Cracks in Malls Grow Deeper (Long Thanos, Short CMBS)

Retail Carnage Continues Unabated (R.I.P. Payless, Gymboree, Charlotte Russe & Shopko)

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Talk of retail’s demise is so pervasive that the casual consumer may be immune to it at this point. Yeah, yeah, stores are closing and e-commerce is taking a greater share of the retail pie but what of it?

Well, it just keeps getting worse.

Consider 2019 alone. The Payless ShoeSourceGymboreeCharlotte Russe, Shopko, and Samuels Jewelers* liquidations constitute thousands of stores evaporated from existence. It’s like Thanos came to Earth and snapped his fingers and — POOF! — a good portion of America’s sh*tty unnecessary retail dissipated into dust. Tack on bankruptcy-related closures for Things RememberedBeauty Brands and Diesel Brands USA Inc. and you’re up to over 4,300 stores that have peaced out.

That, suffice it to say, would be horrific enough on its own. But “healthy” (read: non-bankrupt) retailers have only added to the #retailapocalypse. Newell Brands Inc. ($NWL)is closing 100 of its Yankee Candle locations to focus on “more profitable” distribution channels. Gap Inc. ($GPS) announced it is closing 230 of its more unprofitable locations and spinning Old Navy out into its own separate company — the good ol’ “good retail, bad retail” spinoff. Chico’s FAS Inc. ($CHS) is closing 250 stores. Stage Stores Inc. ($SSI) — which purchased once-bankruptcy Gordmans — is closing between 40-60 department stores. Kitchen Collection ($HBB) is closing 25-30 stores. E.L.F. Beauty ($ELF) is closing all 22 of its locations. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. ($ANF)? Yup, closing stores. Up to 40 of them. GNC Inc. ($GNC) intends to close hundreds more stores over the next three years. Foot Locker Inc. ($FL)? Despite a strong earnings report, it is closing a net 85 stores. J.C. Penney Inc. ($JCP)…well…it didn’t report strong earnings and, not-so-shockingly, it, too, is closing approximately 27 stores this year. Victoria’s Secret ($LB)? 53 stores. Signet Jewelers Ltd. ($SIG)? Mmmm hmmm…it’s been closing its Zales and Kay Jewelers stores for years and will continue to do so. As we noted on SundayThe Children’s Place Inc. ($PLCE) also intends to close 40-45 stores this year. Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. ($BBW) will close 30 stores over the next two years. Ascena Retail Group Inc. ($ASNA) recently reported and disclosed that it had closed 110 stores (2% of its MASSIVE footprint) in the last quarter. Even the creepy-a$$ dolls at American Girl aren’t moving off the shelves fast enough: Mattel Inc. ($MAT) indicated that it needs to rationalize its retail footprint. There’s nothing Wonder Woman — or even a nightmare-inducing American Girl version of Wonder Woman — can do to prevent all of this carnage.

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As a cherry on top, EVEN FRIKKEN AMAZON INC. ($AMZN) IS CLOSING ALL 87 OF ITS POP-UP SHOPS! Alas, The Financial Times pinned the total store closure number for 2019 alone at 4,800 stores (and just wait until Pier 1 hits). Attached to that, of course, is job loss at a pretty solid clip:

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All of this begs the question: if there are so many store closures, are the landlords feeling it?

In part, surprisingly, the number appears to be ‘no.’ Per the FT:

“Investors in mall debt have also shown little sign of worry. The so-called CMBX 6 index — which tracks the performance of securitised commercial property loans with a concentration in retail — is up 4.4 per cent for 2019.”

Yet, in pockets, the answer also appears to be increasingly ‘maybe?’

For example, take a look at CBL & Associates Properties Inc. ($CBL) — a REIT that has exposure to a number of the names delineated above.

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On its February 8th earnings call, the company stated:

“We are pleased to deliver results in line with expectations set forth at the beginning of the year notwithstanding the challenges that materialized.”

Translation: “we are pleased to merely fall in line with rock bottom expectations given all of the challenges that materialized and could have made sh*t FAR FAR WORSE.

The company reported a 4.4% net operating income decline for the quarter and a 6% same-center net operating income decline for the year. The company is performing triage and eliminating short-term pressure: it secured a new $1.185b ‘23 secured revolver and term loan with 16 banks as part of the syndicate (nothing like spreading the risk) to refinance out unsecured debt (encumbering the majority of its ‘A Mall’ properties and priming the rest of its capital structure in the process); it completed $100mm of gross dispositions plus another $160mm in “sales” of its Cary Towne Center and Acadiana Mall; it reduced its dividend (which, for investors in REITs, is a huge slap in the face); and it also engaged in “effective management of expenses” which means that they’re taking costs out of the business to make the bottom line look prettier.

