A Career in Real Estate Portfolio Management

At first glance, you might think that a real estate portfolio manager is similar to any financial asset manager. But real estate equity portfolio or funds management differs radically from managing equities, bonds or mutual funds.

Unlike equity managers, who research companies and manage the probabilities that they can fufill their articulated strategies, real estate managers must help define and take advantages of opportunities on the property level. Real estate managers are not only responsible for asset allocation, risk management and transactions, but also for dealing directly with the land and structures on it.

So real estate asset management, unlike traditional money management, requires experienced individuals who can optimize the value of properties. In fact, in many ways, a real estate asset manager is a lot like a corporate CEO, running a company or a facility. In contrast, a traditional money manager might know the stocks of a certain field or sector, but doesn't get involved in the operations of the companies themselves.

Think a career in real estate portfolio management might be right for you? Read on to learn more.

Real Estate Portfolio Management

The training and experience gained by real estate equity managers is similar to that of other fund managers. However, it is dissimilar in the manner in which they use those skills to ensure portfolio performance. Portfolio managers are often rated by their ability to ensure appropriate risk-adjusted returns and portfolio diversification through superior asset allocation and selection.

In addition, real estate portfolio managers provide value to clients by ensuring the most efficient use of investor capital, and by keeping clients informed through superior performance measurement, and even cash flow forecasting. With the exception of real estate investment trust (REIT) managers and fund of fund managers (whose performance relies on assessing the strategies of other fund managers), the real estate equity fund manager is like the CEO of their own company, creating and executing property-level strategies for the assets under their charge.

Investment Selection Strategies

Real estate portfolio managers conduct asset allocation and asset selection, not by understanding the market dynamics and companies in specific industries, but by being experts in real estate property fundamentals. They study within local regions and in the different commercial land uses: office, industrial, hotel, retail, and single and multifamily residential. To beat the market, ensure diversification and produce adequate risk-adjusted returns, real estate portfolio managers must make bets on regional or local property markets and, in the case of multiple-asset portfolios, the correct property mix.

For this reason, many fund managers focus on specific regions or property types; some larger real estate asset managers organize their senior employees and support personnel by region or land use. The rationale for organizing in this way is to ensure that market opportunities can be identified and then translated into the correct property selection and asset origination.

The manner in which properties are acquired is one of the most significant ways that real estate funds differ from more traditional investments. Like traders on the stock market floor, real estate funds use acquisition specialists to uncover and execute property transactions. These acquisition personnel usually work for a specific fund or are organized regionally or by asset type.

As most real estate equity funds own all (or a significant portion) of each property, portfolio managers are often directly involved in the acquisition process. Since they have the responsibility to set and execute property strategy, portfolio managers must be directly involved with all investment processes including acquisitions, financing, dispositions and decision-making about the facilities. In order to facilitate the breadth and depth of real estate investment management processes, portfolio managers must rely on a sizable amount of infrastructure in relation to capital invested. In order to accomplish this as efficiently as possible, real estate equity fund managers and asset managers have developed a specialized asset management function.

How Real Estate Asset Management Works

The real estate asset management function is made up of property level specialists who add value to fund managers by executing property-level strategy. The specialists are experts in either regional market fundamentals or in specific property types, and are responsible for optimizing the value of the assets in their custody. In addition to providing portfolio management information on local prospects and facilitating transactions, the asset manager is responsible for property-level performance.

In addition to approving budgets and performing expense management, asset managers increase value by managing the leasing at one or more properties. Although it may seem like a black-and-white affair, leasing is a complex function that inevitably decides property and portfolio value. Success in leasing is not only attained by finding and executing the highest possible leasing opportunities at each property, but also by conducting a leasing program that aligns with portfolio strategy while maintaining the best relations with existing tenants.

Leasing is a highly negotiated process, which can involve making decisions at odds with tenant needs in order to optimize the value of the property. For example, for properties that are slated for sale, leasing might be suspended during a sales period to allow new owners to factor higher potential leasing rates. This can lead to increased forecasted property values and therefore higher sales offers.

During periods of rising rental rates, long-term leases may be locked in for income-oriented properties, while for strategies focused on capital appreciation, lease terms may be shortened to take advantage of higher expected rates in the future. The asset manager's ability to accomplish the appropriate tenant mix, execute leasing strategy that aligns cash flows with portfolio needs, and manage both capital and operating expenses can significantly affect overall portfolio value.

Real Estate Portfolio Managers as CEOs

If one thinks of a property as a separate company or subsidiary, each with its own strategy and performance potential, one begins to understand why real estate equity portfolio managers are much like corporate CEOs. Like CEOs, who must allocate a limited supply of capital among various opportunities to create the greatest overall return on investment, real estate portfolio managers must do the same across the properties they manage. This need to apportion a constrained amount of resources creates a situation different from many conventional asset management firms.

In real estate equity funds, there is an inherent conflict between portfolio managers and their asset managers, since they work for somewhat divergent goals. While asset managers are specialists compensated for optimizing the value of their properties and portfolio managers are generalists rewarded for optimizing portfolio return and investor satisfaction, the successful real estate fund manager is one that can manage this conflict and maintain an efficient management team and portfolio performance. This requires articulating a well-designed portfolio strategy within a well-connected team of managers who understand and have internalized the overall investment objectives. This can be a difficult task for any fund that has significantly increased the number and complexity of properties under management.

It is also critical that real estate portfolio managers not only embody the requisite capital allocation, property selection and other investment skills required, but also that they have the ability to create appropriate investment strategies and the leadership skills to mobilize the organization toward the same portfolio mission.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to real estate funds, management's ability to execute asset management plans in addition to performing more traditional fund management practices is key. For a real estate investment manager, this means optimizing the value of the properties in his or her portfolio, both through the selection and subsequent management of the portfolio's real estate assets. Real estate portfolio managers must allocate their resources over the properties they manage for the greatest possible return, and keep their team on track to accomplish the same. For those with the right mix of skills, this career stands out as a unique opportunity in asset management.

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