Real estate investment trusts underperformed most major stock benchmarks in March even as REITs remained poised to increase their ownership in U.S. institutional commercial real estate, investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods said in a report this week. In terms of stock benchmarks, REITs posted a 1.8% loss in March, compared to a 2.4% rise for the Russell 2000 index. When looking at stock benchmarks for the first four months of 2011, REITs are up 3.4%,  Keefe, Bruyette & Woods said. "The REIT group now has reasonably levered balance sheets and is poised to increase ownership of U.S. institutional commercial real estate beyond its current 11%-13% stake," KBW added. "The cost and access to capital pendulum has swung in REITs’ favor, so gaining market share at various levels continues to be a key theme for 2011 and over the next several years." Equity REITs raised $3.8 billion in common equity in March and pulled in $6 billion in common equity during the first four months of the year, the report said. According to a research note from the Royal Bank of Scotland, REITs raised $9 billion of equity capital so far in 2011. This translates into $54 billion in buying power, assuming a leverage ratio of six times. "We continue to believe that we are in the early stages of a multi-year cycle of equity capital raising for public REITs as companies have largely improved balance sheets and will likely be raising more offensive equity capital to take advantage of gradually emerging acquisition opportunities," KBW said. Write to Kerri Panchuk.