Industry executives report commercial real estate asset classes continue to face a variety of challenges centered around higher financing costs, increased illiquidity, and uncertain post-pandemic user demand. Reduced transaction volume has also contributed to difficult price discovery, according to The Real Estate Roundtable’s Q4 2023 Sentiment Index. (RER news release, Nov. 3)
Pressures on CRE Assets
Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer said, “Commercial real estate is at the front line of change in how people use the built environment in a post-pandemic society. Steep interest rate increases and diminished liquidity caused by regulatory pressures have led to much lower transaction volume and continued uncertainty in price discovery. The challenges facing different asset classes in the broad, complex CRE landscape is reflected in our Q4 Sentiment Index.”
The Roundtable’s Sentiment Index—a measure of senior executives’ confidence and expectations about the commercial real estate market environment—is scored on a scale of 1 to 100 by averaging the scores of Current and Future Sentiment Indices. Any score over 50 is viewed as positive.
The Q4 Index comes days after the Federal Reserve left its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a 22-year high of 5.4% and stated it remains open to future increases. "The good news is we're making progress," Chair Jerome Powell said." (Associated Press, Fed press release and Fed news conference video, Nov. 1)
Q4 Sentiment Index Topline Findings:
The Q4 2023 Real Estate Roundtable Sentiment Index registered an overall score of 44, a decrease of two points from the previous quarter. The Current Index registered 32, a one-point decrease from Q3 2023, and the Future Index posted a score of 57 points, a decrease of two points from the previous quarter. These stable indices highlight the persistent challenges faced by participants in the real estate market.
Although there are variations among asset classes and even within specific property types, ongoing uncertainty within the broader commercial real estate industry persists due to concerns about liquidity, capital availability, interest rates, and remote work. Bright spots exist in smaller classes, such as data centers, outlet malls, and hotels, while multifamily and industrial continue to attract interest. Within the office sector, class “A” properties with top-of-the-line amenities are the lone high performers.
An overwhelming 92% of survey participants indicate that asset values have decreased compared to the previous year. The valuation process has been challenging due to limited transactions, and the combination of current cap rates and fluctuating interest rates has further complicated pricing, ultimately leading to a view that asset values have decreased relative to one year ago.
Survey participants express ongoing concerns about the capital markets landscape, with 70% indicating that the availability of equity capital has worsened compared to a year ago, and 86% believing the availability of debt capital is also worse.
DeBoer, above, added, “We welcome efforts at all levels of government to incentivize conversions of commercial use to residential use. Yet various CRE markets and asset classes need more time to adapt to the new preferences of clients; more flexibility to restructure their asset financing; and patience while adjusting to the evolving valuation landscape. In addition to conversion activities, The Roundtable continues to urge the federal government to return to the workplace and support measures to assist loan modifications and increase liquidity available to all asset classes and their owners. We also remain opposed to regulatory proposals that impede capital formation.”
Some sample responses from participants in the Sentiment Index’s Q4 Survey include:
“Your perspective depends on what assets you hold and the strength of your balance sheet.”
“The distribution of capital is highly dependent on specific sectors and asset quality.”
“There will be a ‘great revaluation’ cycle with more real estate assets priced lower. There haven’t been enough transactions to collect good data, and the transactions that are happening are in the most dire of circumstances, which is driving erratic and less reliable market information.”
Data for the Q4 survey was gathered in October by Chicago-based Ferguson Partners on behalf of The Roundtable. See the full Q4 report.
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Energy and Tax Policy
Roundtable Recommends Solutions to Ease Compliance with Labor Rules for IRA Tax Incentives
The Real Estate Roundtable submitted comments this week encouraging the Treasury Department to provide a compliance “safe harbor” to streamline labor-related requirements necessary to seek “bonus” tax incentives for clean energy building projects under the Inflation Reduction Act(IRA). (Roundtable comment letter, Oct. 30)
Prevailing Wage and Apprenticeship Compliance Burdens
The Roundtable letter notes that the IRA’s objective to support retrofits and slash carbon emissions in the built environment will be undermined if the costs of labor compliance far exceed the incentives offered by Congress.
The comments explain that wage and apprenticeship compliance burdens would dis-incentivize businesses and taxpayers’ to pursue the IRA’s clean energy bonuses, thereby rendering the bonus credits program illusory in many cases.
The letter also emphasizes that a regulatory solution to ease the IRA’s paperwork burdens would spur more clean energy projects in buildings—and encourages Treasury/IRS to conduct its own thorough cost-benefit accounting of Prevailing Wage/Registered Apprenticeship (PW/RA) Requirements before issuing a final rule.
