A Credit Downturn Hits the Malls, as commercial real estate transactions plunge.

The credit crunch triggered by the downturn in the housing market is creating problems in commercial real estate, driving down prices of office buildings, shopping malls and apartment complexes, and leaving some owners scrambling for cash.

One victim is Centro Properties Group, the fifth-largest owner of shopping centers in the U.S. The Australian real-estate company saw its share price fall by 90% in two days last week as it struggled to refinance short-term debt it took on to fund its $6.2 billion acquisition of New Plan Excel, one of the biggest owners of strip malls in the U.S.

Centro had planned to pay off the short-term loans by selling long-term debt via the commercial mortgage-backed securities market, but the lack of buyers forced it to get a two-month extension from its creditors. Commercial mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS, are pools of loans that are sliced up and sold to investors as bonds.

My Comment: The Asset backed commercial paper market is now dead. Centro is just another in the growing list of casualties.

In another high-profile case, the clock is ticking for Harry Macklowe, the New York developer, who is struggling to raise financing by February to replace $7.1 billion in short-term money he borrowed to finance his heavily leveraged acquisition of seven Manhattan office buildings this year.

My Comment: Harry Macklowe is likely to lose his his trophy property, the General Motors Building in midtown Manhattan that he put up as collateral. I talked about this in a Refreshingly Simple Commercial Real Estate Implosion.

“Where we’re really in a fog is on the capital markets side,” said Michael Giliberto, a managing director of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., on a conference call last week about the state of the commercial real-estate market.

My Comment: Fog? There is no fog. Commercial real estate is in deep trouble and that should be crystal clear.

The CMBS market was the engine that drove the commercial real-estate boom. Over the past few years, the issuance of CMBS allowed banks to get rid of the risk on their books, lend with cheaper rates and looser terms and that made it easy for private-equity firms to do huge real-estate deals.

Between 2002 and 2007, CMBS issuance rose to an estimated $225 billion from $52 billion, according to Commercial Mortgage Alert, a trade publication that compiles its own statistics.

Real-estate investors aren’t the only ones feeling the pain. Many big banks issued short-term loans to buyers and planned to sell them off later, much the way they do with loans made to private-equity buyout shops. But the banks have gotten stuck with an estimated $65 billion in fixed- and floating-rate loans on their books, according to J.P. Morgan. Some of the largest issuers have been Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Credit Suisse Group and Wachovia Corp.

My Comment: Plunging commercial real estate values are going to further impair the ability and willingness of banks to lend.

Lehman has said that about half of the $79 billion in mortgage debt it was holding at year-end is CMBS-related. Wachovia and Credit Suisse declined to comment.

Prices, however, haven’t appeared to fall, though much like residential real estate, there is often a period where buyers stop buying but sellers refuse to lower prices.

There is “cognitive dissonance” between buyers and sellers, says Dennis Russo, a real-estate attorney for Herrick Feinstein. “There’s a period of time in which the seller cannot psychologically move his price down. They haven’t accepted what’s happening in the market.”

My Comment: This is exactly the same environment that preceded the housing plunge. Transactions dried up, inventories rose, and sellers waited patiently to get their price. They never did. The winners recognized conditions had changed and bailed for whatever they could get.

According to Real Capital Analytics, sales of significant office properties plummeted to $7 billion in November, a 55% drop compared with November 2006. So few deals are getting done that many market experts say they don’t know how to put a value on many buildings right now — but almost everyone is in agreement that the valuations are dropping.

My Comment: A poor Christmas retail season is not going to help valuations any.

Often, deals aren’t done because financing either isn’t available or is so expensive that buyers are insisting on price reductions that sellers won’t accept.

For example, Ackerman & Co., a brokerage, just pulled a suburban Atlanta office building off the market after bids came in below estimates. Developer Michael Reschke has so far been unable to get financing for a J.W. Marriott planned down the street from the Chicago Board of Trade, despite his willingness to put more cash into the deal than originally planned.

My Comment: Ackerman & Co. is probably going to regret this decision. Odds of getting better offers than they have now are not very good.

Credit was so plentiful when Mr. Macklowe purchased his Manhattan office buildings from Blackstone, he only needed to put in $50 million of equity to secure $7.1 billion in debt, which included a bridge loan and the senior mortgage, people familiar with the deal say.

He is now looking for an equity partner, people said. A spokesman for Mr. Macklowe declined to comment.

My Comment: I smell a default on interest payments on that $7.1 billion. Who wants to step into this market right here right now?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock
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