Later vintage CMBS is now under a very bright popular media spotlight on news that a $225 million loan for a New York City apartment complex is heading toward imminent default (“How Could My Big Beautiful Loan Go So Bad, So Quickly”). That loan suffered from egregiously aggressive 2007 underwriting standards and had virtually no hope of being repaid. As a result, “headline risk” is again high and many CMBS traders and portfolio managers are once again shooting first and asking questions later.
However, not only were underwriting standards much stronger in earlier vintage CMBS, but many pre-2005 CMBS loans have also been “defeased” by the original borrowers. Defeasance occurs when highly rated collateral, always AAA-rated US government securities, are deposited into an escrow account for the benefit of the lender. The treasuries are sufficient to make all remaining principal and interest payments under the loan, and the lender’s security interest in the underlying real estate is replaced by a security interest in the treasury bonds.
Why does this happen in the first place? Because of the highly restrictive provisions on repayments contained in every loan destined for CMBS pools, borrowers are “locked out” from paying off the loans for at least five years. After that, prepayment is subject to terms that protect the lender (and ultimately the CMBS investors) from “re-investment risk”, which is what happens when you get a pile of money back in an unfavorable (low) interest rate environment. Nevertheless, owners of property purchased in earlier years that had been financed via the CMBS market needed to have some way to pay off the loans and cash out when they sold, particularly in the ebullient years of 2005-2007.
This was accomplished by defeasing the loan, a practice that got off the ground for CMBS in 1999 (it was already widespread in other markets). Defeasing CMBS loans grew in popularity, and by 2002 the business had taken off. Many, many earlier vintage CMBS loans were defeased and are now backed by AAA rated government securities, instead of beaten up shopping malls full of Bennigan’s and Steve and Barry’s.
While the effect of higher credit enhancement is widely recognized, the Barclays analysts think that the market is nevertheless “grossly mispricing” heavily defeased CMBS. They contend that the 2005 to 2007 surge in defeasances left many older vintage collateral pools with over 25% in risk-free government collateral. Such risk-free assets should command a premium in today’s uncertain environment, although they say current market spreads do not reflect that or maybe the Chinese are just dumping every treasury-related security they can lay their hands on.
Pricing on high defeasance paper is roughly five to 10 basis points tighter depending on the vintage — but the analysts think that bonds with high defeasance should command an additonal a 20 to 40 basis point premium compared with non-defeased senior tranches as a result of the more favorable risk profile.
Clearly value does remain in CMBS and the collateral; the real question hovering around the room late at night is what is the value of the real estate supporting it? Analysts agree that cash flows are holding up, but that investors are simply continuing to pay less and less for those cash flows. And that whistling sound you hear in the background is just a lot of people in the graveyard, wondering how much longer that will go on.
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