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The Coming Commercial Real Estate Crash that May Never Happen

Only two months ago, SL Green & Co. chief executive Marc Holliday was sounding happy. The head of New York’s biggest commercial landlord firm told Wall Street analysts that traffic to the company’s buildings was picking up, and more than 1 million square feet of space was either recently leased or in negotiations. The company’s debt was down, it had finished the structure for its 1 Madison Avenue tower in Manhattan, and local officials had just completed an extension of commuter rail service from Long Island to Green’s flagship tower near Grand Central Station.

“We are full guns blazing,” Holliday said on the quarterly earnings call, with workers headed back to offices after a pandemic that rocked developers as more people worked from home, raising the question of how much office space companies really need any more. “We can hopefully …continue on a path to what we think will be a pivot year for us in 2023.” 

Then Silicon Valley Bank failed, and Wall Street panicked. 

Shares of developers, and the banks that lend to them, dropped sharply, and bank shares have stayed low. Analysts raised concerns that developers might default on a big chunk of $3.1 trillion of U.S. commercial real estate loans Goldman Sachs says are outstanding. Almost a quarter of mortgages on office buildings must be refinanced in 2023, according to Mortgage Bankers’ Association data, with higher interest rates than the 3 percent paper that stuffs banks’ portfolios now. Other analysts wondered how landlords could find new tenants as old leases expire this year, with office vacancy rates at record highs.

How much an office crash could hurt the economy

There are reasons to think the road ahead will be rocky for the real estate industry and banks that depend on it. And the stakes, according to Goldman, are high, especially if there is a recession: a credit squeeze equal to as much as half a percentage point of growth in the overall economy. But credit in commercial real estate has performed well until now, and it’s far from clear that U.S. credit issues spreading outward from real estate is likely.

“There’s a lot of headaches about calamity in commercial real estate,” said Kevin Fagan, director of commercial real estate analysis at Moody’s Analytics. “There likely will be issues but it’s more of a typical down cycle.”

The vacancy rate for office buildings rose to a record high 18.2% by late 2022, according to brokerage giant Cushman & Wakefield, topping 20 percent in key markets like Manhattan, Silicon Valley and even Atlanta. 

But this year’s refinancing cliff is the real rub, says Scott Rechler, CEO of RXR, a closely-held Manhattan development firm. Loans that come due will have to be financed at higher interest rates, which will mean higher payments even as vacancy rates rise or remain high. Higher vacancies mean some buildings are worth less, so banks are less willing to touch them without tougher terms. That’s especially true for older, so-called Class B buildings that are losing out to newer buildings as tenants renew leases, he said. And the shortage of recent sales makes it hard for banks to decide how much more cash collateral to demand.

“No one knows what is a fair price,” Rechler said. “Buyers and sellers have different views.” 

What the Fed has said about commercial real estate

Federal Reserve officials up to and including Chair Jerome Powell have stressed that the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank were outliers whose failures had nothing to do with real estate – Silicon Valley Bank had barely 1 percent of assets in commercial real estate. Other banks’ exposure to the sector is well under control.

“We’re well aware of the concentrations people have in commercial real estate,” Powell said at a March22 press conference. “I really don’t think it’s comparable to this. The banking system is strong, it is sound, it is resilient, it’s well capitalized.”

The commercial real estate market is a bigger issue than a few banks which mismanaged risk in bond portfolios, and the deterioration in conditions for Class B office space will have wide-reaching economic impacts, including the tax base of municipalities across the country where empty offices remain a significant source of concern. 

But there are reasons to believe lending issues in commercial real estate will be contained, Fagan said.

The first is that the office sector is only one part of commercial real estate, albeit a large one, and the others are in unusually good shape.

Vacancy rates in warehouse and industrial space nationally are low, according to Cushman and Wakefield. The national retail vacancy rates, despite the migration of shoppers to online shopping, is only 5.7%. And hotels are garnering record revenue per available room as both occupancy and prices surged post-Covid, according to research firm STR.  Banks’ commercial real estate lending also includes apartment complexes, with rental vacancies rates at 5.8 percent in Federal Reserve data.

“Market conditions are fine today, but what develops over the next two to three years could be pretty challenging for some properties,” said Ken Leon, who follows REITs for CFRA Research.

Still, most debt coming due in the next two years looks like it can be refinanced, Fagan said.

That’s one of the reasons Rechler has been drawing attention to the issues. It shouldn’t sneak up on the market or economy, and it should be manageable with the loans spread out across their own maturity ladder.

