Retail Recovery? Private Equity Bets Big (Commentary)

Recent economic indicators paired with big private equity bets signal that the national retail real estate market is trending upward, a trend that is actually hitting home. National and local retail vacancy rates are down, due in large part to big bets by major private equity players.

However, one must wonder if such giant moves will be a catalyst for overall retail trickle-down economic recovery. Several national and local real estate investments and economic indicators point to a resounding yes.

The Blackstone Group LP is a self-proclaimed world leader in private equity real estate investment. Inside of 12 months, the private equity giant made an $11 billion bet on national retail centers. At the crux of this wager was the acquisition of 588 shopping centers across the country from [link Centro Property Group’s portfolio, 36 centered by grocery stores that were formerly owned by Equity One Inc. and 46 big-box centers bought from EPN Group’s holdings.

Blackstone did pay below market rates for these properties, but the most unsophisticated of investors realizes the magnified risk of a bet this big. A “cap rate” for commercial real estate is the ratio between the net operating income and the purchase price of an asset, with a higher cap rate reflecting a higher perceived risk. Nationally, top-quality centers have been trading at cap rates of 4 percent to 6 percent, while Blackstone has reportedly collected initial yields of 7.5 percent on the bulk of its bet.

So how do big bets like those seen from Blackstone impact the overall economic health of the retail sector? Well, if national and local absorption rates are any indicator, the writing on the wall is crystal clear. It was only a year ago that the retail real estate market saw vacancy rates at a high of 7.6 percent nationally and rising. Recent reports show a reverse in that trend. National retail vacancy rates in the top 80 markets today are standing at 6.8 percent and trending lower. Major moves from players like Blackstone are linked to such positive absorption.

But how does all of this big movement affect the average real estate investor on the smaller, local scale? The news here is positive as well. Reports indicate that from the fourth quarter of 2010 to the fourth quarter of 2011, retail vacancy in the Little Rock area fell from nearly 10.5 percent to 8 percent, positive absorption of almost 24 percent. This represents more than 419,000 SF of net absorption. The largest positive absorption was seen in the Midtown corridor, at the Riverdale Center, with Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market taking 63,000 SF.

The national media paint the grimmest of all economic pictures: scared investors, too much money sitting on the sidelines, Internet sales killing the big-box retailer. Perhaps shedding light on the slightest of positive indicators in such an environment creates false hope and optimism. So at the risk of sounding overly optimistic, the correlative nature of investor moves as large as those bets made recently by Blackstone paired with the positive absorption rates in the national and local retail real estate markets can only add to the upward trend and an overall retail trickle-down economic recovery.

J. Blake Smith is an attorney and real estate broker for Flake & Kelley Commercial. Email him at [email].