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The Incoming Commercial Real Estate Crisis No One Seems Prepared For
Kevin Stocklin

‘I think that there’s more to come,’ said Peter Earle, research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

It has been a year since a string of U.S. regional bank failures, together with the collapse of global heavyweight Credit Suisse, caused many to fear that a major financial crisis was imminent.

But, by the summer of 2023, the panicked withdrawals by frightened depositors largely subsided.

In February, however, New York Community Bank (NYCB) appeared to resurrect the crisis when it announced $2.4 billion in losses, fired its CEO, and faced credit downgrades from rating agencies Fitch and Moodys.

In what has become a familiar tale for U.S. regional banks, NYCB’s share price plummeted by 60 percent virtually overnight, erasing billions of dollars from its market value, and its depositors fled en masse.

I think that there’s more to come,” Peter Earle, a securities analyst and senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, told The Epoch Times.

Underlying this year’s turbulence is the fact that many regional banks are sitting on large portfolios of distressed commercial real estate (CRE) loans. according to Mr. Earle. And many are attempting to cope through a process called “extend and pretend,” in which they grant insolvent borrowers more time to pay in hopes that things will get better.

“There is trouble out there, and most of it probably won’t be realized because of the ability to roll some of these loans forward and buy a few more years, and maybe things will recover by then,” he said.

“But all it does is it kicks the can down the road, and it basically means a more fragile financial system in the medium term.”

NYCB’s problem was an overwhelming exposure to New York landlords who were struggling to stay solvent. At the start of this year, the bank had on its books more than $18 billion in loans to multifamily, rent-controlled housing developments.

This situation was particularly concerning given that NYCB had been the safe-haven institution that rescued Signature Bank, another failing regional bank, in March 2023.

Much of what took down banks such as Signature Bank in last year’s banking crisis was an unmanageable level of deposits from high net worth and corporate clients that were too large to be insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

People walk by the First Republic Bank headquarters in San Francisco on March 13, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In Signature Bank’s case, about 90 percent of its deposits were uninsured, and depositors rushed to withdraw their money when the bank came under stress from losses in the cryptocurrency market.

Another source of stress for regional banks was their inability to cope with an aggressive series of interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve to combat inflation. Many banks that held large bond portfolios yielding low fixed rates found that the value of these portfolios declined sharply, creating unrealized losses.

While these portfolios, often made up of U.S. Treasury securities, were considered safe from a credit perspective,they were subject to market risk, and their loss of value sparked concerns about the banks’ solvency in the event they had to be sold. As stock traders rushed to sell the shares of banks with large exposures to interest rate risk, customers became spooked and raced to withdraw their money.

Consequently, unrealized losses quickly became actual losses as banks were forced to sell bonds and loans at a loss in an increasingly futile attempt to make panicking depositors whole.

Rate Hikes Cease, Problems Remain

Today, while interest rates remain high, they are relatively stable. And yet concerns about the health of U.S. regional banks remain because of their large exposure through CRE, including office buildings, multifamily housing units, and retail spaces.

While CRE loans make up about 13 percent of the balance sheets of the biggest U.S. banks, they make up 44 percent of regional banks’ lending portfolios. CRE loans designated as nonperforming doubled as a percentage of U.S. banks’ portfolios from 0.4 percent in 2022 to 0.81 percent by the end of 2023.

In total, there are about 130 regional banks in the United States, with a little more than $3 trillion in assets. These banks, which each have between $10 billion and $100 billion in assets, are typically more exposed to the boom and bust of local markets but also to specific sectors within those markets where they have been able to operate profitably.

While other credit sectors, such as home mortgages, car loans, and corporate loans, are generally the domain of larger financial institutions, regional banks have found a profitable niche in lending to real estate investors. But in the past several years, commercial landlords have been taking hits from two directions.

Since the introduction of lockdowns and the rise of work-at-home culture during the COVID-19 pandemic, many corporations have viewed office rents as a cost ripe for cutting.

According to an April CRE report by Commercial Edge, the office vacancy rate across the United States was 18.2 percent as of March, an increase of 1.5 percent over the prior year.

“U.S. office vacancy rates have increased in recent years as companies embrace remote and hybrid work and re-examine their office footprints,” the report reads. “The increases are not concentrated in just one market or sector.”


Kevin Stocklin is an Epoch Times business reporter who covers the ESG industry, global governance, and the intersection of politics and business.


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