EVEN a cursory glance at recent events in commercial real estate would make you think the next big collapse is upon us.
First, there was the default last month by Tishman Speyer Properties and BlackRock Realty on billions of dollars in loans on Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the huge apartment complexes in Manhattan. When the deal was done, in 2006, it was the biggest of its kind in American history.
And this week, Simon Properties tried to buy General Growth Properties, its shopping mall rival, for $10 billion, a price General Growth says is too low even though the company is in bankruptcy.
Yet in the midst of this, financial advisers are telling their wealthy clients that there is tremendous opportunity in real estate. What is equally intriguing is that these investors are looking again at something as illiquid as a building, which goes to show just how quickly people can reacquire their appetite for risk if it means higher returns.
“The trick with investing in commercial real estate is not knowing if something is bad, but knowing if that ‘bad’ is priced in,” said David Frame, global head of alternative investments at J.P. Morgan Private Bank.
The next few years are expected to be bad for commercial real estate largely because the rosy predictions made when the buildings were purchased in 2005 and 2006 have not come true. First, the values of those buildings have plummeted, as much as 45 percent in some instances. That is going to make it difficult for the owners to refinance their mortgages over the next few years. Second, the recession has reduced the rents and occupancy rates on which those inflated values were based.
But what’s bad for an owner may be good for an investor.
STATE OF PLAY The opportunities in commercial real estate run the gamut of risk, from buying undeveloped land to buying stock in real estate investment trusts, or REITs, which invest in property and mortgages.
Mike Ryan, head of wealth management research for the Americas at UBS Wealth Management, said while there were risks in commercial real estate, they would not be as bad as many bearish analysts had predicted and certainly not on the level of the residential real estate crash.
“The notion that the other shoe is about to drop and we’ll see a wholesale liquidation of property is overdone,” he said. But, he added, “We’re not saying people should plow in.”
Yet Mr. Frame said he saw the coming refinancing crisis in commercial real estate as a continuum of what has been happening with other securities in the last 18 months. “Our job has been to look through the capital markets and identify where there’s been a scarcity of capital,” he said, meaning where investors sold their positions quickly and fearfully. The first opportunities to take advantage of a turnaround were with convertible bonds and private equity. “Now,” Mr. Frame said, “we think the opportunity in real estate is much broader than it was 12 months ago.”
OPTIONS So how are people seeking to profit in commercial real estate? This depends on whether they are passive investors, who want to allocate some money to real estate, or entrepreneurs seeking to buy buildings.
Many investors who did not make their fortunes in real estate remain cautious. “You have to help them view real estate as private equity because you’re locking up your money for some period of time,” said Joanne Jensen, a private banker at Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management.
But if they’re going to invest in real estate, they want the security of high-quality investments. “I’m speaking to a lot of real estate investors, and what they’ve been telling me is there’s been a bifurcation between the ‘A’ quality buildings and everything else,” Ms. Jensen said.
One intriguing strategy is to buy the underlying mortgage debt of buildings whose value was inflated. The debt is now trading at a deep discount. This may sound risky, particularly if the owner walks away from that debt, as happened with Stuyvesant Town. But Mr. Frame sees it as a way to make either a little or a lot of money.
He described one possibility: a building was purchased for $100 million in 2006. It is now worth less, but the underlying mortgage is still $50 million, and it is coming due next year. The owner is probably going to have a tough time refinancing the mortgage without putting in more money. That uncertainty is reflected in the price of the debt.
“Say it’s 70 cents on the dollar, or $40 million for the first-lien mortgage,” he said. “If, in the next year, I get paid off, I get a 12 percent return. If not, I own the building at 60 percent off the original purchase price.”
In many cases, he said, clients are hoping they do not get paid back because the return from owning the building could be far greater. But the risk is they may have to hold that property for at least several years.