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In a First, Merrill Lynch Offers a Non-Traded REIT

Non-traded real estate investment trusts (REITs) have traditionally been associated with independent broker/dealers – that is until last month when Merrill Lynch announced that its 17,000-plus registered reps would begin selling the Jones Lang LaSalle Income Property Trust to investors.

The move means Merrill Lynch becomes the first major wirehouse to sell a non-traded REIT. So far, the firm has raised about $50 million from interested clients.

Merrill Lynch’s foray into non-traded REIT territory is based on demand for an “attractive, direct core real estate investment product among mass-affluent investors,” said Keith Glenfield, head of alternative investments for Merrill Lynch, in a Jan. 2 article by Investment News.

“The primary investment objectives are designed to provide attractive current income, preserve and protect invested capital, achieve [net asset value] appreciation over time and enable stockholders to utilize real estate as a long-term portfolio diversifier,” Glenfield said.

Despite Merrill Lynch’s characterization of the Jones Lang Lasalle REIT as a safe source of income, investors may have plenty of reasons to be cautious. Non-traded REITs have been under the radar of state securities regulators for several years now, as have the sales practices of the broker/dealers that sell them.

Issues with non-traded REITs include their complex fee structure, high-risk factors, illiquidity and often inaccurate valuations. Moreover, early redemption of shares is typically extremely limited, and fees connected with their sale can be high and erode total return.

In 2012, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) reissued an Investor Alert on nontraded REITs following an enforcement action against David Lerner & Associates. One of FINRA’s concerns with Lerner focused on the valuation irregularities that appeared on the monthly statements of investors who owned shares in Lerner’s Apple REITs. Specifically, shares of certain Apple REITs had been listed on the statements as $11 per share even after FINRA instructed broker/dealers in 2009 to adjust prices on the investments more frequently.

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