"Commercial real estate is the next shoe to drop."
James Helsel, Treasurer of the U.S. National Association of Realtors
Pennsylvania realtor and U.S. National Association of Realtors official James Helsel joined with other concerned parties in meeting with a congressional committee last week, conveying a collective message that was saturated with gloom and doom. A commercial real estate implosion has been predicted for months by many observers, including this writer. There is now mounting evidence that this sector of the economy is indeed in the grips of a severe contraction, with all indicators pointing to an accelerating price deflation spiral over a period that may extend to several years.
It has all happened before. In the early 1990s speculators drove the valuations on commercial space far beyond the bounds of prudence. When reality caught up, the worst crash in real estate prices ensued. It now seems increasingly clear that this early 90's disaster is about to be eclipsed by the commercial real estate crash of the current Global Economic Crisis. In fact, commercial real estate prices have already fallen from their 2007 peak valuation by a greater figure than that which has crippled the U.S. residential housing market. As with the housing market, the commercial real estate contraction will adversely affect the balance sheets of the nation's banks. However, the dynamics of that impact will be qualitatively different.
The subprime debacle in the housing market overwhelmingly impacted the largest U.S. banks and financial institutions. With commercial real estate, however, the pyramid becomes inverted. The bulk of the exposure to commercial real estate mortgages is held by financial institutions of small to medium size. Deutsche Bank real estate analyst Richard Parkus told the same congressional committee addressed by James Helsel that the four largest American banks have an average exposure of 2 percent to commercial real estate on their balance sheets. In contrast, the banking institutions that ranked between 30 to 100 in order of size had on average a 12 percent exposure to commercial real estate mortgages. What these figures suggest is that a massive collapse in the U.S. commercial real estate market will cripple a large number of regional and community banks, in comparison to a few "too large to fail" institutions stricken by the subprime housing disaster.
Though publicly quiet on this gathering storm, behind the scenes the economic policymakers in the Obama administration are deeply worried by this growing danger of a wider banking crisis brought on by a massive collapse in commercial real estate. The Federal Reserve is also in a state of high anxiety, for the same reasons. By June of this year, there were already 5,315 commercial properties in default, a figure that is more than double the number of commercial real estate defaults in all of 2008.
Many loans initiated when the prices of commercial properties were at their peak will be coming due over the next 3 years, including $400 billion by the end of 2009, and nearly $2 trillion by 2012. With unemployment skyrocketing, real disposable income shrinking and nearly 7% of income now being saved by the chastened American consumer, it is a foregone conclusion that a greater proportion of these loans will become non-performing. In the current economic climate, there are simply no options available in terms of refinancing and securitization. As with housing, a glut of foreclosed commercial properties will further depress prices, creating a vicious concentric circle of financial doom.
Ultimately, the coming collapse in the U.S. commercial real estate market is not only inevitable; it is round two of the banking crisis. Having barely escaped alive from the consequences of the subprime housing collapse due to trillions of dollars in taxpayer aid and quantitative easing from the Federal Reserve, combined with Timothy Geithner's stage-managed "Stress Test," it is difficult to see an escape route for the American banking sector once the ravages of the commercial real estate storm have hit with gale force. That must be what the Obama administration and the Fed are frantically consulting on behind the scenes, hoping against hope that they have a TARP 2 ready in time. In the final analysis, a very large number of small to medium sized banks in trouble can pose just as great a systemic risk to the global financial system as was the case with a small number of banking giants. What happens to the concept of "too big to fail" in that scenario?