Retail Carnage (Part 2) – Shopping Center Landlords Evolve Their Properties

Last week I discussed why I believe many of the traditional bricks and mortar retailers are mispriced based on cash flows, despite intense competition and the acknowledgement that U.S. retail is not a growth business. Interestingly, many of the big box stores own a lot of their own stores, so they have a built-in margin of safety due to the optionality of being real estate developers if the retail business dries up.

So the natural next step in the conversation is to look at the pure play real estate companies. From a valuation perspective the mall owners are the most interesting. For a while the owners of the best malls in the country (GGP, Simon, Macerich, Taubman) were maintaining their premium valuations (roughly 20x FFO, or funds from operations), while the secondary malls in smaller cities were getting beaten up pretty good (single digit multiples of cash flow and double-digit dividend yields). Lately the narrative has changed such that many are saying even the best malls in the country will struggle to fill space as more retailers prune their store portfolios.

In fact, one of the prominent investors featured in The Big Short, Steve Eisman, recently commented on CNBC that he was short Simon Property Group (SPG), widely considered the best high end mall operator in the country) because he didn’t think there was any such thing as a good mall anymore. The reasoning: he just “counts the boxes” sitting on his doorstep when he gets home from work.

As a result, the aforementioned “big 4” high end mall owners have seen their shares drop about 30% on average over the last year, which now sport mid teens FFO multiples. Interestingly, you would be hard pressed to find a transaction in which an “A” mall has been sold for those kinds of prices. Not only that, it was only 2015 when Simon offered to buy Macerich for $95.50 per share and the offer was rejected as being inadequate. Macerich’s current stock price: $59 per share. I have little doubt that if management reconsidered their willingness to sell, Simon would be willing to still do that deal today.

So why are the “A” mall owners so optimistic about their ability to navigate this retail environment, reimagine their properties, and continue to grow their profits over the long-term? After all, if they can succeed on that front, the stock are very likely good buys at ~15x annual FFO.

I can think of a few good reasons. One, location. They have some of the best locations in major cities across the country. Two, incomes and populations are still growing so it is not like they do not have the built-in consumer base to shop their centers. Three, development expertise. These mall companies are developers first and forefront. They are experts are designing destinations that people want to visit.

So while tastes change and maybe 2017 does not bring with it the same thirst for apparel stores that 1997 did, the landlord can adjust. They can bring in more restaurants, more concert venues, more hotels, more office space, more apartment buildings. Rather than having the mall be a place to come and buy clothes, it can be a mixed use destination that serves as a primary entertainment venue.

And don’t forget, interest rates are very low. Developers need funding to expand and/or reposition their properties and money is cheap. If a Sears or a JC Penney closes shop, the mall owner can take that 100,000 or 150,000 square foot box and the huge parking lot that sits next to it and build whatever it wants. The real estate is extremely valuable and any number of uses would make a lot of sense in a densely traversed area that everyone already knows about.

I urge you to read through the conference calls for these mall owners and see how they are thinking about their properties. Take a look at the types of redevelopment properties they are embarking on and decide for yourself if Steve Eisman is right and there is no such thing as a “good mall.” There is a lot of talk in the industry that we have 1,000 malls today and that number needs to come down. And I do not doubt that is true. But every big city can support a couple nice malls. Here in Seattle, for instance, there is Southcenter Mall (owned by Westfield) to the south, Northgate Mall (owned by Simon) to the north, and Bellevue Square (privately owned) to the west. All of these are higher end malls that have plenty of customer traffic. From I-5 you can see all of the building going on around Northgate Mall (including a new light rail stop at the mall itself). The Bellevue property is adding hundreds of residential units around the retail hub.

The financial results of these companies bear out the thesis that they can navigate the changing times. For instance, Simon is projected to earn FFO of $11.50 per share in 2017, which would be a record high level of profitability. Three years ago that figure was $9. Six years ago it was $7. These companies own the land and have access to cheap capital. They really can control their own destiny.

Some other assets are also being dragged down as everyone obsesses over enclosed mall properties, not just the smaller town focused “B” malls. Take outlet malls for instance. The “race to the bottom” in retail these days has made it such that the more you discount the better you do. Chains like Burlington and TJ Maxx and doing great even though they own hundreds of bricks and mortar retail stores. Why? Because consumers have been trained to seek out bargains because it does not take long to find them anymore. Who pays full price for stuff, many will ask.

In that environment, I would think that the open-air outlet malls would have staying power here in the U.S. But a company like Tanger (SKT) has seen its stock price drop from $41 to $26 in the last 10 months. Maybe I am missing something, but I would think that outlet malls will outlast most of their shopping center competitors. But today you can invest in Tanger at just 11x FFO and a dividend yield north of 5%. I would not be surprised if this was a unique opportunity for bargain shoppers, both at their properties and in the stock market.

For investors who are leery of the retailing sector and the threats from Amazon, etc, the real estate owners should be a less risky way to bet on the idea that human beings, even with their Amazon Prime and Netflix accounts, will still find plenty of time to go outside.