Commercial Real Estate Vacancies Rising

“Success is never final. But failure can be,” Bill Parcels, the former NFL coach, once observed. Investors in real estate investment rusts (REITs) might want to pay particular attention to this truism.

REITs, as the name suggests, invest in real estate of various types. But what the name does not suggest is that REITs usually utilize leverage in their pursuit of investment returns. Leverage, as many investors learned during the last 12 months, is fun on the way up, but potentially fatal on the way down (unless you happen to be one of America’s 19 largest financial institutions).

At the moment, the REIT industry finds itself squarely in the middle of the “way down” phase – both because asset values are plummeting and because interest rates are climbing. Just yesterday, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes kissed 4%, which means that the 10-year yield has nearly doubled since the start of this year!

When long-term interest rates rise this dramatically and rapidly, many different industries suffer. But few industries suffer as much as the commercial real estate industry. Even in the best of times, rising interest rates increases the cost of capital, while also undermining the value of commercial real estate assets. In the worst of times – or even in less-good times – rising rates can produce catastrophic consequences.

Today’s commercial real estate market was distressed, even before rates starting rising. The problem, in a nutshell, was excess capacity. During the last several years, America constructed shopping malls and office buildings to satisfy the excess, phony demand that easy credit produced. But now that home equity loans and other readily available forms of credit have disappeared, so has the phony demand.

The unfortunate result: a glut of shopping malls, office buildings and hotel/motel properties.


“Vacancies are definitely rising across the commercial real estate market,” observed hedge fund manager, Jason Stock, at last month’s Value Investing Congress in Pasadena, California. “You’ve got office vacancies well over 15%. We think those are going to approach 25% before this is over.”

Stock and his partner, Will Waller, oversee the M3 Fund, a hedge fund that invests solely in the banking sector. Stock and Waller claim they are finding a number of attractive stocks to buy. Nevertheless, they remain very anxious about the health of the overall banking sector. In particular, they fear that commercial loan defaults will skyrocket from current levels, causing a large number of banks to fail during the next two years.


“So far this year there’s been just over 30 bank failures,” Stock reported in early May. “We expect they’ll be roughly 150 bank failures by the end of the year. And we would actually expect that number should be significantly higher.

Stock continued:

“Every Friday night (we jokingly call it ‘death watch,’ because that’s when you get the notices of the banks that have failed [from the FDIC]), when we look at the banks that are coming across as failures, we’ll say to ourselves, ‘Geez, that bank is a lot better off than 20, 30, 40 banks that we can think of. The regulators right now are completely overwhelmed. You have to have people to close down banks. And it’s not a very quick and easy process. It takes a fair bit of manpower. So if the regulators had the staffing to do it, there are definitely 50 to 100 banks that you could say, ‘This Friday we are going to go in and close all these banks down.’ So it’ll just be a matter of time before that pace picks up.”

In last month’s letter to their investors, Stock and Waller reiterated their skeptical outlook:

“The Government’s release of the ‘stress test’ results on May 7th was a key driver of the rally in large bank stocks. The results indicated that nine of the 19 firms have adequate capital under the test’s most adverse scenario…In our opinion, this ‘stress test’ was in no way stressful and could more accurately be compared to a beach vacation in Hawaii where the weather forecast had a 10% chance of afternoon showers.

“The ‘worst case’ scenarios that the Government utilized in this test included unemployment reaching 8.9% in 2009 and 10.3% in 2010 (as of May 31, 2009 the unemployment rate was 9.4%), and GDP growth of .50% in 2010. We believe unemployment could easily exceed 10.3% and that it is absurd to use a positive number as a worst case scenario for GDP in 2010. This ‘stress test’ created a false sense of stability in the banking sector and created a historic opportunity for banks to raise capital at significantly inflated valuations…While extremely beneficial to the banks, we believe the investors who participated in these offerings will be choking on these investments over the upcoming months.”

Contradicting the sanguine conclusions of the stress tests, Stock and Waller point out, “The Federal Reserve chimed in with an alarming report on first quarter loan delinquency rates at commercial banks. Total loan and lease delinquencies increased by 96 basis points, a 20.7% increase in only one quarter (from 4.6% to 5.6%)…We maintain our bearish outlook…we believe this bear market rally is unsustainable and that fundamental trends for banks are negative…”

Your California editor concurs, which is why he does not hesitate to say that most bank stocks are better sold than bought at their new and improved “recovery prices.” Similarly, most REITs are better sold than bought.