The economy may be sending mixed signals about the outlook for consumer spending and retailing. But investors and developers who are active in the retail real estate sector show few signs of ambiguity—they are borrowing and building at historically high rates. Borrowing by U.S.-based developers and investors in retail is now on track to surpass last year’s record $60.3 billion in borrowing, despite rising rates and high asset prices. And the pipeline for new product is at its highest level in a decade.
At the same time, however, there are signs of consumer fatigue: June same-store sales grew 2.8 percent—below the consensus prediction. For the chains tracked by the International Council of Shopping Centers, same-store sales came in at 2.6 percent, dragged down by Wal-Mart’s anemic 1.2% growth and a 6% slide at Gap Stores.
Shoppers are telling pollsters that they are eliminating shopping trips because of high gas prices and, according to the latest edition of How America Shops, a biennial study by consultants WSL Strategic Retail, there is now a striking divide between upper and lower-income families. As the housing boom slows and rates rise on home-equity borrowing and other consumer credit, households with incomes below $75,000 are applying the brakes, says WSL President Wendy Liebmann.
On the other hand, consumer confidence, as measured by the University of Michigan and the Conference Board, registered big gains in June; the Conference Board survey hit a two-year high.
And there is plenty of interest in retail assets. M&A activity, was slow in the first half—not a single major retail REIT changed hands. But the third quarter kicked off with two major retail REIT mergers: Seeking to build up its portfolio, East Coast strip center developer Kimco on Monday announced that it is buying Los Angeles-based Pan Pacific. Australia’s Centro Property Group on the same day announced a deal to buy Boston-based Heritage Properties, which has a portfolio of grocery-anchored properties. Together, the two deals add up to $7.2 billion. There could be more to come: Mills Corp. has put itself on the block, after being forced to restate its earnings for the past five years and disclosing that it is the target of an SEC investigation.