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Mall REITs: 'Do Or Die' Time

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by: Hoya Capital Real Estate
Hoya Capital Real Estate
REITs, ETF investing, homebuilders, registered investment advisor
Summary

Another one bites the dust. Forever 21, seemingly one of the better-performing mall-based retailers, filed for bankruptcy last quarter in another dire sign for the struggling mall REIT sector.

The lone real estate sector in negative territory this year, Mall REITs haven’t participated in the ‘REIT Rejuvenation’ and are on pace to underperform for the fourth straight year.

It’s not me, it’s you. Mall REIT executives have long-blamed their mall-based tenant’s stale brands, over-leverage, and mismanagement for the wave of bankruptcies and weakening sales.

Despite an otherwise strong year for brick-and-mortar retail sales, the casualty count has continued to mount, particularly in the enclosed mall format, setting a record for store closings.

This holiday season could be “make-or-break” time for low productivity malls in a fight for survival. The success of several high-productivity malls leaves a glimmer of hope for a turnaround.

REIT Rankings: Mall REITs

In our REIT Rankings series, we analyze REITs within each of the commercial and residential sectors, focusing on property-level fundamentals and the macroeconomic forces driving overall supply and demand conditions. We then analyze REITs based on both common and unique valuation metrics, presenting investors with numerous options that fit their own investing style and risk/return objectives.

mall REITs

(Co-Produced with Brad Thomas through iREIT on Alpha)

Mall REIT Sector Overview

Together with their retail REIT sector brethren, the open-air Shopping Center and Net Lease REITs, Mall REITs are one of the four “major’ real estate sectors along with residential, office, and industrial REITs. In the Hoya Capital Mall REIT Index, we track the seven mall REITs, which account for roughly $60 billion in market value, Simon Property (SPG), Macerich (MAC), Taubman (TCO), Tanger Factory Outlet (SKT), Washington Prime (WPG), Pennsylvania REIT (PEI), and CBL & Associates (CBL). We also track Brookfield Property (BPY), a non-REIT corporation that owns a diversified property portfolio including several billion dollars of mall properties across the world.

mall REITs

Having once represented as much as 15% of the REIT broad-based Real Estate ETF (VNQ), mall REITs now comprise just 5-7% of the major indexes and comprise roughly half of the Benchmark Retail Real Estate ETF (RTL). REITs own more than 50% of the roughly 1,000 regional malls in the US, an ownership concentration that is second only to the cell tower REIT sector. Notably, six of the seven mall REITs have leverage ratios above the REIT average with several REITs having debt ratios above 75%.

A more economically-sensitive sector than most REIT categories, mall REIT performance has historically correlated closely with retail sales growth and consumer confidence, though recent share price performance has been far weaker than retail sales trends would suggest. Trading at some of the lowest relative valuations across the real estate sector, mall REITs command some of the highest dividend yields in the sector but have seen anemic revenue and FFO growth over the last half-decade.

mall REITs 101

Mall properties are typically classified into several "quality" tiers based on location and tenant sales productivity. A theme that we’ve discussed for many years, there has been a significant and widening divergence in fundamentals and stock performance between higher-productivity mall REITs and lower-productivity mall REITs since the end of the recession. While several hundred of the roughly 1,000 malls in the US are fully-occupied and thriving, the middle and lower-tier segments have seen intense pressure in recent years from a seemingly endless wave of store closings and rent pressure.

Just as the "network effects" of having a thriving ecosystem of diverse retailers was a key selling point of the enclosed mall format for tenants and shoppers alike during the rapid rise of the mall format from 1970 through 2000, investors and analysts are increasingly worried about the "death spiral" effect in struggling mall properties whereby occupancy and foot traffic fall below a level to keep the property viable.

mall same-store NOI growth

While nearly 90% of total retail sales are still completed through the traditional brick-and-mortar channels, e-commerce sales account for roughly a fifth of “at-risk” retail categories, which exclude food, auto, and gasoline sales and brick-and-mortar retailers have been losing share at a rate of roughly 1% per year. The market share loss has been even more significant for the traditionally mall-based retail categories including department stores, clothing, sporting goods/books, and electronics retailers.

