Largest Commercial Landowner in the U.S.?

Who is the largest commercial landowner in the US?

That was a discussion we had recently — various REITs, Builders, Governments, etc. private equity were all tossed out as possibilities.

When a knowledgable person put forth their answer, it totally suprised me: TIAA-Cref (known casually as "Teachers"). They run over $400 billion dollars, which is no small amount of change.

Apparently, long before REITs were all-the-rage, Teachers started owning major commerical properties directly (on behalf of their shareholders).

I’d love to verify this somewhere, if anyone can . . .

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  1. Ben commented on Apr 18

    I remember McDonald’s being the answer to a trivia question about who is the largest non-government land owner after the Catholic church. Don’t know if it’s true.

  2. SFAnalyst commented on Apr 18

    Barry–I can’t verify that Teachers is #1, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all. CalPERS and other public pension funds are also among the largest commercial real estate investors.

  3. SFAnalyst commented on Apr 18

    I also read recently (can’t remember where)that middle eastern entities have been an increasing presence in the feeding frenzy for Class A office buildings in the U.S. My understanding is that most of these entities are government-run investment pools.

  4. Earvin Johnson commented on Apr 18

    I always thought it was the Catholic church, can Google answer this question?

  5. Craig commented on Apr 18

    For land itself, my answer is the Railroads, followed by the timber giants like Weyerhauser.

    The old RR grants also included mineral and aparian rights which are still maintained in many of your RE contracts/deeds.

    For commercial land/property, I don’t know.

  6. Eric commented on Apr 18

    At $400 billion, aren’t they the largest financial institution in the world? I heard they were also the single most profitable institution in the world, up until recently when the oil companies outpaced them. Safe place to put your money… if you’re a teacher.

  7. Kit commented on Apr 18

    I always thought it was the Mormon church, in terms of pure acreage. In terms of valuation???

  8. SFAnalyst commented on Apr 18

    Not only are pension funds like Teachers and CalPERS among the largest real estate investors (in terms of market value), they tend to carry less debt than private developers, REITs, and private equity. fwiw.

  9. jswede commented on Apr 18

    IP was, at one point a few years ago at least.

  10. Steve commented on Apr 18

    TIAA-CREF was the third-largest real estate investment manager in the U.S. as of June 2006, with $46.4 billion in assets (source: Pensions & Investments). Number one was ING Clarion, with $82.8 billion is real estate assets, followed by Prudential, with $52.2 billion. And the largest individual landowner in the U.S. is Ted Turner, who owns over 1.8 million acres.

  11. MAS (San Diego) commented on Apr 18

    I always heard in terms of acres that it was Ted Turner.

  12. Steve commented on Apr 18

    Also, see the following link to National Real Estate Investor’s website for rankings of the largest real estate owners by property type:

  13. Steve commented on Apr 18

    There’s an old real estate joke that goes something like this:

    Two guys are talking. The first guy is boasting about how he just purchased 1,000 acres of land. He asks the second guy how much land he owns, and the second guy tells him that he own 50 acres. The first guy responds that he can’t believe how little land the other guy owns, and starts chuckling. He then asks the first guy where the land is. The first guy says “downtown Dallas.”

    As usual, it’s all in the footnotes.

  14. S commented on Apr 18

    I always assumed in terms of acreage, it would be one of the forest/paper products companies…although railroads does make intuitive sense.

    I seem to recall TIAA-CREF made some fairly big bets when the Resolution Trust Corp. was was unloading commmerical real estate properties in the early ’90s after the S&L frauds.

  15. Steve commented on Apr 18

    There’s an old real estate joke that goes something like this:

    Two guys are talking. The first guy is boasting about how he just purchased 1,000 acres of land. He asks the second guy how much land he owns, and the second guy tells him that he own 50 acres. The first guy responds that he can’t believe how little land the other guy owns, and starts chuckling. He then asks the first guy where the land is. The second guy says “downtown Dallas.”

    As usual, it’s all in the footnotes.

    And I’d obviously make a terrible stand-up.

  16. SFAnalyst commented on Apr 18

    One minor point of clarification…Firms like ING Clarion and Prudential provide investment advisory and asset management services for the beneficial owners, which are frequently pension funds and other institutional investors (e.g. university endowments or high-net worth families). Ownership records for these properties typically reflect the name of the advisor/manager. Actual beneficial ownership of the real estate may be a separate account or a multi-employer trust.

    Also, while EOP may have held the largest U.S. office building portfolio (by market value), Blackstone has been actively selling off some of the largest assets in major cities across the country. Not sure where Blackstone will rank when its all over.

    Historically, insurance companies were among the largest investors in commercial real estate. Deregulation of financial institutions in recent years has blurred the lines between insurance companies and other owners of real estate.

  17. Todd commented on Apr 18

    TIAA-CREF also does $ management for non-profits. I am lucky enough to have some retirement funds with them.

  18. Barry Ritholtz commented on Apr 18

    1) I do not believe The Church is a “commercial” land owner

    2) I was under the impression that the Railroads do not own the land, but rather have a permament govt issued easement (right of way) across them.