Given the current state of affairs, triage should continue to remain a focus:

“Between the bankruptcy filings of Bon-Ton and Sears, we have more than 40 anchor closures.”

“…rent loss from anchor closures as well as rent reductions and store closures related to bankrupt or struggling shop tenants is having a significant near-term impact to our income stream.”

They went on further to say:

“Bankruptcy-related store closures impacted fourth quarter mall occupancy by approximately 70 basis points or 128,000 square feet. Occupancy for the first quarter will be impacted by a few recent bankruptcy filings. Gymboree announced liquidation of their namesake brand and Crazy 8 stores. We have approximately 45 locations with 106,000 square feet closing.”

Wait. It keeps going:

We also have 13 Charlotte Russe stores that will close as part of their filing earlier this month, representing 82,000 square feet.

Earlier this week, Things Remembered filed. We anticipate closing most of their 32 locations in our portfolio comprising approximately 39,000 square feet.”

And yet occupancy is rising. The quality of the occupancy, however — on an average rental basis — is on the decline. The company indicated that new and renewal leases averaged a rent decline of 9.1%. With respect to this, the company states:

As we've seen throughout the years, certain retailers with persistent sales declines have pressured renewal spreads. We had 17 Ascena deals and 2 deals with Express this quarter that contributed 550 basis points to the overall decline on renewal leases. We anticipate negative spreads in the near term but are optimistic that the positive sales trends in 2018 will lead to improved lease negotiations with this year.

Ahhhhh…more misplaced optimism in retail (callback to this bit about Leslie Wexner). As a counter-balance, however, there is some level of realism at play here: the company reserved $15mm for losses due to store closures and co-tenancy effects on company NOI. In the meantime, it is filling in empty space with amusement attractions (e.g., Dave & Buster’s Entertainment Inc. ($PLAY), movie theaters, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc ($DKS) locations, restaurants, office space and hotels. Sh*t…given the amount of specialty movie theaters allegedly going into all of these emptying malls, America is going to need all of those additional gyms to work off that popcorn (and diabetes). Get ready for those future First Day Declarations that delineate that, per capita, America is over-gym’d and over-theatered. It’s coming: it stretches credulity that the solution to every emptying mall is Equinox and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. ($AMC). But we digress.

All of these factors — the average rent decline, the empty square footage, etc. — are especially relevant considering the company’s capital structure and could, ultimately, challenge compliance with debt covenants. Net debt-to-EBITDA was 7.3x compared with 6.7x at year-end 2017. Here is the capital structure and the respective market prices (as of March 19):

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The new Senior secured term loan due ‘23:

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The Senior unsecured notes due ‘23:

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The notes due ‘24:

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The notes due ‘26:

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Additionally, the company is trying to promote how flexible it is with its ability to pay down debt and invest in redevelopment properties. Here is a snippet of the company presentation that displays the debt covenants on its revolver, term loan and other unsecured recourse debt:

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What is the real value of the mall assets that are left unencumbered? Recently, the Company has been slowly impairing a number of its assets and many of the Company’s tier 2 and 3 malls have yet to be revalued. If appraisers lower the value of these assets that are really supposed to be supporting the debt, what then?

And that doesn’t even take into consideration the co-tenancy clauses. As anchor tenants fall like flies, you’ll potentially see a rush to the exits as retailers with four-wall sales that don’t justify rents (and rising wages) exercise their rights.

So, given all of above, does the market share management’s (misplaced) optimism?

J.P. Morgan’s Michael W. Mueller wrote in a February 7, 2019 equity research report:

"While commentary in the earnings release noted some sequential improvement in 4Q results, we still see it being a grind for the company over the near to intermediate term."

BTIG’s James Sullivan added on February 20, 2019:

"We see no near-term solution for the owners of more marginal “B” assets like CBL & Associates. Sales productivity for such portfolios has shown little growth over the last eight quarters in contrast to the better-positioned “A” portfolios."

"The recent re-financing provides CBL with some near-term liquidity but limits future access to the mortgage market as only a small number of readily “bankable” assets remain unencumbered."