A theme that we’ll discuss throughout this report, store closings have unexpectedly surged in 2019 as the combination of higher minimum wages, tariff-related cost pressures, and heavy discounting have pressured margins at softline and specialty retailers. Coresight Research has tracked more than 7,500 closings so far this year, already outpacing the full-year count for 2018, and estimates that up to 12,000 could announce closings by year-end.

e-commerce mall REITs

A potential saving-grace for a retail sector, following a development boom during the 1990s and early 2000s, very little new retail space has been created since the recession. Despite that, the US still has more retail square footage than any other country in the world. Elevated levels of store closings in recent years, spurred by the rise of e-commerce, have created ample "shadow supply" of recently vacated space which has negatively impacted retail REIT fundamentals. This oversupply has forced mall owners to invest heavily in their properties to attract and retain tenants and remain relevant. The operating profile of mall REITs is characterized by relatively average-to-low NOI margins, high ongoing capital expenditure requirements, but a relatively average-to-low G&A overhead margin.

mall REIT operating profile

Forever 21, seemingly one of the better-performing mall-based retailers, filed for bankruptcy last quarter in another concerning sign for the struggling mall REIT sector. Investor materials and analyst reports about mall REITs had long-cited Forever 21 as a mall-based success story and while some analysts believe the company will continue to operate post-restructuring, the company will close at least 200 stores and is expected to have a measurable near-term negative impact on mall REIT occupancy and performance.

Mall REIT executives have long-blamed their mall-based tenant’s stale brands, over-leverage, and mismanagement for the wave of bankruptcies and weakening sales, but the relative success of dozens of other non-mall-based retailers over the past half-decade has called that claim into question. We outline the strategies that successful brick-and-mortar retailers have utilized to compete, which we call the "4 Critical C's of Brick & Mortar Competition" which we outline in the chart below.

retail competitive advantage

We believe that outside of the high-productivity malls and outlet centers that have the critical mass and "network effects" to offer a value-add retail experience that cannot be replicated online or otherwise, retailers in lower-productivity enclosed malls will find it difficult to compete on any of these four axes due to the inherent challenges of the format. As discussed in our Shopping Center REIT report, by embracing the "bricks and clicks" model including in-store pickup and honing the cost and convenience advantages of the strip center format, non-enclosed shopping centers have proven to be more adaptable to the rapidly changing retail distribution chain.

Mall REIT Stock Performance

The lone real estate sector in negative territory this year, mall REITs haven’t participated in the ‘REIT Rejuvenation’ and are on pace to underperform for the fourth straight year. Pressured by the unexpected surge in store closings, weakening department store performance, and lingering fears of a global economic slowdown, Mall REITs have declined more than 10% this year compared to the 22% gains on the broad-based US REIT Index and have lagged the top-performing REIT sector, manufactured housing, by a whopping 56%. By comparison, the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) has gained 8.6% YTD.mall REIT performance

Mall REIT investors, unfortunately, have become all-too-accustomed to underperformance. After having outperformed the REIT average in five of six years between 2009 and 2014, the mall sector is all-but-certain to stretch its streak of underperformance to four straight years. Notably, this year's underperformance hasn't been a "retail" story, but simply a "mall" story. Shopping center REITs, meanwhile, are on track to snap their stretch of three straight losing years, having gained more than 23% this year while the free-standing Net Lease retail sector is set for another year of strong gains after leading the sector in performance in 2018.

mall REITs

All seven mall REITs are in negative territory this year, but non-REIT Brookfield Properties has ridden the strength of its non-retail properties to produce a healthy 17% gain. Macerich, Taubman, and Tanger have been the biggest laggards this year, each dipping more than 20% while sector stalwart Simon Property has declined a more modest 8%. Interestingly, the sector has caught a bit of a bid over the last month as worries have waned about slowing global growth as investors have rotated into more economically-sensitive sectors both within the REIT sector and more generally across GICS sectors.

