Looking for Upside? Try Commercial Property Bonds

Commercial real estate—like its much bigger residential cousin—is starting to get hammered by the credit crisis and slumping economy. But for investors, the news isn't all bad.

Regional banks and some real estate investment trusts, or REITs, are likely to get hit hard as delinquencies on commercial real estate loans rise. But oddly, commercial mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS, are offering outsized gains with less risk than you might think.

This offers some attractive benefits for investors in REITs and mutual funds that have CMBS in their portfolios.

“Those bonds today are trading at 14-16 percent yields—it’s outrageous," Darrell Wheeler, a CMBS analyst with Citigroup. "I’d rather have that than a US Treasury—that’s how dislocated the market is.”

Commercial-mortgage securities are in far better shape than their residential counterparts, even though they've been sold off as investors dump anything related to real estate. That's because the underwriting standards have typically been tighter for CMBS, especially in recent years when people could get residential mortgages with little or no documentation.

Roughly 80 percent of CMBS bonds are still rated Triple A. They're also structured so that investors are largely insulated from anything but large-scale defaults.

“That means three-quarters of the pool has to default before you could lose any money,” explains Wheeler.

Oliver Quillia for cnbc.com

Another reason is that investors get much more information about the health of the commercial mortgages, allowing them to bypass the credit rating agencies.

“It’s not a market that has been ... trustful of the rating agencies," said Darrell. "It is really driven by real-money investors that work closely together—they meet every 6 months—and so they have negotiated to get pretty good information on these pools and to screen them pretty well.”

While some commercial mortgage-related exchange traded funds are still in development, individual investors are able to play this asset class indirectly through REITs that focus on commercial property, such as NorthStar Realty Finance or Arbor Realty Trust , as well as through mutual funds that have CMBS in their fixed-income or high yield funds.

But investors should drill down into these trusts' portfolios because the investment focus may have put them lower in the capital structure through purchases of subordinated debt or construction loans that may not have a recession full priced in, cautions Wheeler.

Indeed, JPMorgan cautions against overweighting Triple-A bonds “solely because of the wider spreads,” in part because “the year-end delevering still appears to have some legs.”

But for “investors with patient, longer-term money that can stomach another potential round (or two) of spreads widening [and] heightened spread volatility may want to consider beginning a slow extended buy program,” according to a Nov. 21 note.

20 Percent Drop From Peak?

The cautionary messages from analysts seem warranted because of the overall gloomy commercial property market, which many analysts see as headed for a 20 percent drop from its 2007 peak.

The hardest hit are multi-family properties which already account for more than 40 percent of delinquencies on loans totaling $1.1 trillion, followed by retail and office properties, which together make up about 35 percent.

Next comes hotels, industrial and healthcare facilities, including hospitals, in the commercial property market that is estimated to be worth $3.4 trillion.

Roughly 42 percent of commercial mortgages are held by banks, while 22 percent of the loan market has been securitized and sold off, mostly to institutional investors, including banks and thrifts, insurance companies, hedge funds and government-sponsored agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

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“Banks are very susceptible to the economy—that’s not rocket science—and now as the economy is starting to turn—there is a high correlation with the strength of the economy and underlying commercial loan quality,” says Terry McEvoy, a banking equities analyst with Oppenheimer & Co.

Most vulnerable to the downturn are regional banks, said McEvoy.

They are not big holders of CMBS but they originate a lot of whole loans for their own books.

Among banks that have more than 45 percent of their loan book devoted to commercial real estate are: Hanmi Financial , PacWest Bancorp, Umpqua Holdings, CVB Financial , and Cathy General .

Currently, CMBS delinquencies are running at 0.64 percent, but Fitch Ratings expects these will at least double next year. It's worst-case scenario, pushes this figure over 4 percent.

But this compares with delinquencies of roughly 25 percent in subprime residential mortgage market and about 20 percent in the Alt-A market.

But everyone expects the overall market conditions to worsen as the credit crisis buzz-saws through the real economy, with new lending all but completely vanished, even after actually rising slightly in the second quarter of this year.

The speed and sheer force of the economic downturn has spooked investors, sending REIT equities plunging down roughly 47 percent from their February 2007 peak.

See accompanying video for discussion on benefiting from low mortgage rates, with executives from Boulder West Financial Services and Cumberland Advisors.

The spreads on CMBS widened dramatically after Treasury Department backed off its plan to buy toxic mortgages, but its latest moves to buy consumer-related asset-backed securities might offer indirect relief.

“Now what about the commercial piece that is now just starting to show stress, you have all these big retail companies that have filed for bankruptcy, there will be a lot more of those in January I assume, but without the conduit market, without Wall Street getting involved, with commercial-backed securities, where is the liquidity going to come from?,” worries McEvoy.

The current illiquidity of credit markets—not to mention massive equities selling into a cratering market—has exacerbated the downturn and some say markets have significantly overshot.

Jamie Woodwell, commercial property research director at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said recent “wild fluctuations” in CMBS prices reflected a pronounced “disconnect between the pricing of securities and the performance of underlying loans,” a fact he attributed in large part to the fear that has gripped credit markets.

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“CMBS markets has become part of global capital market, so what effects those markets effects CMBS,” he said.

Commercial mortgage spreads recently widened to unprecedented levels when two large loans—a $209 million loan for a Westin hotel in Tucson, Arizona and a Hilton property in South Carolina—were transferred to special servicer due to an imminent default less than a year after the mortgage was originated.

It usually takes two or three years before signs of credit deterioration appear, and these loans were 20 percent of the bond.

Still, when Citi ran the loans through a “severe liquidation scenario” analysts there concluded there was only a “small chance” of default.

“This hardly impressed the CMBX market,” conceded Citi’s CMBS Weekly note from November 21, “where spread have been pushed to levels that are completely disconnected from fundamentals, realistic default expectations, or even the actual cash flows that would need to be exchanged in severe liquidation scenario.”.