About three-fourths of commercial real estate debt generates enough income to pass banks’ recent refinancing standards without major changes, Fagan said. Banks have been extending credit using a rule of thumb that a property’s operating income will be at least 8% of the loan every year, though other experts claim a 10% test is being applied to some newer loans. 

To date, banks have had virtually no losses on commercial real estate, and companies are showing little need to default either on loans to banks or rent payments to office building owners. Even as companies lay off workers, the concentration of job losses among big tech employers, in Manhattan, at least, means that tenants have no trouble paying their rent, S.L. Green said. 

Bank commercial mortgage books

Take Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial, or Cincinnati-based Fifth Third, two of the biggest regional banks.

At PNC, the $36 billion in commercial mortgages on the books of the bank is a small fraction of its $557 billion in total assets, including $321.9 billion in loans. Only about $9 billion of loans are secured by office buildings. At Fifth Third, commercial real estate represents $10.3 billion of $207.5 billion in assets, including $119.3 billion in loans.

And those loans are being paid as agreed. Only 0.6% of PNC’s loans are past due, with delinquencies lower among commercial loans. The proportion of delinquent loans fell by almost a third during 2022, the bank said in federal filings. At Fifth Third, only $10 million of commercial real estate loans were delinquent at year-end.

Or take Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest commercial real estate lender, where credit metrics are excellent. Last year, Wells Fargo’s chargeoffs for commercial loans were .01 of 1 percent of the bank’s portfolio, according to the bank’s annual report. Writeoffs on consumer loans were 39 times higher. The bank’s internal assessment of each commercial mortgage’s loan’s quality improved in 2022, with the amount of debt classified as “criticized,″ or with a higher-than-average risk of default even if borrowers haven’t missed payments, dropping by $1.8 billion to $11.3 billion

“Delinquencies are still lower than pre-pandemic,” said Alexander Yokum, banking analyst at CFRA Research. “Any credit metric is still stronger than pre-pandemic.”

Wall Street is worried

The riposte from Wall Street is that the good news on loan performance can’t last – especially if there is a broader recession. 

In a March 24 report, JPMorganChase bank analyst Kabir Caprihan warned that 21% of office loans are destined to go bad, with lenders losing an average of 41% of the loan principal on the failures. That produces potential writedowns of 8.6%, Caprihan said, with banks losing $38 billion on office mortgages. But it is far from certain that so many projects would fail, or why value declines would be so steep.

RXR’s Rechler says that market softness is showing in refinancings already, in ways banks’ public reports don’t yet reveal. The real damage is showing up less in late loans than in the declining value of bonds backed by commercial mortgages, he said.  

One sign of the tightening: RXR itself, which is financially strong, has advanced $1 billion to other developers whose banks are making them post more collateral as part of refinancing applications. Rechler dismissed rating agencies’ relatively sanguine view of commercial mortgage backed securities, arguing that markets for new CMBS issues have locked up in recent weeks and ratings agencies missed early signs of housing-market problems before 2008′s financial crisis. 

The commercial mortgage-backed bond market is relatively small, so its short-term issues are not major drivers of the economy. Issuance of new bonds is down sharply – but that began last year, when fourth-quarter deal volume fell 88 percent, without causing a recession.

“The statistics don’t reflect where it’s going to come out as regulators take a harder look,” Rechler said. “You’re going to have to rebalance loans on even good properties.” 

Wells Fargo has tightened standards, saying it is demanding that payments on refinanced loans take up a smaller percentage of a building’s projected rent and that only “limited” exceptions will be made to the bank’s credit standards on new loans.

Without a deep recession, though, it’s not clear how banks’ and insurance companies’ relatively diversified loan portfolios get into serious trouble. 

The primary way real estate could cause problems for the economy is if an extended decline in the value of commercial mortgages made deposits flow out of banks, forcing them to crimp lending not just to developers but to all customers. In extreme cases, that could threaten the banks themselves. But if developers continue to pay their loans on time and manage refinancing risk, MBS owners and banks will simply get paid as loans mature. 

Markets are split on whether any version of this will happen. The S&P United State REIT Index, which dropped almost 11% in the two weeks after Silicon Valley Bank failed, has recovered most of its losses, down 2% over the past month and remains barely positive for the year. But the KBW Regional Banking Index is down 14% in the last month, even though deposit loss has slowed to a trickle.

The solution will lie in a combination of factors. The amount of loans that come up for refinancing drops sharply after this year, and new construction is already slowing as it does in most real estate downturns, and loan to value ratios in the industry are lower than in 2006 or 2007, before the last recession.

“We feel like there’s going to be pain in the next year,” Fagan said. “2025 is where we see our pivot toward a [recovery] for office.”

Courtesy of TIm Mullaney, CNBC

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