Wall Street is scouring the U.S. for grocery stores as bankers are pushed out of lending to trophy office properties.
Morgan Stanley is selling about $1 billion of commercial mortgage-backed securities with five of the 10 largest loans tied to retail buildings, including specialty supermarket Trader Joe’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a Kings Food Market in Millburn, New Jersey. About half of the largest loans bundled into CMBS in the past six months are linked to retail, up from 27 percent in December 2007 and as low as 12 percent in June of that year, according to data compiled by JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Wall Street has turned to financing a broad swath of retail properties, from shopping centers to suburban strip malls, as insurance companies and government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac offer better lending terms on the best office buildings and apartments. Investors are wagering the economic recovery is strong enough to justify buying the securities even as analysts and debtholders are concerned that the deals include too many stores amid restrained consumer spending.
“In this market you eat what you kill,” according to Alan Todd, head of CMBS research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in New York. “If those are the assets you find you can originate, than those are the properties you find in the deal.”
About $16 billion of mortgages on retail properties packaged and sold as bonds come due in 2012. Landlords who need to borrow more than insurance companies are prepared to lend will turn to the commercial mortgage-bond market, Todd said.
‘Need More Diversification’
More than 20 percent of investors in a JPMorgan survey cited heavy retail concentration as their primary concern with new CMBS deals, the bank said in a report this month. The proportion of loans linked to retail buildings rose to 45 percent for bonds sold in 2011, from 25 percent for 2007, according to the New York-based lender.
“We need more diversification in these deals,” said Lisa Pendergast, a commercial-mortgage debt strategist at Jefferies Group Inc. “If there is some kind of big hit to the consumer, you don’t want to have too much retail. It’s not a good investment decision to put your eggs in one basket.”
Commercial-mortgage bond lenders, who profit on the difference between what borrowers pay and the cash brought in by selling the securities, charge higher rates than insurers and other financial institutions that hold loans on their books.
Wall Street has had difficulty competing against insurers and government-supported housing agencies since CMBS sales revived in 2010, according to Darrell Wheeler, a bond strategist for Austin, Texas-based Amherst Securities Group LP. Issuance of the securities, which peaked at $232 billion in 2007, plummeted to $11.5 billion in 2010. Wall Street arranged $28 billion of the debt last year.
Government-supported entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have also increased lending by selling $33.9 billion of bonds tied to apartment buildings last year, from $21.6 billion in 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, reducing another pool of potential borrowers. Multifamily buildings fell to 5.5 percent of CMBS in 2011 from 18.6 percent five years earlier, JPMorgan data show.
Lending to retail property owners has risks. The average vacancy rate for neighborhood and community shopping centers was 11 percent through the fourth quarter of 2011, holding at the highest rate in more than 20 years, according to research firm Reis Inc.
Sears Holdings Corp., the second-largest tenant in the $600 billion CMBS market, said in December that it was closing as many as 120 stores after sales fell.
Late payments on retail mortgages packaged and sold as bonds rose 32 basis points, to a record 7.21 percent last month, according to Fitch Ratings. That compares with a rate of 8.32 percent for all property types. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.
“Moody’s is concerned about retail concentration in CMBS 2.0 deals,” said Tad Philipp, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, referring to deals sold after the boom ended.
At the same time, “the recession did an excellent job of separating retail winners from losers, and three-year track records for sales and occupancy are more valuable than ever,” he said.
Increased lender demand means better terms for mall owners such as Simon Property Group Inc., the largest in the U.S., and General Growth Properties Inc.
The largest loan in the Morgan Stanley pool being sold is a $130 million mortgage to The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, a Manchester, Connecticut-based mall owned by GGP, according to a regulatory filing.
The fourth-biggest is a $65.8 million mortgage on Capital City Mall in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, owned by Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust. The real estate investment firm used the loan to refinance maturing debt, the filing shows. Mary Claire Delaney, a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley, declined to comment.
Andrew Ioannou, senior vice president, capital markets and treasurer of the REIT, said since the commercial mortgage market’s revival banks are now calling them instead “of the other way around.” One advantage is Wall Street allows borrowers to take on more debt in exchange for higher interest payments, he said.
“Without a doubt the CMBS market right now is more aggressive than it’s been in a long time,” he said.
Relative yields on top-ranked commercial-mortgage bonds have narrowed 48 basis points this year to 213 basis points, according to a Barclays Plc index. The spread is the narrowest since July and fell in January by the most in almost two years.
Deutsche Bank AG is planning a $1 billion CMBS deal as soon as this week, according to a person familiar with the deal, who declined to be identified because the transaction hasn’t been announced. Banks are arranging as much as $11 billion in new sales through April, according to Commercial Mortgage Alert, an industry newsletter.
Investors got accustomed to seeing Manhattan trophy properties in 2007 when Wall Street was offering low rates and high leverage, said Pendergast of Jefferies. Buyers should be looking for stable properties in reasonable markets, she said.
“It may not be the sexiest looking deal, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing,” the Stamford, Connecticut-based strategist said of lending to less prominent buildings.
The retail industry has spawned an array of property types over the past 15 years, from neighborhood strip malls to outdoor lifestyle centers, according to Ryan Severino, an economist at Reis, and some have withstood the economic downturn better than others.
“We are very picky with what we will do,” said Paul Vanderslice, co-head of the U.S. CMBS group at Citigroup Inc. in New York. “Shopping centers anchored by grocery stores are very good, and are a much better bet than a third-tier regional mall.”
The retail loans getting placed into recent deals have relatively low leverage, meaning the owners are not as deeply in debt, said Harris Trifon, a commercial-mortgage debt analyst at Deutsche Bank in New York.
“Barring some catastrophic change in the economic outlook, most of the properties should perform as expected,” Trifon said. “It’s not going to be a situation where all of a sudden, all of the retail loans start going bad at the same time.”
Still, shopping malls in slow-growth markets, with significant exposure to a single tenant or with unproven track records do show up frequently in CMBS 2.0, according to Amherst’s Wheeler.
Even as the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in January, the lowest since February 2009, from 10 percent in October 2009, consumers remain defensive about spending, said Severino of Reis. Household purchases climbed 2.2 percent in 2011 after an increase of 2 percent in 2010, the weakest two-year performance of any expansion since the end of World War II.
“We are definitely over-retailed as a country,” said Bank of America’s Todd. “If the third mall in a one-mall town is the largest loan in the deal, then obviously the retail concentration works against you.”