Commercial-Property Lending Begins to Ramp Up

Recovering Values, Improvement in Borrowers' Credit Quality Drive Rebound

By Andrew Johnson | The Wall Street Journal  

Many U.S. banks are starting to see new growth from the old business of commercial real-estate loans.

From office buildings to shopping centers to warehouses to apartments, lending to developers and owners of such properties is on the rebound because of rising real-estate values and improved credit quality.

As of June 30, U.S. banks had $991.2 billion in total commercial real-estate loans, up 3.3% from a year earlier, according to research firm SNL Financial.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. on Friday reported that outstanding commercial-real-estate loans rose to $61.5 billion in the third quarter, a 12% increase from a year earlier. "The commercial-real-estate business continues to grow strongly," J.P. Morgan Chief Financial Officer Marianne Lake said during a conference call with analysts, noting loans have increased "every month for the last 13 months."

Investors and analysts will be looking for more clues when Citigroup Inc rreports its third-quarter results on Tuesday and Bank of America Corp. on Wednesday. Wells Fargo & Co. on Friday reported relatively flat commercial real-estate lending in the U.S. for the third quarter. Other banks slated to report results this week include large commercial real-estate lenders U.S. Bancorp and PNC Financial Services Group Inc.

"More banks are now on the offense, not on defense anymore, when it comes to commercial real estate," said Anthony Polini, a banking-sector analyst with Raymond James Financial Inc.

Dolben Co., a developer of apartment complexes in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions, has seen more banks willing to bid on loans for projects in the past two years than immediately following the recession, said Deane Dolben, president of the Woburn, Mass., company. The growth and optimism are a turnaround from the slump caused when banks were hammered during the financial crisis as construction loans made during the real-estate boom began to sour. Total commercial real-estate loans outstanding by U.S. banks declined to $950 billion in 2011, a 25% plunge from 2008, according to SNL.

Last year's 2.4% rise in total commercial real-estate loans to $972.7 billion was the first growth in four years, according to SNL. Analysts said the lending rebound, still in its early stages, is being fueled largely by one area: apartment projects. The boom could start to peter out as the single-family housing market recovers, but for now banks are eager to keep lending.

Commercial real estate is "definitely becoming a significant driver of loan growth," said Kevin Barker, an analyst with Compass Point Research & Trading. "To the extent that the banks can take advantage, it could be a tailwind to earnings."

Commercial real-estate properties include office buildings, retail complexes, industrial properties and apartments. Lending to developers and owners of such properties fell out of favor when the economy went south but has become a focus again for many banks as conditions have improved.

While the market has gotten more heated as banks ramp up commercial real-estate lending, analysts said financial institutions are more cautious about the type of loans they make to property developers and owners. Loan pricing "is getting beaten down," but "there's less speculative lending" today than before the market downturn, Mr. Polini said.

Regulators have also increased their scrutiny of banks' exposure to commercial real estate in recent years, which is likely to cause lenders to remain conservative as they increase their portfolios, analysts said.

The rebound in the commercial-property market has helped bolster lending activity. After bottoming out in 2009, commercial-property values rose 44% through August and were down just 14% from the peak reached in 2007, according to the Moody's/RCA Commercial Property Price Indices.

Apartment property prices, specifically,had increased 13% over the past year as of August, but growth has slowed in recent months, according to the Moody's/RCA report.

Construction activity also has picked up, with new commercial-construction starts estimated to increase 15% this year, after having risen 12% last year, according to an October report from Standard & Poor's Ratings Services.

Production of new multifamily properties increased in the second quarter, according to a National Association of Home Builders index, which rose nine points from the first quarter to 61 on a 100-point scale. It was the highest level reached since the index was established in 2003.

E.J. Burke, executive vice president of KeyBank Real Estate Capital for Cleveland-based KeyCorp,  estimated that eight out of every 10 potential commercial real-estate deals the regional bank sees are in the multifamily-housing sector.

The growth in commercial real-estate lending comes as many banks, especially those in hard-hit regions such as the Southeast and Southwest, have made headway in getting rid of troubled assets by working out problem loans and taking other steps to minimize risk.

"This business over the last several years was focused almost exclusively on maximizing the recovery of distressed assets," said William Rogers Jr., chief executive officer of SunTrust Banks Inc., during an investor conference in September. "With these problems largely behind us, our recent efforts have been focused on growth."

The Atlanta-based regional bank saw its commercial real-estate loan portfolio increase to $8.62 billion in the second quarter, up 1.4% from the quarter before, according to SNL. SunTrust in August announced a partnership with MetLife Inc. under which SunTrust will finance up to $5 billion in commercial mortgages originated and managed by the insurer over a three-year period.

In areas hard hit by the housing downturn, like Florida, bankers said improving economic conditions have led to more opportunities to lend. John Kanas, a longtime banker who took over failed lender BankUnited Inc. in 2009, said a "firming up of property values" has helped spur recovery, especially in south Florida.

"That is fueling a significant opportunity to grow commercial real-estate loans," said Mr. Kanas, the chairman, president and chief executive officer of Miami Lakes, Fla.-based BankUnited.

BankUnited's commercial real-estate loan portfolio stood at $1.2 billion in the second quarter, a 26% jump from the first quarter, according SNL. Part of the growth was driven by BankUnited's push into New York City this year.

The recovery also is prompting some banks to make acquisitions to seize on growth opportunities.

UnionBanCal Corp., which is part of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., in April said it was acquiring a commercial-real estate business from PB Capital Corp., a subsidiary of Deutsche Bank AG. The deal included a $3.7 billion loan portfolio.

The deal was driven by subsidiary Union Bank's desire to beef up its real-estate presence nationally, said Michael Stedman, senior executive vice president and head of commercial banking and real estate for San Francisco-based Union Bank.

"The competitive environment has been increasingly challenging," Mr. Stedman said, adding that Union Bank is focused on expanding its commercial real-estate lending business organically but would consider doing more deals if they fit with the company's growth plans.

 
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Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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