While Europe’s sovereign debt crisis grabs all the headlines, distressed real estate may pose a bigger threat to the Spanish banking system. The country’s lenders hold about £30 billion ($41 billion) of unfinished homes and land that’s “unsellable,” according to Pablo Cantos, managing partner of MaC Group in Madrid. MaC Group is a risk adviser to several leading Spanish banks. “I’m really worried about the small and medium-size banks whose business is 100 percent in Spain and based on real estate growth,” says Cantos. He adds that only bigger, more diversified lenders such as Banco Santander, Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, La Caixa, and Bankia are strong enough to survive their real estate losses: “I foresee Spain will be left with just four large banks.”
Spain’s central bank tightened rules last year to force lenders to set aside more reserves against property seized in exchange for unpaid debts and is pressing them to sell assets rather than wait for the market to recover from its four-year decline. Yet unloading the real estate may be difficult or impossible. Bank-owned land “in the middle of nowhere” and unfinished residential units will take as long as 40 years to sell, Cantos predicts. Fernando Rodríguez de Acuña Martínez, a consultant at Madrid-based adviser RR de Acuña & Asociados, has a more dire view. About 43 percent of unsold new homes are in exurbs far from city centers, he says, and “if you take into account population growth for these areas, there’s no demand for them. Not now or in 10 years.”
Dozens of Spanish banks have failed or been absorbed since the economic crisis ended a debt-fueled property boom in 2008. The cost to taxpayers of cleaning up the industry’s books has come to £17.7 billion so far. Banks may face increased pressure following Nov. 20 national elections that propelled the conservative People’s Party to power. Its leader, Mariano Rajoy, has said the “cleanup and restructuring” of the banking system is his top priority.
“Stricter provisioning rules for land need to be implemented,” says Luis de Guindos, director of PricewaterhouseCoopers and IE Business School Center for Finance. De Guindos has been named by newspapers as a contender for finance minister in a Rajoy government. “Many banks will be able to deal with it, but others won’t.”
Idealista, Spain’s largest real estate website, currently advertises 45,912 bank-owned homes there, up from 29,334 in November 2010. In 2008 it didn’t list any.
Spanish home prices have fallen 28 percent, on average, from their peak in April 2007, according to a Nov. 2 joint report by Fotocasa.es, a real estate website, and the IESE Business School. Land values fell 33 percent nationwide. Fernando Acuña Ruiz, managing partner of Taurus Iberica Asset Management, a Spanish mortgage servicer, expects the slide in home prices to continue. “Spain has 1 million new homes that won’t be completely absorbed by the market until the middle of 2017,” he says. “Prices will fall a further 15 percent to 20 percent in the next two to three years.”
Banks are reluctant to acknowledge the size of the declines. There is an “enormous” gap between prices offered by lenders and what investors are willing to pay, preventing sales of large property portfolios, MaC Group’s Cantos says. He estimates that prime assets can be sold at a 30 percent discount, while portfolios comprising land, residential, and commercial real estate may sell only after 70 percent discounts. “Therein lies the problem,” he says. “Banks have already provisioned for a 30 percent loss, but if you are selling at 70 percent discount, you have to take another 40 percent loss. Which small and medium-size banks can take such a hit?”