PhillyDeals: Moody's cuts bond ratings of N.J. agency

Posted: March 28, 2014

Moody's Investors Service has cut bond ratings on $53 million of New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency bonds by one notch, to Ba1.

That's junk-bond status - off-limits for some insurance companies and other fastidious investors - from its previous low-investment-grade rating of Baa3.

Moody's also warned, in a report by a team led by analyst Dmitriy Plit, that "the rating outlook remains negative" and it might lower the rating again. The NJ HMFA bond series is 2004A.

In his report to Moody's clients, Plit blamed "a steep decline in 2013 capital funding to the Salem Housing Authority," and added that pressure on the federal housing budget "may result in further declines in capital fund appropriations."

That would raise more doubts about the agency's ability to repay the bonds.

Low ratings typically force borrowers to pay more to get investors to buy their bonds. Agency officials had no immediate comment.

State spokeswoman Lisa Ryan responded that the agency "has never failed to make a bond payment and anticipates it never will."

She noted that in December the rival Standard & Poor's rating service reported that the agency's managers "performed remarkably well" in the face of New Jersey's weak economy and high housing prices.

Big in South Philly

Cedar Realty Trust Inc., a publicly traded shopping-center landlord based in Port Washington, Long Island, N.Y., says it is now the "dominant" retail landlord in South Philly.

That comes after agreeing to pay $92.3 million - including $53.4 million in fixed-rate debt - to developer Forest City Ratner Companies for the 10-year-old Quartermaster Plaza at 23d and Oregon, near the Passyunk Avenue exit on I-76.

Metro Commercial Real Estate brokered the deal, says president Steve Gartner.

"This was not a property that was on the market," said Gartner. "However, it is extremely difficult to develop a center in Philadelphia from the ground up. The barriers to entry, including simply finding a site, are too high. South Philadelphia is a strong retail market. Centers are well occupied, if not fully leased.

"The surrounding residential neighborhoods continue to get stronger, with home price increases and new residential development all over."

The residential growth is spreading south from Center City.

The 456,000-square-foot plaza, on 43 acres, is anchored by a BJ's Wholesale Club. Cedar says the stores are 98 percent rented, and there is room to add nearly 100,000 square feet of new stores. Cedar already owns the neighboring 283,000-square-foot South Philadelphia Shopping Center, and the firm says that gives it 22 percent of all the retail space in the city below South Street.

Cedar chief executive Bruce Schanzer said it would "leverage its dominant presence in South Philadelphia to serve the needs of this large and growing urban population."

Money woes

Money Centers of America, a King of Prussia firm that manages electronic payments for gambling casinos, has filed for Chapter 11 protection in federal bankruptcy court in Wilmington as it fights cash awards to two former clients, both of which are Indian tribes that operate casinos.

"We have every intention of staying in operation," Christopher M. Wolfington, director and majority owner of Money Centers, told me. He said the company has appealed a $5.6 million court order that it repay a client, the Corporate Commission of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, of Minnesota, and is fighting a sovereign-immunity claim he says the Ho-Chunk Nation, of Wisconsin, has used in an attempt to prevent Money Centers' appeal in a dispute over $4.8 million.

Money Centers, founded in 1998, was formerly traded on the Nasdaq stock market. Sales peaked at nearly $20 million in 2005, then declined to below $10 million in 2007, and the company was de-listed, before partly recovering in the late 2000s.

The firm now employs about 36 people, Wolfington said. The company's subsidiary, Check Holdings, counts 58 casinos as clients, Wolfington said.


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