PARIS — Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield expects to begin selling its major U.S. properties from 2022, once investment appetite returns, the mall operator said Wednesday.
“We are assessing all potential options, at the end of the day, exposure to the U.S. will be minimal, if not zero,” said chief executive officer Jean-Marie Tritant in his first presentation to journalists since taking the helm of the company in January.
In the meantime, the group plans to continue selling minor holdings that are not expected to benefit significantly from a rebound.
Market conditions remain challenging, with 51 percent of the group’s properties currently closed due to coronavirus restrictions — which are expected to continue through the second quarter, executives said. They expect to be seeing signs of recovery in the third quarter, at various rates in different markets, depending on vaccine rollout and infection rates.
“There is no investment market in 2021 open today — that’s clear,” said Tritant. The executive said he forecasts a rebound in consumption in the U.S. toward the end of the year, which will in turn reignite investor appetite for key real estate holdings next year.
“I’m expecting the rebound in the U.S. in terms of consumption would be very strong at the end of the year and in the course of 2022, where I think that the quality of our assets, the destination malls that we have, especially in California, will be taking advantage of this rebound,” he added.
Executives said a strong liquidity position would help the group offload assets under the right conditions. It will hold off on paying a dividend to shareholders this year and next year, as the company is reshaped.
The gap between key retail properties and lower-value malls is set to deepen with the crisis, according to Tritant, who just returned from the U.S. to the company’s headquarters in France. The executive, who has worked for URW for 25 years, was propelled to the top position after a management shakeup last year led by investors including French billionaire Xavier Niel and former Unibail CEO Léon Bressler.
The investors gained board seats and rejected plans for a 3.5-billion-euro capital increase, pushing the group to offload U.S. assets and focus on its core European shopping centers.
URW was formed when the French real estate company purchased Westfield for nearly $25 billion in 2018. Mergers were considered a key defense mechanism for mall operators struggling to cope with declining foot traffic as consumers shifted to digital means for shopping. The ailing sector was then dealt a further blow by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since purchasing Westfield, and its properties in London, New York and San Francisco, the group has focused on choice locations, bringing in new brands to generate interest and frequently renewing tenants. Management has also emphasized mixed-use sites and consumer data — collecting it globally, to use scale to improve business in local malls.