The meteoric ascent of Centro Properties Group from a company few were familiar with a decade ago to a firm that controls one of the 10 largest portfolios in the United States always seemed too good to be true. It turns out, it was.
While Australian capital has long had a prominent presence in the U.S. (names like Westfield, Macquarie and Galileo come to mind), Centro's rise was somehow different. It collected properties as if they were stamps, amassing more than 700 in a matter of years through portfolio deals and outright acquisitions of companies. In the process it leapfrogged past firms with decades of experience owning and operating properties in the U.S. market. And 2007 provided the firm's master stroke: the acquisition of New York City-based New Plan, one of the oldest and largest retail REITs in the country.
A few months ago I had the chance to sit down with Centro CEO Andrew Scott when he was in New York attending an investors conference. One of the things I asked is how the company was able to move so far so fast. He pointed to the superannuation funds in Australia whereby every worker puts 9 percent of their money into retirement accounts. And a preference there has always been to invest in commercial real estate.
In Australia, however, the vast majority of investible real estate is already owned by funds like Centro. As a result, Australian firms have to be aggressive abroad in order to invest their funds.
Scott said that Centro constantly had money streaming in and was able to move from acquisition to acquisition without seemingly ever taking a breather to absorb the new properties. He even hinted that there might be more deals for the firm in the offing this year. As it turns out Centro's growth wasn't just the result of those funds. In reality, it was carrying an extremely heavy debt load, with much of that short-term financing stemming from its aggressive acquisitions strategy.
Now it's looking at billions of dollars worth of maturing debt that all needs to be paid back (or refinanced) by February 15. The initial reports coming out of Australia are that no bank is willing to do that unless Centro dramatically decreases its leverage levels. The only way it can do that is to sell assets quickly. And that creates a whole other problem.
Centro's fall is proving doubly painful because investors in U.S. retail REITs have gotten spooked by Centro's rapid fall. They are worried that U.S. REITs have followed suit and dumped REIT shares in the days after Centro's announcement sending many companies to new 52-week lows. That may hamper some REITs' ability (or willingness) to jump in and buy Centro's portfolio, especially if it would require them to take on more debt — something that's extremely tricky in the current environment.
In the end, there's a strong argument that Centro's problems are the result of bad timing and a too-aggressive strategy. It seems highly unlikely that other firms will face similar issues since no major retail REITs have similar leverage levels or are looking at the amount of debt maturing in 2008 that Centro faced.
But it also shows that getting a handle on the credit crisis may not be as easy as we thought a couple of months ago either.