Fed Cautions About Office Sector as Vacancies Climb and Loan Modifications Surge
Biden Administration Outlines Options to Cut Building Emissions
Roundtable Weekly
April 5, 2024
Fed Cautions About Office Sector as Vacancies Climb and Loan Modifications Surge
La Salle Street, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Recent reports show U.S. office vacancies climbed to nearly 20% during Q1 2024 after loan modifications more than doubled last year compared to 2023. Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Board Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr cautioned this week that federal regulators are “looking carefully at banks with heavy concentrations in office commercial real estate where there are significant, expected price declines.” (Moody’s Analytics, April 2 | CRED iQ, March 28 | (C-SPAN video, April 3)

Office Sector

  • Preliminary data from Moody’s Analytics reinforces the long-term, negative ramifications of hybrid work models. The Q1 2024 office vacancy rate set a new record at 19.8%, up from 19.6% in the prior quarter, and beating two historic peaks of 19.3% in 1986 and 1991. (Bloomberg, April 2 | Quartz, April 3 | CRE Daily, April 4)
  • “The office stress isn’t quite done yet,” said Thomas LaSalvia, Moody’s head of commercial real estate economics and an author of the report. He added, “This is part of a longer-term evolution where we are seeing obsolete buildings in obsolete neighborhoods.” (Bloomberg, April 2)
  • Brookfield’s Feb. 14 report, “The Misunderstood U.S. Office Market,” emphasizes that high vacancy rates are due to an excess of dated, functionally obsolete office buildings and an undersupply of offices that satisfy tenants’ changing needs.
  • A Roundtable-led coalition of 16 national real estate organizations urged the expansion of a 20 percent tax credit for qualified property conversion expenditures in an Oct. 12, 2022 letter to policymakers. The recommended enhancements included expanding the category of properties eligible for the credit to various types of commercial buildings such as shopping centers and hotels. (Roundtable Weekly, Nov. 11, 2022)

Fed Oversight & CRE Sectors

Federal Reserve Board Vice Chair for Supervision Michael Barr
  • The Fed’s top market supervisor told the National Community Reinvestment Coalition on April 3 that CRE refinancing deals will “take some time to work through” as the Fed closely monitors office sector conditions. (C-Span | BGov, April 3 | Roundtable Weekly, March 8)
  • Barr said, “This is the kind of thing where it is likely a slow-moving train as the financial sector and commercial real estate market move forward. Over the next two to three years, we are going to see how properties deal with refinancing in a higher interest rate environment. Occupancy rates have lowered because of work-from-home, so for some categories of office CRE they are more exposed to risk.”
Kathleen McCarthy
  • Kathleen McCarthy, global co-head of Blackstone Real Estate and chair-elect of The Real Estate Roundtable, commented to CNBC’sClosing Bell Overtime” on April 3 that the office sector is different from other CRE investment areas that have performed well. “We do feel like there's a bottoming happening. There’s no V-shaped recovery … but we do see the cost of capital coming down, we’re seeing more liquidity in markets, and perhaps more importantly for the long term, we’re seeing a sharp decline in new supply," she said.
  • Barron’s recognized McCarthy this week as one of the 100 Most Influential Woman in Finance. She commented on her upcoming role as Roundtable Chair: “To bring together my interest in policy and have a position to help our whole industry in Washington is really exciting.” (Barron’s, April 4)

Commercial and multifamily market conditions will be discussed during RER’s April 15-16 Spring Meeting in Washington DC (Roundtable-level members only) with guests including White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Jared Bernstein,  House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), and House Financial Services Member French Hill (R-AK). 

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Biden Administration Outlines Options to Cut Building Emissions
Department of Energy's “Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy by 2050: A National Blueprint for the Buildings Sector”

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from buildings is the focus of a “national strategy document” released this week by the Biden administration. The Department of Energy (DOE) “blueprint” has no regulatory impact on private sector assets, but it articulates aspirational goals to reduce building-related emissions 65% by 2035 and 90% by 2050. (Department of Energy (DOE) news release, April 2 and Politico EnergyWire, April 3)

Four Pathways

Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy by 2050: A National Blueprint for the Buildings Sector” outlines four action categories:

  1. Increase Building Energy Efficiency
    DOE acknowledges the value of federal tools that help building owners and jurisdictions benchmark, track, and improve efficiency (e.g., ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, Portfolio Manager Data Explorer)—all supported by The Real Estate Roundtable. (Roundtable Weekly, March 22)

  2. Reduce On-site Emissions
    DOE notes that building electrification with heat pumps is a primary strategy for reducing on-site, fossil-fuel fired building emissions. DOE’s goal also includes reducing on-site emissions from fluorinated gas (including equipment refrigerant leakage), foam-blowing agents, and fire suppressants. (DOE document pages 26-28)

  3. Transform the “Grid Edge”
    Federal efforts could help buildings better connect with the power grid through storage methods, on-site renewable generation, and EV charging. (DOE document pages 28-30)

  4. Minimize Embodied Life Cycle Emissions
    The document lists strategies to reduce embodied emissions, including repurposing existing buildings, new construction methods, and reducing emissions intensity of construction materials. (DOE document pages 31-32)

Noteworthy Recommendations

Los Angeles
  • The Biden administration framework acknowledges the need for CRE owners to access whole-building utility data. Metrics on building energy usage can be used to complete requirements for benchmarking and building performance disclosures. State regulators and local governments could support emission reduction goals by requiring utility companies to provide customers with access to tenant-meter data. (DOE document page 52)
  • The blueprint recognizes the need for government-sponsored low-interest loans and tax credits to support clean power projects at buildings. (DOE document page 40 and Table 5, page 43)
  • The blueprint also encourages federal-level resources to help city and state governments implement building performance standards (BPS). The Roundtable supports non-binding federal guidelines that bring order and national consistency to the conflicting patchwork of local BPS mandates. (DOE document pages 24-25 and 50-51 | Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)

DOE plans to vet these recommendations for federal actions to reduce building emissions in the future with a wide range of stakeholders, track progress on their implementation, and amend the document as needed.

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