mall REITs 2019

Mall REIT Fundamental Performance

While an improving macroeconomic backdrop has certainly helped, signs of stabilization in earnings results have been the more significant factor in the recent stabilization in mall REIT performance over the past quarter. After a solid second quarter, third-quarter results were again generally pretty decent, highlighted again by strong leasing spreads in the high-productivity properties and improving tenant sales performance across all property tiers. Consistent with the theme discussed above, however, it continues to be a tale of two worlds within the mall REIT sector that isn't captured by the value-weighted averages, with lower-productivity mall REITs still seeing declining occupancy and significantly lower same-store NOI growth.

mall retailOn a weighted average basis, same-store NOI growth rose 1.2%, a deceleration from last quarter's 1.7% rise, but tenant sales per square foot rose 5.3%, up from 4.4% last quarter. While there is some obvious survivorship bias in the tenant sales data, along with the effects of Tesla (TSLA) and Apple (AAPL) stores on the data (as highlighted in a brilliant piece by Adam Levine-Weinberg yesterday), the otherwise solid growth figures combined with the relatively steady occupancy data does support the notion that pockets of strength still remain even in the average and lower-tier segments. Occupancy dipped roughly 80 basis points, on average, but remains near 95% on a weighted-average basis. Occupancy costs continued to trend in a positive direction as well with five of the six REITs that report the metric seeing improvement.mall REIT performance

Disappointingly, Taubman revised its same-store NOI data guidance from 2.0% to just 0.5%, citing continued tenant bankruptcy issues including from Forever 21. Despite that, the high-productivity mall REITs still saw a 0.1% growth in same-store NOI and forecast a 1.1% average growth rate for full-year 2019. Meanwhile, low-productivity mall REITs saw a 5.7% dip in same-store NOI growth and forecast a 4% decline for full-year 2019, revised lower due to PEI's downward revision this quarter. Leasing spreads don't give much reason for optimism either. While the high-productivity REITs, Simon, Macerich, and Taubman reported a 10% average leasing spread on renewals, the low-productivity REITs, Pennsylvania, Washington Prime, and CBL reported a 2% average decline in leasing spreads.

mall leasing spreads

While we’re still waiting on the final official tallies from NAREIT’s T-Tracker data on the third quarter, retail REITs were the lone major real estate sector to see negative occupancy in the first and second quarter, dipping 50 basis points on a year-over-year basis, and given the store closings outlook for the rest of 2019, there may be more pain ahead, particularly in the mall segment. The sector has seen generally declining same-store occupancy since peaking in 2015 at above 96.5%. The decline in occupancy is likely understated, however, as retail REITs have actively "recycled" underperforming properties and held low-occupancy properties for sale, outside of the same-store metrics.

mall occupancy 2019

External Growth & Capital Markets

External growth has been anemic for mall REITs, and we are struggling to see the potential catalyst to reignite growth on the near-term horizon given that these mall REITs already own the vast majority of investment-grade enclosed mall REIT properties in the US, which is the other side of the double-edged sword of the high concentration of REIT ownership. While analysts' consensus estimates imply that mall assets would fetch a 20-40% premium in the private markets, mall REITs haven't sold a single property in the last four quarters. So, while there are few sellers of mall assets, there are even fewer buyers. Outside of Brookfield's purchase of Rouse and GGP and Unibail's purchase of Westfield, few malls have changed hands over the past decade. Over the last twelve months through the first half of 2019, mall REITs sold a net $700 million in assets after having sold a combined net $300 million in full-year 2018.

mall REIT m&a As mentioned above, the saving grace of the mall REIT sector over the past half a decade has been record-low new development. Significant amounts of "shadow supply" from recent and future store closings persist across the sector, however. New supply growth has averaged less than 0.5% of existing stock per year since the recession, helping the industry absorb this ample "shadow supply" from vacated stores. For the high-productivity mall REITs, namely Simon, Macerich, and Taubman, redevelopment remains a substantial source of untapped long-term value. Top-tier retail assets are ideal for the “live-work-play” mixed-use residential expansion and there are a handful of highly successful redevelopments from these three higher-productivity REITs.

