Commercial Real Estate – Alarm Bells Are Sounding

Late, as usually, US Lawmakers Sound Alarm About Commercial Real Estate Market:

WASHINGTON -(Dow Jones)- U.S. lawmakers rang alarm bells about the troubled commercial real estate industry, which has been walloped by the credit crunch and an implosion of property values.

“The commercial real estate time bomb is ticking,” Joint Economic Committee Chairman Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in opening remarks to a hearing before her panel Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, said he was distressed about the situation the industry is facing.

Banks have yanked back on lending to developers of shopping malls, apartment complexes, hotels and office parks. Meanwhile, the securitization market – a key source of funding for the commercial real estate industry – has been in a deep freeze since last year.

The situation is fueling concerns that property developers won’t be able to refinance roughly $400 billion in commercial real estate debt coming due this year. Property values have plunged about 24% since their peak in 2007, further hampering developers’ ability to obtain refinancings or loan extensions.

General Growth Properties, one of the largest U.S. shopping mall owners, filed for bankruptcy protection along with 158 of its properties in April, citing lack of financing.

A wave of defaults of commercial real estate loans would deal a blow to the already weakened banking industry. The U.S. commercial real estate market is roughly $6.7 trillion in size and is underpinned by about $3.5 trillion of debt.

The Federal Reserve has taken steps to get lending flowing to the industry. On June 16, it announced it would accept as collateral new issuance of commercial mortgage-backed securities as part of its emergency program to thaw the securitization market. As early as next week, the Fed is expected to extend that to existing, or “legacy”, CMBS already held by investors.

The commercial real estate industry believes these steps will help unleash lending to property owners and developers by spurring more investor appetite for CMBS. To the extent that CMBS investors are able to buy and sell the securities again, spreads will tighten, the Fed argues. That will allow financial institutions that make loans backing the CMBS to free up their balance sheets and make new loans to the industry or refinance existing debt.

Ah sure. The Fed will once again jump in heroically and this time help us by unleashing the dragon of commercial property loans. Let’s have a look at the terms of CMBS Talf:

Operation Announcement
Subscription Date: July 16, 2009
Closing Date: July 24, 2009
3-Year Maturity Date: July 24, 2012
5-Year Maturity Date: July 24, 2014
Facility Open: July 16, 2009 1:00 p.m. ET
Facility Close: July 16, 2009 3:00 p.m. ET
Administrative Fee: 20.00 basis points
Eligible Collateral: CMBS1
Loan Term: 3 or 5 years
Rates will be set at 12:00 p.m. ET on July 16, 2009
Haircuts for New Issue CMBS and Base Dollar Haircuts for Legacy CMBS:

CMBS Average Life (years)



Commercial Mortgage




Fixed 3 year loan
(Average Life, in years)

Fixed 5 year loan




Commercial Mortgage



3-year LIBOR swap rate
+ 100 bps

5-year LIBOR swap rate
+ 100 bps

1As defined in the terms & conditions

Loans will be made over 3-5 years, with CMBS as collateral. The objective being that the lenders, now afloat in new cash, once again start making loans to commercial real estate buyers and/or developers.

This misses the fundamental point as to why commercial property owners and developers are in trouble. It is the fact that the consumption credit expansion has brought about an abundance of retail space in malls, shopping centers and elsewhere. On top of that, a lot of businesses from the lending business were utilizing a significant portion of prime office space.

Now those businesses that were utilizing these spaces are going out of business. The recession is trying to send a signal that the resources are needed elsewhere. They are unable to make their rent payments. The owners of the properties start defaulting on the loans made during the credit expansion. The lenders notice that way too much space was built. There is no demand for any more retail space. In fact, there is a significant surplus. Nobody wants any more retail space. People are sick and tired of debt and over consumption.

Now, what are those very lenders going to do when they receive additional loans from the Fed, at around 2.9% to 3.7%, maybe even more for higher maturities. So they would have to earn at least an additional 100 basis points, probably more, in rental yield in order to make this investment worth their while, and that over the next 3-5 years.

Is this going to happen in an environment of falling prices for commercial properties, falling rents, and record vacancies? No, absolutely not. When people have had enough of something, they’ve had enough. If this is still not clear, I would recommend reading Robert Prechter’s example on Jaguar Inflation which I posted in Inflation and Deflation Revisited.

CMBS TALF will be a miserable failure, just as all other lending facilities launched by the Fed. It is possible that this failure will actually expose the dire situation of commercial lenders and accalerate the downward spiral. Thus, look out for the aftermath of first CMBS TALF auction on July 16th. Rather than it being a cure, it is likely that it will usher in a significant acceleration of commercial property loan defaults.

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