Some believe Mortgage Investment Corporations (MICs) are one of the best undiscovered income-producing investments in Canada.
We wanted to investigate that a bit, so we took the opportunity to chat with one of the pioneers of the Canadian MIC industry, Wayne Strandlund.
Wayne is the founder and CEO of $250 million Fisgard Capital Corporation. Fisgard is one of Canada’s larger MICs. Over the past 16 years, Fisgard has placed over $50 million in mortgages each year, and paid dividends averaging 10.79% net per year to its investors.
Here’s part one of our two-part interview…
Intro to MICs
Before we begin, let’s define what a MIC is.
A MIC is an investment that lets people pool their money to be lent out as mortgages. 100% of the net profits from those mortgages flow through to the investors.
MICs have been around since 1973 when federal legislation was enacted to promote private financing and make it easier to invest in mortgages.
MICs are one of the lesser known asset classes, despite yielding solid long-term returns and despite being RRSP, TFSA, RRIF and RESP eligible in most cases.
CMT: To what extent would you say MICs are an undiscovered or underrated asset class in Canada?
Wayne: The MIC was established by federal legislation in 1973 but it didn’t take hold until the mid ‘90s when it really started to take off, principally because it was the most accommodating investment structure to replace mortgage syndication. Mortgage syndication had been damaged by a number of debacles at the time, most notable of which was ‘Eron.’ Eron had lost millions worth of investor money.
Thanks to the MIC, instead of owning a syndicated (often unregistered) interest in a mortgage, investors could now be shareholders in a non-taxed flow-through entity. MICs, with their strict audit and reporting regulations, are a more streamlined, transparent and effective way of investing in mortgages and real estate.
Early MIC managers didn’t give much thought to the MIC structure beyond its facility to raise investment money. Their focus was predominately raising capital not only through cash investment but also through various registered retirement and savings trusts such as the RRSP, RRIF, DPSP, LIF, LRIF, LIRA, IPP and RESP. Today we also have the TFSA and RDSP.
The MIC flourished after 1995. Today there are hundreds of MICs in Canada. Some have as little as $1 million capital, and are essentially “convenience MICs” of maybe twenty or so shareholders. You might find those MICs in real estate offices, for example, where their main function is to facilitate sales for the office’s marketing staff.
On the other end of the spectrum are the larger MICs which are basically mortgage banks with hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of shareholders.
The MIC is now fairly well established, but underrated as an investment asset class. Not being particularly well suited to public trading, MICs have not been recognized by financial advisors and stock and mutual fund traders who prefer investments that are publicly traded and generate fees and commissions.
This lack of attention has nothing to do with the quality, security and dividend production of the MIC.
CMT: What are the biggest differences between MICs today and MICs 15 years ago?
Wayne: Today there are many more MICs struggling for a share of a market that is not growing in lock-step with the increasing amount of mortgage money available through MICs as well as institutional lenders.
Fifteen years ago it was easier for a MIC to place money in secure mortgages than it is today. Competition for good mortgages is fierce, and growing.
MICs are practicing the same type of lending they were fifteen years ago. Despite the intense competition for quality mortgages and the recent global recession, most MICs have done well for investors. Yet, they have not received the recognition they deserve, despite outperforming many investments in terms of capital preservation and dividends. The MIC is still a niche investment, not well known or understood.
Securities regulation NI 31-103 was introduced in 2008 and made law in September 2010. It is too early to say, but I believe the new regulation will change the MIC industry. It could be that small MICs may not be able to meet the onerous requirements of the new regulation, including increased capital, bonding, disclosure, compliance and so forth, and simply close shop, or merge in order to survive.
The reasons for NI (National Instrument) 31-103 are still being hotly debated and rationalized based on whose ox is being gored, the small MIC struggling to raise a bit of capital or a giant bank’s brokerage house that is not particularly fond of anyone else playing in what the bank sees as its very own sandbox (the world’s investment money). At any rate it appears that the capital-raising field has been levelled by NI 31-103 and MICs as well as their managers and investment referral agents must now meet strict regulatory standards in order to raise capital through public markets. The positive outcome is that qualifying MICs will now become “institutionalized” in the eyes of the public, and will benefit from the legitimacy that comes with achieving new levels of licensing and registration. Short term pain, long term gain.
CMT: From a general risk and return standpoint how would you say investing in a MIC compares to investing in (for example) a rental property, assuming the same dollar investment?
Wayne: A rental property may appreciate in value and may experience the tax advantages of depreciation and other expense allowances. A MIC is a “flow through” investment and, in fact, the MIC must distribute 100% of its net profit to its investors every year. It is not designed to accumulate profit and is not likely to increase in value as a rental property might.
While a rental property is likely to be an active investment involving hands-on management, the MIC is more a passive investment. It simply flows dividends through to its investors, in whose hands the dividends are treated as interest income for tax purposes. The MIC sometimes, but rarely, flows capital gains or losses through to its investors.
