Taubman REIT's Asia Growth Forges Ahead

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Luxury mall REIT Taubman Centers (TCO) recently announced its third-quarter operating results with the company's 12-month trailing mall tenant sales per square foot reaching $681, another record for the company. Mall tenant sales per square foot increased 6.2% for the three months ended Sept. 30 and 9.3% for the nine months ended Sept. 30.

Net operating income excluding lease cancellation income was up 7.4% for the three months ended Sept. 30, bringing 2012 year-to-date growth to 8.3%. Funds from operations, occupancy, leased space, rents -- all of our key operating statistics were up in the quarter. For the most recent quarter, FFO per share was $0.79, up more than 25% from the third quarter 2011 FFO per share of 63 cents. As Taubman's CEO, Bobby Taubman, explained during the recent earnings call:
NOI growth was a result of increased rents including percentage rent and recoveries. Rents and recoveries benefited from higher occupancy in our centers. Percentage rent increased due to our ongoing growth in tenant sales. This is all flowing from nearly three years of great sales. The metrics are clearly strong. We now expect NOI growth of about 6% for the year, that's up from our previous guidance range of 5% to 6%.

Average rent per square foot of $46.85 was up a solid 3.5% from last year. Year-to-date, average rent was up 2.8%, on track with Taubman's guidance of 3% for the year. In addition, Taubman's ratio of debt to total market capitalization stood at 30.5% at the end of the quarter, an all-time low for the company.

Betting on Growth

Taubman continues to make significant progress on its multi-pronged growth strategy, including recent groundbreakings: Chesterfied, Sarasota, San Juan, and the company's first projects in Asia.

Chesterfield, the company's first outlet center in suburban St. Louis, has all site approvals and the site there is fully graded. As mentioned on the earnings call, the delivery date has been accelerated to August 2, 2013, nine months from now, to take advantage of Missouri back-to-school tax-free holiday weekend.

In Puerto Rico, Taubman recently hosted a formal groundbreaking for the Mall of San Juan. Site work has begun and the company is currently targeting a late 2014 opening. Taubman expects to announce the exact opening date in the next few months. In Sarasota, Taubman just held University Town Center's groundbreaking. Site work is under way and utilities and grading will commence within the next month. The company has said that this project is around two years away from the scheduled opening on Oct. 16, 2014.

Both the Mall of San Juan and University Town Center are expected to generate sales productivity that place them in the top half of the REIT's portfolio. This is quite a statement when you think at year-end, the portfolio will likely average nearly $700 a square foot, a rare number for regional malls in America.

In Asia, Taubman is growing its business with a systematic approach. First, in Seoul, South Korea Taubman is leasing and project manager in the IFC Mall -- part of a 5.4 million square-foot mixed use project, including three Class A office towers, a Conrad International Hotel and 430,000 square feet of retail space. This center opened very successfully on Aug. 30, 100% leased with over 100 stores.

In August, Taubman concluded due diligence and made an additional investment in a joint venture with Shinsegae Group, South Korea's largest retailer. The joint venture will build, lease and manage a western-style 1.7 million square foot shopping mall in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, an eastern suburb of Seoul.

This world class project will be the largest center in Korea. Taubman's total investment including capitalized interest is expected to be about $330 million, representing a 30% interest in the center, which is expected to cost about $1 billion. The center will be anchored by a 525,000 square foot Shinsegae department store and will feature a luxury wing and in-line stores that will be dominated by international flagships, many of which will be the largest in Korea. Hanam Union Square is expected to open in 2015.

Also in August, Taubman Asia announced its first retail development in China, a joint venture with Beijing Wangfujing Department Store. The joint venture will own a controlling interest in and will lease and manage a shopping center to be located at Xi'an Saigao City Plaza, a large-scale mixed-use development in Xi'an, China.

The remaining ownership of the shopping center will be held by Shaanxi Fuli Real Estate Development that is constructing the broader project. Anchored by a Wangfujing department store, the seven-level Xi'an shopping center will be part of a 5.9 million square feet (gross building area) mixed-use project and is expected to feature a cinema, restaurants and approximately 300 international and local specialty stores. The center is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2015.

Clearly Taubman is expanding its trademark luxury brand in Asia with a strategic focus on diversification; however, the company has spent a few years studying the trade area and, as explained (on the recent earnings call) by CEO, Bobby Taubman, the growth will be moderately executed:
In Asia, we now have a platform and good strategic partners. However, we believe it's important to walk before we run. We're very focused on execution. We're not the lead in these initial projects; however, we always make sure that we have control over design and leasing. This is a marathon, it is not a sprint.

Taubman: A Consistent Dividend Platform

Taubman Centers, founded by A. Alford Taubman in 1950 and public since 1992, is less than a month away from celebrating its 20-year anniversary as a REIT. The Bloomfield Hills-based company has maintained a consistent cash payout history during the Great Recession and Taubman was one of a handful of U.S. REITs that were not forced to sell assets of raise equity in 2009 or 2010. The company's two-decade record was recently explained by the company's CEO Bobby Taubman, during the recent earnings call:
In less than a month, on November 20th, we will have been a REIT for 20 years. As we approach this anniversary, I'm very pleased to say that as of the end of September, our company's total shareholder return for both the 10- and 15-year periods was number one among all U.S. REITs operating during those periods. We've also done very well on our one, three and five-year bases. We're proud of this consistent performance. And we'd like to thank the many employees and shareholders who have supported us over now these 20 years.

Taubman shares are trading at $77.94 per share and the current market capitalization is $4.809 billion. The current dividend yield is 2.37% and the year-to-date total return is 27.86%, compared with the S&P Index (in the same period) that returned 14.26% or the SNL US REIT Equity Index that returned 15.06%.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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