REG ROIC SKT SPG TCO VTR WPC WRI
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Remember in school when we learned about the "3 Rs" that referred to the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic?

These days, investors are more concerned about the future: retiring and, more important, when the next recession may start. Of course, nobody can forecast the future but we intelligent investors can manage to acquire that necessary "trace of wisdom" that Benjamin Graham calls for.

It is critical to recognize that risk control is invisible in good times, but essential.

That is why controlling risk in your real estate investment trust portfolio is important and worthwhile and the outstanding investors are distinguished as much for their ability to control risk as for generating returns.

First off, I don't think that mortgage REITs (mREITs) belong in a retirement portfolio. I issue this as a warning (with a fair conscious) knowing that many investors like Annaly Capital Management (NLY) and American Agency (AGNC) in particular.

The main concern I have is the continued squeeze in the spreads that have resulted in refinancing trends. As we have already seen, the implied consequences of that trend has been imminent cuts in the dividend distribution of these mREITs. As fellow Seeking Alpha writer, Regarded Solutions explains:

With the Federal Reserve basically calling the shots in these areas, the potential for profits are greatly diminished for NLY and other companies in the agency backed mortgage-backed securities sector. Diminished profitability will mean more dividend cuts in the near to medium term from what I can tell. If dividends are cut then total returns on an already risk-oriented sector to begin with, could mean that the share price will continue the downward trend we have seen since the Fed announced the latest actions.

As Howard Marks wrote (in "The Most Important Thing"):

Risk control lies at the core of defensive investing. Rather than just trying to do the right thing, the defensive investor places a heavy emphasis on not doing the wrong thing. Because ensuring the ability to survive under adverse circumstances is incompatible with maximizing returns in good times, investors must decide what balance to strike between the two. The defensive investor chooses to emphasize the former.

Recognizing interest rate risk is essential to intelligent REIT investing and especially when one is considering an alternative that has considerable debt and use of leverage. Before you go out and buy mortgage REITs for their high yields, keep in mind that these investments are very risky.

Unlike other types of dividend-paying companies that pay the same dividend each quarter, the dividends paid by mortgage REITs are very unstable and are cut often -- sometimes drastically -- when interest rates and/or mortgage defaults rise or the yield curve flattens.

Let's Focus on the Right REITs