CEO of biggest US mall owner says retail industry is 'reaching the bottom' of bankruptcies

Key Points
  • The CEO's comments come on the heels of Forever 21 and Barneys New York, among other retail chains, filing for bankruptcy this year.
  • The level of bankruptcies is rivaling the pace of 2017, and there have been thousands of store closures announced.
  • Simon Property Group CEO David Simon says the company will be OK as it finds new tenants and makes numerous investments to better understand e-commerce.
Simon Property Group CEO David Simon
Anjali Sundaram | CNBC

The CEO of the biggest mall owner in the U.S., Simon Property Group, says the retail industry looks to be "reaching the bottom" of a tumultuous wave of bankruptcies.

"We are having a high bankruptcy year. ... There's no denying that," David Simon told analysts during a post-earnings conference call on Wednesday morning. "But I think we're kind of reaching the bottom in ... 2019 on that stuff. It's rivaling what happened in 2017. So, it's not like something that we haven't experienced before. But we know [what] we have to do."

Simon shares were last down about 3.5% Wednesday afternoon, having fallen about 12% this year.

The CEO's comments come on the heels of Forever 21 and Barneys New York, among other retail chains, filing for bankruptcy this year. So far in 2019, U.S. retailers have announced 8,993 store closures and 3,780 store openings, compared with 5,844 closures and 3,258 openings in all of 2018, according to a tracking by Coresight Research. The consulting firm expects closures could still hit a record 12,000 by the end of this year.

"As we put together our plans for next year, I think we'll be OK," Simon said. "We're hustling. We're finding new tenants."

The CEO also on Wednesday highlighted the real estate company's recent investments, including it taking a stake in online shopping site Rue La La's parent company, Rue Gilt Groupe. Rue Gilt Groupe is now helping Simon run a website for its outlet centers, "," where people can buy from brands such as Saks Off Fifth, BCBGMAXAZRIA, Reebok Outlet and Under Armour. Earlier this week, Simon in a press release listed its latest investments: in gym operator Life Time, dining and entertainment venue Pinstripes, e-gaming company Allied Esports, Sports Illustrated and the trendy membership club Soho House.

"We're going to be a better real estate operator the more we know e-commerce," Simon explained on the conference call. "We are going to make money ... and we're going to know our retailers better." He also said none of Simon's investments have reached the "material" level, where the real estate investment trust would need to disclose more details on those ventures. "Right now we're playing with the house's money and it's not material."

Simon had previously made investments in once-bankrupted Aeropostale, Nautica and Authentic Brands Group, which owns dozens of brands including Nine West and Vince Camuto.

The mall and outlet center owner also has a venture arm, Simon Ventures, which has invested in retail start-ups such as beverage brand Dirty Lemon, Imran Khan's Verishop, underwear maker Me Undies and subscription box company FabFitFun.

"Any leading company out there invests in the future ... from Microsoft to Amazon," Simon said. "If I had a criticism of historical retailers ... because of strained balance sheets or overspending in one thing versus another thing, is the inability to reinvest in your business is a major no-no."

When Simon reported fiscal third-quarter earnings on Wednesday, the company said reported retailer sales per square foot for the period ended Sept. 30 were $680, up 4.5% from a year ago. Total occupancy was 94.7%, down from 95.5% a year ago.

Funds from operations, which is the metric analysts use to gauge real estate investment trusts, were $1.081 billion, or $3.05 per share, compared with $1.086 billion, or $3.05 a share, a year ago. Analysts had been calling for funds from operations of $3.06.

Simon also slashed its full-year funds from operations outlook to between $12 and $12.05 a share, from between $12.30 and $12.40 per share, accounting for losses on the extinguishment of debt.

Simon said comparable funds from operations are now expected to fall between $12.33 and $12.38 per share for the full year, an increase of 3 cents on the lower end of the range the company had provided in July.

Malls adding virtual reality experiences to boost foot traffic
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