mall REIT development

Macro Retail Sales Trends & Outlook

As we discussed in our recent commentary, we've become quite a bit more bearish on the mall format over the last two years, given the disappointing fundamental performance and reacceleration in store closings amid an otherwise ideal macroeconomic backdrop of solid brick-and-mortar sales growth. 2018 saw the fastest rate of growth since 2012 for brick-and-mortar retail sales and solid gains have continued - albeit at a slower rate - in 2019. After slowing early this year, retail sales growth has been relatively strong since early summer despite the volatility seen in the financial markets. Recent strength, however, has been led primarily by a reacceleration in the nonstore (e-commerce) category.

mall REIT brick and mortar

As we’ve discussed in our weekly macroeconomic reports, for retailers, the more significant issue over the last two years has not been on the demand-side, but rather on the expense-side. Before even considering the margin hit from tariffs and excess inventory, labor costs have risen considerably over the last two years as eighteen states raised their minimum wage in 2018 and many cities (largely in already high-cost markets) have raised minimum wages over the last two years, oftentimes far above market rate, which has begun to result in retail job cuts and store closures. Hourly earnings surged to 5% in early 2019, outpacing the roughly 3% growth in retail sales, while retail job growth has been negative on a year-over-year basis for all of 2019.

mall REITs

While the majority of the store closings (on a square footage basis) over the last five years were concentrated in the anchor and big-box space, more than half of the store closings so far in 2019 have been in the specialty categories, suggesting that smaller businesses have been hit especially hard by minimum wage pressures. While hardline and food retailers tend to be somewhat immune from e-commerce related disruption, softline and specialty retail categories are generally more at risk. During the so-called "retail apocalypse" of 2016-2017, these categories were particularly weak. After recovering nicely throughout 2018, these softline and specialty retailers have again fallen on tough times this year.

softline retail category

Mall REIT investors, particularly in the average and lower-productivity mall REITs, hope that this holiday season could be a positive catalyst to stop the bleeding and will need strong results from the traditional mall-based retailers to bolster hopes of a turnaround. 2019 has been more of the same for most of these retailers and the next few weeks will be a critical period with Macy's (M), J. C. Penney (JCP), Dillard's (NYSE:DDS), L Brands (LB), and Nordstrom (JWN) all reporting results between November 15 and November 21.

retail sales 2019

With near-perfect macroeconomics conditions for retailer performance, and with very strong performance from strip-center based department store retailers like Walmart (WMT), Target (TGT), Costco (COST), TJX (TJX), we had expected the recently underperforming mall-based retailers to turn a corner last year. Given that the struggles persist with no clear upward catalyst in-sight, we are revising our view on the number of the 1,000 malls in the US with sustainable long-term outlooks from 800-900 individual properties to closer to 700-800, implying that 20-30% of the malls in the US are likely to close within the next decade.

Mall REIT Valuations

As they have for most of the past half a decade, retail REITs screen as fairly "cheap" across most traditional REIT metrics. The past half-decade has been particularly challenging for “value” investors in the REIT space as lower-yielding and higher-growing REITs have substantially outperformed since 2014. Powered by data from the iREIT Terminal, we illustrate that mall REITs are the second "cheapest" REIT sector based on Free Cash Flow (aka AFFO, FAD, CAD), but have also seen 0% average FFO growth over the past five years. Mall REITs continue to trade at a wide NAV discount, estimated at 20-30% based on consensus estimates.

mall REIT valuations

Mall REIT Dividend Yields

Mall REITs have quietly become the highest-yield REIT sector, but not necessarily for the right reasons. While dividend growth has been almost as anemic as FFO growth over the past half-decade, weak share price performance has boosted dividend yields well above the REIT average. Mall REITs pay an average dividend yield of 6.4%. Mall REITs have significantly scaled back the pace of dividend growth over the past half-decade, choosing to retain an average of 25% of their remaining free cash flow.

