DEAD IN THE WATER

Joseph Hauman

Do you know where the saying dead in the water comes from? It was originally used to refer to a boat that was stuck out at sea with no wind. No wind means no movement and as you could imagine, no movement is not good for a boat in a large body of water. Over the last 2 years, people have been telling me that the office market in Cleveland is “dead in the water” as everyone from your nephew’s Lemonade stand to Google decide if they need more space or if they even want any space. To be honest with you I believed it for a little bit too. I thought there is no wind in the sails of the office market in Cleveland, but then I allowed myself to take a real look at the industry.

Sailboats are great but they need something to push them. A tide, current, or wind is needed to make a boat with no motor move. I believe that office rents in the Cleveland Market have stayed stagnant because they have been the tide, current, or wind in the sails of our largely vacant office market.  What do I mean by that? Owners in Cleveland often think that they are in competition with each other. They attract tenants to their buildings by offering a low price, free rent, and higher tenant improvement allowances than what they view are their competitor’s. That, in turn, makes other owners lower their prices and it becomes a price war at its most basic level. For years, that has been the reason why the office market continued to truck along with very few new buildings and stagnated rent growth. Lower prices and increasing free rent packages were the slow wind that was pushing the sails of a fundamentally broken office market.

Why are low prices so bad in an office market? The answer is they aren’t when they can be controlled and used to attract quality businesses that will help the area grow. That, however, is not the situation that the Cleveland office market is in. We are in a vicious cycle of rent reduction to attract businesses that don’t choose Cleveland because of the lack of amenities, in both buildings and the city, and because they don’t choose Cleveland both the owner and city miss out on valuable tax and rental income that could be used to pay for new amenities to attract new businesses. This is the reason why the Cleveland office market is “Dead in the water”.

Nobody cared about this issue until the past two years when work from home skyrocketed and tenants didn’t care how much you reduced their rent; they just wanted out. It was no longer a price war because price mattered very little anymore. It became an agent’s job to keep tenants from bull rushing out of a building. Any wind that was ever present, was lost. No hope, right? Wrong.    

Going back to what I had said earlier when technology advanced we learned that we could put an engine on a boat and we had no more need for the wind to propel us. The wind and the sail didn’t matter anymore because the fundamental idea of a boat changed. It was no longer difficult to maneuver, slow, or relied on something totally out of one’s control. Instead, a boat became fun, attractive, and a sign of success for most. Office buildings need a motor. The entire idea of an office building needs to be changed. Low rent and new paint aren’t enough anymore. You need a space that makes people want to come to work. If your building doesn’t do that, then you need to take a hard look at the future success and viability of that building. If you are a landlord you must know your effective vacancy on any building you own. I don’t mean how many people you are getting checks from every month or the number of available square feet you tell your broker to put on the flyer. I mean how many people are coming in and using your space on a DAILY basis? If you have amazing tenants that don’t want that stuff then, congratulations, you have won the jackpot. If you have large amounts of vacant space and are wondering how to change it, then hold on because I’m going to tell you.

ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE

I know most office buildings or parks are purchased as a semi-passive investment which is great and I fully support it, but if you have a high vacancy you need to get a broker, or property manager or go yourself to each tenant and ask what they are looking for. Ask what your building lacks and where it could be improved. If you have current amenities in the building ask if they use them and how often. If you have someone that works in an amenity like a dry cleaner, food service, or gym, ask them how often people come through and what sort of mood they are in when they come in. If you have services in the building you need to find out if people are using them because the service is good or if it’s convenient. If tenants are using it out of convenience then that’s great, but it’s not enough to keep them there at your building. The true testament to the amenities that you provide should be if a tenant leaves and still comes back to your building to use your amenities. Obviously, not all amenities are offered to people that are not tenants, but ones that are, such as an open cafeteria or dry-cleaning service should be good tests. If you ask tenants for their opinion make sure they are valued and listened to. Asking them questions only to do nothing in hopes that they will stay is going to do you no good. If you want to have a low vacancy you need to get things in the building that people want. Let the ideas flow. Everything from a VR gaming setup, driving simulator, or golf simulator might be options that are relatively inexpensive in comparison to renovating a cafeteria or building out a new gym. Take the answers to the questions that you get from your tenants and mix them with your ideas and see if it’s possible. Maybe call me and let me come take a look and allow me to give you my opinion.

