These days, the retail sector is a cut-throat bloodbath. The rise and continued growth of online shopping and omnichannel operations have completely changed the game for the sector. A number of once top brands and stores have closed or filed for bankruptcy. That’s not only hurt retail stocks but the retail REITs that own malls and power centers.
And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
During their latest conference call, one of the top mall REITs — Simon Property Group (NYSE:SPG) — warned that, “there are some retailers out there that we’re nervous about” and that they “are concerned about a few [retail bankruptcies] that should shake out in the first quarter.”
What’s scary is that SPG is one of the top mall REITs around and features malls in so-called prime or “A” markets. These places are dominated by high-incomes, steady home prices, and relative economic stability.
If Simon is finally starting to get worried, what does that mean for the mall REITs that don’t own such prime assets? These REITs are certainly in big trouble as the shift in retail continues.
But which retail REITs are in a precarious position? Here are 3 that could see declines and issues in the quarters ahead.
CBL & Associates (CBL)
The recession could have been the first punch to CBL & Associates (NYSE:CBL) that staggered the firm in a big way. After the recession, CBL’s portfolio of Class B malls were some of hardest hit and full of the chain stores that were in the first wave of retail causalities. Because of that, the mall REIT was faced with the difficult task of filing plenty of empty store frontage in a terrible environment. Unfortunately, it wasn’t able to do that. Its core audience of shoppers has simply migrated to discounters like Target (NYSE:TGT) or online.
And that continues to hurt its bottom line.
During CBL’s last earnings report, rising vacancy rates and retailer bankruptcies managed to reduce overall rents per square foot by 10.8% for all leases signed in 2018. That caused a big $41.8 million year-over-year decline in the amount cash CBL can pull in from its tenants. That’s a big deal as that directly translates into a REIT’s Funds from Operations (FFO) metric. And you know what FFO translates into? Dividends.
With a 19.6% year-over-year decline in FFO, CBL was forced to cut its dividend payout to investors. This is now the second cut in about year.
With more bankruptcies, store closures and lower consumer demand predicted, CBL is one retail REIT to avoid.
Washington Prime (WPG)
Back in 2014, Simon could see the writing on the wall and spun-out some of its open-air shopping plazas and less than desirable malls as Washington Prime (NYSE:WPG). WPG later bought Glimcher Realty Trust 0- an owner of mostly Class B and some Class A properties. The problem is, WPG is still very much exposed to the pending retail apocalypse.
As of September — when WPG last reported earnings — Sears (OTCMKTS:SHLDQ) was one of Washington Prime’s largest tenants. As are Macy’s (NYSE:M) and J C Penney (NYSE:JCP). The trio of struggling retailers makes up around 102 different locations in WPG’s malls. WPG has been proactive in filling locations when they come up vacant — Bon-Ton was another large tenant in its system. That’s great, but it may not be enough.
Moody’s estimates that the department store sector will contract by a further 3.5% in 2019, while the overall number of store closings is set to surge — with mall staples like the Gap (NYSE:GPS), Children’s Place (NASDAQ:PLCE) and now bankrupt Gymboree all planning on closing hundreds of locations. This is exactly the kinds of stores that dot WPG’s malls and shopping centers.
With rents falling slightly and FFO metrics being flat, Washington Primes management has stubbornly kept its dividend high. While WPG isn’t in as bad of a shape as CBL — thanks to some of its A properties — I’m not sure I’d want to own it in the current environment. Especially when there are other retail REITs out there worthy of attention.
Pennsylvania REIT (PEI)
Truth be told, Pennsylvania REIT (NYSE:PEI) or PREIT as it’s commonly called is in the best shape of the retail REITs on this list. The mall owner got smart after the recession and started to purge its assets of underperforming malls. Those asset sales and closures helped PREIT get back on a great footing, improve sales per square foot and rents. Heck, even Sears isn’t a problem as the REIT only holds four Sear’s stores in its portfolio.
The problem is, PEI is still operating in the economically sensitive A/B property range.
Sales per square foot at PEI’s locations now run about $500. That’s a marked improvement over just a few years ago. However, when looking at some of Simon’s top malls, that number is kind of low. Top A malls in SPG’s portfolio typically pull in $1,000 to $1,200 sales per square feet. The point is, you’re still dealing with a customer at PEI’s locations that could be impacted during the next recession.
Secondly, PREIT has looked to towards experiences — such as LEGO Discovery Centers and Dave & Buster’s Arcades — to fill empty anchor stores. If the economy goes bad, these are the first things consumers will cut. With the economy showing signs of cracking, it’s easy to see why PEI stock now has a 9%+ dividend yield.
All in all, PREIT isn’t bad per se, but certainly does have plenty of risk behind it. Investors may be better suited in less risky REITs with lower yields.
Disclosure: At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not have a position in any of the stocks mentioned.