Coming Commercial Mortgage Crisis
Commercial Loans Failing at Rapid Pace - WSJ.com
U.S. banks have been charging off soured commercial mortgages at the fastest pace in nearly 20 years, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. At that rate, losses on loans used to finance offices, shopping malls, hotels, apartments and other commercial property could reach about $30 billion by the end of 2009.
The losses by regional banks on their commercial real-estate loans will be among the most watched details as thousands of banks report second-quarter results over the next two weeks. Many of the most troubled banks have heavy exposure to commercial real estate. So far, 57 banks have failed this year.
The $30 billion estimate is based on financial reports filed by more than 8,000 banks for the first quarter. The trend continued as a handful of major banks reported second-quarter results, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp. Regional banks tend to have higher exposure to commercial real estate than these big financial institutions.
The commercial real-estate market, valued at about $6.7 trillion, represents 13% of the U.S.'s gross domestic product. But the recession and scarce credit are pushing more commercial developers and investors into default. Meanwhile, property values continue to decline, and banks are required to record a loss on any troubled real-estate loans where the appraised value falls below the amount owed.
Delinquencies on commercial mortgages held by banks more than doubled to about 4.3% in the second quarter from a year earlier[/b], Foresight Analytics estimates. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.), who heads the House's Joint Economic Committee, said she is working with Treasury Department officials on a plan to try to head off rising defaults on commercial mortgages before they cascade into a crisis.
In contrast to home loans, the majority of which were made by about 10 lenders, thousands of U.S. banks, especially regional and community banks, loaded up on commercial-property debt.
Ironically, small banks appear to be much less aggressive in recognizing losses than their bigger brethren. According to the Journal analysis, the largest banks, with assets of more than $100 billion, saw charge-offs roughly quadruple last year, while losses at many medium-size banks grew at a much smaller rate of 120%.
One monument to both the excessive froth of the real-estate boom and the morning-after headache setting in for lenders is the landmark Equitable Building, rising 33 stories above downtown Atlanta.
In 2007, San Diego real-estate firm Equastone LLC paid $57 million for the office tower and took out a $51.9 million mortgage from Capmark Bank, a Utah-based unit of Capmark Financial Group Inc. in Horsham, Pa. Equastone planned to expand the tower and attract a tenant with pockets deep enough to rename the building.
Shortly after the purchase, the economic slump pushed vacancies higher and rents down. In April, Capmark Bank foreclosed on the building after Equastone defaulted on the debt.
In June, the Equitable Building was sold in a foreclosure auction for $29.5 million, 43% less than the original loan amount. And the buyer? It was 100 Peachtree Street Atlanta, a company formed by Capmark Bank for the purpose of acquiring the building. There were no other bidders.
Steven Nielsen, Capmark Bank's chief executive, said the mortgage was written off to the "estimated value" of the building. He wouldn't specify the size of the related charge-off on Capmark's books. Property-tax records show the building was valued at about $44.8 million at foreclosure, which would equal a $7.1 million loss for the bank.
Some bankers say they feel growing pressures from regulators to take losses on commercial real-estate exposure as a way of reducing the possibility of a catastrophic hit later.
"We recognize losses as quickly as any bank, partly because bank regulators dictate that," said Ed Garding, chief credit officer at First Interstate Bank, of Billings, Mont. More than 40% of the bank's loans are in commercial real estate, but according to the Journal analysis, annualized charge-offs in 2009 would be just 3% of its nonperforming commercial mortgages as of the end of 2008. That compares with an average of 34% for all U.S. banks.
Mr. Garding said the commercial real-estate market has held up relatively well in First Interstate's markets in Montana and Wyoming. Meanwhile, "we're strongly collateralized so the loan doesn't result in a loss," he added.
Among other banks with notably low charge-offs: Based on the Journal study, annualized write-offs this year would be only 9% of all nonperforming commercial mortgages at a Wachovia Corp. unit in Charlotte, N.C. A spokeswoman at Wachovia declined to comment.
At New York Community Bank, a New York State-charted savings bank, that ratio would be a meager 2% in the first quarter. Ilene Angarola, director of investor relations at New York Community Bancorp., the bank holding company, credited the bank's strong underwriting standards. "Even though we have seen a decline in property values, our loan-to-value ratio is conservative enough that we haven't experienced anywhere near the degree of the charge-offs our peers have experienced," Ms. Angarola said.
Some analysts, meanwhile, worry that banks aren't sufficiently recognizing losses on their commercial real-estate loans, thereby exposing themselves to bigger losses later. According to Deutsche Bank AG, since the beginning of last year, the amount of charged-off commercial mortgages as a percentage of such debt outstanding has ranged from a high of 3.2% to as low as 0.3%.
"Net charge-offs to date have been highly inadequate," said Richard Parkus, head of commercial mortgage-backed securities research at Deutsche Bank. "This is clearly a problem that is being pushed out into the future."
How aggressively regulators respond could help determine how long the commercial-property market remains mired in turmoil. "If banks are allowed to bury problem loans away in their portfolios for years via massive term extensions, this is likely to be a very long process," Mr. Parkus said.
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