Foreclosure at the Mall

Forget those 50-percent-off signs. This winter you are likely to see a new sign at your local mall: "Going Out of Business." And that means big trouble for mall owners already struggling to survive.

The nation's shopping center owners are facing a recessionary double whammy: consumers who are spending less and real estate investors who are holding back money used to finance their operations.

And some analysts say that, in the next two months, those forces will collide, sending some mall owners into bankruptcy. Don't expect your local mall to necessarily close its doors -- although some of the 3,500 across the country might -- but it could very likely be owned by somebody else by the spring.

"They have significant problems by and large," said George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants.

In just six to eight weeks, Whalin said, "there are going to be a significant number of retailers that will go bankrupt. There's no doubt about that. ... We've just never seen anything as bad as this."

Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, said the industry has "really been battered by every part" of this recession.

First, housing stores saw problems. Then apparel. Now every store, including the once-immune luxury retailer.

"Clearly, there are lots of problems in the retail industry and they range from the weakness in consumer demand to the debt issues that some companies are facing," Niemira said.

Back in August, Niemira predicted that sales would grow as much as 1.7 percent this holiday season. Now, he estimates a decline of 1.5 percent to 2 percent. Sales during the final week of shopping were down 1.8 percent from last year. That makes this year "the weakest holiday season since at least 1970," Niemira said in a statement this morning.

He said stores are doing everything from slashing prices to laying off workers to try to stay afloat. Retailers, he said, account for 9 percent of the nation's jobs but represent 25 percent of the recent employment declines.

Stores Go Bankrupt

Big chains, including Linens 'N Things, Circuit City, Whitehall Jewelers, Mervyn's and Steve and Barry's have already filed for bankruptcy. Other big retailers, including Talbots, Fashion Bug, Ann Taylor, J. Crew and Liz Claiborne have either announced store closings or scaled back or delayed expansion plans.

Retailers may close 73,000 stores in the first half of 2009, according to the shopping center council.

None of that is good news for mall owners who rely on those retailers for rent, which they use to pay off the massive loans to build or buy the malls in the first place. As mall owners try to refinance existing loans, they find themselves struggling to get investors to give them money and -- like many homeowners -- they find their real estate is worth less than it was just a few years ago.

Whalin said the first major blow to malls came in August 2005, when Macy's bought out rival May Department Stores. In one giant move, retailers, such as Marshall Field's, Filene's, Hecht's, Foley's, Robinsons-May and Kaufmann's all fell under the Macy's flag.

A mall that once had Macy's anchoring one end and Filene's at the other suddenly had two Macy's. The company quickly moved to close its redundant stores and the malls lost large tenants.

"The value of their real estate has diminished for a variety of reasons, certainly not the least of which was Macy's gobbling all the regional department stores and essentially closing some of those stores and struggling with others," Whalin said.

But it's not just big chains that are shutting their doors as we fall deeper into a recession.

At the beginning of 2006, just 7.3 percent of retail spaces -- from malls to strip malls to stand-alone stores -- were empty, according to the National Association of Realtors. That figure now hovers just below 10 percent and for next year, the group forecasts a 12.4 percent vacancy rate.

And after a disappointing Christmas shopping season, those numbers could climb ever higher.

The amount of money spent at the nation's retailers from Nov. 1 through Christmas Eve was down 5.5 percent to 8 percent compared with last year, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks retail sales for all forms of payment, including check, cash and credit card.

Falling Rents

Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, said that in the coming year he anticipates a 7 percent drop in retail rents as a larger supply of vacant stores comes on the market.

"The property owners will be competing, trying to draw the tenants by offering much lower rents," Yun said. "A combination of a rising vacancy rate and falling rents will naturally mean that the property prices will be coming down."

Some big chains are already asking for leases to be renegotiated and others are likely to when their leases expire in the next year or two, Whalin added.

But that's only half of the picture.

Most malls are owned through large real estate investment trusts or REITs. The two biggest are Simon Property Group and General Growth Properties.

These real estate companies -- and especially General Growth -- are now being hurt by the credit crunch.

In 2004, General Growth spent $12 billion to acquire mall owner Rouse. The deal including assuming $5.4 billion in Rouse debt.

To pay for the deal, the company borrowed heavily. But then the credit markets froze and now General Growth -- which owns more than 200 shopping centers -- has roughly $27 billion in debt and no way to refinance.

Just last week, the company got a reprieve on a debt-payment deadline. The forbearance gives it a bit of breathing room and keeps the company out of bankruptcy, for now. Many analysts are watching Jan. 30 and Feb. 12 -- dates when the company might be forced to make two large debt payments.

Mounting Debt

To help raise cash, General Growth -- the country's second largest mall owner -- announced in October it would try to sell its retail properties in Las Vegas, which include the Fashion Show Mall, Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian, and the Shoppes at the Palazzo.

"I don't see that they're through the woods here yet," Whalin said. "A lot of smaller mall companies are suffering in the same way."

Niemira said General Growth is "the poster child" for the credit troubles facing the industry.

"Those owners that took on too much debt have ultimately paid the price. At this point it's not clear how that will all play out," he said, noting that "the stock prices of some of these firms have really taken a huge hit."

Just a year ago, shares of General Growth traded at 38.73. They closed Monday at 1.21 -- that's a fall of nearly 97 percent this year.

But don't expect the malls themselves to close. Both Whalin and Niemira said the properties are profitable; it's just that some mall owners have too much debt to ride out the recession.

"The regional mall is here to stay as part of the retail environment," Whalin said. "It isn't going to go away anytime soon."