One week ago we reported that “Mega-Bears Smell Blood As Mall REITs Tumble” in which we wrote that “just like 10 years ago, when the “big short” was putting on the RMBX trade, and to a smaller extent, its cousin the CMBX, so now too some are starting to short CMBS through the CMBX. They are betting against securities backed by malls in weaker locations where stores could close in quick succession, triggering debt defaults.”
This morning Bloomberg has followed up our post with a not-so-subtly-titled “Wall Street Has Found Its Next Big Short” in which it writes that “Wall Street speculators are zeroing in on the next U.S. credit crisis: the mall…. It’s no secret many mall complexes have been struggling for years as Americans do more of their shopping online. But now, they’re catching the eye of hedge-fund types who think some may soon buckle under their debts, much the way many homeowners did nearly a decade ago.”
The trade, as we discussed before, is not so much shorting the equities where a persistent threat of a short squeeze has burned the bears on more than one occasion, but going long default risk via CMBX or otherwise shorting the CMBS complex.
Like the run-up to the housing debacle, a small but growing group of firms are positioning to profit from a collapse that could spur a wave of defaults. Their target: securities backed not by subprime mortgages, but by loans taken out by beleaguered mall and shopping center operators. With bad news piling up for anchor chains like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, bearish bets against commercial mortgage-backed securities are growing.
To be sure, as we first noted last week and as Bloomberg confirms, the activity surrounding CMBS shorting has soared:
In recent weeks, firms such as Alder Hill Management — an outfit started by protégés of hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper — have ramped up wagers against the bonds, which have held up far better than the shares of beaten-down retailers. By one measure, short positions on two of the riskiest slices of CMBS surged to $5.3 billion last month — a 50 percent jump from a year ago.
The trade itself is similar to those that Michael Burry and Steve Eisman made against the housing market before the financial crisis, made famous by the book and movie “The Big Short.” Often called credit protection, buyers of the contracts are paid for CMBS losses that occur when malls and shopping centers fall behind on their loans. In return, they pay monthly premiums to the seller (usually a bank) as long as they hold the position.
This year, traders bought a net $985 million contracts that target the two riskiest types of CMBS, according to the Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. That’s more than five times the purchases in the prior three months.
Further, based on fundamentals, the trade indeed appears justified: “Sold in 2012, the mortgage bonds have a higher concentration of loans to regional malls and shopping centers than similar securities issued since the financial crisis. And because of the way CMBS are structured, the BBB- and BB rated notes are the first to suffer losses when underlying loans go belly up.”
“These malls are dying, and we see very limited prospect of a turnaround in performance,” according to a January report from Alder Hill, which began shorting the securities. “We expect 2017 to be a tipping point.”
Cracks have started to appear. Prices on the BBB- pool of CMBS have slumped from roughly 96 cents on the dollar in late January to 87.08 cents last week, index data compiled by Markit show.
For now, there is little hope of a recovery on the horizon as more and more retailers continue to fail, leaving even more vacant, and thus non-rent collecting, mall space.
Just this morning, Gordmans Stores, the century-old discount department store chain, filed for bankruptcy with plans to liquidate its inventory and assets. According to Bloomberg, the company, which posted losses in five of the past six quarters, listed total debt of $131 million in Chapter 11 papers filed Monday in Nebraska federal court. Gordmans said in a statement that it has an agreement with Tiger Capital Group and Great American Group “for the sale in liquidation of the inventory and other assets of Gordmans’ retail stores and distribution centers,” subject to court approval or a better offer.
Omaha, Nebraska-based Gordmans, which operates over 100 stores in 22 states and employs about 5,100 people, is the latest victim in a retail industry suffering from sluggish mall traffic and a move by shoppers to the internet.
The shift has been especially rough on department stores, including regional chains like Gordmans that once enjoyed strong customer loyalty, but even national concerns like Sears Holdings Corp. and Macy’s Inc. have had to close hundreds of locations to cope with the slump
Gordmans, founded in 1915 by Russian immigrant Sam Richman, was acquired by PE firm Sun Capital in 2008 which took it public two years later. Funds managed by Sun Capital hold about 49.6% of Gordmans’ equity, according to a court filing. Growth slowed in 2014, and losses began to mount. Same-store sales fell more than 9 percent in the most recently reported quarter. The company announced job cuts in January, citing the “sluggish retail environment.”
“Like many other apparel and retail companies, the debtors have fallen victim in recent months to adverse macro-economic trends, especially a general shift away from brick-and-mortar to online retail channels, a shift in consumer demographics, and expensive leases,” Chief Financial Officer James B. Brown said in court papers.
While Gordman's decline was long in the making, its financial conditions deteriorated rapidly in March, when vendors began to refuse to ship new inventory, Brown said. After entertaining various offers, the company concluded that its best recourse was the liquidation deal with Tiger and Great American.
To be sure, Gordman's is hardly the last retailer to shutter and while many of its comps have yet to default, the pain is tangible: retailers had one of the worst Christmas-shopping seasons in memory, J.C. Penney said in February it plans to shutter up to 140 stores. That echoed Macy’s decision last year to close some 100 outlets and Sears’s move to shut about 150 locations.
