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NEW YORK CITY-Debt-related opportunities, rather than distressed assets, top the list of current possibilities for institutional investors, Prudential Real Estate Investors’ Allen Smith said Wednesday. At a media briefing in Prudential’s Manhattan offices, Smith put debt and real estate-related securities ahead of distress, simply because the anticipated flood of bank-owned properties hasn’t materialized yet. However, it soon will: “We’re right at the front end of the storm” of defaults, said David Durning, executive director of Prudential Mortgage Capital Co.

CEO of Parsippany, NJ-based PREI, Smith said that “credible, institutional-quality partners” are coming back into the game. Many are willing to go for all-cash deals, he said. On a major-market asset PREI recently put on the market, there were 35 bids, said Smith. PREI is looking to sell off about $1 billion worth of properties this year.

Although the maxim that cash is king has been often repeated since the credit crunch set in, Smith said liquidity isn’t the problem. Would-be investors can obtain the debt “if they’re willing to pay for it”

Durning, who noted that PMCC has “less appetite” for new loans this year, nonetheless said his division is looking at $3.5 billion to $4 billion in new originations in 2009 from the life side, and up to $8 billion overall. In terms of where those loans may originate, Durning said coastal markets look attractive, with properties that could generate a 14% debt yield. With the possible exception of hospitality assets, PMCC would consider all property sectors.

And while deals of under $30 million have been perceived as the safest bets nationwide, Durning said the average loan size lately has trended larger. For some portfolio acquisitions this year, PMCC has provided financing in the hundreds of millions.

The REIT sector has had an especially good showing lately with fund-raising, said Marc Halle, managing director of PREI and a portfolio manager of the Dryden Global Real Estate Fund. Year to date, US REITs have been able to issue $12 billion in equity; globally, the figure is $30 billion. “That’s very important,” Halle says. “Private real estate capital is not yet in a position to access equity.”

However, Halle noted that with REITs as with other sectors, “Real estate is a simple business. It’s supply and demand.” With employment not expected to start turning positive until the second half of 2010–and slowly, at that–Halle said “there’s a lot of room” between the current state of the market and recovery.

Given this climate, Mike McLean, VP of Prudential Commercial Real Estate, noted that for brokerage firms, the key to survival is recruitment and retention of quality employees. Their priority, he said, should be to “minimize client pain.” The next six to 12 months could see a realignment of the brokerage landscape, McLean predicted.

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