AMERICANS IN THE PAST TWO YEARS have been closely watching residential real estate, as TV commentators breathlessly relate each downward tick in home prices and upward move in foreclosures. But all the while, another important part of the real-estate market has been quietly cratering, all but ignored by the general press. Since peaking in early 2007, the value of the nation’s commercial property has fallen an estimated 30% to 40%.
You can get a good idea of the pain being suffered by looking at an index of real-estate investment trusts, the publicly traded entities that investors use to play the commercial real-estate sector. The MSCI REIT Index fell 77% from a high of 1233 in February 2007 to the low of 287 hit in March. Since then, it has rebounded 45%, to 420, as investors seek opportunities and the economy seems to be improving.
But the commercial-property sector remains fraught with peril. Some REITs will be strong enough to snap up buildings at bargain prices, while other REITs may go bust or need to raise gobs of new equity to bolster their debt-heavy balance sheets. The commercial real-estate problem has become a focus of federal regulators in recent weeks as they stress-tested the 19 largest U.S. banks to see where losses could pop up if the economy, rather than recovering, worsens.
Why has the value of REITs tumbled an average of 65%, while the value of their properties has slid more like 35%? REITs tend to rely on borrowed money. That boosted profits in the good times, from 2002 to 2007, but has magnified problems ever since.