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Australia's Centro Opens Door to Suitors

Reuters
Tuesday, 1 Jan 2008 | 9:30 PM ET

Centro Properties Group, Australia's second high-profile victim of a global credit crunch, said it was seeking expressions of interest from potential buyers for all or part of the business.

Shares in Centro, the fifth-largest shopping mall owner in the United States, jumped as much as 23 percent on Wednesday, but are still down about 80 percent since it warned last month it was struggling to refinance A$1.3 billion ($1.1 billion) of debt.

Centro has until Feb. 15 to renegotiate the debt, but fund managers were unsure if a deal can be struck before then.

Centro
Centro

"The market is taking a view that there is some value in there," said Justin Blaess, portfolio manager with ING Investment Management.

Centro's market value has shrunk below A$1 billion and Blaess said that made it a very manageable deal in global terms.

"There's no doubt there are good underlying assets there, but the biggest problem is the level of gearing," he added.

Last week, Credit Suisse estimated Centro's share price at A$1.97 in a best case scenario, but said it could fetch only A$0.68 if the property investor faced litigation and other costs.

"The best thing would be if they can come up with an acceptable plan to reduce their debt to keep their bankers happy and continue trading as a going concern," Blaess said."Another positive outcome would if they are acquired by a party at a premium to the current share price."

Potential Buyers

Centro Chairman Brian Healey said in a statement the group had recently received a significant number of unsolicited approaches, prompting the move to invite expressions of interest.

"This will enable interested parties to substantiate their interest, and for all such proposals to be evaluated from the perspective of the best interests of all Centro stakeholders," he said.

Expressions of interest were being sought for the group as a whole or the acquisition of its interests in its Australian and U.S. wholesale funds, the statement said.

Centro appointed Lazard Carnegie Wylie as its adviser.

Local media reports have named fellow Australian property investors Westfield Group, CFS Retail Property Group and GPT as potential buyers of Centro's assets.

Shares in Centro, which owns and manages 700 shopping malls in the United States, were pegged back after an initial spike up.

Centro, which has about A$26.6 billion under management, became the second Australian victim of the global credit crisis after non-bank lender RAMS Home Loans Group.

Last week, RAMS said it extended two funding facilities worth A$750 million.