Armageddon at the Strip Mall

Kevin WilliamsonNational Review

Remember 2007? Glory days, right? Everything was booming, and nothing was booming quite as much as real estate — especially commercial real estate. Malls, hotels, warehouses, industrial parks: Everything was being built, and everything was being financed on ridiculously generous terms. Remember interest-only loans? Good times.

But commercial real estate is different from residential in one important way: Your standard residential mortgage goes 20 to 30 years. Your standard commercial loan goes for five years, at the end of which you either make a big balloon payment (what it is that balloons remind me of?) or you refinance, the idea being that five years is long enough to get your project built or developed, to secure tenants and leases, get your cash flow flowing, etc. Five years: Seems like it was only yesterday. By my always-suspect English-major math, that means that a whole bunch of commercial mortgages written at that poisonous sweet spot when prices were highest but lending standards were lowest are coming due . . . oh, any minute now.

In New York City alone, there’s about $70 billion worth of commercial mortgages — some of which have been sold off as mortgage-backed securities, naturally — coming due this year. The national total is more than $150 billion, or a bit more than 1 percent of U.S. GDP. That’s going to be a little awkward: The value of U.S. commercial properties has declined by an average of 45.7 percent since their all-time high in 2007, according to Real Capital Analytics. Those 2007 vintage loans weren’t exactly bulletproof: Typical terms included a 20 percent down payment and a five-year payment schedule that required little more than interest payments. An $80 million mortgage on a $100 million property is not so bad, but an $80 million mortgage on what is now a $60 million property is a problem. More than half of the 2007-vintage loans are expected to have trouble refinancing, and maybe well more than half.

This is true even for borrowers who have never missed a payment. Banks are required to take into account a number of factors when rating commercial mortgages. One of the most important is the loan-to-value ratio, which has a lot of borrowers over a particularly uncomfortable barrel: They may have the cash to make their payments, and they may have the cash flow to continue making payments on a refinanced loan, but their properties still are worth less than their mortgages, so nobody wants to refinance. And those are the lucky ones: Just as those loans were mostly for five years, most commercial leases are for about the same length of time. With retail and office-space rentals down, lots of commercial borrowers are sitting on largely vacant properties that are not producing much in the way of cash flow. Among the more high-profile cases, the WTC 3 tower at the World Trade Center still has not located an anchor tenant, which could put the much of the project on ice. Thousands of strip malls across the fruited plains have empty storefronts, and thousands of office buildings have floor upon vacant floor.

Standard & Poor’s advises: “One-third of maturing loans are for office properties, for which five-year lease terms are fairly common — and if tenants don’t renew these leases, securing new, long-term lease commitments may be more difficult in the current environment. Those leases [were] signed in 2007, at peak rents will likely reset to lower levels as five-year leases roll.” S&P’s bottom line: “50%-60% of the 2007 vintage five-year-term loans maturing next year may fail to refinance, and retail loans are at the greatest risk.”

Translation: Armageddon at the strip mall.

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