(To read more on the multifamily market and for more retail coverage, click GlobeSt.com/RETAIL.)

BEVERLY HILLS, CA–Real estate stalwart Sam Zell, chairman of Chicago-based Equity Group Investments LLC, was part of a real estate panel yesterday at the Milken Institute Global Conference 2006. Held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, the three-day event experienced more than 2,500 attendees and 380 speakers, including numerous Nobel Prize winners, but none shot any straighter than the colorful Zell.

Billed as “Real Estate: Has the Boom Busted?” the panel discussed and debated industry issues including the potential housing bubble, the global aspects of real estate and property as an emerging asset class, among other topics. As typical, Zell took an atypical stance on many of the pressing issues.

When someone compared the current real estate cycle to the Internet crash, Zell laughed. “The Internet was putting dollars into smoke. Real estate is actually [a physical] thing; it’s not smoke. Even if prices go down, you have something.”

Joining Zell on the panel was Stuart Miller, president and CEO of Lennar Corp.; David Simon, CEO of Simon Property Group Inc.; and Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group. Lewis Feldman, chairman of the Los Angeles office of Goodwin Procter LLP and formerly of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, moderated the discussion.

As comments quickly flowed about multifamily product nearing or already peaking, Zell agreed to a point: “The charts are statistically correct, but don’t reflect reality,” he said. “And there is no bubble without oversupply.” He pointed to a tremendous gap between supply and demand.

“Generally speaking, I think we’re looking at a soft landing,” Zell said, in comparing US home prices to those in other industrialized countries. “When you compare US housing costs, we are still the cheapest housing in the world.”

While the panelists agreed with much of what Zell said, Sternlicht moved the dialogue into another direction: yields. “For the first time in the marketplace, we’re seeing negative leverage,” Sternlicht said. “We’re seeing people stretching for yields and it’s destabilizing prices.”

Sternlicht also had his mind on foreign markets and investors. He said foreign markets, from Hong Kong to Australia, all have money and are willing to pour it into US property. Zell added that “we haven’t even begun to see the investment flows out of China. The supply of capital far outweighs the opportunity.”

But that goes both ways. Sternlicht and Zell are among investors courting numerous real estate deals and developments in foreign markets ranging from Paris to Brazil. Zell, in fact, said his firm is the largest homebuilder in Mexico. He said the advent of better technology is making production more efficient.

Simon, the retail specialist, said to keep an eye on super regional malls. “They hold up even through change,” he said. “The demand is so strong to be in the large, super regional malls, that they retain their cash flow, even as individual retailers change.”

For Miller, the day of the pure speculator in real estate has come and gone. “There was a spike in the infill market,” he said. “There were lots of pure speculators who bought up apartments for a flip, but that has dried up and they’ve been driven out.”

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