Good News for High Yield Mortgage REITs: Commercial RE Debt Markets Are Stabilizing

by REIT Wrecks on May 14, 2008

Is the Credit Crunch Over? Maybe, But Opportunities Still Abound in the REIT Wrecks World.

REITwrecks is back! And with good news. REITwrecks, beating a different kind of crunch in Indonesia Not only is the Indian Ocean still a great place to recreate, but according to indications in the CMBS and CMBX markets, and recent reports by all three of the major ratings agencies, there are increasing signs that the commercial real estate debt markets are stabilizing. As REITwrecks reported earlier, the CMBX and CMBS cash markets were just completely divorced from the fundamentals in commercial real estate (and several astute readers posted comments consistent with this price vs. value disconnect).

Back then, seemingly a hundred years ago, there was no need for a ticket to Vegas: if you were an investor in this sector, all the adrenaline your heart desired could be had sitting right in front of your computer.

Indeed, when nobody was looking and the kids were safely tucked in bed, you could have picked up RAS at $6.75, NRF at $8 and AHR and $6.50. But as everybody knows, it was no time for the faint of heart, and REITwrecks lost a lot of donuts employing this price/value thesis on the likes of SFI and NCT.

But that was then and this is now. Despite widening in both the CMBS cash market and the CMBX last week, the market seems increasingly optimistic that the worst is behind it, and some established players are suggesting that the wild swings in volatility seen since September of 2007 are almost gone for good.

“The yet-to-be-finished de-leveraging process is still likely to exert technical pressure in the market, and volatility could persist for a while as was evident in (CMBX) widening,” Citigroup researchers said in their Bond Market Roundup. “But it appears that the market should now be fairly close to fully redirecting attention to the actual and projected performance of the underlying collateral, as this performance, rather than technical forces, should determine bond value going forward.”

Recent successful executions of new issue bonds by Lehman Brothers/UBS and JPMorgan/CIBC are also pointed to as examples that the market is returning to something more similar to its former self.

“People say they are comfortable with the fact that CMBS is not connected to residential subprime,” one dealer said. “This hadn’t been the case until recently.”

Indeed, although delinquencies on residential mortgage loans continue to skyrocket, that’s not occurring among U.S. CMBS. Securities backed by commercial real estate loans have deteriorated only modestly. The Fitch Ratings’ CMBS delinquency index rose by three basis points, to 0.33%, in March, the second monthly increase in a row, but still low by historical standards.

“At this point, there is not cause for alarm,” Susan Merrick, managing director and CMBS group head, said in an interview. Although the delinquency rate is expected to rise to about 1% over the course of this year, Ms. Merrick said it will still be “just a bit above the historic average.”

Meanwhile, as the CMBS market sorts itself out and mark-to-market accounting fades from the headlines, borrowers are finding capital elsewhere. According to a new report by S&P, borrowers continue to find parties willing to refinance their CMBS loans, despite reduced liquidity for real estate funding and tighter lending standards.

“Debt financing for commercial real estate is available – albeit at a higher cost – from balance sheet lenders and other market participants, who see a window of opportunity for achieving attractive pricing even on conservatively underwritten loans,” the report read.

The report noted that two of the three floating-rate loans with final maturities in the first quarter were refinanced and fully paid off. The third, the highly publized and much-worrisome Macklowe/EOP loan included in the COMM 2007 FL14 transaction did not pay off at its schedule final maturity. However, S&P suggested that the full retirement of the Macklowe COMM 2007-FL14 debt did take place on April 14. S&P said it viewed the Macklowe deal as highly positive given the transaction’s size, complex debt structure and the number of parties with varying economic interests.

Fitch also noted an uptick in loans underlying the CMBS that are not refinancing precisely at their maturity date, thus putting them in non-performing status. The number of loans in this category increased to 11.6% of the Fitch delinquency index in March, compared with 2.9% a year ago.

However, Fitch noted that the majority of the fixed-rate “non-performing” matured loans have paid off in full or extended their terms within 60 days of being transferred to delinquent status, avoiding full default. For example, of the 26 fixed-rate, non-performing matured loans still outstanding at the end of January, only eight loans, comprising $26.2 million, had not refinanced by the end of March.

“Certainly there’s a lot less capital in the markets, but the loans that have matured so far have refinanced” when necessary, with capital being provided either by regional banks or insurance companies, Ms. Merrick said.

All this could be good news for the refinancing of IStar’s Fremont acquisition debt, and it may be why SFI’s stock has been on such a tear recently. SFI’s $1.3 bridge loan is due June 30th, and the Company is now almost certainly neck deep in negotiations with the banks who led the deal (JPMorgan Chase, Citi and Bank of America). As mentioned earlier, REITwrecks had an early long position in SFI that wound up in a sea of red (I much prefer the warmth of the Indian Ocean), but now that 30 days have passed and the wash-sale rule is no longer in effect, it’s time to reevaluate SFI vs. ivesting in other Mortgage REITs. As I wrote before, the Mortgage REIT madness was the perfect storm for investing in high yield Mortgage REITs, and some of the opportunities it has created are compelling for those with patient, discerning money.

As for the CMBS calendar, only two new deals are thought to be in the works, one from Merrill Lynch which may come in the next couple of weeks, and one from Banc of America which may come sometime in May or June, according to Citigroup research.

In addition to S&P, Moody’s Investors Service has also been hard at work. In their just released review of US CMBS for the first quarter of 2008, Moody’s says the final tally for traditional conduit issuance for the year could be less than $35 billion, but like S&P and Fitch, they expect balance-sheet-driven transactions by financial institutions to take up some of the slack. It is a vast change from last year’s record US CMBS issuance of $230 billion.

Nick Levidy, Moody’s Managing Director, expects the sector to take “several years to re-group”. In retrospect, “perhaps US CMBS should be viewed as a $50 billion to $100 billion per year business that spiked to $200 billion during a credit bubble rather than a $200 billion business having an off year,” Levidy adds.

This is probably true, given the multiplier effect that the now defunct SIVs, CDOs and commercial paper conduits had on the market, and it is yet another reminder to stick with the “seasoned” Mortgage REIT veterans.

On a related note, a number of earning reports and other interesting news came out last week. REIT Wrecks is looking forward to examining all those 10Qs, and more importantly, to writing about them. Thanks again for reading.

Click here for an updated Mortgage REIT list, including current yields

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Disclosure: Long RAS, AHR and NRF at the time of publication

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