“We expect the challenging conditions in the industry to continue to create pressure on the operating metrics of mall portfolios with average sales productivity of less than $400/foot. More anchor closures are likely and in-line tenants are also likely to manage their brick-and-mortar exposure aggressively and close marginal locations. We reiterate our Sell rating and $2 price target.”

“With overall flat sales productivity in the portfolio, there is limited evidence that a turnaround in performance is likely in the next 24 months. Instead, we expect continued declines in SSNOI with negative leasing spreads and lower operating cost recovery rates.”

“CBL’s new facility which totals $1.185B is secured and replaces a series of unsecured term loans and a line of credit. Collateral includes 20 assets, of which three are Tier 1 Malls, 14 are Tier 2 Malls, and three are Associated Centers. As a result, CBL now has a much smaller number of unencumbered malls.”

“There are no unencumbered Tier 1 Malls (Sales exceeding $375/foot). There are nine unencumbered Tier 2 Malls (sales $300 -$375/foot) and those malls averaged $337/foot in 2017. The 2018 data is not available yet, but sales/foot for Tier 2 assets in 2018 declined by an average $5/foot. So assuming the law of averages applies, the average productivity of the unencumbered Tier 2 assets is $332/foot. Malls with that level of productivity cannot be financed in the CMBS market per CBL management.”

“With limited access to financing using their unencumbered malls, CBL has to look to its available capacity on its new line of credit, $265m, and projected free cash flow after paying its dividends, we estimate, of $155m in 2019 and $135m in 2020. CBL is currently estimating an annual capital requirement of $75m - $125m to redevelop closed anchor boxes. The per box range is $7m - $10m which we believe is low compared to peers whose cost per unit is closer to $17m. So CBL faces dwindling capital sources at the same time that its portfolio is suffering significant quarterly drops in SSNOI.”

Apropos, the shorts are getting aggressive on the name:

The historical stock chart is ugly AF:

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Which brings us to commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) — derivative instruments comprised of loans on commercial properties. Canyon Partners’ Co-Chairman and co-CEO Joshua Friedman is shorting the sh*t out of mall-focused CMBS (containing among many other things, CBL properties) via a well known CDS index: the Markit CMBX.BBB- (and lower Indices) — to the tune of approximately $1b (out of $25b AUM). This is the mall-equivalent of the big short, except for commercial real estate. 🤔🤔

Here is a CMBX primer for anyone who wants to nerd out to the extreme. Choice bit:

CMBX allows investors to short CMBS credit risk across a wide array of vintages and credit ratings. Shorting individual cash bonds is difficult and rarely done, with the exception of a few very liquid names. The market for cusip level CMBS CDS used to exist, but the liquidity proved very poor and it was quickly replaced by trading of the synthetic indices.

And here is some color on what Mr. Friedman said regarding his trade:

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Wowzers. Just imagine what happens to retail — including the malls — when the noise gets even louder.

*Samuels Jewelers filed chapter 11 last year but announced liquidation this year after failing to secure a buyer for its assets.

☠️R.I.P. Sears (Finally)?☠️

Sears, Malls & Shorting the "End of the #Retailapocalypse" Narrative (Short Karl).

It’s official: the media apparently cares more about Sears Holding Corp. ($SHLD) than consumers do. Sure, it’s a public company and so “investors” may also care but, no offense, if you’re still holding SHLD stock than you probably shouldn’t be investing in anything other than passive index funds. If anything at all (not investment advice).

Anyway, the internet is replete with commentary about what went wrong, what the bigbox retailer did and didn’t do right, what plans may not have ever existed, what could have happened and what’s going to happen (video). It didn’t build an online brand OR invest in stores! It was mismanaged! Choice bit:

Ted Nelson, CEO and strategy director at Mechanica, agreed that financial management played a big role. He believes the story of Sears and its downfall isn’t a brand story at all. “[It’s one of] financial engineering and hedge-fund manager hubris gone awry,” he said. “There are a lot of places that brand [and collection of owned brands] could have evolved to. But that would have required a savvy, cross-functional and empowered leadership team, which isn’t what Sears got.”

Oh my! It’s such a shame that Sears may liquidate!

Meetings with lenders only lasted one hour!

Maybe it will get itself a DIP credit facility and last through Christmas! Either way, it is likely to immediately shutter up to 150 locations! This is all such a shame! Look at what it used to be!

From Bloomberg:

“The handwriting has been on the wall for years,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing consultancy. “It’s been like watching an accident. You can’t look away, but you know it’s coming.”

