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Activist Investor Jonathan Litt Keeps Shorting Downtown Office: 'It's A Financing Story'


Activist investor Jonathan Litt shorted major office-owning REITs in the earliest stages of the pandemic, and so far he has proved prescient.

Litt reiterated his commitment to short bets focused on office buildings in urban cores in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday.

Litt said his Land & Buildings Investment Management continues to maintain a short position on Washington, D.C.-based JBG Smith, whose stock has already lost 62% of its value since May 2020. Litt declined further comment to Bisnow when reached through a representative.

New York office buildings are now projected to lose 44% of their value by 2029 due to "persistent" remote work keeping demand in excess of supply, a new academic study published this week found. Buildings with expiring leases see less hope than ever of maintaining similar cash flows, especially as inflation drives operating expenses upward, Litt said.

Even though remote work has proven to have the staying power Litt envisioned when shorting REITs like JBG Smith, SL Green, Vornado and Empire State Realty Trust, it isn't the declined usage that drives Litt's commitment to the office short — it's the wall of maturities facing the asset class.

“This isn’t a work-from-home story anymore," Litt said on CNBC. "This is a financing story ... And as these debts come due, there’s really nowhere to go because lenders aren’t lending to the space.”

Office owners with debts maturing in a market with fewer lenders and significantly less friendly terms have already begun losing buildings. RXR agreed to hand over the deed to a 790K SF office tower in New York's Financial District after it defaulted on a $240M loan with Aareal Bank. The bank is now looking to offload the loan rather than take possession of the building itself.

JBG Smith has an additional problem of its own: About 15% of its portfolio is leased to Amazon, which opened its HQ2 campus in Arlington, Virginia, just this week. The digital giant is "moving out" of its leased space in the D.C. area, Litt said, to fill up the new buildings on the site it bought from JBG Smith in 2020.