WRIT cuts dividend for first time

Rockville-based Washington Real Estate Investment Trust.

Since Washington Real Estate Investment Trust was founded in 1960, there has been one constant through the turbulent ’60s, the recession of the ’80s, the dot-com bust and even the financial collapse of 2008.

WRIT’s dividend always remained steady or grew. For 50 years and 202 consecutive quarters, it was not cut.

Until now.

In a move he said was designed to create cash needed for strategic realignment, George F. “Skip” McKenzie, WRIT president and chief executive, announced last week that WRIT would cut its dividend for Sept. 28 to 30 cents a share, a 31 percent drop from the 43 cents a share it paid in the second quarter.

Based in Rockville, WRIT is the oldest publicly traded real estate investment trust in the country. Its focus is exclusively in the Washington area, where it owns 9 million square feet of commercial space — including offices, medical buildings and shopping centers — and more than 2,500 residential units.

“This was a very difficult decision made by our board after extensive consideration,” McKenzie said in a July 27 call with investors.

The cut to WRIT’s dividend reflects growing worries about the strength of the Washington office market, as the federal government moves to rein in debt. Some firms are bracing for the possibility that prices will decline, leaving bargains for buyers with cash on hand.

WRIT said the cut will provide an additional $35 million in cash annually, allowing the company “to retain more capital to invest in property acquisitions, development projects and improvements to our existing assets — or reduce debt — all of which are critical components of our long-term strategy.”

WRIT is still making acquisitions. In June it announced that it had acquired Fairgate at Ballston, a 147,000-square-foot Arlington office building, for $52.25 million.

But McKenzie expressed frustration at a slowdown in office leasing that he attributed to paralysis on the part of companies waiting on the government to make major financial decisions on the federal budget, taxes and sequestration. WRIT already knows that the General Services Administration plans to forfeit 65,000 square feet at the company’s Braddock Metro Center building.

Although a House committee approved some lease prospectuses last week, McKenzie said stagnation will likely continue until the government can act with more cohesion. “We need some resolution and honestly I don’t know the political calculus that is required for us to get to that point. Honestly I’m not sure anybody knows that,” he said.

With that in mind, he said having cash on hand was a priority.

“If something bad happens we want to be the strong guy on the sidelines ready to jump on an opportunity,” he said. “And we think this positions us to do that.”

 
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