Interest Rate Roundup

Sunday, January 06, 2008

And you thought RESIDENTIAL real estate was bad...

We all know by now that the residential real estate market has imploded. The forces that inflated the housing bubble are also well-known -- a toxic combination of overbuilding, overspeculating, and ridiculously reckless lending on the part of the residential mortgage industry.

What hasn't garnered as much attention so far is the state of the COMMERCIAL real estate market. Turns out we've had an incredible bout of reckless speculation and -- surprise, surprise -- stupid lending there, too, and it's coming back to haunt the commercial market, according to this New York Times story.

Here's one excerpt (with some choice bits highlighted):

"As often happens in real estate, a once-frothy national cycle is losing steam and the market has turned against many buyers. Mr. Macklowe, with his empire of 15 prime office towers and two development sites in one of the world’s best business districts, is awash in expensive, short-term debt at the very moment that financial backing for megadeals has all but shut down. One of his loans is backed by a $1 billion personal guarantee, and he is already in default on $510 million in development loans for a Park Avenue project.

Mr. Macklowe’s predicament marks the denouement of an unprecedented four-year period in which developers threw gobs of money at real estate as prices for office towers, especially in Manhattan, doubled and tripled almost as fast as sales could be recorded. Investment banks avidly underwrote the binge, often basing loans not on existing rents but on projections of rental income well into the future.

All of this worked swimmingly so long as the economy hummed along and banks could pool the loans and sell them to investors. Now, the economy is showing signs of stress, and Wall Street’s repackaging machine is sputtering.

“In hindsight, everybody should have been more cautious,” said Robert Bach, the chief economist at Grubb & Ellis, the national real estate brokerage firm. “We all knew this wasn’t going to last, but we hoped it would end with a whimper, not a bang.”

Analysts, bankers and developers are not predicting the imminent collapse of the commercial real estate market, a reprise of the early 1990s, when property values dropped by half, vacancies soared and banks were crushed under the weight of soured real estate loans. But developers who jumped in at the top of this market are likely to feel some pain because purchases were built on the assumption that rents would keep escalating and that the value of buildings would keep appreciating."

And here's another:

"The annual rent for the seven Midtown buildings was generally $55 to $59 a square foot, according to William Macklowe, but Deutsche Bank and Fortress underwrote the deal on the assumption that rents would soon rise to $100 a square foot.

"After all, the commercial real estate market was higher than ever. The vacancy rate had fallen to record lows, while high construction costs made new buildings prohibitive. Landlords at prime office buildings were getting more than $100 a square foot annually, while the average rents for first-class Midtown buildings rose to $73.31 by the first quarter of 2007 from $55.21 in the first quarter of 2005, according to Reis Inc., a New York office research company.

"At the same time, average prices for large office buildings in Midtown more than doubled, to $745 a square foot from $357, according to Real Capital Analytics. Investment banks and foreign companies began pouring capital into real estate. Lenders, in turn, took more risks, often providing financing for 90 to even 100 percent of a building’s price. Investors became ever more willing to accept a lower initial rate of return, known as the capitalization rate.

As with the residential market, the money flowed easily because lenders did not keep these risky loans on their balance sheets — as the commercial banks and savings-and-loan associations did to their peril in the early 1990s. Instead, Wall Street repackaged hundreds of billions of dollars of loans as commercial-mortgage-backed securities and sold them to investors.

“Loans with more aggressive terms that weren’t available in ’03 and ’04 became the norm in ’06, when suddenly lenders became very accommodating,” said Mike Kirby, a principal of Green Street Advisors, a research company in Newport Beach, Calif., that specializes in real estate investment trusts. “The attitude was, ‘Gee, we’re not going to own this stuff; we get terrific fees for underwriting these loans, and we can blow it out in a C.M.B.S. deal in three months.’”

I've been concerned about the state of the commercial market for some time. See this piece from back in late 2006 or this one from mid-2007 for more of my thoughts there. You have to wonder what's going to happen to U.S. banks if they get hit with a big surge in commercial mortgage defaults on top of the record surge in losses they're already dealing with on the residential mortgage front. Oh and don't forget all those aggressively leveraged private equity deals that were yet another consequence of the easy money mania. Lenders are having trouble offloading the steaming pile of paper in that market, too.


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