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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2023 Loan Extensions Increase as Lenders and Borrowers Seek Workouts

Trepp

Approximately $5.65 billion in commercial real estate loans have been modified with extensions in 2023, with nearly 73% of the total from the office sector, according to a recent Trepp report. The rise in loan extensions—sparked by higher interest rates, lower valuations, and remote work—also come at a time when commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) have been subdued. (Trepp CRE Research Report)

Modification Trend

  • Trepp reported that term increases of 1-12 months comprised the largest share (37%) of extensions. The largest quarter upon maturity came in Q2 2023, when $957 million in loans were extended.
  • Office properties comprised 72.9% of the total $3.2 billion in loan extensions, or roughly $2.4 billion. Trepp stated, “Of all property types, the office sector faces the steepest refinancing challenges as office properties are struggling with occupancy and financial performance in the post-pandemic era.” (Trepp CRE Research Report)
  • The increase in modifications follows a joint policy statement from federal regulators in June that encouraged financial institutions to work with borrowers on pending loan maturities. (Agencies’ joint statement, June 29 and National Law Review, July 9)

Roundtable Advocacy

Jeffrey DeBoer during Marcus and Millichap webinar

  • In March, The Roundtable had originally requested that federal regulators accommodate commercial real estate borrowers and lenders as the industry continued to endure a difficult time of historic, post-pandemic transition—and enthusiastically welcomed the Agencies’ subsequent, joint action. (Roundtable Weekly, June 30 and Roundtable letter to regulators, March 17)
  • During a Sept. 26 Marcus & Millichap webcast, Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey (above) said, “We’re seeing some impact. Trepp put out a report about loan modifications and extensions. Time is the most important aspect for the most challenged part of our industry, office. We have to let time settle in and let businesses and employers determine how they want to use office space going forward.”
  • Additionally, bipartisan legislation (H.R. 5580) introduced in the House last week would reduce the tax burden on a borrower that can arise when a troubled commercial real estate loan is modified as part of a debt workout. The Tenney-Higgins bill would build on existing tax provisions by effectively deferring cancellation of debt (COD) income. (Roundtable Weekly, Sept. 22)
  • The legislation, introduced by Reps Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Brian Higgins (D-NY), could help smooth the transition to a healthy and stable post-pandemic real estate market. The Roundtable’s DeBoer was quoted in support of the House legislation by GlobeSt, Connect CRE, and Commercial Observer.

Capital and credit policy issues facing CRE, especially office assets, will be among the topics discussed during The Roundtable’s Oct. 16-17 Fall Meeting (Roundtable-level members only) in Washington.

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