Understanding the importance of sustainability has popularized an asset class that used to be reserved for the state, churches and nobles. Forest – to be precise its wood – has always served people as fuel, product and building material. Forest has now become the epitome of sustainable investments. The idea of sustainability emerged in a time of crisis and scarcity. Around 1700, the mining industry and livelihood of thousands was threatened in Saxony. The problem was an acute scarcity of timber. The mining industry and smelting of ores had consumed whole forests. Trees had been cut at unsustainable rates for decades without efforts to restore the forests. In Germany, the term sustainability is associated with Hans Carl von Carlowitz. He was raised in and influenced by the aforementioned environment of wood scarcity. He traveled widely in his youth and learned much from the forced discipline of the French minister Jean Baptiste Colbert, who had enacted a forestry reform in France. Carl von Carlowitz’ view that only so much wood should be cut as could be regrown through planned reforestation projects, became an important guiding principle of modern forestry.
In this preliminary article you can learn more about some risks and rewards of buying forests and what you should consider when buying forests. Given the popularity of forest investments, the question arises as to which ratings are available to investors as decision-making aids. The first question to be asked is which instruments can be used by investors to tap into this asset class. The most common investments in forests are shares, direct investments or closed-end funds. Whereas in direct investments investors invest directly in one or more trees on specific areas and leave the management to a service provider, closed-end forestry funds are less individual.
- A forestry share is a security which securitises a share in a stock corporation whose capital is invested to a large extent in forest property or wood processing. Primarily Scandinavian and North American forestry stock corporations are traded. There are no German forestry stock corporations with significant free float on the stock exchange. Buying forestry shares does not necessarily mean planting new trees.
- A closed-end forestry fund or closed-ended forestry fund is a collective investment model based on issuing a fixed number of shares which are not redeemable from the fund. Unlike open-end funds known for corporate stock and bond investments, new shares in a closed-end forestry fund are not created by managers to meet demand from investors. Instead, the shares can be purchased and sold only in the secondary market, which is the original design of the mutual fund, which predates open-end mutual funds but offers the same actively-managed pooled investments.
- Direct investment in forest means becoming the owner of the forest yourself and thus acquiring all the rights and obligations of a forest owner. The investor needs to be able to maintain regular forest care. As a forest owner, you also have certain obligations, since you are legally obliged to ensure road safety. This means that all trees and branches that are located in places with increased traffic – for example on country roads or hiking trails – have to be felled or trimmed as soon as they pose an increased risk for humans. Buying forests also means taking responsibility.
The implications for the rating approaches to these investment alternatives are considerable.
Forestry shares being tradable on the stock exchange at any time are subject to extreme fluctuations in value. The valuation of most listed forestry shares has a history of having fluctuated by several hundred per cent. Such fluctuations in value mean that ratings of these stocks can quickly become out of date. In fact, a buy recommendation can turn into a sell recommendation within a day if the stock market price quickly exceeds the fair value. Most forestry share companies are predominantly wood processors, who are strongly affected by economic fluctuations and thus by fluctuations in pulp or timber prices. Therefore there is a strong dependence of many forestry shares on economic trends.
Direct forestry investments in precious woods, on the other hand, can react better to market fluctuations by postponing the harvest. The trees are left in the forest until the harvest is worth it – they become bigger, taller and more valuable every day. Fuctuations in precious wood prices have historically been significantly lower than those of timber or wood used for pulp production.
In Germany in particular, the very contradictory regulations must be observed. For decades, the German government has not consistently supported wealth creation through property acquisition. Pay attention to the municipality’s right of first refusal. In this sense, there are no secure legal bases for forest investments in Germany, because rights of first refusal can hinder both buying and selling. In addition, the following contradictions must be observed.
The yields generated from a direct forestry investment are generally tax-exempt while the price gains of forestry shares and forestry shares dividends are subject to the almost 30 per cent flat rate withholding tax including solidarity surcharge and church tax. On the other hand, the transaction costs are significantly higher than with stocks. In addition to the purchase price, land transfer tax, notary and fees, which often make up ten per cent of the purchase price, are added, thus significantly reducing the returns for forest investors. Property tax has to be paid annually and wood production in Germany is relatively expensive due to environmental regulations and certifications. In addition to the actual purchase price, there are also other costs when buying a forest which would not be part of the rating analysis of an independent forest rating. For example, you have to include the costs for the notary, usually 1.5% of the purchase price (the percentage can be higher for small areas) and the property transfer tax, around 4% – 6.5% of the purchase price. You must also not ignore the broker’s commission.
As a forest owner, you also have to pay additional costs.
Property tax, accident insurance and, if applicable, contributions from the soil and water associations are to be mentioned here. With the management of the area, the ancillary costs are always offset by possible income from the sale of wood.
Forest areas in other countries offer far higher returns, although buying forest in foreign countries can be difficult for foreigners. It is much easier to hire companies to lease or buy forests or fallow land in other countries, to manage them in order to generate yields for investors. The country rating must be taken into account for every investment abroad. The country rating is used to assess the economic, social and political risk that an investor will be prevented from receiving the income due to him.
Forest investment providers advertise the scarcity of forest. They argue, that the benefits of forestry investments are the growing demand for the raw material wood. Whether there are fewer and fewer forest areas and whether the demand for wood exceeds the supply has to be tested continuously.
