Commercial Real Estate Borrowers Joint the Ranks of Strategic Defaulters

The Wall Street Journal had a piece the other day on corporations that choose to walk away from their mortgages.  It's full of self-serving quotes about why corporations that have plenty of cash just have to stiff the folks who were foolish enough to lend them money.  And investors who are quite pleased by it all:

Banking-industry officials and others have argued that homeowners have a moral obligation to pay their debts even when it seems to make good business sense to default. Individuals who walk away from their homes also face blemishes to their credit ratings and, in some states, creditors can sue them for the losses they suffer.

But in the business world, there is less of a stigma even though lenders, including individual investors, get stuck holding a depressed property in a down market. Indeed, investors are rewarding public companies for ditching profit-draining investments. Deutsche Bank AG's RREEF, which manages $56 billion in real-estate investments, now favors companies that jettison cash-draining properties with nonrecourse debt, loans that don't allow banks to hold landlords personally responsible if they default. The theory is that those companies fare better by diverting money to shareholders or more lucrative projects.

"To the extent that they give back assets or are able to rework the [mortgage] terms, it just accrues to the benefit" of the real-estate investment trust, says Jerry Ehlinger, RREEF's co-chief of real-estate securities.

Earlier this month, a group led by investment firms Colony Capital relinquished control of the $2 billion Xanadu retail development in New Jersey to a bank group, blaming their creditors for balking at a restructuring. The lender group said it is "disappointed that despite its best efforts" it couldn't reach a deal.

More landlords are expected to follow suit. Of the $1.4 trillion of commercial-real-estate debt coming due by the end of 2014, roughly 52% is attached to properties that are underwater, according to debt-analysis company Trepp LLC. And as the economic recovery sputters, owners of struggling properties are realizing a big property-value rebound isn't imminent.

Owners of commercial property have an easier time walking away than homeowners because commercial mortgages are typically nonrecourse. That means the biggest penalty for walking away is the forfeiture of assets and cash flow they may generate.

I can understand why the REITs like this--free cash flow!  But I can't understand how it's a good strategy for the borrowers.  Commercial mortgages are a highly leveraged business, and if one of these guys came to me asking for more loans, after he stuck his last banker with his ailing shopping mall, I'd tell them to go . . . well, do something I probably shouldn't say on a family blog.

Of course, not all of these are what I would call strategic defaults.  Just as I think a homeowner should walk away from any mortgage that risks pushing them into insolvency, some of these "strategic defaults" may simply represent owners walking away now and salvaging their capital, instead of being foreclosed upon later after their tenantless rental or shopping mall has eaten up every last bit of cash and they have to shutter the doors.  In neither the business nor the individual case does this strike me as reprehensible.

What should happen in many cases like that is that the terms get renegotiated to something where both sides are better off than in foreclosure.  But as in the residential market, securitization has made this trickier:

Whether landlords walk away from properties often depends on the lender. In recent years, most projects were financed by the use of commercial-mortgage-backed securities, or CMBS, which are effectively bundles of mortgages sold as bonds to thousands of investors. Restructuring debt with scores of bondholders is more difficult than with banks.

If borrowers do walk from bond-financed properties, the real estate is often foreclosed and sold for less than the loan balance. Investors holding those loans take another hit by paying fees to loan servicers that handle the liquidations.

On the other hand, the article also suggests there's a healthy dose of self-interest:

Also, public and private real-estate companies don't often default on mortgages provided by banks because the same banks are likely to be providers of credit lines or other loans. Playing hardball with a bank on one loan could adversely affect the relationship and other loans.

It should be a lot easier for bankers to weed out strategic defaulters in business than in the individual market; the cash flows are much more transparent.  One hopes they do.  Meanwhile, the problems with securitization become ever more apparent.