Wednesday, April 15, 2009

This Time is Very Different: Attack of the Zombie Properties

The last time we had a severe CRE downturn was 1990 – 1995. For those of us who were around, the current situation feels similar – plummeting employment, deteriorating income fundamentals, spiking cap rates, and loss of liquidity in the market. However, there are some huge differences this time which have important implications.

First, some history. Here is a chart of cap rates taken from a paper by Philip Conner and Youguo Liang (Income and Cap Rate Effects on Property Appreciation, worth checking out):


Current value cap rates bottomed at around 6.7% in 1990, were around 8.25% in 1992, and peaked at around 9.5% in 1995. Based on the sales and appraisals I’m seeing and talk with colleagues, current cap rates seem to be in the 8% to 8.5% range, so today is somewhere around 1992 levels.

Now, let’s consider interest rates. A typical variable rate CRE deal in 1990 used an 11th District Cost of Funds index (COFI) plus 2.25%. An equivalent CRE deal in 2007 would have been priced at 30 day LIBOR + 2%. Here is how the interest rate would have changed on those two deals over the last 2 years:


Interest rates this time are much lower. In 1992, the cap rates were right around the interest rate, which meant a property with no equity also probably couldn’t make it’s payment. Today is much different; cap rates are 5.5% to 6% higher than the interest rate. This means a property could be severely under water and still make it’s payment. Here’s an example:


In an ordinary world, a property overleveraged to this extent would be foreclosed on and sold, but because interest rates are so low it can continue to make its payments.

What are the implications?

  • CRE loans are collateral based, so under FAS 114 the bank probably needs to recognize the loss even though the loan payments are current. If the loan term is long enough, it’s possible the bank can make an argument the value will recover, and avoid recognizing the loss. But regulators and accountants these days tend to be pessimistic in their outlook, so the bank is probably stuck with recognizing the loss.
  • If a bank attempts to foreclose on a basis other than a payment default (for example, loan maturity or a non-monetary covenant violation), the borrower will probably file bankruptcy. It is very difficult to obtain relief from stay and foreclose on a borrower willing to make their contractual interest payments (more on that here). So, the bank is probably stuck with the deal until interest rates go up and there is a payment default, unless they sell the note.
  • If the bank sells the note for the collateral value, the return to the note purchaser is equal to the cap rate (in the example above, 8.25%). Note buyers are looking for returns in the 20% range, so these deals won’t appeal to them either.

I believe the result is we will have a lot of zombie loans on bank books, and a lot of zombie properties that are grossly overleveraged, but which can’t be cleared to market values because the borrowers can make the payments at today’s incredibly low rates.