Commercial Real Estate — the Economy's Anvil

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James W. Porter / Corbis

Commercial real estate may soon bulldoze the green shoots.

A coming wave of defaults on loans to developers of condominiums, office buildings and malls could do significant damage to the already deflating economy. That was the overwhelming concern expressed at a public hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) on Thursday that focused on corporate and commercial real estate lending.

The COP was set up last fall as part of legislation that gave the Treasury Department permission to spend $700 billion to rescue the nation's ailing financial system. The panel, which is headed by Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, has no legislative or official regulatory powers. It is supposed to monitor the Treasury's spending and report back to Congress as to whether it is being effective in boosting lending and shoring up the financial sector.

Thursday's hearing was one of a number of public forums the COP is hosting on different segments of the lending market. Warren is often criticized for being too critical of banks and their lending practices. But at the hearing on commercial real estate, Warren focused on how big a problem future loan defaults will be and what should be done about them.

She got an earful. Richard Parkus, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said he thought two-thirds of all commercial real estate loans due in the next few years — hundreds of billions of dollars' worth — could go bust. Jeffrey DeBoer, president of trade group the Real Estate Roundtable, fretted that problems in the lending business could cost the nation thousands more construction and real estate jobs. Next up, Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York expressed worry that the country was headed for a lost decade of economic stagnation.

There were not many solutions offered. Nadler said he thought the government should create new banks, which, unencumbered by souring loans, would boost lending. Nadler said he thought private investors would be interested in helping fund the new banks. A number of the panelists thought the government's TALF and PPIP programs meant to boost lending were helpful but not the answer. Parkus said he thought extending the terms of commercial loans set to default would only delay the problem and make it worse. As more and more bad loans pile up, he predicted, it will become progressively harder for any of them to get refinanced.

What is clear from the hearing is that commercial real estate could turn out to be a much bigger problem for banks and the economy than the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve and other bank regulators seem to believe. "The question is, What percentage of commercial real estate loans will have trouble refinancing?" Parkus said at the COP hearing. "It is likely to be a big problem."

How big? In the government's recent bank stress test, examiners predicted that commercial real estate loan losses for the 19 largest banks in the nation would be far less than the value of home loans that go unpaid in the next two years — $53 billion vs. $185 billion. But Warren said she thought the two-year horizon of the government stress test may have understated the size of the banks' commercial real estate problem. The government assumed different default rates for each of the 19 banks for commercial real estate and other types of loans. Warren said the government had not given much information as to what determined the default rate used for each bank; she plans to release a report on the stress test in early June.

Parkus concurred that the stress tests probably went too light on potential losses. He expects that a little over $1 trillion in commercial real estate loans will be up for refinancing in the next four years. Because of falling real estate prices and lower rental incomes, he said, as many as two-thirds of those loans may not be eligible for refinancing and could end in default.

Kevin Pearson, executive vice president of M&T Bank, said he thinks banks will be able to avoid many of those loan losses through loan modifications or "through blocking and tackling," as he put it. Parkus, though, said that outlook was too positive. He countered that banks will have a very tough time refinancing the poor loans they made at the height of the credit bubble. "There are very large losses embedded in the system," he said.