If your building represents a sailboat that is quickly or slowly losing wind then pull it out of the water and put an engine on that sucker because if you don’t make a change soon your boat will be dead in the office market water. 

Have something to say? Great, I would love to hear it. Shoot me an email at Joe.Hauman@NAIPVC.com or give me a call 440-591-3723.

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SIOR report shows sentiment waning in Office, Industrial

Despite a red-hot streak that’s outperformed other commercial real estate (CRE) asset classes, it seems that bullish sentiment on the industrial sector is finally cooling off. A recent report from the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors (SIOR) indicates that realtor confidence in the market dropped to 5.5 (out of 10), compared to 7.7 in Q1. Office sentiment fared poorly as well, with a 32% drop in confidence from 6.5 in Q1 to 4.4 in Q2.

Declining activity  

While general factors, such as prevailing economic conditions, played a role in the flagging sentiment, SIOR reported specific indicators of a downturn between Q1 and Q2 as well.

For industrial, these included:

  • Only 31% of members reporting an active leasing market (down from 61%)
  • An increase in “on-hold” transactions (from 10 to 14%) and canceled transactions (from 7 to 11%)
  • 69% of members reporting “booming” or “average” development conditions (down from 81%)

Meanwhile, office realtors reported a similar shakeup, with SIOR noting that:

  • 37% reported “little” or higher leasing activity in Q2 (down from 58%)
  • Canceled transactions jumped from 7% to 11%, and
  • There was a 61% reduction in the number of members reporting a “booming” or “average” development environment in their area.

SIOR adds that uncertainty around inflation and potential “economic turmoil” were the main drivers of the downturn. Or, as one of the survey respondents put it:

“Consistent commentary among clients is that the future is very uncertain and a recession likely coming.”

Concerns in context

Sentiment analysis across the broader US market indicates that the general consumer outlook continues to drop as we progress into Q3. This makes July the third consecutive month that consumer confidence has taken a knock.

Economic sentiment indicators in Europe show similar retractions, with confidence in the industrial sector declining by 3.5% in the region. Challenges such as the high cost of energy and gas shortages are hitting Europe particularly hard. In July this year, Reuters reported that Germany, the region’s industrial powerhouse, could be on the verge of recession.

For sectors like office and industrial, these reports indicate that there may be strong headwinds incoming.

SOCIAL: How have the industrial and office sectors performed in your region in recent months?

Increased FDIC oversight incoming for CRE bank loans

A recent report from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) states that Commercial Real Estate (CRE) lenders are about to come under greater scrutiny. In the report, titled “Supervisory Insights Summer 2022”, the agency adds that there will be an increased focus on new lending activity, along with CRE sectors and geographic areas that are “under stress.”

This comes on the back of a record year, with “the volume of CRE loans held by banks recently peaking at more than USD2.7 trillion.” And while FDIC doesn’t oversee all these institutes, banks supervised by the FDIC account for around USD1.1 trillion of that amount.

Quantifying risk

The agency adds that there will be increased emphasis on transaction testing (i.e. sampling individual lending transactions), saying:

“Given the uncertain long-term impacts of changes in work and commerce in the wake of the pandemic, the effects of rising interest rates, inflationary pressures, and supply chain issues, examiners will be increasing their focus on CRE transaction testing in the upcoming examination cycle.”

Areas of concern 

During 2021, FDIC examiners noted some specific CRE loan concerns, including poor risk analyses and improper assessments of whether loans could be successfully repaid. For example, some assessments failed to check whether a borrower’s business would be able to repay the loan when stimulus or other relief funds were no longer in the balance sheet.