Right. We’re over it. We honestly could not care less about Sears at this point. Bankruptcy professionals will make money and this thing finally…FINALLY…may get the burial it deserves. Like we previously said, “This thing is like ‘Karl’ in Die Hard.” Even Karl did, eventually, die.

That all said, we do care about how Sears’ demise affects malls.

First, a bit about malls generally…

On October 7, AxiosFelix Salmon wrote “Retailpocalypse Not,” and highlighted a Q2 2018 retail report from CBRE, concluding “The death of shopping malls is exaggerated: They are currently 94% occupied, according to CBRE.” Yet, he missed key parts of CBRE’s report:

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And mall rents are on the decline:

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Other reports substantiate these trends. Per RetailDive:

It's still not a pretty picture on the ground, however. Second quarter mall rents fell 4.6% from the first quarter and 7.1% year over year, hit by major store closures from Toys R Us, Sears and J.C. Penney, according to a trend report from commercial real estate firm JLL. Mall vacancy rates hit 4% during the period, JLL said. The retail sector suffered its worst quarter in nine years with net absorption of negative 3.8 million square feet, which pushed the regional mall vacancy rate up by 0.2% to 8.6% as the average mall rent increased 0.3%, according to another report from commercial real estate firm Reis emailed to Retail Dive.

And things have gotten worse since then. On October 3, four days before the Axios piece, The Wall Street Journal reported on Q3 numbers:

Mall vacancy rates rose to 9.1% in the third quarter, their highest level in seven years. Many of the older shopping centers that lack trendy retailers, lively restaurants, or other forms of popular entertainment continue to lose tenants, or even close down.

But many lower-end malls are still struggling to benefit from the economic revival, especially in some of the more economically depressed areas in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. They suffer from a glut of shopping centers but not enough consumers.

The average rent for malls fell 0.3% to $43.25 a square foot in the third quarter, down from $43.36 in the second quarter, according to data from real-estate research firm Reis Inc. The last time rents slid on a quarter-over-quarter basis was in 2011.

What sparked the vacancy jump? Bankrupted Bon-Ton Stores closing and, gulp, Sears closures too. Which, obviously, could get a hell of a lot worse. Indeed, Cowen and Company recently concluded that “we are only in the ‘early innings’ of mass store closures.” As noted in Business Insider:

"Retail square footage per capita in the United States has been widely sourced and cited as being far above most developed countries — more than double Australia and over four times that of the United Kingdom," Cowen analysts wrote in a 50-page report on the state of the retail industry. The data "suggests that the sector remains in the early innings of reduction in unproductive physical retail."

On point, one category that had largely remained (relatively) unscathed in the last 2 years of retail carnage is the home goods space. But, now, companies like Pier 1 Imports Inc. ($PIR) and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. ($BBBY) appear to be in horrific shape. Bloomberg’s Sarah Halzack writes:

Two major companies in this category, Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. and Pier 1 Imports Inc., are mired in problems that look increasingly unsolvable. Bed Bath & Beyond saw its shares tumble 21 percent on Thursday after it reported declining comparable sales for the ninth time in 10 quarters. And Pier 1’s stock fell nearly 20 percent in a single day last week after it saw an even ghastlier plunge in same-store sales and discontinued its full-year guidance.

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The struggles of those two retailers ought to compound problems in the overall retail environment. Pier 1 has 1000 stores. Bed Bath & Beyond has 1024 stores.

Still, not all malls are created equal.

Barron’s writes:

Sears’ poor performance has long been an issue for owners, but landlords are split between those that are probably cheering the possibility of reclaiming its locations for more profitable tenants and those that see its potential bankruptcy as a negative tipping point.

Wells Fargo’s Jeffrey Donnelly compiled a list of REIT exposure to Sears, ranking various REITs by how much revenue exposure there is to Sears.

Seritage Growth Properties (SRG) is at the top of the list, with 167 properties, or 72% of its space and 43% percent of its revenue. Urban Edge (UE) has four properties for 3.5% of space and 4.2% of revenue. Next comes Washington Prime Group (WPG) with 42 locations, or 9.8% of space and 0.9% of revenue, followed by CBL & Associates(CBL) with 40 properties, a negligible amount of its space and 0.8% of revenue. Brixmor (BRX) has 11 locations for 1.4% of its space and 0.6% of revenue, Kimco (KIM) has 14 locations, 1.9% of its space and 0.6% of revenue. Simon Property Group (SPG) is at the bottom of the list with 59 locations, 5.3% of its space, and 0.3% of revenue.