Forestry investments are not always socially beneficial, especially when stock corporations and other big companies buy cheap land in foreign countries and perhaps even displace locals, or the price of land for local residents rises immeasurably as a result of land purchases. Forests are not always ecologically friendly. Thousands of hectares with cloned eucalyptus or teak planted in rows are no gain for nature. Many insecticides and pesticides that pollute and destroy the soil and the environment are sometimes used to increase output.
In any case, structurally rich forests with many different tree species offer a better and safer alternative to planted conifer monocultures that are based on only one tree species. Although these grow faster, they are also susceptible to storms, snow, ice and pests. Mixed forests of deciduous and coniferous trees are not only more stable and better adapted to climatic changes, they also allow you to react more quickly to changes in the demand for wood species on the market.
Any forest rating should also pay attention to the age of the forest. Young forests, in which there are only a few old trees, initially require more maintenance. Of course, they can more easily be designed according to your ideas. The young forest will initially generate little income from wood sales through its maintenance. Forests of old age with significantly taller and thicker tree trunks enable an early profit from the logging and sale, but require care for the new generation of trees.
Good soil and suitable tree species mean that larger quantities of wood of better quality can be expected in the long term.
This is likely to be reflected in the cost of purchasing the forest, especially if the seller has had the forest valued by an appraiser. Regardless of the quality of the soil, its location is a decisive criterion for price formation. So it depends a lot on where the forest is located. A forest area near Munich will therefore cost significantly more than a similar one in the countryside in Saxony-Anhalt. The standard land value is derived from the average price of areas sold in the area and, in addition to the special features of the forest area offered, serves as an aid to determining the actual value.
If the forest is well cared for and there is already a lot of high-quality wood to be expected on the area initially, then you should also expect higher costs. In any calculation, bear in mind that there are usually additional costs for managing the forest. So you cannot count the expected cubic meters of harvest one-to-one with the wood prices and use this to conclude the profit. If the area is difficult to access, the wood harvest is also time-consuming. If it is a particularly protected forest, for example in a nature reserve, then management is only possible to a limited extent. The ideal value of these forest areas is all the higher for one or the other, especially if rare animal and plant species live in this forest. You should therefore be clear about your goals in advance and only acquire forest if it fits your previously set goals.
In addition, a forest rating process should include a step in order to check any “contaminated sites”. For example, if the forest is on a former military site, the trees there may have been damaged or the ammunition in the ground has to be laboriously cleared.
All closed-end forestry fund investments have one risk factor: the long contract term. Even with sustainable forestry investments which respect human rights and the environment, the planted trees need lots of time to grow. On ecologically farmed land, they probably take even longer to grow than the fast-growing trees in monocultures, which are harvested earlier, to produce cheap pulp and biomass. During long contract terms, much can happen: companies can fall victim to mismanagement or go bankrupt, the regions in which the forests grow can become politically unstable.
Natural events such as fire, earthquakes, droughts or floods also have a lot of time to occur over the years.
Forestry investment are therefore right for investors in particular if they do not shy away from risks, have the necessary financial means and staying power until the trees generate returns. If you take over a neglected forest that does not promise stability and is therefore susceptible to pests or storms, that does not necessarily mean that it is a bad deal. Careless forest care can have a positive impact on the purchase price and there may be a lot of potential in your future forest. An unkempt forest can be a deterrent, but it is up to the investor to shape and maintain the forest. What possibilities are opening up in the forest and what additional costs have to be reckoned with for any maintenance measures? With almost every intervention in the forest, whether in well-tended or unkempt forests, financial resources are necessary.
Some native tree species have been planted in the wrong locations in the past. This can result in poor growth, instability and increased susceptibility to damage. To select tree species that are appropriate to the location requires a lot of expertise. To increase the stability of a forest and make it fit for the next centuries requires a forestry rating first.
Ecological goals or enjoying forest ownership are important motives for some investors. Because while it has a personal value for some, only the regularly generated income plays a role for others. However, if one compares direct forest investments with other investment options such as stocks, then short-term gains are generally not to be expected. Every rating approach for direct forest ownership has to take this into account. Forest ratings are possibly the ratings with the longest time horizon. Long-term bond ratings – for comparison – usually only refer to a forecast period of four to five years.
Forests give us the sustainable resource wood, which will also be of ever greater importance in the coming generations.
That makes the forest relatively stable as a system. However, for a fast growing return, other investment methods are a better alternative. So buying a forest is a decision that should be made not only for financial reasons, but also for a certain amount of idealism and enjoyment of nature. Forest investors are similar to investors who invest for ethical, ecological or social reasons.
Forest has been in great demand in Germany for a number of years and has often been family-owned for generations. In addition to the forest exchange, there are a few other real estate portals and tender platforms on the Internet that also offer forest. Depending on the respective provider, there may be costs for registration or an application. In some cases, brokers are also placed between the buyer and seller from the outset.
A responsible forest office or an auction houses in the area, the member newspapers of forest owners’ associations for forest pieces on offer or the advertising section of the regional newspapers might provide information on forest for sale. With currently estimated 1.9 million forest owners in Germany, investors are also well advised to ask around in their private or professional environment. The chance that you have forest owners in your circle of friends is quite high.