mall REIT dividends

Within the sector, more than other REIT sectors, investors need to be cautious not to fall into common "value traps" by assuming that high dividend yields can offset declining price returns. As we've pointed out for the past several years, despite paying double-digit dividend yields, REITs like CBL, PEI, and WPG have wiped out any yield premium many times over.

mall REITs yield

Bull and Bear Thesis for Mall REITs

While mall REITs get more than their fair share of negative headlines, there are a handful of reasons to be bullish on the long-term prospects for the mall REIT sector. Recognizing the challenges of the pure-play online retail strategy, more retailers have embraced the "brick and clicks" omnichannel retail strategy, including e-commerce giant Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) through their heavy investment into Whole Foods. There's been very limited new construction of retail real estate space over the last decade and high-productivity retail REITs continue to find accretive yields in redeveloping vacated store space into higher-value mixed uses, including multifamily and experience-based retailers. Below, we outline the five reasons that investors are bullish on mall REITs.

mall REIT bullish 2019

While the "retail apocalypse" may have been exaggerated, mall REITs continue to be challenged by broader secular headwinds, pressures that have intensified in 2019. Store closures have surged this year as retailers deal with a myriad of pressures including tariff concerns, rising minimum wages, and excess inventory. Downsizing retailers have focused their investment on higher-performing stores and have continued to close weaker-performing stores in lower-tier malls and retail centers. As we often discuss, valuations can be self-reinforcing in the REIT sector and cheap REITs tend to stay cheap as low equity valuations make it more challenging to raise the capital needed for redevelopment and external growth.

mall REITs bearish

Bottom Line: A Do or Die Holiday Season for Malls?

Another one bites the dust. Forever 21, seemingly one of the better-performing mall-based retailers, filed for bankruptcy last quarter in another dire sign for the struggling mall REIT sector. The lone real estate sector in negative territory this year, mall REITs haven’t participated in the ‘REIT Rejuvenation’ and are on pace to underperform for the fourth straight year.

It’s not me, it’s you. Mall REIT executives have long-blamed their mall-based tenant’s stale brands, over-leverage, and mismanagement for the wave of bankruptcies and weakening sales. Despite an otherwise strong year for brick-and-mortar retail sales, the casualty count has continued to mount, particularly in the enclosed mall format, setting a record for store closings.

We outline the strategies that successful brick-and-mortar retailers have utilized to compete, which we call the "4 Critical C's." We believe that outside of the high-productivity malls and outlet centers that have the critical mass and "network effects" to offer a value-add retail experience that cannot be replicated online or otherwise, retailers in lower-productivity enclosed malls will find it difficult to compete on any of these four axes due to the inherent challenges of the format.

We revised our view on how many of the 1,000 malls in the US have a sustainable long-term outlook from 800-900 individual properties to closer to 700-800, implying that 20-30% of the malls in the US are likely to close within the next decade. While REIT ownership is skewed towards the upper-tier of the spectrum, we think that the three low-productivity mall REITs will continue to teeter on the edge of relevancy and believe that a sizable chunk of their malls is a recession away from extinction, highlighting the need for investors to be highly selective in their real estate allocation decisions.

malls(Source: AllThatsInteresting.Com)

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Disclosure: I am/we are long SPG, TCO, TGT, WMT, TJX, HD, COST. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Index performance cited in this commentary does not reflect the performance of any fund or other account managed or serviced by Hoya Capital Real Estate. All commentary published by Hoya Capital Real Estate is available free of charge and is for informational purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Data quoted represents past performance, which is no guarantee of future results. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date, but we do not guarantee its accuracy.

Hoya Capital Real Estate advises an ETF. In addition to the long positions listed above, Hoya Capital is long all components in the Hoya Capital Housing 100 Index. Real Estate and Housing Index definitions and holdings are available at HoyaCapital.com.