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McDonald's REIT Could Be a Sizzler

Though McDonald's (MCD) management is currently refusing to spin off the company's real estate assets, such a transformation could unlock significant value for shareholders.

Last week, the issue picked up steam when Vornado Realty Trust (VNO), a major real estate investment trust, disclosed that it recently acquired a 1.2% stake in the Big Mac giant.

Activist hedge fund Pershing Square Capital, a 4.9% owner, had previously urged McDonald's to consider spinning off some of its real estate to enhance value. The day before Vornado disclosed its ownership stake in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner said such proposals wouldn't be in the best interest of shareholders.

Right now, it appears there are two very different proposals being floated by Vornado and Pershing that aim to unlock McDonald's real estate value. Pershing's managing director William Ackman told that he is pushing to have McDonald's sell off its entire company-operated restaurant business (which is faulted as being too capital intensive and low margin) into a new company, with McDonald's keeping a 35% ownership interest in that company. That would basically leave McDonald's as a real estate company that collected rent and fees from its franchisees, which operate 73% of its restaurants globally.

Vornado, on the other hand, seems to favor spinning off some or all of McDonald's real estate assets into a REIT, according to one analyst who follows the company. Ackman declined to comment on whether he's spoken to Vornado officials about the matter. A Vornado representative didn't make its notoriously tight-lipped executives available for comment.

In a sense, Pershing's proposal might be easier to navigate and would possibly unlock value through the market re-valuing McDonald's based on its new real estate-heavy business strategy. A conversion into a REIT, meanwhile, would be significantly costly, but also would likely result in a tasty treat being served to existing shareholders in the form of a special dividend that could total as high as $20 billion.

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