Blackstone to buy Centro malls for $9.4 billion: sources

SYDNEY Mon Feb 28, 2011 1:39pm EST

Rain clouds are seen behind a Centro sign in Sydney in this February 18, 2008 file photo. Private equity firm Blackstone Group will pay about $9.4 billion for the U.S. shopping mall assets of Australia's debt-laden Centro Properties after winning a three-way bidding contest, a source with knowledge of the transaction said on Monday. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

Rain clouds are seen behind a Centro sign in Sydney in this February 18, 2008 file photo. Private equity firm Blackstone Group will pay about $9.4 billion for the U.S. shopping mall assets of Australia's debt-laden Centro Properties after winning a three-way bidding contest, a source with knowledge of the transaction said on Monday.

Credit: Reuters/Mick Tsikas

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Private equity firm Blackstone Group LP (BX.N) has struck a deal to buy nearly 600 U.S. strip malls and other properties from Australia's Centro Property Group CNP.AX for about $9.4 billion, people with direct knowledge of the transaction said on Monday.

Blackstone beat rival bidders that include Morgan Stanley Real Estate (MS.N), which had teamed up with Starwood Capital Group and New York-based NRDC, according to a person who was not authorized to talk to the media and did not want to be identified.

The portfolio includes 560 U.S. shopping centers, whose tenants include grocery store operators such as Kroger Co (KR.N), Safeway Inc (SWY.N), and Koninklijke Ahold NV (AHLN.AS), which owns Stop & Shop and Giant.

Centro bought the shopping centers when it acquired New Plan Excel Realty Trust for about $6.2 billion at the top of the market in 2007.

The U.S. commercial real estate market began to rebound last year, but the recovery has been uneven. The highest quality properties in the most densely populated areas have recouped much of their lost value, while the rest have languished.

Values of good quality, large U.S. malls did not suffer greatly during the downturn, in part because new ones are difficult to build. Land in desirable areas is scarce and permits for new construction face local opposition from residents who object to the auto traffic the malls generate. Good properties rarely come up for sale.

But neighborhood shopping centers, which are easier to build and face less local resistance, are still struggling with weak occupancy rates and limp rent. Centro's properties are not considered among the best.

That may prove to be a big opportunity for Blackstone, said Benjamin Yang, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

"To the extent that they are looking for some meaningful return, probably in the double-digit territory, they're not going to get those type of returns getting the "A" quality properties," Yang said.

"There's an opportunity to increase occupancy to something that's a little higher," he said. "And to the extent that these properties were under-managed, there might be an opportunity there to get rents back to market and maybe put in a better tenant base."

Centro is the latest example of Blackstone's rapidly expanding property empire, which includes the Hilton hotels chain, a 7.6 percent stake in U.S. regional mall owner General Growth Properties Inc (GGP.N) and expanding holdings in U.S. warehouse and distribution centers.

A sale would allow Centro to reduce its large debt load.

Centro shares, which have recently traded slightly above their 52-week low of 13 Australian cents, were halted ahead of an expected announcement on Tuesday. Blackstone shares were unchanged in trading before the U.S. markets opened.

A Centro spokeswoman declined to comment, while Blackstone officials were not immediately available.

The $9.4 billion purchase price equals book value for the assets, the source said, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Centro was one of corporate Australia's first casualties of the 2008 global credit crisis, having saddled itself with too much debt.

The company said last week that its total portfolio was valued at A$16.5 billion (US$16.8 billion), while it has A$16 billion (US$16.3 billion) in debt. U.S. companies are not required to publicly release the value of their assets.

Any asset sales would need approval from Centro's lenders, now mainly hedge and distressed-debt funds.

Blackstone is unusual among private equity firms in having a large number of real estate investments. It oversaw $33.2 billion of real estate assets at year's-end, up 63 percent from a year earlier, according to a Friday regulatory filing.

Earlier this month, Blackstone said it was seeing a recovery in office and hospitality sectors, and that concerns about inflation are making real estate a more attractive investment.

The company said its current real estate fund, Blackstone Real Estate Partners VI, was about 70 percent invested, and that it plans to start fundraising for a seventh fund this year.

Last year, Blackstone bought 180 properties from ProLogis (PLD.N) for $1.01 billion and paid Eaton Vance Corp (EV.N) $900 million for industrial real estate.

Blackstone acquired Hilton for $26 billion at the peak of the buyout bubble in July 2007.

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