An 'asset class du jour' is emerging out of the retail apocalypse

Amazon warehouse fulfillment centerBlazquez Dominguez/GettyAn employee selects items for distribution at the Amazon fulfillment center on December 3, 2015 in San Fernando de Henares, Madrid, Spain.

Industrial real estate is emerging as a winner out of the crisis in brick-and-mortar retail.

With more people choosing to buy online and have their purchases delivered to them, there’s been a surge in demand for storage facilities in large distribution markets, says Jay Leupp, a portfolio manager and analyst on Lazard’s global real estate securities team.

This bodes well for real estate investment trusts (REITs) that own or fund industrial properties for profit.

“It is one of the asset classes du jour right now and it has always been a very stable asset class,” Leupp told Business Insider. “As demand for some real estate space has shrunk in certain markets, there’s been a corresponding expansion of industrial demand and the goods that would normally have gone and sat in a grocery store or a mall.”

E-commerce companies are investing in brick-and-mortar strategies that are separate from, for example, Amazon’s reported plans for bookstores and grocery stores.

“That one-day delivery time that you can get with Amazon Prime — to have that, one of the things you need to have is smaller locations closer to your customers,” Leupp said. “Often times, those locations are either smaller warehouses, or they are small locations in neighbourhood centres or malls.”

Macy’s, Sears, and JCPenney are among more than a dozen national retailers that have announced mass closures this year. The closures, which total more than 3,200 stores so far this year, are squeezing the broader REITs sector. When big brand-name tenants leave, malls must find new occupants or risk losing rent payments.

The S&P 500 REITs sector has lost 0.89% in the past year, marking the worst performance besides telecoms. Retail REITs dominate the list of biggest losers. Meanwhile, Prologis, the largest industrial REIT in America, has gained 17% over the past year.

“You’re seeing the beginning signs of reuse of property where retail real estate really no longer makes sense,” Leupp said. Some neighbourhood shopping centres would likely be repurposed for other uses, and there may be some merger activity among REITs to consolidate resources, Leupp said.

REITs are required to pay out 90% of their taxable income every year as dividends, making them attractive in a market environment when interest rates and Treasury yields are low. Even if retail — about a quarter of REITs’ market value — continues to weigh on the sector, the industrial sub-sector could outperform.

“The sun has been shining for the last 12-18 months and we’re probably going to see some strong fundamentals going forward in that space,” Leupp said.

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