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By Shah Gilani, Contributing Editor, Money Morning
Sooner or later, mounting losses on commercial real estate could crash through the market's 2009 optimism and send the economy and stocks into a double-dip downturn.
The major problem is that lawmakers and regulators are setting up investors into believing that commercial real estate (CRE) losses are being effectively addressed. The truth is that escalating losses are being hidden as part of a campaign of optimism in a desperate gamble that a robustly reviving economy will save the day.
To protect yourself from another investment beating, here's what you need to know.
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of 79 members from the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. The lawmakers want the public to know that they are concerned that the "commercial-real-estate industry has the potential to infect our economy and slow a recovery," according to Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Pa.
Kanjorski, the chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance, and Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs)- which includes the likes of Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) – says it's the administration's responsibility to make sure that happens. "The Treasury and Federal Reserve now must take needed and urgent action to stave off a potentially devastating wave of commercial real estate foreclosures and bank losses," Kanjorski said.
So in keeping with how effectively overseen and transparent our capital markets, insurance industry and GSE institutions are, the lawmakers want more accounting gimmickry to be made available to banks that hold commercial-real-estate assets. The lawmakers are concerned that banks may be forced by some regulators to write down the value of performing loans, even when payments are current. And these elected officials want more latitude for banks to manipulate recently issued CRE loan-modification guidelines.
Just what recently issued CRE loan modification guidelines are we referring to?
The tooth fairy commeth. On Oct. 30, bank, thrift and credit-union regulators very quietly gave lenders flexibility in how they classify distressed commercial mortgages. Banks can now slice distressed loans into performing and non-performing loans, and institutions will magically be able to reduce the total reserves set aside for non-performing loans.
For example, let's assume that a developer borrowed to build a shopping mall, but only one tenant leased space in the finished project. Cash flow from the project would be insufficient to service the loan, meaning the lending bank would have to set aside reserves against the total loan. Under the new guidelines, however, the mall loan actually could be carved into two loans – a performing loan representing the rented space, and a non-performing loan that represents the empty space.
Theoretically, with fewer reserves having to be set aside, bank balance sheets would look better, leaving lenders with more cash available for loans. But the reality might be very different. Granted, this accounting hocus-pocus might well stave off some bank failures. But with the overhang of non-performing loans still on their books, will those banks really be eager to lend out their precious cash?
That's not the only concern, either. The fact that lawmakers don't want to force banks to write down "performing loans" should be a cause for concern among investors. It's like the riddle: If an airplane crashes exactly on the border of two states, where do you bury the survivors? Hint … you don't bury survivors. And, you don't have to write down performing loans – unless, of course, they're not really "performing."
What's really happening with performing loans is a game called "extend and pretend." When most banks make commercial loans they include an "interest reserve." The reserve amount is part of the total loan, and it is there so that banks can pay themselves their interest until the project generates enough cash flow to start paying interest and principal.
The unvarnished truth is that innumerable commercial loans are in distress right now because projects aren't being finished. And if they are , tenants aren't leasing. So rather than write down the loans, banks are extending the terms of the debt with more interest reserves included so they can continue to classify the loans as "performing."
Hiding behind the extend-and-pretend game is the dark reality that property values have declined at an alarming rate – racing ahead of the rate at which banks are writing down these loans.
Nor is that the only concern. Because interest reserves do not repay any of the loan principal, there is no amortization on these debts. In other words, banks are extending loans that they would never make now, because borrowers are already grossly upside-down.
But let's be real: There isn't enough time on any clock to ever win that race.
Why do I say that? Because, in order for the United States to rebound to a full-employment rate of at least 5%, the nation's economy would have to create 200,000 jobs per month – for seven years.
Although all the big banks hold significant amounts of underperforming-commercial-
Regional and local community banks have as much as 80% of their balance sheets tied up in commercial real estate, and very few other sources of significant fee income to offset CRE losses.
It's not the too-big-to-fail banks that are lending to consumers; they're too busy catering to huge corporations, enslaving the credit card borrowers they pressed into servitude with low teaser rates, and pandering to lawmakers to preserve their monopolies and their outrageous executive compensation packages.
It's the regional and community banks that lend to individuals and small businesses that are sinking fast under the weight of CRE. How are they going to be the credit providers to consumers and the backers of the small businesses we are counting on to create jobs for the country's 18 million unemployed?
Lawmakers and regulators expect to buy time for the economy to grow in order to drive up commercial-real-estate prices and save the banks that are threatened. But their rescue vehicle of choice is the banking sector that is foundering because of the growing gale of commercial-real-estate losses. So please forgive me if I label these Washington insiders as grossly incompetent, self-serving and deluded.
If we continue to chart this course, we're headed right for a double-dip downturn in the economy and in the stock market.
But there is a way out.
First, break up all the too-big-to-fail banks into "bad banks" by saddling them with all the bad bank loans. Don't worry: It won't take long for those institutions to discover how to make money from these non-performing loans.
Let these "new" institutions keep their proprietary trading desks so they can steal money from the big corporations and investment banking clients they front-run.
Cap all compensation for the top 25% of earners at those banks. And make these top-tier executives stay and work at their new employer for seven years, which is the same amount of time it takes to discharge a bankruptcy. That's only fair since bankruptcy is where these institutions force credit-card borrowers after ripping them off with hidden, retroactive fees and usurious interest rates. Phase out all taxpayer backing over the same seven years. Limit each bank's leverage and require them to add equity capital on a pre-set ratio relative to balance-sheet risk.
