Centro Looking for Alternatives

Australian retail real estate giant Centro Properties Group, buffeted in recent weeks by the international credit crunch, has let it be known that it is “seeking expressions of interest for key alternatives available to it,” as the company obliquely put it in a release today. In other words, potential buyers of assets, or of Centro itself, have been invited to look around and kick the tires. According to the Financial Times, interested buyers might include the Westfield Group, a rival Australian retail owner; Stockland, another Australian landlord that owns a diverse commercial property portfolio; Morgan Stanley; or the Canadian Brookfield Asset Management Inc. Centro also broached the idea of selling more of its stock or recapitalizing in some other way. The property trust is facing a February 15 deadline to come up with a “roadmap” to refinance about A$3.9 ($3.4 billion) in short-term debt, much of which it took on when it bought massive portfolios of retail properties in the United States before the credit crunch, especially the spring 2007 acquisition of New Plan Excel Realty Trust Inc. and the 2006 purchase of Heritage Property Investment Trust purchase. Last month, Centro negotiated the interim stay on refinancing its debt, and canceled its second-half 2007 dividend payments, citing its inability to refinance its debt from the CMBS market. Investors reacted by dumping Centro stock. During the first half of 2007, shares in the company traded at nearly A$10. On December 18, after a collapse in prices, shares traded for A$0.80. Prices rose above A$1.20 early Monday morning (in Australia), but later in the day were around A$1.05. Currently, Centro owns about 700 shopping centers in the United States, mostly neighborhood or grocery-anchored properties. It is also a major owner of retail properties in Australia, and has holdings in New Zealand as well.