For what seems like an interminable stretch of time, we've been waiting for things to get better.
The industry peaked in early 2007, but the floor didn't drop out entirely until a year later — after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy made it feel like the whole world was free falling. The stretch from late 2008 into 2009 was a dark period, marked by rapidly eroding fundamentals, mass store closures, retailer liquidations and retail real estate firms on the brink.
But things have been improving for a while. Since the second half of 2009 the industry has plodded along. Conditions did not get a whole lot worse in most areas, but they showed no real signs of improvement either.
Now, suddenly, it feels like the recovery is here. The numbers are bearing that out.
In the span of several weeks key industry metrics turned positive. Reis' vacancy statistics for regional malls and community and shopping centers stopped rising for the first time in nearly four years. And rents on both property types stabilized.
In addition, numbers from Real Capital Analytics' show that investment sales volumes on retail properties jumped in the third quarter and offers were up for the fourth quarter. The bid/ask gap between buyers and sellers has narrowed. Banks are increasingly dealing with dud loans and bad assets. Lenders are loosening up a bit. As a result, deal activity could double next year, bringing us back to a level of activity on par with 2004 — before things got out of hand.
The biggest news of all was General Growth Properties' emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November. General Growth is just one firm. But in a lot of ways the second largest owner of regional malls in the country has stood as a proxy for the health of the industry as a whole.
It filed for bankruptcy at a time when REIT stock prices were at all-time lows and the outlook for retail real estate was at its darkest. There were fears that General Growth's bankruptcy was the start of a tumultuous reckoning that would reshape the industry.
Instead, the bankruptcy filing served as a release. Tensions eased. Conditions stopped worsening.
Retail REIT stocks have rallied ever since that day. REIT portfolios boast occupancies north of 90 percent. And REIT executives are now talking again about acquisition opportunities rather than struggling to survive.
General Growth's bankruptcy did not spawn any sequels. The reorganization itself was dramatic — especially with rival Simon Property Group making a run at acquiring the firm in its entirety. But at the end of the day, General Growth emerged largely intact. It still has work ahead, but nothing nearly as daunting as it has already gone through.
In fact, it seems like the outlook looks bright for the firm for the first time in a long time. And you can say the same thing for the industry as a whole.
Cautious voices are warning that with cap rates now on the decline there is a danger of the industry overdoing things, especially as deal volume rises. We will just have to hope that most investors have learned the lessons of recent years and will not allow themselves to get to the point they were in 2007 again.