Spin off all big-bank credit-card operations into four regionally based trusts and make them operate as not-for-profit entities. Cap interest rates at some nationally set level above the prime rate, and make credit limits a function of income, assets and credit history. While we're at it, only charge merchants and credit-card users 50 cents each per any transaction.
Make community banks "good banks" by spreading the big banks performing loans across their balance sheets so banking is more "localized" and community-centric. Limit the size they can grow to – period. If there's additional business to be had in a particular locale, let another bank open up and help drive down the cost of services.
Create a compensation arrangement for bankers that rewards them generously for creating jobs, improving standards of living in their communities and running their banks profitably relative to standardized risk metrics.
As far as big loans and securitizing and selling asset-backed pools, make the banks syndicate and spread risks between themselves, all of them. They'll actually become experts in risk management as opposed to paying lip service to schemes like Value at Risk.
I'd like to say that I'm kidding, and that everything will work out just fine if we do nothing. But the reality is that only a comprehensive overhaul of banking regulations will save the U.S. economy and stock market from significant pain. Hiding behind accounting gimmickry is just another tarp being thrown over our problems by same special interests that got us into this mess in the first place.
One of my "must read" newsletters is written by John Mauldin and it's called – appropriately – John Mauldin's Weekly E-Letter. I get it each week in my inbox; I suggest you do the same.
I will caution you, however, that it may scare the pants off of you! Lately (the last few years), his commentary has been rather harsh. But, hey, look at the economy!
All that said, I encourage you to read this week's letter. One astonishing number came out this week: GDP growth of 5.7 percent! Yay, roll out the marching band and dancing monkeys, the recession is over!
The Statistical Recovery Has Arrived
Before we get into the main discussion point, let me briefly comment on today's GDP numbers, which came in at an amazingly strong 5.7% growth rate. While that is stronger than I thought it would be (I said 4-5%), there are reasons to be cautious before we sound the "all clear" bell.
First, over 60% (3.7%) of the growth came from inventory rebuilding, as opposed to just 0.7% in the third quarter. If you examine the numbers, you find that inventories had dropped below sales, so a buildup was needed. Increasing inventories add to GDP, while, counterintuitively, sales from inventory decrease GDP. Businesses are just adjusting to the New Normal level of sales. I expect further inventory build-up in the next two quarters, although not at this level, and then we level off the latter half of the year.
Did you catch that? If not for the build up of inventory, our economy grew by only 2 percent. And we know these things ALWAYS revise DOWN.
Read the rest of the letter here. I think you'll learn a lot; I always do.
I've recently been very lax in keeping up with the news. Last I heard, Dubai caused a minor stir in the already-screwed up credit markets, sending markets into a tizzy.
I saw on today's newspaper the big headline, "Mortgage Rates at All-Time Lows." Sheesh. Haven't we seen this TV show before?
Must we go down the same stupid road that got us here? I know, the credit standards are supposedly much higher now than they were in 2006-2007, where anybody with a pulse (and some even without) could get a loan for a piece of property. But I have heard random radio spots that hint that things really haven't changed much. Stuff like "no money down," "seller financing," and "no doc" loans…
I'm afraid we haven't learned a thing from our very recent past. I can't say I'm surprised.
The fundamentals of the market psychology hasn't changed: It still seeks short-term profits over long-term prosperity. Slow and steady hasn't kept the market happy for decades. It likes the hare, not the tortoise.
I also saw that gold hit $1200.
So how does one protect himself during these times? I'd suggest that you stick with the same old, same old:
Depending on where you are in your life, you would do best to keep the bullk of your investable assets in stocks, some in cash, a little in bonds, very little in gold, and a bit in real estate. Note that I am not including your home in this assessment. If I did, most of us would have more than 50 percent of our assets in real estate (which might be a big part of the problem, right).
I still think the US is the place to be for innovation: IT, bio tech, medicine. But I think you may want to invest a considerable portion in foreign markets. China will not stop growing for some time. India is still going to improve. Latin America still has lots left, as does Canada, Russia, and Europe.
The world, as they say, is your oyster. Choose wisely, or else you may get one that's toxic.
A quartet of top U.S. bank stocks rose on Wednesday after J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. reported earnings that surpassed Wall Street estimates, and the insurance sector also weighed in with gains to lift financial stocks more than 2%.
I suggest that the management at JPM horde all that cash, as the next big mortgage resets occur in 2012 (5 years after the peak of 2007, when everybody and their mother, dog, parakeet, and gerbil bought houses with no money down, poor credit, and insufficient income).
Now that many of those same people are now either unemployed or still making less money than their mortgage payment, the pressure is going to be HUGE on the housing market, banking sector, and overall economy. Let’s hope the news that the economy and employment pictures are improving, else we fall into a really nasty tailspin. Let’s also hope I’m wrong about the resets (here’s the good personal news: my mortgage from 2004 reset at a lower interest rate).
How’s that for a catchy title? My friend, Jodi Beggs, has begun a video series on intro to econ. If you even remotely are interested in learning about the “dismal science” then you ought to check them out!