Blackstone eyes Europe, Asia for real estate investment

NEW YORK CITY (AFP) - Global investment giant Blackstone is reshuffling its vast real estate portfolio, shedding US assets to buy new ones in Europe and Asia.

The New York-based firm has plenty of firepower, with US$64 billion (S$82 billion) in real estate assets under management, the world's largest portfolio in the sector.

Blackstone recently has been lining up its strategy with an eye on juicier investment prospects outside the United States.

That includes a slew of asset sales and IPOs of units to generate cash for other acquisitions.

"We are in a period of time where you can expect to see real-estate realisation growing," Mr Tony James, Blackstone's president and chief operating officer, said in a July conference call.

Overall, the company raised US$14 billion in the second quarter alone, mostly from its real estate and credit businesses, Blackstone chief executive Steve Schwarzman said in the same call.

In the US, Blackstone, the country's leading hotel owner, is working on an initial public offering of Hilton Worldwide, its biggest real estate asset, bought in 2007 for US$25 billion including debt.

Blackstone also appears to be seeking a disposal of La Quinta Inns & Suites hotels, acquired in 2006 and valued at about US$4.5 billion.

It also is planning IPOs for Brixmor Property Group, a grocery-anchored shopping center owner that is the company's third-largest real estate investment, and Extended Stay Hotels, which it co-owns.

The company, meanwhile, is going ahead with several acquisitions, including the purchase of 30,0000 apartments from US industrial conglomerate General Electric for about US$2.7 billion, a source close to the situation told AFP last week.

In last month's conference call, Mr Schwarzman said that "in the US, markets are healthier, properties are doing better and credit markets are very accommodating."

"In Europe though... to the contrary there's been a lot of distress," the CEO said.

"But the spigots are starting to loosen up and people are starting to face that and want to sell assets."

Blackstone itself is selling its 50 per cent stake in Broadgate office complex in London to GIC, Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, AFP learned from sources familiar with the situation on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Blackstone has targeted a US$5 billion European real-estate investment fund, a person close to the matter said.

And elsewhere in Europe, Blackstone teamed up with Caisse de Depot du Quebec to buy debt secured by equity in French real-estate investment company Gecina.

Asia also was beckoning Blackstone, which has US$230 billion in total assets under management.

"In real estate, we had our first Asia fund closing of US$1.5 billion, marking strong investor reception to our first dedicated fund in the region," Mr Schwarzman told analysts in the July earning call.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the private-equity firm also is in negotiations to buy Chinese property developer Tysan Holdings, based in Hong Kong, for US$2.5 billion.

Emerging-market countries were proving attractive for investment opportunities.

Blackstone announced in June that it had acquired, along with Brazilian partner Patria Investments, a 70 per cent stake in Brazilian homebuilder Gafisa for about US$1 billion.

The deal marked Blackstone's biggest investment to date in Latin America's economic powerhouse.