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Of all the retail REITs that are issuing their quarterly earnings results over the last few weeks, perhaps none will be as closely watched as General Growth Properties.

Scheduled for Nov. 5 at 9 am Eastern, the release and related call with analysts will be the first since the company has undergone a series of climactic events, beginning withSept. 22 statement that it was developing a strategic plan that could include the sale of assets, joint ventures or preferred equity, and/or strategic business combinations.

Since then the company announced that it was looking to sell its Las Vegas properties, the Fashion Show Mall, Grand Canal Shoppes, and The Palazzo, and the latest in a series of management shakeups, with chairman John Bucksbaum and COO Robert A. Michaels giving up their CEO and president titles respectively. Michaels also has given up his board seat. Adam Metz assumes the interim CEO post and Thomas J. Nolan Jr. has been named interim president. Earlier in the month, Edmund Hoyt replaced Bernard Freibaum as CFO.

The result is a company whose stock has traded as low as nearly $2 per share, though it closed last Friday at $4.14. The reason: $27.4 billion in debt.

“For the past four years we’ve been negative on the company,” Richard Moore, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, told GlobeSt.com. “We’ve been saying you can’t carry this much debt.”

Much of the debt was incurred by GGP’s $12.5 billion acquisition of the Rouse Co. But compounding the problem is the credit crunch and economic downturn affecting all retail owners. Many retail REITs have seen financial prospects shift downward for the short term.

“The three key changes that we made in our models were: an increase in cost on new and rolling debt, lower occupancies and lower rent growth. We applied these changes across all of the companies that we cover; however, some companies were disproportionately impacted based on their individual situations,” said an Oct. 2 industry overview from Barclays Bank. “Most notably, we reduced GGP’s 2009 FFO estimates significantly based on our assumption that the cost of debt on the substantial amount of debt maturing will be refinanced at much higher rates.”

Moore predicts a full-company sale, likely to Simon Property Group, though “it is not the only option,” he adds. “They could form a joint venture or find a way to get an equity infusion.”

Observers also have speculated that Vornado or Westfield Group might be a potential buyer. However, there is one catch: “The buyer needs debt, and GGP can’t get debt,” Moore said.

Even equity investors could be slow to act as they wait for the bottom of the market.

“Anybody who wants to inject equity is sitting on the sidelines,” looking to see if real estate prices will decline further, Moore adds. No one wants to overpay. “We don’t want to pay a six cap today to find it’s worth a seven cap in two months.”

Simon has the wherewithal, with about $500 million in cash, a $2.8 billion credit line and manageable debt.

“We think the company might have some attractive buying opportunities in the next couple of quarters as highly leverage developers and owners cannot refinance and could be forced to sell,” wrote Greg Sukenik of Zack’s Investment Research about Simon Property Group in an Oct. 13 buy recommendation.

GGP’s outlook isn’t completely dire: its portfolio is “fine,” Moore said, and the company continues to operate normally, Bucksbaum told GlobeSt.com in an interview last week. In its second quarterly earnings release on July 31, GGP reported significant leasing increases over the first quarter, with significantly higher rents ($37.85 per square foot vs. $33.68 per square foot).

The real question is when a transaction will happen. The timing could depend on whether GGP can get an extension on its near-term debt, which is due this month. If so, the company could have until March, with Moore giving odds as 80% in favor of a transaction by then.

Analysts will be listening this week.

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