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Must-know: MFA Financial maintains its current dividend in 2Q14

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Aug. 18 2014, Updated 9:00 a.m. ET

As a REIT, MFA Financial must pay out 90% of its net income in dividends

Companies like Annaly (NLY), American Capital Agency (AGNC), Capstead (CMO), Hatteras (HTS), and MFA Financial (MFA) are real estate investment trusts, which means they don’t pay federal income tax at the corporate level. Instead, as long as they distribute 90% of their net income via dividends, they escape corporate taxation.

This means REITs will offer volatile dividends. Most corporations loathe cutting their dividend because of the message it sends to Wall Street. So volatile dividends are generally rare. But for REITs, they’re a fact of life.

Since 2008, MFA Financial has paid a quarterly dividend of as low as 8 cents and as high as 27 cents a share. Plus, it has made periodic special cash dividends, which accounts for the big spikes in the dividend chart above.

Prepayment speeds and assumptions

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Prepayment assumptions represent the fact that mortgages can be paid off early, which means the amount of interest an investor will receive on an MBS is uncertain. Changes in prepayment assumptions will affect the returns of the bond since any premium or discount must be amortized, and if the expected life of the bond changes, the amortization amount will change as well. This makes yields somewhat more volatile. But these are largely non-cash adjustments.

Prepayment speeds increased by 250 basis points for the agency book, increased 15 basis points for the non-agency book, and fell 21 basis points for the non-performing part of the portfolio.

Dividend

MFA Financial ended up declaring a dividend of $0.20 a share for the second quarter. This is what it paid last quarter. In the second quarter of 2013, though, it paid $0.22 a share.

This volatility shows one of the biggest mistakes you can make when looking at a mortgage REIT—annualizing the current dividend and assuming that dividend yield will stay intact over time. Almost by definition, it won’t.

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