SA REITs: Tax benefits for investors

By Liliane Barnard, CEO & Portfolio Manager at Metope Investment Managers

SA Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) enable investors to invest in property investments in an accessible way by buying shares in JSE-listed real estate companies. When buying SA REITs, investors are exposed to a democratised, diversified portfolio of properties and can buy or sell their shares at any stage, unlike physical property ownership, which requires a larger amount of equity capital and has an inherently longer investment period and higher associated transaction costs.

Most SA REITs offer a mix of retail, commercial, industrial and residential property assets across South Africa. Some specialise in a sub-sector (e.g. logistics) or a geography (e.g. Western Cape), while others hold a diversified mix of sectors.

Metope Investment Managers believes investors can benefit from the local REIT tax regime. To explain this,
an understanding of the REIT structure is necessary.

 

Investing in SA REITs

For listed property companies to maintain their REIT status, they must pay a minimum of 75% of their taxable earnings available for distribution as a REIT dividend each year within a period of four months after its year-end. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit South African shores in March 2020, REITs were granted an extension of 2 months (in addition to the four-month period), with many companies using the additional time to gain some clarity on the financial position of the company. However, the National Treasury and other regulatory bodies did not allow the payment of distributions as per REIT rules to be waived in the aftermath
of Covid-19 lockdowns. This ruling provided the market with some certainty regarding income returns, even though it presented a greater hurdle for REIT companies, which, when looking back over the past year, they have successfully overcome.

 

Tax benefits:

  • Special legislation allows REITs to pay out a qualifying dividend without incurring income tax within the company, which is then taxed in the hands of the investor as taxable income. This allows all earnings to flow through to investors without attracting income tax at the company level.
  • If held within a retirement annuity or pension, provident or preservation fund, investors pay no tax
    on dividends on REIT investments until they receive their pension payments for the funds. This in contrast to normal company earnings, which are taxed at 28% within the company, before 20% dividend withholding tax is applied to dividends paid out to investors. The ability to reinvest and compound these before-tax distributions within a vehicle such as a pension fund over a very long period is very beneficial to the pension fund member.
  • An important point is that when a REIT sells an investment property, it does not attract Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on any profit from that sale. Therefore, investors benefit since the capital in the fund is reinvested without the erosion of capital due to CGT. Investors will still attract CGT on the sale of their REIT shares as with any share trading activity.
  • Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSAs): When investing in a TFSA, a special vehicle in which neither income nor capital gains are taxed, it is important to note that some asset classes are better suited
    for inclusion than others. A TFSA is most advantageous for equity and listed property investments, as these asset classes deliver higher real (after inflation) returns than cash and bonds over the long term and are generally not subject to other exemptions.

Interest on cash and bonds benefit from significant income tax exemptions (the amount depending on the individual’s age), therefore there is no additional benefit in holding these in a TFSA. Additionally, there is no inherent underlying growth in income from these investments and capital gain opportunities are limited. Income on equity and listed property investments (in the form of dividends or REIT distributions) is normally taxable in the investor’s hands, as are capital gains above R40,000 per annum. Hence, these investments generate higher tax savings in a TFSA than cash and fixed income.

 

Conclusion

SA REITs offer investors a recurring cash distribution yield that can be reinvested, thereby providing a powerful
compounding effect. This, combined with the tax benefits detailed above, makes the REIT sector an attractive
asset class for long-term investors.

While the sector faced immense challenges when the Covid-19 pandemic hit South African shores at the beginning of 2020, we have seen in the past year that the majority of REIT companies have managed to successfully navigate the pandemic and have emerged resilient, managing to strengthen their businesses and balance sheets as well as support tenants through offering discounts and deferments of R3bn at last count. Metope Investment Managers believe that the sector is poised for further recovery, underpinned by improved balance sheets and a recovery in distributions off 2020 levels.

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