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A $90 billion debt wave shows cracks in property boom

| Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

NEW YORK — A $90 billion wave of maturing commercial mortgages, leftover debt from the 2007 lending boom, is laying bare the weak links in the real estate market.

It's getting harder for landlords who rely on borrowed cash to find new loans to pay off the old ones, leading to forecasts for higher delinquencies. Lenders have gotten choosier about which buildings they'll fund, concerned about overheated prices for properties from hotels to shopping malls, and record values for office buildings in cities such as New York. Rising interest rates and regulatory constraints for banks also are increasing the odds that borrowers will come up short when it's time to refinance.

“There are a lot more problem loans out there than people think,” said Ray Potter, founder of R3 Funding, a New York-based firm that arranges financing for landlords and investors. “We're not going to see a huge crash, but there will be more losses than people are expecting.”

The winners and losers of a lopsided real estate recovery will be cemented as the last vestiges of pre-crisis debt clear the system. While Manhattan skyscraper values have surged 50 percent above the 2008 peak, prices for suburban office buildings languish 4.8 percent below, according to an index from Moody's Investors Service and Real Capital Analytics Inc. Borrowers holding commercial real estate outside of major metropolitan areas are feeling the pinch as they attempt to secure fresh financing, Potter said.

The delinquency rate for commercial mortgages that have been packaged into bonds is forecast to climb by as much as 2.4 percentage points to 5.75 percent in 2017, reversing several years of declines, as property owners struggle with maturing loans, according to Fitch Ratings. That sets the stage for bondholder losses.

Banks sold a record $250 billion of commercial mortgage-backed securities to institutional investors in 2007, and lax lending standards enabled landlords across the country to saddle buildings with large piles of debt. When credit markets froze the following year, Wall Street analysts warned of a cataclysm.

“At the depths of the panic, it was just that: panic,” said Manus Clancy, a managing director at Trepp LLC, a firm that tracks commercial-mortgage debt. “That made people's future expectations extremely bearish. Extremely low interest rates over the last four or five years have forgiven a lot of sins.”

The CMBS market roared back after a 16-month shutdown, and lenders plowed into real estate as an antidote to skimpy returns for other investments. The cheap loans helped propel property values to record highs in big cities such as New York and San Francisco, alleviating concerns about the mountain of debt coming due.

Credit for property owners has once again become scarce in some pockets. Borrowing costs jumped after the surprise election of President Trump, and Wall Street firms are being more cautious as new regulations kick in requiring them to hold a stake in the mortgages they sell off. Other lenders are scaling back on commitments to property types and locations where problems have gotten harder to ignore.

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