2009-03-27wsj.com

The delinquency rate on about $700 billion in securitized loans backed by office buildings, hotels, stores and other investment property has more than doubled since September to 1.8% this month, according to data provided to The Wall Street Journal by Deutsche Bank AG. While that's low compared with the home-mortgage delinquency rate, it's just short of the highest rate during the last downturn early this decade.

Some experts say it now looks as if the current commercial real-estate slump will rival or even exceed the one in the early 1990s, when bad commercial-property debt played a big role in dragging the economy into a recession. Then, close to 1,000 U.S. banks and savings institutions failed. Lenders took about $48.5 billion in charges on commercial real-estate debt between 1990 and 1995, representing 7.9% of such debt outstanding.

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The problem was underscored when Moody's Investors Service downgraded Bank of America Corp. Wednesday, citing likely increases in souring "credit cards, residential and commercial real estate loans." The bank declined to comment on the downgrade.

Commercial real-estate debt is potentially more dangerous to the financial system than debt classes such as credit cards and student loans because of its size. The Real Estate Roundtable, a trade group, estimates that commercial real estate in the U.S. is worth $6.5 trillion and financed by about $3.1 trillion in debt. Partly because the commercial real-estate debt market is nearly three times as big now as in the early 1990s, potential losses in dollar terms loom larger.

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In contrast to home mortgages -- the majority of which were made by only 10 or so giant institutions -- hundreds of small and regional banks loaded up on commercial real estate. As of Dec. 31, more than 2,900 banks and savings institutions had more than 300% of their risk-based capital in commercial real-estate loans, including both commercial mortgages and construction loans.

Ruh-roh.


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