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The Next Shoe to Drop: Commercial Real Estate

15 January 2009 Jose D. Roncal www.financialspeculation.com We’re all aware of the calamitous mortgage crisis with consumers loosing their homes, bank foreclosures, the lending freeze and the rapid unraveling of the economy in general. Now the mortgage crisis is moving to Main Street and the commercial real estate market is taking a pounding.

15 January 2009 Jose D. Roncal www.financialspeculation.com

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We’re all aware of the calamitous mortgage crisis with consumers loosing their homes, bank foreclosures, the lending freeze and the rapid unraveling of the economy in general. Now the mortgage crisis is moving to Main Street and the commercial real estate market is taking a pounding.

Not too long ago, investors were jumping into the commercial real estate fast lane, buying up office towers, apartment complexes, hotels, shopping malls and any spec property that promised to reap rewards through escalating values. But now things are not looking so rosy for commercial real estate.

Contractors, investors and developers are facing what could be the worst real estate crisis since the early 1990s. The crisis in the 1990s happened when federal tax breaks led to overinvestment and overbuilding. But the impending crisis is the result of cheap credit, which tempted developers to bid up the prices of existing properties creating a price bubble.

Once again, banks are left holding the bag. In the second quarter of 2008, banks held more than 50% of commercial real estate loans, with smaller, regional lenders having a relatively larger exposure. Regional banks are now waiting for a second wave of loan losses to hit, this time instead of toxic residential debt, it’s shopping centers, hotels and major residential and commercial construction projects. The charge-off rate for these loans is about 1.1% and growing.

The number of overdue commercial construction loans is on the rise, which portends a rise in defaults. In the third quarter of 2008, overdue loans had quadrupled from two years earlier for the same period, according to Federal Reserve data. That’s the highest spike since 1994.

Jeffrey DeBoer, president of the Real Estate Roundtable estimates that about $400 billion worth of commercial real estate mortgages will come due by the end of this year. But since many banks have stopped lending to any new construction projects, developers will have a hard time refinancing the hundreds of billions in loans already on the books.

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The Roundtable is part of a real estate affinity group that’s leaning on the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department to create a special lending program for the commercial mortgage-backed securities market. No decisions have been made, but Treasury did indicate that extending part of their financial bail-out package to this market sector is within the realm of possibility.

Meanwhile, major construction projects across the country are on hold. From churches where the membership is uncertain about spending funds, to universities that have seen their endowments collapse, to individual developers who aren’t willing to spend money in the current economic mess. Even architectural firms are feeling the pinch as skittish clients cancel large projects.

Even though the downturn in the commercial real estate hasn’t been as dramatic or as headline grabbing as pictures of homeowners sent packing, commercial defaults could deepen and prolong the recession. Moody’s Economy.com estimates that commercial real estate losses could slice about $30 billion from our economic growth this year.

Many in the construction industry are pushing Congress to approve President-elect Obama’s proposed stimulus plan to revive the economy and pour hundreds of billions of dollars into rebuilding the infrastructure. It could be enough to keep developers, construction workers, architects, engineers, heavy equipment manufactures and staff members employed and supplied with spending cash until the economy recovers.

But will Obama’s plan succeed in reviving the economy and boosting consumer confidence? Will he make good on his promise to spend those funds on rebuilding the country’s infrastructure? Will he even mange to get the necessary funds in the face of growing skepticism over missing money that banks received in the first stage of the bailout package? If things go according to plan, construction firms might be able to turn their attention to public works projects like bridges, roads and schools. When you consider the huge budget shortfalls of many states and municipalities, there appears to be a sizable backlog of projects in need of funding.

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About the author

José D. Roncal is a truly global executive with over 20 years of experience in international business and finance, having worked and travelled frequently in six continents

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