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General Growth debt concerns mount


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POSTED: Thursday, October 09, 2008

General Growth Properties, the Chicago-based owner and manager of more than 200 shopping malls across the nation, including Ala Moana Center and Ward Centers, has fallen into deeper debt.

Shares of General Growth tumbled 42 percent this week as concerns about the company's $27 billion debt burden - accumulated over several years' worth of large acquisitions - continue to mount.

Last week, General Growth lost its chief financial officer, Bernard Freibaum, and suspended its company dividends due to the uncertainty and volatility in the capital markets.

Standard & Poor's also cut General Growth's corporate credit rating down earlier this week to B+ from BB, not long after Moody's Investors Service lowered its ratings of General Growth to Ba3 from Ba2, with warnings of possible future downgrades.

Analysts believe the giant mall owner may be forced into a sale.

Jeffrey Laverty, an analyst at Oscar Gruss & Son in New York, put a "sell" rating on General Growth's share due to speculation the company may not be able to refinance $1.2 billion in debt that will be due this year.

Laverty said a restructuring of the company was inevitable.

"It's more than likely they get wiped out," Laverty said of the company's shareholders.

General Growth Properties, the nation's second largest public Real Estate Investment Trust, owns and manages more than 200 regional shopping malls in 44 states, in addition to master plan communities and commercial buildings.

Nationwide, General Growth's portfolio totals about 200 million square feet, and includes more than 24,000 retail stores.

In Hawaii, General Growth bought Ala Moana Center from Japan-based Daiei Inc. for $810 million in 1999. This year, General Growth expanded the mall to include a a new retail concourse to Hawaii's first Nordstrom department store, in addition to a parking structure.

In 2002, General Growth agreed to the $250 million purchase of Victoria Ward Ltd., a collection of retail centers in Kakaako now referred to as Ward Centers, in addition to the assumption of debt.

General Growth also manages Windward Mall on Oahu; Whalers Village and Queen Kaahumanu Center on Maui; and Kings' Shops and Prince Kuhio Plaza on the Big Island.

General Growth's Ward Neighborhood Master Plan - a major overhaul of the 60 acres it owns at Ward to include 4,300 residential units over a 20-year-plus period - is still moving forward, according to Jan Yokota, vice president of development in Hawaii.

A public hearing for the plan is scheduled for next Wednesday by the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which oversees the redevelopment of Kakaako.

"The master plan is a very long-term plan over at least 20 years," said Yokota. "It's still very important to set that vision, and it's something we're committed to."

 

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.