Foreclosure at the Mall

"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.

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