    3) I bet they do own alot of land, but I was referring to commercial rather than timber/mining property. Also, much of the timber giants land holdings are in Canada — in the US, they frequently buy not the land, but a license to harvest the timber.

  19. Lauriston commented on Apr 18

    So can we expect a TIAA-Cref IPO soon? Wouldn’t surprise me, anything can be IPOed these days.

  20. Craig commented on Apr 18

    As far as raw land it’s Plum Creek (a REIT), as of 2005 according to this article:
    BUT it started with the RR land grants leading to Burlington Northern, then Burlington Resources.

    “A decade after Burlington Northern Railroad begat Burlington Resources begat Plum Creek, the timber company reorganized as a real estate investment trust, or REIT.
    By the end of 2005, the company D.C Dunham left with nary an acre held 8.23 million acres nationwide, making Seattle-based Plum Creek the largest private landowner in the country. The biggest holding is in Montana, where Plum Creek owns 1.282 million acres of forestland. Montana also is home to most of the company’s 2,000 employees, and not a little of its $1.5 billion in annual revenues.”

  21. Craig commented on Apr 18

    No Barry, more from the article cited:
    “When Lincoln granted the public’s land to America’s railroad magnates, he didn’t just give them a chunk of Midwestern prairie or Montana mountaintop. Instead, the land was granted in alternating 640-acre sections.
    That’s why modern land-ownership maps look like checkerboards, with alternating square miles of private and public land. The idea, Draffen said, was that such a pattern would increase the value of the public’s adjacent land, thanks to nearby railroad access.”

    Now it’s WAY more than timber or mining.
    You need to checkout Weyerhauser’s RE division. Or Plum Creek’s. Where do you think the builders have been buying land?
    They aren’t making land anymore you know!
    That leaves the largest source which is why my answer was RR’s. The checkerboard pattern guarantees it in the west.

  22. Shane – Apella commented on Apr 18

    It would not surpise me if it was teachers. GMAC had an early start with teachers and also the start of Credit Unions were based on alot of teacher groups.

  23. jd long commented on Apr 18

    For the noncommercial land holders you guys are off base. It’s clearly the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). They control 13% of the TOTAL LAND IN THE US (258 MM acres). The US government as a whole controls around 650 MM acres. That is, if you can believe their official government web site :)

    As for private lands, it looks like International Paper sold off most of its holdings a couple of years ago:

    You know, if we are talking control of pure number of acres, it may be the Nature Conservancy. Johns Hopkins thinks that its Ted Turner, however:

    Its hard to imagine that he holds the most acres…

  24. Craig commented on Apr 18

    BLM is our public land, so we all own it no matter how poorly it’s managed.

    I seriously doubt it’s Ted. I bet he owns enough though.

  25. John Thompson commented on Apr 18

    Ted has the biggest ranch. But supposedly, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world. I don’t believe that by a hundred fold.

    At least the commonwealth has teachers butting up checkerboard against them. What a vibrant source of future income for the Rothschild’s & Wellingtons to soon acquire – and cheap!

    Oh, wait, just changed my mind on that one too. Government bailout has us all back peddling and assuming Petersen’s 70 trillion dollar debt prediction may come true in 18 years.

  26. Griff commented on Apr 18

    Plum Creek Timber is the largest commercial landowner – 8.2 million acres. So they say in their annual report for 2006. Forest land is commercial land if the broad definition. If you are thinking of office buildings, TIAA-CREFF might be the answer. But the trend has been for large investors to hold the mortgages directly on these properties and leave the ownership and management to others. Wal-Mart would probably be the largest commercial property owner if you are thinking of square footage.

  27. peter from oz commented on Apr 18

    for acreage I believe it is Tejon Ranch (TRC)
    rgds pcm

  28. Craig commented on Apr 19

    Not likely, Tejon Ranch is only a small parcel in So. Cal. I judged the North American Sheepdog Championships there twice.
    I don’t suppose it looks small to the average guy though!

    Plum Creek owns major portions of Washington, Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, etc. basically the old RR’s.

    While it’s a beautiful place, TR could be a flea on Plum Creek’s back.

  29. Michael Storm commented on Apr 19

    The guy who said TIAA-CREF must be the largest financial institution (at $400B) and the “most profitable” adds such a nice conspiracy theory element to the discussion.

    So, the largest U.S. asset managers I know are StateStreet, Barclays Global Investors, and WAAMCO which each must be around $1.25T under management by now. Large banks like JPM and Citi have about $1.5T on the asset side of the balance sheet.

    None of these are even close to “the most profitable” which will depend on how you measure that but it is more likely to be Goldman ($800B in assets), Blackstone, Renaissance Technologies, or some similiar ultra-high-profit enterprise.

    In all, it kinda makes you laugh at the $1T in SAFE (the chinese central bank). All that belongs to over 1B Chinese people… or only about $1000 per person.

  30. peter from oz commented on Apr 20

    craig if you want to see acreage (and sheepdogs!) come to Ausralia
    for value/acreage I’ll still go with TRC

  31. Lesley commented on May 21

    Blackstone owns everything including our minds…… and bodies one day? However, can’t take my soul. lol

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