A MIC is likely to be purchased at a nominal $1 per share, for example, and end at a $1 redemption or wind-up value. It will provide dividend income throughout the investment period. In exceptional circumstances the MIC might experience a capital gain if, for example, the MIC buys a property or forecloses on a property, takes it into inventory, and sells it at a profit. The MIC may flow capital gains – and capital losses – to its investors, but these are relatively rare occurrences.
As stated, dividends paid to MIC investors are treated as interest income for tax purposes. Income from a rental property is taxed differently depending, for instance, on whether it is held personally or in a corporation. Investors should consult tax experts when choosing between a MIC and a real estate investment, such as rental property.
CMT: Are there any major 3rd party distribution channels for the MIC? For example, do any big banks or investment brokers sell them to clients? If not, why not?
Wayne: To date most MICs have raised capital themselves with negligible support from financial planners, advisors and brokers. Most MICs do not trade on the public market, and therefore do not attract the attention of brokers who make a living through fees based on trading volume.
Also, most MICs raise capital by way of Offering Memorandum as opposed to Prospectus. This precludes certain investment firms from investing in them as a matter of policy.
CMT: Will returns suffer going forward as more investors throw money at MICs, and as more MICs and private money join the fray?
“If there is a crisis of money in Canada, it is not that we don’t have enough, but that there are too few simple, understandable and reliable places in which to invest it.”
Wayne: MIC returns are normalizing. The high private interest rates that have fuelled double-digit MIC returns for nearly two decades are not sustainable in the borrowing world at the present time, particularly with the slowdown in construction and development which is traditionally an active lending market for several MICs.
Not only will MIC returns normalize due – at least temporarily – to a shrinking market for mortgage money, but also because more money is choosing the MIC investment resulting in what might turn out to be an over-supply in some cases.
The MIC’s advantage is that the average investor understands what real estate is and what a mortgage is. Investors appreciate that a MIC investment is uniquely Canadian and secured by real property located only in Canada. These are simple important facts that make the MIC such a comfortable, easy-to-understand “investment” compared to the thousands of impossibly complex financial products being pedaled daily on the public market. Simplicity is one of the MIC’s most popular attributes.
The law of supply and demand will prevail, and borrowing rates (hence MIC returns) will be influenced not only by bond yields but also by the sheer volume of money now seeking the relative safety of mortgages secured by Canadian real estate property. If there is a crisis of money in Canada, it is not that we don’t have enough, but that there are too few simple, understandable and reliable places in which to invest it.
Real estate – the mortgage security – is one of the last bastions of conservative long-term investing, and there is no indication of this changing any time soon. We may look for the MIC to become very popular as a mainstream investment and special purpose lender.
CMT: Do you foresee more distribution channels evolving for MICs in the future?
Wayne: Yes. The world of Exempt Market Products – which includes qualifying MICs – is poised for growth. NI 31-103 will have the effect of institutionalizing MICs and MIC managers that meet the new requirements. As a result a broader spectrum of the investment community will invest in MICs, regardless of whether they are publicly traded or not. The so-called ‘liquidity’ touted by stock and mutual fund brokers is not what it’s cracked up to be, and more and more investors now realize that it’s much too expensive. Good old-fashioned fixed term investments are trumping liquidity in many cases.
Exempt Market Products are about to experience wide acceptance and popularity amongst mainstream investment dealers. EMPs are no longer the poor cousins of publicly traded stocks and mutual funds. The popularity of the MIC as an Exempt Market Product is growing and attracting the attention of institutional investors. The credibility of the MIC is greater than it has ever been.
CMT: What would you consider a high default (impaired loan) rate on a typical Canadian MIC? (e.g. 2%?)
Wayne: MIC lending is private as opposed to conventional lending, so risk and reward must be viewed from that perspective.
The number of impaired mortgages as a percentage of the total number of mortgages in a MIC at any given time is one consideration.
The dollar volume of impaired mortgages as a percentage of the total dollar volume of the portfolio is another.
The level of impairment is also a consideration. For example, an NSF cheque is one level, non-payment of property taxes, insurance or strata fees is another, and non-payment of the mortgage on maturity yet another.
Ten percent of the number of mortgages in a portfolio (e.g. 40 out of 400 mortgages) is probably an acceptable ratio on the impairment scale, erring on the high side.
Five percent of the dollar volume (e.g. $25 million out of $500 million) is also on the high side. Impairment doesn’t mean a loss of interest or capital. At any time a MIC may have 10% of its loans in an impaired state, but that does not mean it will lose 10% of its capital. It may not lose any capital.
Impairment level takes into account the composition and relative risk of a MIC’s mortgages, and risks vary from one MIC to another. Some MICs underwrite conventional 1st mortgages (including insured mortgages), some MICs underwrite more risky 2nd mortgages, and some MICs underwrite the full spectrum of mortgages: 1sts, 2nds, land development, construction, mezzanine financing, and so forth. It is difficult to assign impairment ratios without carefully considering the portfolio mix. It’s the degree of impairment that one must consider.
Part II of this interview will follow later this month. It will focus on a MIC’s internal workings, managing a MIC, and more.
Please note: This information is for general education purposes only and is not a recommendation to invest. Consult a licensed financial advisor before acting on any such information.
Rob McLister, CMT