Jun 13, 2017
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Hudson's Bay real-estate monetization may be inevitable, but market tepid

Jun 13, 2017

Hudson's Bay Co could face investor pressure to monetize a portion of its $10 billion-plus global real estate portfolio at the Canadian retailer's annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday amid skepticism that last week's restructuring plans aimed at saving $350 million will be insufficient to battle a tough real estate market.

A Saks Fifth Avenue store in Toronto. The retailer is part of the Hudson Bay Co's portfolio. - Saks Fifth Avenue

The 347-year-old company, also known as HBC, announced job cuts across North America on Thursday. It is the latest department store chain to unveil plans to try to address industry-wide turmoil amid intense competition in a saturated market.

HBC's real estate portfolio includes its Saks Fifth Avenue flagship in New York, valued at $3.7 billion in 2014, and its Lord & Taylor flagship, valued at $655 million in 2016. It also has two joint ventures worth about C$6.1 billion ($4.6 billion)and C$2 billion. At the time these ventures were formed, Chairman Richard Baker said the company might consider an initial public offer at some point for the joint ventures.

Joshua Varghese, a portfolio manager with CI Investment, said HBC's properties are considered higher-quality than those of some competitors and that there is strong private-market demand for good real estate. He said this suggests the company could bring in another partner for its joint ventures as one option.

"I think there will be more pressure to extract value from the real estate," said Varghese, whose firm is one of the retailer's largest investors, with a stake of nearly 4.2 percent. "I'm not sure just yet if IPO-ing at this time is the best way to do that."

Baker gave HBC's strongest signal in April about monetizing real estate assets and reiterated the possibility in a call with analysts on Friday, but conceded the timing for an IPO was tougher than six months ago.

Industry analysts and consultants question the market appetite for retail real estate assets in a rising interest-rate environment and as more retailers close stores.

"The company had a short window to sell the real estate ... But I think that barn door is closed," said Barry Schwartz, vice president and portfolio manager at Baskin Financial Services. Without other tenants, and with retail sales being weak, any spinoffs of assets would be "done at fire sale prices," Schwartz said.

HBC is shedding 2,000 jobs, cutting its dividend by 75 percent, even as it continues to expand its global bricks and mortar business with new stores and renovations and looks to beef up online operations, where margins are tight.

Shareholder Varghese said HBC should consider closing stores, but company executives have said there are no plans to do so.

HBC, which also operates its namesake store in Canada and Kaufhof in Europe, hopes the restructuring plan announced last week will help mitigate some of the industry upheaval that has hit U.S. retailers Nordstrom Inc and Macy's Inc .

"HBC ... must pull on its real estate levers now to preserve equity value and reassure confidence in its investor base," said M Partners Research analyst Steven Salz in a note to clients on Monday.

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