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[IMGCAP(1)]NEW YORK CITY-Even with a weakening economy, retail fundamentals are still solid, said experts at NAREIT’s 2008 conference here at the Walford Astoria. But panelists said even with positive sales growth in the first quarter, they are still cautious about the future.

Following introductory remarks from Steven Wechsler, president & CEO of NAREIT, Martin Stein Jr., chairman and CEO of Regency Centers Corp. and NAREIT chair moderated the “CEO Marketplace-Consumed by Retail,” luncheon panel, which included remarks from top retail CEOs about the impact of the economy on the retail sector. Robert Taubman, chairman, president and CEO of Bloomfield Hills, MI-based Taubman Centers Inc. said that although May was a good month, consumer confidence is down. “We are in a slowdown, but not yet a recession.”

[IMGCAP(2)]Milton Cooper, chairman & CEO of Kimco Realty Corp., agreed that it is a tough environment, but he said that he is beginning to notice regional differences as far as performance. “The sunshine states–which include California, Arizona and Florida–that had the housing boom then bust, are hurting the most,” he said, adding that he is noticing that retail stores that deal with housing merchandise such as furniture, appliances, and linens, are most affected. Supermarkets are doing well because food is essential, he said.

Cooper continued that “you have to be prepared in these cycles for a temporary blip,” but he expressed an optimistic view on the long term. “You have to be patient,” he said.

John Bucksbaum, chairman & CEO of Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., said that things are not as bleak as previously predicted, but they are challenging. “We are in for a long and difficult environment,” he said, however he is optimistic for the most part. “May sales were encouraging, but that doesn’t mean all is well.”

Peter van Rossum, CFO of Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco, agreed with Cooper in that he is beginning to notice some issues with home improvement stores in Spain. “In Europe, there is a lot of talk about consumer confidence going down, but time will tell how that takes affect.” He noted that “our business is to rent space to tenants and there isn’t a lot of change in that market, yet…” except that retailers are starting to become more selective on location.

As far as how rising gas prices are impacting retail, Cooper said that in the ’70s when there were higher gas prices, “people found value in the one-stop-shop, which led to increased foot traffic,” which he said was a lesson for today’s gas increase. However, he said that nonetheless, when you take cash out of someone’s pocket, the “modest shopper” is less excited about going out and spending money.

Rossum said that there are some differences in European malls versus US malls. “In Europe, you find that there are more food anchors than department store anchors.” Also, he said, “most malls we own are intercity malls.” Rossum also noted that access to public transportation is incredibly important in Europe when looking at assets. His last point of difference was that “when you want to expand of build new properties, permits take quite a long time, and zoning is very difficult.”

Bucksbaum said that the “choices are narrowed, and the game has changed dramatically” in reference to capital markets. “We have had some success as we have raised $825 million of equity, but we would have preferred never to have sold that equity. It would have been nice to not have to go about things in that way.” He added that financing is there, but the windows of opportunity are smaller. “Lenders are reluctant in regards to real estate.”

Rossum said that money is available in the market. “I’m not saying it is easy, but you can do it.”

As far as looking globally for investment, Taubman said that each company has to find its own way and take what it has learned domestically and take it elsewhere. Taubman Centers’ focus is in Asia, he said. “Abroad, we are investing in iconic projects, are being selective, and are interested in creating a platform.” He noted that Taubman spend a year analyzing what it wanted to do, and has been in Asia for four years. “In another five or six years, we hope to have five projects there. We are looking at long-term commitment.”

Bucksbaum agreed with Taubman in that “we want to be in places we can create a platform.” He noted that “the world has become a much smaller place and retail has become a global business.”

Cooper says that the most important thing for his firm is expanding through local partners, citing Peru, Brazil and Chile as example locations. “Our motto is to be sure that we feel comfortable with a local partner that knows the market. We wouldn’t do it on our own.”

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