Contractor Compliance Certifications Sought
The “safe harbor” recommendation by The Roundtable would allow building owners/developers to rely on written certifications provided by their General Contractors (GCs), or any other subcontractors (subs), would confirm and fulfill all PW/RA labor requirements.
This streamlined approach would reduce the compliance burden and retain the fervor that IRA tax incentives could generate under the IRA. Real estate owners and developers are not the direct employers of electricians, plumbers, HVAC technicians, solar technicians, EV charging installers, or any others that construct or retrofit buildings. GCs and subs directly employ manual laborers.
The Roundtable also recommends regulators develop “Recordkeeping Requirements” for PW/RA compliance that reflect the reality of how laborers, mechanics, and apprentices are employed on real estate projects, who is hired by whom, and how hours worked are tracked.
Other targeted tax reforms that will help scale real estate’s transformation toward zero emissions are recommended in The Roundtable letter. These include expanding Section 48 of the Code to building electrification technologies; allowing private owner transfers to unrelated third parties under Sections 45L and 179D; and repealing a Section 179D rule that reduces a property’s basis by the amount of the claimed deduction. (Roundtable comment letter, Oct. 30)
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Capital and Credit
Roundtable Urges SEC to Exempt Real Estate from Proposed Safeguarding Advisory Client Rule
The Real Estate Roundtable urged the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) this week to exempt real estate from a proposed Safeguarding Advisory Client Rule that could severely limit advisory clients’ ability to invest by fundamentally changing the ownership and transfer rights of real estate. The proposed rule currently includes a conditional exception for real estate assets, which would impose a new layer of unclear and unnecessary oversight—and inject significant confusion into well-established transaction protections, rules, and procedures governing real estate transactions. (Roundtable letter, Oct. 30 and SEC Proposed Rule)
The “Proposing Release”
The Oct. 30 letter from Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer reiterated current legal protections that promote the safe-keeping of real estate assets held in advisory accounts or funds. DeBoer urged the SEC “… in the strongest possible terms to exclude real estate from the scope of any final [Safeguarding] rule,” citing the ample set of existing protections that prevent real estate assets from fraudulent transfer.
The letter also emphasized that the SEC has not coherently explained how the Proposed Safeguarding Rule would apply to real estate.
Current law (the “Custody Rule”) under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 requires an investment adviser to maintain clients’ funds and securities with a qualified custodian. The new proposed SEC rule would expand this requirement to maintain all advisory client assets with a qualified custodian.
Since it is not possible to maintain real estate and certain other physical investments with a qualified custodian, the proposal includes a conditional exception that includes the following language:
“In the real estate context, a deed or similar indicia of ownership that could be used to transfer beneficial ownership of a property would not qualify for the exception, but the physical buildings or land would qualify.”
The Roundtable’s letter challenges this “Proposing Release” asconfusing, impractical, and unworkable for holding and transferring real estate deeds. It also conflicts with current state and country chain of custody legal requirements that govern real estate transactions.
The letter also notes the SEC could chose to make the conditional exemption available to real property, because a physical asset cannot be maintained with a qualified custodian. Additionally, the requirement to maintain custody of deeds with a qualified custodian—compared to recording the interest with a governmental authority—serves no regulatory purpose.
Existing Layers of Safeguards
Other existing safeguards come into play. State laws currently require signature verifications, notarizations, and accompanying IDs that provide significant hurdles to an attempted fraudulent transfer.
Modern real estate transactions in the United States also require buyers and lenders to obtain title insurance, which involves a title insurance company to engage in substantial due diligence of the chain of ownership. Real estate lawyers representing the buyer and/or seller represent yet another intermediary, since they are often involved in these asset transactions to provide yet another source of gatekeeper protections.
The Roundtable letter states the SEC must explain how it would be possible to maintain title or deed with a qualified custodian since the “Proposed Rule would fundamentally change the ownership and transfer rights of real estate.” The letter states the SEC should avoid any final rule that would limit clients’ access to, or unduly burden, investment in the real estate asset class.
The Proposing Release also contains no evaluation of any risk of loss for real estate assets—it only asserts such risk as a theoretical matter.
The Roundtable and a diverse group of 25 trade associationspreviously wrote to SEC Chair Gary Gensler to oppose the Safeguarding Advisory Client Rule proposal and explain the negative impacts it would have on investors, market participants, and the financial markets. This week’s letter from The Roundtable focused exclusively on the proposal’s impact on real estate assets. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 15)