Among the companies he covers, he says, CBL & Associates is the most at risk because the “low productivity and demographics of its mall portfolio could make re-leasing challenging and extended vacancies could trigger co-tenancy.” By contrast, Macerich (MAC) is the best positioned, Donnelly argues, due to its “negligible exposure and industry-leading productivity of [its] portfolio.”

Here (video) is Starwood Capital Group ($STWD) CEO Barry Sternlicht opining on the demise of Sears. He says about Sears filing:

“Probably a net positive. So, in our malls that we own…the income that comes near the Sears store is 3% of the mall’s income. Nobody wants to be in front of the Sears because there’s nobody in the Sears. So, we take it back and make it an apartment building or a Dave & Busters or a Kidzania or…a theater…so honestly its good for the owners to get on with this…and we’ll see what happens with Penney’s too….”

In “Sears Exit Would Leave Big Holes in Malls. Some Landlords Welcome That,” The Wall Street Journal noted:

Mall owners with trendy retailers, lively restaurants and other forms of popular entertainment have continued to prosper. Many of these landlords would welcome Sears’ departure, mall owners and analysts said. The department store’s exit would allow them to take over a big-box space and lease it to a more profitable tenant.

In malls where leases were signed decades ago, Sears rents could be as low as $4 a square foot. New tenants in the same space could bring as much as six times that amount.

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J.C. Penney ($JCP) and Best Buy ($BBBY) are other theoretical beneficiaries (though that would STILL require people to go to malls).

Who is not benefiting? Apparently those hedge funds that famously shorted malls.

Looks like Sears won’t be the last loser playing in the mall space.

Professional-Services.ai

Short junior attorneys...the machines are coming for them. And, frankly, why shouldn't they come for attorneys at ALL levels? After all, are there situations where there is "overzealous advocacy and hyperactive legal efforts"? When there are "so many attorneys and their respective billings"? "When the hourly rates and amount of time billed are simply unreasonable"? "Staggering," in fact?  Suffice it to say, you won't see Weil filing any cases in Southern District of Iowa anytime soon (see below). Frankly, "overzealous advocacy and hyperactive legal efforts" seems like it could have just as easily applied to the pissing contest that was the equitable subordination claim in Aeropostale but who are we to judge a grudge match between Weil and Kirkland & Ellis (which the the latter convincingly won)? We were too busy popping popcorn and putting our feet up. Switching gears and looking elsewhere in changing labor markets, here's to wondering: is the "gig economy" working? And what becomes of those 89,000 lost retail jobs?

Speaking of retail jobs, it looks like the bankers have all of them. Now there's M&A noise around Neiman Marcus, which is heating up with Hudson's Bay sniffing around hard but trying to avoid assumption of Neiman's substantial debt-load. Meanwhile Nine West Holdings has hired Lazard to figure out its capital structure. Elsewhere in retail, Macy's ($M), Kohl's ($KSS), Nordstrom ($JWN) and J.C. Penney ($JCP) all reported earnings that looked like a dumpster fire and the stocks promptly got decimated. We're sure the bankers are salivating. And speaking of retailers with jacked-up debt (and bankers), GNC Holdings Inc. and its agent bankers JPMorgan reportedly attempted but ultimately failed to extend GNC's $1.13b loan by three years. Now GNC says it will use its "strong" free cash flow to fund ops and deal with its '18 maturity. This is an interesting story on many levels. First, there have been a TON of share buybacks in recent years (the public equivalent of a dividend recap - our favorite) and so it was only a matter of time before one of them bit an uncreative and misled -- uh, we mean, generous shareholder-minded - management team in the bum. Second, the "Amazon-effect" apparently applies to meatheads too with vitamin sales allegedly shifting online. Who knew Biff could function in an m-commerce world? Go Biff. Third, despite a variety of downward trending financials, GNC's loan is still trading at a tick below par and so the proposed transaction might have affected the lenders' yield metrics (hence the rejection). Which gets us to #4: with crappy loans like GNC's ticking up so far upward, most distressed players can't stop complaining about a dearth of opportunities to target: everything is priced to perfection. Sadly, everyone needs the yield wherever they can get it hoping (praying?) that when the going gets rough, they'll be the first to hit eject. No, no (rate-fueled) bubble to see here.