Centro May Have More Time to Deal With Debt Woes

Centro Properties Group, whose fortunes late last year were weighed down by a $3.4 billion mass of short-term debt it was unable to refinance, is reportedly on the verge of winning more time from its creditors to deal with the problem.The debt was mostly incurred when Centro bought U.S. retail assets in 2006 and 2007, especially New Plan Excel, a REIT that specialized in neighborhood and community centers. In December, the Melbourne-based Centro worked out an agreement with its banks to postpone the due date on its debt until Feb. 15–this Friday.As of this morning, a number of news outlets in Australia and the United States were reporting that Centro was on the verge of another extension, perhaps until August. The new timetable would give the company more time either to negotiate a sale of itself in its entirety, or to sell off its assets in a more orderly way, especially the valuable Australian properties, which includes some regional malls. Representatives of Centro could not be reached this morning to confirm or deny these reports.In January, Andrew Scott, CEO of the company for 10 years and architect of the acquisitions of U.S. retail properties, resigned. He was replaced by former New Plan Excel CEO Glenn Rufrano, who until recently was head of Centro’s new U.S. operations.Centro’s troubles come at a time of slipping retail fortunes in the United States, as consumers react to high energy and food prices, a dicey employment outlook and the possibility of recession. According to the most recent report by retail consultancy TNS Retail Forward, January 2008 same-store sales grew 1 percent from the prior month but weakened from the prior year for about major 50 retailers reporting monthlyresults to the organization. Compared with sales in January 2007, retail sales were down 4 percent in the first month of 2008.