Meanwhile, delinquencies on retail loans have risen to 6.5%, one percent higher than CMBS as a whole, according to Wells Fargo.
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So does that mean that shorting malls is now accepted as the next “big short“? Some are not convinced.
Take for example Credit Suisse who said last month non-CMBS specialists – perhaps an apt name is “CMBS tourists” – are helping drive the recent run-up in demand for credit protection. That raises concern too many people are chasing the same trade. Of course, it may simply be that Credit Suisse analysts are being paid in CMBS
“The short feels crowded to us,” said Matthew Weinstein, principal at Axonic Capital, a hedge fund that specializes in structured products. “If these defaults start happening soon, the short will work, but if the defaults do not occur quickly, the first guy out could drive the market meaningfully higher.”
Others, such as TCW, say CMBS sold in 2012 and 2013 might fall as low as 20 cents on the dollar, however the firm isn’t betting against them because it’s hard to know when the wagers might pay off. “
Plus, the contracts aren’t cheap. It costs about 3 percent a year to short BBB- rated securities and 5 percent to bet against BB notes, plus an upfront fee to put on the trade.
Consequently, it’s “more speculative than it is the next big short,” according to Sorin Capital Management’s Tom Digan.
Whatever the case, here’s what the endgame might look like. About two hours north of Manhattan, in Kingston, New York, stands the Hudson Valley Mall. It used to house J.C. Penney and Macy’s. But both then left, gutting the complex. In January, the mall was sold for less than 20 percent of the original $50 million loan. Mortgage-bond holders exposed to the loan were partly wiped out.
“When a mall starts to falter, the end result is typically binary in nature,” said Matt Tortorello, a senior analyst at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. “It’s either the mall is going to survive or it’s going take a substantial loss.”
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Ultimately, whether or not this is indeed that next big short as we first hinted one week ago, or the skeptics will be proven right, will depend on one thing: access to capital. Ironically, it was that variable that ended up crushing OPEC's plans to wipe out shale, which despite a dramatic downturn in oil prices managed to obtain enough funding and capital from generous, yield-starved creditors, to survive the past year while technological advances caught up and pushe the breakeven point to $50, or in many cases lower.
For now, banks and hedge funds have proven far less willing to be “last resort” sources of distressed funding to retailers, and malls, (perhaps with the notable exception of Sears where Eddie Lampert has expressed a desire to go down with the sinking ship) both of which continue to deteriorate as the US consumer is either tapped out, or simply resorts to online retailers like Amazon. Should that not change any time soon, and should the cash flow profile of retailers continue to deteriorate, it is virtually assured that those who are now rushing into the next “big short” will be rewarded.
Finally, as we noted last week, here is a brief note from Horseman Capital's Russell Clark laying out the latest dangers inherent in the mall space:
Shopping mall REITS have been a fantastic investment over the years. Not only have they provided investors with large capital gains, they have also typically offered above market dividend yields. My interpretation of the REIT model is that the operator collects rents from a diverse number of retailers. This is then passed on to the end investors after costs and financing. The REIT manager reduces risk by diversifying the retailers paying rent, and by also spreading the risk geographically. If the REIT manager can acquire more real estate assets at a yield higher than what it needs to pay out as dividend yield, then the REIT can issue more shares and grow indefinitely. Mall REITs have generally done well, except during the financial crisis.
However, it seems to me that North America could well have too many shopping malls. On a per capita basis, the US has twice the space of Australia and 5 times that in the UK.
One source of REITs revenue growth comes from acquiring more malls. Intriguingly we have started to see volumes of real estate transactions for shopping malls fall. This means that the number of transactions to buy or sell properties is beginning to decline. Last time this happened, rents began to fall a year later. Perhaps it’s a sign that buyers believe rents have some downside risk?
Many people in the market are aware of the problems that the large department stores in the US are currently facing, and their resultant plans to retrench. This affects two of the largest shopping mall REITs that have the department stores as tenants. The reality is that the shopping mall REITs charge extremely low rents to the department stores. The large shopping malls use the department stores to lure traffic, and then make their money from higher rents charged to speciality retailers. Often the per square foot rent of the specialty retailer can be 30 times or higher that paid by the anchor tenant. Looking at the top 2 shopping mall operators, they disclose their top rent payers. Recent share prices performance of 8 shared tenants has been poor, and management commentary has seeming implied that they may also be looking to reduce store count.
It should also be pointed out that many tenants have a clause in their lease to reduce rents should an anchor close a store. Thus, even though the loss of rent due to an anchor closing is minimal, the knock-on effect of reduced rents from the remaining tenants is a serious concern for the REITs.
One of the other problems that shopping mall REITs face is that the size that the large department stores take up is more than 400 million square feet. The largest and most successfully specialty retailer is TJ Maxx which currently has 100 million square feet. It is difficult to see any single retailer quickly being able to fill the space made vacant by department store closures.
Back in the lead up to the financial crisis we found that the share prices of REITs and their tenants were very closely related. Recently we have seen tenants share price weaken again, but REITS remain relatively strong.
Investors are advised to exercise caution with the shopping mall REITs