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REAL ESTATE - Aggressive Betting

Opportunity funds are raising unprecedented sums.

Just a few years ago, managers who specialize in private-equity-like investments in the real estate sector were raising opportunity funds with, at most, $2 billion to $3 billion in buying power. But thanks to a flood of liquidity and the strong performance of commercial real estate, the number of offerings is skyrocketing and managers are experiencing an unprecedented upswing in fundraising, with the top firms bringing in as much as $30 billion in capacity.

“There has been huge growth in the U.S. market as well as the global market,” says Matthew Lustig, CEO of Lazard Real Estate Partners, the real estate unit of investment firm Lazard Alternative Investments.

According to Ernst & Young, opportunity funds had $120 billion in committed capital to spend last year, up dramatically from $17 billion in 2003. These funds allow investors to tap a manager’s expertise in owning and managing property — and earn potentially higher returns relative to passive real estate investments while avoiding the day-to-day responsibilities of direct ownership.

According to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries properties index, which tracks the returns of more than 20 real estate opportunity funds, the niche delivered a 3.62 percent gain in the first quarter of 2007, compared with a 1.24 percent return for three-month Treasury bills and a 0.64 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 index. For the five-year period ended March 31, the Ncreif index returned an average annual 13.7 percent gross of fees, versus 2.5 percent for Treasuries and 6.3 percent for the S&P 500.

Opportunity funds have a wide mandate and buy traditional properties — such as office, retail, apartment and industrial assets — as well as more-specialized assets like senior living centers or hotels. They target properties that could benefit from rehabiliation work, upgrades or rent increases.

Some funds are on the prowl for buyouts. Observers expect Blackstone Group, for example, to raise a fund with $10 billion in equity that will make large acquisitions and undertake public-to-private plays in the real estate investment trust sector, as it did with its $39 billion blockbuster deal to take control of Equity Office Properties Trust earlier this year. Morgan Stanley is working on a similar fund and hopes to raise $8 billion. With leverage, Blackstone could have as much as $40 billion in buying power; Morgan Stanley could have $20 billion to $30 billion.

Historically, institutional investors have committed anywhere from $5 million to $250 million at a time to multiple opportunity funds. But over the past 18 months, there has been a tendency for these investors to concentrate bigger commitments with a smaller number of managers. About 75 percent of new opportunity fund investors are from the U.S., observers say.

“They have deeper pockets and more appetite for opportunity fund products,” says William Hancock, director of acquisitions at JER Partners in London, which recently raised $1.1 billion in equity — nearly triple its initial goal of $400 million — for an offering that aims to improve the valuations of the properties it acquires by providing more hands-on management.

Nonetheless, Hancock says that the new fund, called JER Europe Fund III, included a number of first-time European investors who wanted to get out of the business of directly owning real estate. U.S. investors are coming into European and Asian funds mainly for diversification, he adds.

Chicago-based Heitman, which manages a number of U.S.- and European-focused opportunity funds, usually sets a narrow range for fundraising and sticks to it. Most recently, the firm raised $800 million of equity commitments for Heitman Value Partners II, a fund that will make value-added investments in residential, office, industrial and retail properties. The fund will also seek investments in specialty sectors like medical office, student housing and self-storage properties. It is targeting assets in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

“We think it is important to stay firm on the size,” says Maury Tognarelli, Heitman’s president and CEO. “We set the total amount of the fund and project a reasonable amount to invest over a commitment period.”

For now, the commercial real estate fundamentals driving interest in opportunity funds remain strong, but some investors are getting nervous. “People who have been in this industry for 20 years or more are looking over their shoulders to try and figure out what the risks are that they haven’t seen,” says Tognarelli. In the meantime, though, there is a lot of capital to put to work.