Deutsche Bank Says Next Big Short Is on CMBS as Malls Suffer

  • Bank suggests shorting indexes packed with bonds it underwrote
  • Strategists see possibility for ‘rapid contagion’ among stores

Analysts at Deutsche Bank AG, one of the biggest underwriters of bonds tied to U.S. commercial mortgages, say now it’s time to bet against the securities.

The bonds are vulnerable because they are supported in part by leases from retailers, a lagging part of the economy, wrote Ed Reardon and Simon Mui in a note this week. A combination of bankruptcies and closures could lead to faster-than-expected mortgage defaults for stores and malls, as long-term pressure from internet competitors wears many companies down, the analysts wrote.

Deutsche Bank recommends that investors bet against two series of indexes of commercial mortgage bonds: one from 2012, and another from 2013, a trade that amounts to shorting the underlying securities. Those indexes have larger exposure to malls than their more recent counterparts.

The lender famously recommended betting against real estate before. Before the financial crisis, traders led by Greg Lippmann shorted residential mortgage bonds, which helped the lender weather the global banking meltdown. His efforts were portrayed in the book and movie “The Big Short.”

Falling Index

In this week’s note, Deutsche Bank advised buying credit default protection on the parts of CMBX indexes that are a single step above junk, known as the BBB- tranches. Morgan Stanley recommended betting against portions of those indexes last week. The BBB- rated portion of the 2012 Markit CMBX price index, known as the series 6, has been falling since the end of January.

That index traded at 90 cents on the dollar on Wednesday, compared with 95.2 cents on the dollar on Jan. 27, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The price has dropped as wagers on the index have climbed in recent weeks, reaching $2.3 billion at the end of last week, according to Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. data.

Analysts and investors have sounded alarms for at least two years about the worsening quality of underwriting for commercial mortgage securities. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen warned in 2015 that the property bond market was becoming overheated. She cautioned about high commercial real estate prices last month as well. Investors at Deutsche Bank’s own asset management unit were among bond investors that met with regulators in late 2014 to share their concerns about underwriters refusing to hire bond graders that didn’t give them the ratings they wanted.

Deutsche Bank was the biggest underwriter of commercial mortgage bonds in 2012 and 2013, selling about a fifth of the deals, according to trade publication Commercial Mortgage Alert. Buying default protection on the CMBX indexes from those years amounts to betting against many of the bonds the bank sold during that period.

Commercial mortgage bonds that the bank underwrote have performed worse than those of many rivals, said Don McConnell, a senior portfolio manager at Bank of Montreal’s BMO Global Asset Management in Chicago, who helps manage $15 billion of taxable bonds. Of property securities that are delinquent, 40 percent were underwritten by Deutsche Bank, the highest of any lender, even though it is the second-biggest underwriter, he said. JPMorgan Chase & Co., the biggest underwriter, accounts for 10 percent of delinquencies. 

Failing Malls

More losses may be coming. The Hudson Valley Mall went into foreclosure last year after Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. left the mall. The mall liquidated last month at a $42 million loss to investors -- by far the largest realized loss since the CMBS market restarted in 2010, according to Morningstar Credit Ratings. Sears Holdings Corp.’s credit rating was recently cut further into junk territory after sales in stores open at least a year fell 12 to 13 percent during the holidays.

“Big mall loans have outsize losses for investors,” said Morningstar analyst Edward Dittmer. “We expect the stores like Sears, Macy’s and Penney to close more stores later this year and next year, and as they close, there will be knock-on effects that lead to other mall tenants leaving. This can start the cycle of blight.”

— With assistance by Charles E Williams

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