Economic downturn pounds commercial real estate market

Tom Howorth is feeling the impact of the crumbling real estate market.

The Oxford, Miss., architect's firm has dwindled from 18 people to 11 since mid-2007 as clients have postponed or canceled major projects. The situation appears to be getting worse. Colleagues in other parts of the country, who had been faring better, now tell Howorth they are also starting to see a steep drop in business.

"People have lost confidence," says Howorth, a principal at Howorth & Associates Architects. "Whether it's a church that doesn't know what their membership is going to be able to do (with its building fund) … to universities whose endowments have taken a huge hit, to individuals who are saying, 'Look at what's happened to real estate values,' to developers who aren't even thinking about spending money in this economy."

Contractors, investors and developers are bracing for what could be the worst real estate crunch since the early 1990s, when the industry built a small city's worth of speculative office buildings that later went begging for tenants. Commercial property sales plunged 73% last year, according to Real Capital Analytics. Vacancy rates are rising, and hundreds of large properties are in default. The American Institute of Architects' billing index, a leading indicator of construction six months ahead, is at a record low. Unemployment in the construction industry is 15.3%, well above the average 7.2% jobless rate.

The 1990s crisis was sparked by federal tax breaks that encouraged overinvestment and overbuilding. This time around, the real estate frenzy was fueled by cheap credit, which allowed investors and developers to bid up prices of existing properties. But the economic fallout could be similar: rising bankruptcies and unemployment and slower economic growth at a time when the economy is already reeling from a historic housing depression.

"This is a rolling problem that's only going to get worse," says Jeffrey DeBoer, president of the Real Estate Roundtable, estimating that about $400 billion worth of commercial real estate mortgages will come due by the end of 2009. Investors and developers might have trouble refinancing many loans, due to tight credit and falling rents and property values.

"Businesses need to be able to access the credit market when their debt comes due and their business needs require. Right now, they're not able to," DeBoer says.

The Roundtable is part of an industrywide coalition that's pushing the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department to create a special lending program to resuscitate the commercial mortgage-backed securities market. The industry says such a move would provide liquidity and restore confidence to a sector of the credit market that has essentially frozen. The Treasury Department and Fed have not issued a formal decision, but Treasury noted in November that a similar program aimed at auto, credit card and student loan lenders could be extended to include commercial mortgage-backed securities.

In a recent analysis, Citigroup noted that the sharp drop in the commercial mortgage-backed securities market is putting more pressure on banks, forcing them to extend existing loans. But the Citigroup analysts said that problems are well below the levels of the 1990s, and that banks should be able to manage the commercial mortgage-backed securities that are coming due.

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