Some banks don’t track CRE risk on a frequent basis, survey suggests

A Moody’s survey of 55 banks pointed to office loans as one the riskiest property types. Office loans have been hit by the shift toward remote work at some companies.

Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Banks are facing substantial risk of losses from commercial real estate loans, according to a new Moody’s survey of lenders, which found that some borrowers are already struggling and others may hit trouble when more of their loans mature.

The survey’s findings also suggest that some banks may not be tracking CRE borrowers’ health as closely as others — since they weren’t able to provide fully up-to-date metrics when asked.

The lack of timeliness in some banks’ disclosures was “eye-opening,” said Stephen Lynch, senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service. Up-to-date data about commercial property values and borrowers’ ability to cover their interest payments is critical for spotting potential problems, Lynch said.

“Good underwriting can maybe compensate for subpar portfolio analytics,” Lynch said, but strong analytics give banks the ability to mitigate problems early, rather than the often-costlier option of letting them bubble up.

The survey drew responses from 55 banks — including large, regional and community banks — in June and July. Since banks’ public disclosures are somewhat limited, Moody’s asked the respondents to provide more detail about certain key metrics.

Those measures include the percentage of CRE loans maturing soon; debt service coverage ratios, which show borrowers’ debt obligations relative to their cash flow; and loan-to-value ratios, which quantify the amount of debt outstanding as a percentage of the property’s value.

Some banks provided up-to-date data, while others submitted information from the end of 2022.

The Moody’s survey found that U.S. banks have significant amounts of CRE loans that will mature in the next 18 months. For the median bank that responded, those loans amounted to 46% of their tangible common equity — a percentage that Moody’s said was material. Some banks were substantially above that figure.

Upcoming maturities may pose problems for borrowers because they’ll need to refinance those loans, and they’ll need to do so at much higher interest rates and with banks being more demanding in their underwriting criteria.

Properties whose values have fallen sharply may get some help from providers of private capital, which can kick in additional equity to help property owners meet banks’ more stringent criteria. But the amount of money available likely isn’t going to “move the needle,” given the large amount of loans outstanding, Moody’s Lynch said.

While private equity firms, hedge funds and other sources of private capital may see opportunities to jump in, they are “not going to solve every problem,” said Brendan Browne, an analyst at the ratings firm S&P Global. Private money will help where companies see a chance to make significant returns, but there will also be cases “where the economics probably just don’t work well enough,” Browne said.

Overall, banks will feel “some pain” on CRE loans — particularly banks with larger exposures to the sector, Browne said. Most of the banks that S&P rates don’t have such outsized exposures, he added.

The Moody’s survey pointed to office and construction loans as the riskiest property types, given the shift at some companies toward remote work and the fact that properties that serve as collateral for construction loans don’t earn income while those loans are outstanding.

A loan may be at greater risk now if the borrower is having a tougher time paying its obligations. So Moody’s asked banks about how many of their loans have debt service coverage ratios below 1, an indication that the borrower does not have adequate cash flow.

The median respondent has 13.5% of their tangible common equity in CRE loans where the debt service coverage ratios are below 1, Moody’s survey found.

That figure was higher than Moody’s expected, Lynch said.

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