By Don Miller
After months of speculation, General Growth Properties Inc. (GGP) filed the biggest real estate bankruptcy in U.S. history, ending a futile seven-month effort to refinance its debt.
General Growth filed for Chapter 11 seeking protection from creditors after it amassed $27 billion in debt accumulating over 200 shopping mall properties. The filing covers 158 of its U.S. malls, but excludes its joint-venture properties and third-party management business.
The Chicago-based company – the country’s second largest shopping mall owner – owns such valuable properties as Fashion Show in Las Vegas and Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston. It listed total assets of $29.56 billion and total debt of $27.29 billion.
“We intend to emerge as a leaner company,” General Growth President Thomas Nolan told Bloomberg News in an interview. “We want to come out as a less leveraged company. Our business model remains strong.”
In the eyes of many observers, the filing brings the U.S. real estate collapse full circle as commercial properties values are now plummeting in concert with the ailing residential housing market. Commercial real estate prices in the U.S. dropped 15% last year, according to Moody’s Investors Service (MCO).
Many commercial real estate companies have been squeezed out by the credit crunch as banks continue to curb lending.
Nolan said General Growth was a victim of “a broken capital market.” No one could have predicted the severity of “the credit markets shutting down,” he said.
Last November, General Growth warned it might have to seek protection from its creditors because it was unable to refinance maturing debt obligations. The company was trying to restructure bonds it floated to finance a $14.3 billion all-stock deal for Rouse Co., a high-end mall dealer it bought in 2004.
"It just tells you that this debt can't get redone, especially for big properties," RBC Capital analyst Rich Moore told Reuters.
“General Group has long been the poster child of too much debt,” said Moore."General Growth has malls, and malls are some of the biggest assets out there."
Analysts said the bankruptcy might allow competitors to cherry-pick some of General Growth’s more desirable properties, giving Simon Property Group Inc. (SPG) the opportunity to bolster its position as the No. 1 mall operator.
“I think Simon’s going to be able to pick up some of these assets on the cheap,” Dan Fasulo, managing director at real estate research firm Real Capital Analytics, told Bloomberg.
However, Fasulo also called General Growth’s filing “the beginning of the end,” which could lead other companies to fail.
“This bankruptcy will drive down the values of mall assets in the United States. It’s going to put, I believe, more supply on the market than can be absorbed by investors,” he said.
About $814 billion of commercial mortgage debt is expected to mature over the next two years, which will only serve to put more pressure on the market, according to real estate research firm Foresight Analysis.
Meanwhile, the residential market chimed in with its own bad news. On the same day General Growth filed, the U.S. Department of Commerce said builders broke ground on 10.8% fewer homes in March and new permits fell to a record low, as homebuilders sought to rein in inventory amid rising foreclosures.
“Buyers seem to be more interested in picking up bargain- basement prices in the existing-home market than in the new-home market,” Robert Dye, a senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. (PNC), in Pittsburgh, told Bloomberg News.
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