By John Wasik
CHICAGO, June 3 If a tree falls in the forest, can you make a little money? As the U.S. housing rebound continues, you can watch the value of your real estate rise. In addition you can reap gains from resource companies that own and process timber.
Since most U.S. homes are still framed with wood, timber becomes a more valuable commodity as new construction booms. Home prices gained the most in seven years in March, according to a recent S&P Case-Shiller housing index report. Housing starts in April rose 16 percent over the previous month with new building permits up 14 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
North American sawmills are running at the fastest pace in six years, up nearly 7 percent over last year, according to CIBC World Markets, a Canada-based investment bank. Growth in China is also contributing to the rebound. More than 60 percent of log exports from the Pacific Northwest head to the People's Republic.
Timber is also becoming more scarce as forests shrink. As a commodity, it provides an inflation hedge, too; the S&P Global Timber & Forestry index has produced an annualized return of nearly 7 percent over the past three years through April 30. The current Consumer Price Index is running at an average 1 percent.
Why invest in timber and related resource companies instead of the obvious play in homebuilder stocks? Those companies have been rallying for more than a year and are pricey.
The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF, for example, a fund that holds most of the major home-construction companies, is up more than 50 percent over the past year through Friday, almost double the price of a consumer cyclical index. That portfolio's price-earnings ratio - what investors are willing to pay for a dollar of expected earnings - is 20, compared to 14.4, for the SP 500.
The underlying S&P index for the timber sector has climbed more than 31 percent over the past year through May 31 compared to a nearly 50-percent gain for the S&P Homebuilders Index. The iShares Global Timber and Forestry Index ETF (WOOD), has p/e of 18; that's not a bargain price either, but timber stocks are a better value now relative to homebuilding stocks and may have more upside.
Most timber companies specialize in specific regions where they own or lease properties. But to obtain global diversification, it's best to consider one of two exchange-traded funds on the market that hold timber, packaging and real estate investment trusts (REITs) that own lumber resources.
The Guggenheim Timber ETF, holds major producers like Weyerhaeuser Co and International Paper Co. It tracks the Beacon Global Timber Index, which holds companies that own or lease forested land or produce wood-based products. More than 40 percent of the companies are based in greater Europe or Asia. It's up 8 percent year to date through May 31 and gained 25 percent last year.
As an alternative, the iShares timber ETF mentioned above has more than 60 percent of its holdings in the Americas, including Plum Creek Timber Company Inc and Potlatch Corp. The iShares fund is a better deal on expenses than the Guggenheim product, charging 0.48 percent annually for management, compared to 0.70 percent for the Guggenheim fund. It's gained 4 percent year to date and 23 percent last year.
Of the two ETFs, the iShares fund offeres more total international exposure, including 13 percent stakes in Brazilian companies and 11 percent in Japan, says Eric Dutram, ETF analyst at Zacks Investment Research in Chicago. Either way, the two funds are reasonably priced, he said.
Many timber companies give you a bonus if they're vertically integrated. They could mean they are producing value-added products like rayon, packaging or paper, which also would benefit from a broad economic recovery. These companies may also own or lease land that may result in other mineral plays such as petroleum or natural gas.
Keep in mind that timber trends can cut the other way. As funds specializing in a handful of commodities that rise and fall directly with economic demand, these ETFs are not for nervous investors. Guggenenheim Timber lost nearly half its value in 2008 and has a 32-percent five-year standard deviation, a volatility gauge. That compares to 20 percent for a world natural resources stock index.
If the housing market goes south again, then these ETFs will suffer. Consider them only as small parts of a larger portfolio and not large holdings.