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One of America’s Biggest Mall Developers Might Sell Itself

The CEO of the No. 2 U.S. mall developer General Growth Properties (GGP) has had it with the narrative that shopping centers are dying.

Sandeep Mathrani, CEO of the owner of such malls as Fashion Show in Las Vegas, and Ala Moana in Honolulu, surprised investors on Monday when he said he was looking at “strategic alternatives” for company, frustrated that the stock market wasn’t giving his company more credit for the quality of the malls in GGP’s portfolio.

The company had just reported its quarterly financial results, which included occupancy of 95.9% of space at its established malls. Still, the idea among many investors that malls are in trouble, bolstered by a surge of headline-grabbing retail bankruptcies and mass store closings by top retailers, has taken hold, hurting the stocks of mall owners like GGP and its larger rival Simon Property Group, which last week reported a similar occupancy. (SPG)

All the agita around retail has been a drag on mall stocks, even those of GGP and Simon, both of which operate primarily high quality, productive malls: GGP shares are down about 28% off a multi-year high hit last June. Simon has taken a similar beating.

“There is a wide discount between public and private markets,” Mathrani said on the conference call. “The sum of the parts is far greater than GGP’s current stock price. We are reviewing all strategic alternatives to bridge the gap.” When pushed on whether “strategic alternatives” could mean a sale of the company, as the term usually implies in corporate jargon, Mathrani would only say “There is no sacred cow.” He also suggested the company could sell off some assets and offer a special dividend, among other options.

Typically, companies make such dramatic pronouncements in a press release, rather than in comments on a call. But the news sent shares up on Monday and Tuesday.

Both companies saw trouble coming years ago, shedding weaker malls by selling them or spinning them of in another real estate investment trust. Still, with major anchors like Macy’s (M), J.C. Penney (JCP) and Sears (SHLD), each announcing dozens of store closings in January after an abysmal holiday season, and mall stalwarts like Aéropostale, Bebe Stores, Gymboree, and J.Crew struggling, it’s easy to see why investors are cautious about malls. (It’s worth noting that relatively few of the Macy’s stores that are closing are in a Simon or GGP mall.)

What’s more, the weak comparable sales at luxury chains like Nordstrom (JWN) and Neiman Marcus in recent quarters show that even high end malls face some peril. On the whole, the better mall developers have deftly repurposed space they’ve taken back from a Macy’s or Sears. But there is clearly caution in the air since closings and bankruptcies have accelerated this year.

Still, Mathrani said GGP’s stock market value ($20 billion after this recent increase) was below the cumulative value of its properties, something he finds perplexing and frustrating. “Investors should invest with companies that own the best retail real estate in the U.S.,” he said. At the same time, he recognized his obligation to investors.

“We will get value to our shareholders,” he said. “The break-up value is more than the current market capitalization. Business is strong. We will pick a path soon.”