By Ross Kelly
SYDNEY--Westfield Group (WDC.AU) said it sold major stakes seven of its U.S. shopping malls for US$1.6 billion, as a recovery in the world's biggest economy helps spur demand for retail property.
Starwood Capital Group agreed to buy 90% of each of the malls, which are in Ohio, California, Indiana and Washington state. In a statement Monday, Westfield said it would maintain a 10% stake in each property, adding that the assets were being sold for the same as their June 30 book value.
Westfield has been selling some of its less profitable properties to help fund newer developments--including the retail wing of New York's World Trade Center and the expansion of the Century City mall in Los Angeles. The Wall Street Journal first reported Starwood's interest in the Westfield malls in May.
"It's good to see Westfield recycling capital when they can," said Winston Sammut, Managing Director at Sydney-based Maxim Asset Management, which holds Westfield stock. "They've got developments to fund."
The U.S. retail property sector has been slow to bounce back from the global financial crisis, which prompted anxious consumers to sharply curtail their high-street spending. The outlook has improved more recently alongside the pick-up in the economy, which has led both to rising occupancy rates and rental income.
The average vacancy rate at U.S. retail property in the second quarter fell to its lowest level in more than three years, according to real-estate research firm Reis Inc. Buyers of retail property, meanwhile, have been encouraged by ultra-low interest rates and the growing availability of financing.
U.S. private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP earlier this year agreed to sell majority stakes in 30 U.S. shopping centers to DDR Corp. for $1.5 billion. Starwood itself has had a longstanding interest in Westfield's properties, and late last year bought 90% stakes in seven other U.S. malls for $1.05 billion.
In March this year, Westfield raised a further $700 million by selling 49.9% stakes in six of its malls in Florida to O'Connor Capital Partners, also a U.S. company.
"We are focused on redeploying our capital into superior retail destinations in major cities," Westfield's joint Chief Executive Officer, Peter Lowy, said in Monday's statement.
The company separately reiterated earlier annual guidance for funds from operations of 66.5 cents per share for the year through December.
Write to Ross Kelly at [email protected]