Saturday, February 16, 2008

How Mother Nature Can Grow Your Portfolio

If a tree falls in the woods, does Wall Street hear it? Clearly not, judging by the wide discounts to intrinsic value being awarded to names in the Timber REIT sector. Based on my analysis of private market value, the three largest timber REITs, Plum Creek, Rayonier, and particularly Potlatch Corp. offer investors a wide margin of safety, relatively stable cash flows, and a healthy dividend yield.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for an investment in timber lies in the risk reduction benefits that timber can add to a growth focused portfolio. Backtesting 20 years of data from the NAREIT Timberland Index, in addition to a portfolio of US stocks, intl developed, emerging markets, and bonds reveals remarkably low correlation, while generating long term returns of almost 14%. The correlation with equities was less than 10%, providing "bond-like" diversification, with returns that would be expected from smallcap or emerging markets. As these risk/return characteristics continue to improve the opportunities along the
efficient frontier, the optimization models that institutional investors base their asset allocation on will continue to overweight this asset class. Many highly regarded asset allocation gurus, such as David Swensen, who manages the Yale endowment, have been long time proponents of adding real assets, such as timber, to a well diversified portfolio. That said, as of this past Decemeber, the average institutional portfolio only held about 1% of their assets in timber, a far lower allocation than the efficient frontier would suggest as optimal.

Within the Timber REIT sector, one of the more attractive companies is Potlatch Indstries. Potlatch owns about 1.7mm acres of timberland in Arkansas, Minnesota, and Idaho. The company is vertically integrated with higher margin businesses such as resources (timber harvesting) and real estate sales, offset by its lower margin, downstream businesses such as wood products (lumber), pulp/paperboard manufacturing, and consumer products (off-label tissues). This provides the company with numerous growth levers and allows
them to more effectively manage volatility in its business. For example if timber pricing is weak, the company may delay its harvesting activities, choosing instead to generate cash with its manufacturing operations and real estate sales. Importantly, there is minimal opportunity cost when the company delays its timber harvest as trees continue to grow biologically. On average, trees grow between 3-6% per year.

After recently filling the CFO post with Eric Cremers, who recently orchestrated the splitup of Albertsons, it is clear that the company is focused on creating value for shareholders. Based on my analysis, there is plenty of value that can be monetized. Using data from 30 of the largest private market transactions over the last 5 years, US timberlands have been sold at roughly $800 per acre. The most recent data, published by industry journal, Timber Mart South, indicates timberland transactions have been averaging $1400 per acre. Lets be conservative, and use the 5 year average. The company also has 225k acres of HBU land (or higher or better
use land) that the company conservatively believes can be sold at $2000 to $4000. After conferring with industry sources, and considering that competitors Plum Creek and Rayonier value their comparable HBU land at $4000 to $10000, using $2000 per acre as a base-case scenario should provide a margin a safety in the analysis. Assigning these values to the 1.5mm timberland acres and the 225k HBU acres, subtracting debt, and applying a trough 6x EBITDA multiple to the the manufacturing businesses implies a total enterprise value of about $56 per share for Potlatch. At its current $40 stock price, the risk reward is quite favorable. Furthermore, a dividend yield of 5% should offer investors a healthy stream of income as we
patiently await for catalyst to develop and the intrinsic value to be realized.