Banks holding European commercial mortgage-backed securities at par on the basis that they stand at the top of the pecking order when it comes to repayment should think again.
Even some of the most senior-ranking bonds backed by commercial property loans will have to be written down as the downturn bites. And with about 120 billion euros of European CMBS outstanding, the numbers are big.
Many of the underlying loans are underwater. But companies who manage the debt have refrained from taking aggressive action and enforcing on the loans on the basis that prices may recover, rents are still being paid and borrowers are still up to date on their interest payments.
Their approach is simple enough. Why risk losses from a fire sale if the market may recover by the time the debt comes due five or so years down the line? In fact, of the 1,100 loans packaged in European CMBS, only 39 are classified as being in “special servicing” — shorthand for having a problem — according to Standard & Poor’s.
One deal where the servicer isn’t taking this wait and see approach is a 487 million pound deal called Epic Industrious by Royal Bank of Scotland for now-defunct property firm Dunedin, which was placed in administrative receivership last year.
Ernst & Young is set to sell the properties to vulture fund Max Property, after a smaller auction last week. This is likely to mean losses for senior creditors — a first for CMBS bondholders in this cycle.
As well as a ridiculous name, Epic Industrious has other peculiarities which suggest a wider fire sale of properties from other transactions isn’t likely in the near term.
Firstly the borrower is in administration, necessitating a more speedy resolution than in situations where a loan is simply in default and can be worked out over time.
Another complexity is the fact that the deal is a so-called synthetic CMBS, in which RBS used credit default swaps to shift the risk of the loan to bondholders. In these deals banks may be incentivised to work out the debt speedily, whatever the losses, and claim on the insurance policy provided by bondholders.
Epic Industrious shows how severe losses will be in some CMBS deals. While some loans are still backed by strong properties worth more than their debt, and generating more than enough cash to service the debt, it is clear that property markets won’t have recovered enough by the time many loans come to be refinanced.
Declining rents will tip more loans into default and many will fail to refinance at maturity.
Moody’s noted in a recent report on a deal created by Credit Suisse that originally parcelled 10 loans that it expects “a very large portion” of the portfolio to default, suggesting that the benefits investors thought they would get by diversifying their risk across a pool of loans is worth little in practice.
Tackling problem loans now, and selling some or all of the assets, may yield better recoveries than simply hoping for a market revival.
Much of this pain is already priced into CMBS, with senior bonds trading at about 70 cents in the euro or less. While some banks will hold at market levels, others may have only partially written them down after last year reclassifying fair value assets into loans and receivables.
Anecdotal evidence suggests some banks are still holding senior tranches at par. This looks hopelessly optimistic. A raft of recent and looming rating agency downgrades will force them to increase capital reserves and prompt them to sell, even if it means taking a loss.
Prepare for a rocky ride in bricks and mortar.