How Predatory Private Equity Firms Are Destroying Our Shopping Centers

Escalators In Abandoned Shopping Mall

You’ve probably noticed how some shopping centers are turning into ghost malls. It usually begins when the anchor stores close first, and then the closings ripple throughout the entire mall. Major retailers, such as Sears, Macy's, JCPenney, and Toys "R" Us abandon their carnivorous spaces, leaving empty shells behind.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 6,752 locations closed in the U.S through September of this year, double the number over the same period last year. The closings include 2500 clothing stores and 550 department stores but do not include restaurants and grocery stores.

You might think the closings are caused by the shift to online shopping, in particular, Amazon, but that’s not the case. Online sales still only account for 8.9 percent of retail sales. The shuttering of these stores is primarily the result of the private equity firms that are driving the major stores into bankruptcy.

According to Bloomberg, the real reason why there were 19 store bankruptcies this year, including RadioShack, The Limited, Payless, and Toys“R” Us, and why others such as Sears may be next, is the huge amount of debt these companies incurred after being bought by the equity firms.

The way it works is the equity firms borrow money to buy these stores and then pay themselves back by stripping the companies of their assets. That begins a downward spiral when the stores are unable to modernize and they become less attractive for shoppers, resulting in lower sales, greater losses, and eventually going out of business.

The predatory financial schemes that the equity firms have imposed are expected to result in the loss of eight million retail jobs over the next five years, as more of the debt becomes due. But the bankers will walk away enriched.

One example cited by the New Republic is what has happened to Sears and Kmart, iconic stores that most of us have frequented for years. The companies were bought by Eddie Lampert, a hedge fund owner who, coincidently, was a roommate of current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at Yale.

Lampert lent billions to the two chains, increasing their corporate debt and then spinning off a separate real estate company that owned the land. That new company then charged hundreds of million dollars of rent back to the stores for property the stores once owned. As a result, the stores are stripped of their profits and don’t have the money to remain competitive. But even if they go bankrupt, Lampert's real estate company owns the property and can profit by charging rent to new tenants or for new construction.

Private equity companies have repeated this formula across America. Golden Gate Capital and Blum Capital, the two firms that acquired the Payless chain of 400 shoe stores, took $700 million in dividends out of the company in 2012 and 2013, forcing the company to go bankrupt. Toys "R" Us was paying close to $500 million in annual interest payments on the huge debt they took on when its investors, Bain and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, pulled $2 billion out of the company. The toy chain was forced to file for bankruptcy, even though it would have been slightly profitable if not for the interest payments.