UPDATE 2-U.S. SEC launches informal inquiry into St. Joe

Mon Jan 10, 2011 6:59pm EST

* SEC notification 'does not indicate any violations'- Joe

* St. Joe shares fall as much as 11 pct after hours (Adds background, Fairholme and Greenlight responses, BlackRock investment)

By Ilaina Jonas and Jennifer Ablan

NEW YORK, Jan 10 (Reuters) - St. Joe Co (JOE.N), the largest private landholder in northern Florida, said on Monday the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission launched an informal inquiry into its policies relating to impairment of investment in real estate assets.

St. Joe's stock was down as much as 11 percent in after-hours trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

The notification by the SEC "does not indicate any allegations of wrongdoing and an inquiry is not an indication of any violations of federal securities laws," the company said in the filing with the SEC. St. Joe also said it intended to cooperate fully with the SEC.

St. Joe shares fell to $20.98 and were as low as $20.60 in after-hours trading. It closed at $23.07 on Monday.

Greenlight Capital hedge fund manager David Einhorn, who in early 2008 made a prescient call on Lehman Brothers' accounting troubles before the company collapsed that fall, has said he believes St. Joe needs to take "substantial impairments" and accounting writedowns on many of its properties. Einhorn holds a short position on the company's shares and is betting their value will fall.

Late on Monday, Greenlight's spokesman said in an email to Reuters: "St. Joe's valuation practices remain open to question, as it is hard to understand how the company invested hundreds of millions of dollars during the real estate bubble and hasn't seen fit to take a material write-down."

Famed mutual fund manager Bruce Berkowitz has increased its holdings in St. Joe for his Fairholme Funds and currently holds a 28.9 percent stake in St. Joe, which owns more than a half million acres of land in the Florida Panhandle.

A representative for Fairholme could not be reached immediately for comment.

Separately, funds of BlackRock Income Trust Inc (BKT.N), the world's biggest money manager, have raised their collective stakes in St. Joe to 12.59 percent, according to another SEC filing on Monday. BlackRock funds' higher passive stake was up from 3.78 percent at the end of September.

St. Joe, whose business of planning large communities, relies on the Florida housing market. It has lost about three quarters of its value in the past five-and-a-half years. It hit a high of $85.25 in the summer of 2005. (Editing by Andre Grenon)

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