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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Industry Leaders Discuss Office Market Pressures, Challenges, Opportunities

Aerial Point of View of  Downtown Nashville, Tennessee

The ramifications of declining values for certain office properties were the focus of several national media interviews this week with industry leaders. The pressures, challenges, and opportunities of the current office market are the consequence of remote work and a post-pandemic shift in the use of the built environment—realities that are leading city officials to assess lower tax revenue assessments and consider policy changes to incentivize commercial-to-residential conversions, cutbacks to local services, or raising taxes. (New York Times, March 14)

Office Conversions

•	Roundtable Chairman Emeritus Bill Rudin (Co-Chairman and CEO, Rudin Management Co.)
  • The New York Times reported this week on the options facing municipal officials as nearly $3 trillion of outstanding commercial real estate debt is coming due by 2028 while tax revenue from commercial properties drops. Refinancing certain office assets at reduced values remains difficult during a period of high interest rates and heightened regulatory concern about regional banks’ office loan concentrations. (Trepp, Dec. 21, 2023 and Roundtable Weekly, March 8)
  • Rudin offered examples in New York City of successful office reuse. He also emphasized how other cities need to convert obsolete office buildings to residential use by changing multiple dwelling laws, zoning statutes, and a providing a robust tax abatement to incentivize capital into the marketplace for conversions.  
  • It’s a public-private partnership. The capital will come to those projects with the right structure that start creating housing on all levels: affordable, workforce, market rate,” Rudin said.

Evolving Opportunities

Real Estate Roundtable Member Hessam Nadji (President and CEO, Marcus & Millichap)
  • Roundtable Member Hessam Nadji (President and CEO, Marcus & Millichap) spoke with CNBC’s Worldwide Exchange today about the bifurcated office market. He added that investors are exploring opportunities in shopping centers and high-quality offices in suburban markets.
  • “(We are) hearing from various institutional investors that it’s the time to buy. Prices have adjusted. There’s record capital on the sidelines. And when you combine those two with confidence that the economy is going to hold up pretty well, you’re going to see capital come back,” Nadji said.
  • Blackstone President and Chief Operating Officer Jon Gray discussed investor opportunities in commercial real estate yesterday with Bloomberg Television.
  • “As investors, sometimes, one of the risks is that you miss it by being overly cautious and I think now is probably a good time before rates come down. There are definitely assets that were financed in a different era, particularly in commercial real estate because there has been a more profound impact in the office sector—and that will create opportunities,” Gray said.

On the public buildings front, the Biden administration’s 2025 budget plan proposes $425 million for the General Services Administration to reduce the federal footprint and long-term costs through a new “optimization program.” (Federal News Network, March 11)

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