Challenges lie ahead for new Hammerson chief

Shopping centre owner Hammerson has appointed a new chief executive who will attempt to turn round the company that has been one of the most popular UK stocks for hedge funds to bet against.

Hammerson, which owns Birmingham’s Bullring shopping centre, announced the appointment of Rita-Rose Gagné, who was previously responsible for a $7.6bn portfolio at property company Ivanhoé Cambridge. She will take over from David Atkins before the end of this year. 

Shares in Hammerson rose 8.5 per cent to 16p on news of Ms Gagné’s appointment on Wednesday.

But the company’s share price has fallen sharply this year as traditional retail has been hit hard by coronavirus, with shoppers staying away and retailers withholding rent from landlords, making Hammerson a target for short-sellers.

These funds borrow stock and sell it, hoping to buy it back at a lower price and pocket the difference.

The proportion of Hammerson’s shares out on loan — a good indication of short selling — rose from around 10 per cent at the start of the year to more than 23 per cent in mid-September, according to data group IHS Markit, as concerns about the company’s debt level have grown. Since those highs, some short positions have been unwound.

Lee Ainslie’s Maverick Capital, Wellington Management and CapeView Capital are among funds running bets against Hammerson.

Hammerson announced on August 6 that it would raise £825m via a £552m rights issue and the sale of its stake in a European shopping outlet business. Its market capitalisation at that point had fallen to just £435m.

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During that fundraising, hedge funds bet both against the shares and against the value of the rights, which tumbled from more than 9p mid-September to less than 1.5p last week.

Such was the demand to borrow Hammerson shares to bet against, that the annual cost to borrow them rose to more than 100 per cent of the share price last week. That temporarily made it the most expensive stock in the UK to borrow. The cost has now fallen to around 20 per cent. The typical borrowing cost for a UK share is less than 0.5 per cent, according to IHS Markit.

“The rights issue buys them a year,” said one hedge fund manager.

Hammerson declined to comment on the short positions.

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Some hedge funds have also set their sights on France-based Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, Europe’s biggest mall owner, which faces similar issues to Hammerson. The group is selling assets and raising money to cut debt.

Geraud Charpin, who runs a credit hedge fund at BlueBay Asset Management, said he was betting against the bonds of a number of retail real estate firms, adding this was “definitely a big theme”.

Ms Gagné will be the first woman to lead Hammerson. Her appointment doubles the number of female chief executives of big UK-listed property companies, in what has long been an overwhelmingly male industry. Helen Gordon has been head of residential landlord Grainger since 2016. 

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