Another area where some banks seemed to fall flat was in conducting a thorough and up-to-date analysis of prevailing market conditions. The agency added that examiners also saw cases where banks have “applied segmentation techniques ineffectively” or “have not drawn conclusions from the analyses performed.”

CRE lending outlook

Specific sectors identified as challenging for valuation in 2021 included some hospitality properties, offices, and malls, along with “some geographies, such as the Manhattan borough of New York City, [which] lagged.” In a Bloomberg article on the report, Brandywine Global portfolio manager, Tracy Chen added that “there are some challenges in pockets of CRE debt, such as offices and retails.”

In an environment where some banks have already announced cutbacks on CRE lending, the additional scrutiny may mean those lenders adopt an even more cautious disposition, especially for sectors they consider “high risk.”

Have there been any effects from changing lending policies on deal-making in your area?

New data shows declines in national distress rates

New data from commercial real estate (CRE) data provider CRED iQ shows the delinquency rate for commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) continued its downward trend in June 2022, dipping to 3.30%, marginally down from 3.32% the previous month.

CRED iQ regularly monitors distressed rates and market performance for nearly 400 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) across the US, an enormous data set that includes some $900 billion in outstanding CRE debt.

Month-by-month improvements
In the report, they’ve laid out distressed rates and month-over-month changes for the month of June 2022, for the 50 largest MSAs, as well as a breakdown by property type (see below). “Distressed rates (DQ + SS%),” they write, “include loans that are specially serviced, delinquent, or a combination of both.”

Standout areas
Of the top 50 MSAs, some 43 showed month-over-month improvements “in the percentage of distressed CRE loans within the CMBS universe”. New Orleans (-9.57%) and Louisville (-3.41%) were two of the MSAs with the acutest declines [in distress rate] this month.

On the other end of the scale, Charlotte (+1.15%) and Virginia Beach (+1.12%) were among the seven MSAs showing increases in distress rates last month.

By property type
“For a granular view of distress by market-sector”, the report also delves into distress by property type, which potentially holds strategic insight for regional commercial real estate professionals.

“Hotel and retail were the property types that contributed the most to the many improvements in distressed rates across the Top 50 MSAs,” they detail. “Loans secured by lodging and retail properties accounted for the 10 largest declines in distress by market-sector. This included the lodging sectors for New Orleans and Detroit as well as the retail sectors for Tampa and Cincinnati.”

SOCIAL: What data metrics do you find most useful for understanding the health of CRE in your region?

Another lender announces slow down for CRE credit

Credit for commercial real estate (CRE) looks to be entering a crunch state in the second half of 2022 as a number of the big lenders announced in July that they were pulling back in that sphere.

The latest to make such an announcement are Signature Bank and M&T Bank. The former said it “expected to cut back on lending for multifamily and other commercial real estate assets”, and the latter laid the blame squarely at the feet of higher interest rates in its decision to make “fewer CRE loans this year”.

Construction slump

M&T’s CRE loan balances decline by 2%, or $830m in Q2 2022, as reported by the Real Deal, who extracted key takeaways from an earnings call hosted by M&T chief financial officer Darren King. King reportedly specified that construction loans declined, alongside a decline in completed projects and new developments coming online.

Interest rates and inflation

King said the rates moves were “affecting cap rates and asset values” and that they were “not seeing the turnover in properties like you might have under normal circumstances. And that will affect the pace of decline and our growth in permanent CRE.”

According to BisNow reporting, “Interest rates, raised in an attempt to beat back record-high inflation, have contributed to a drop in investment volume from the highs of 2021 and early 2022, slowing CRE deal volume”.

Global pressures

In broad term, these economic conditions are seen at varying rates around the world right now. As S&P’s recent update explains: “Economic growth is slowing. Interest rates remain stubbornly high. Estimates of the risk of recession or even stagflation creep upward and questions persist on whether central banks are under- or over-reacting in pursuit of monetary normalization.”

Additionally, on the residential side, their PMI research indicates “a steep contraction in demand for real estate amid tightening financial cost of living”.

Social: How is the rising cost of living playing out in your market?