Commercial Lending And a Market Crash

Commercial Lending And a Market Crash

The Coronavirus Crisis is now the fourth commercial real estate crash that I have experienced in my forty years of running our family commercial mortgage company, Blackburne & Sons.  They seem to happen about once every twelve years.  Each time commercial real estate fell by exactly 45%.

To those of you who are commercial loan brokers, you should keep working!  There is some serious money to be made during these crashes.  The old, savvy real estate investors know that the best time to invest is when blood is running in the street.

The first commercial real estate crash began in 1986, when President Reagan changed the income tax laws to eliminate the tax shelters previously provided by commercial real estate.

Prior to 1986, a surgeon earning, say, $500,000 per year could shelter, say, $150,000 of his income from taxation by buying highly-leveraged apartment buildings or commercial properties.  The depreciation from these rental properties provided a paper loss – often without too much of a negative cash flow.  These paper losses could be used to reduce the amount of the physician’s taxable income.

When rich guys could no longer use depreciation to shelter their earned income – bam – the value of commercial real estate suddenly plunged like a falling rock.  By the time the crash was over, commercial real estate values had fallen by a whopping 45%.  Please remember that number – 45%.

Savings and Loan Associations (“S&L’s) were heavily invested in first mortgages on commercial properties.  By 1992, one-third of them had failed.  The Resolution Trust Corporation (“RTC”) came in, closed up 3,234 of these S&L’s, and then sold off their foreclosed apartment buildings and office buildings at fire-sale prices.

The RTC offered these buildings at just 50% of an already-depressed fair market value, but the purchase had to be for all cash.  Since 95% of banks in the country were out of the commercial real estate loan market, hard money brokers had an absolute field day.  So did the commercial loan brokers who stayed in the market, originating commercial loans for them.  (Please read that last sentence again.)

In October of 2002, the NASDAQ crashed by 78%, when most of the big dot-com stocks melted down.  Commercial real estate crashed by 45% during the Dot-Com Meltdown.  Once again, there is that magical number:  45%.

Once again, almost all of the banks pulled out of the commercial lending market in 2002, and they stayed out for more than four years.  Banks are nothing but a bunch of frightened herd animals.  Once the bottom (nadir) of the real estate cycle had been found, banks should have been making commercial loans like crazy.

During every one of the commercial real estate crashes in my lifetime, commercial real estate fell by 45%.  After hitting a bottom about two-and-half years into each crisis, commercial real estate recovered to new highs within three years.

But I was thrilled that the banks were a bunch of scarety-cats.  Surviving hard money shops (“Aye, there’s the rub,”), like Blackburne & Sons, made a killing after the Dot-Com Meltdown.  We were the only guys at an all-girls school dance.  Our best commercial loan brokers, who brought us all of our deals, made a killing too.

During the Great Recession, commercial real estate once again fell by 45%.  There is that number, 45%, again.  Just as during the previous crises, the banks immediately dropped out of the commercial loan market, and they stayed out of the market for far too long.

Hundreds and hundreds of hard money mortgage companies also closed up shop during the Great Recession, leaving Blackburne & Sons, and just a handful of others, as the last men standing.  Once again, as the only guys at the dance, we all found lots of dance partners.  We made a ton of superb quality loans.  The commercial loan brokers who brought us these deals made a fortune.

Why did so many competing hard money shops close their doors?  Answer:  Because most of them were structured as funds.  As soon as the crises hit, all of their investors lined up to withdraw their investments.  Previously, these mortgage funds made 85% of their money by making new commercial loans and earning new loan fees.  With no new money flowing into their funds, these hard money shops had no dough with which to make new loans and to earn new loan fees with which to make make payroll.

The situation is even worse today for hard money shops.  Ninety-five percent of them are structured as mortgage funds – as opposed to just 55% of them before the Great Recession.  Your favorite hard money commercial lender?  I’d be surprised if it ever made a commercial loan again.

Do you own a hard money commercial mortgage fund.  Don’t be pissed at me for telling the truth.  You’re screwed, but you can still save your company.  Announce to your investors immediately that you are now charging 390 basis points (3.9%) for loan servicing fees and property management fees.

The single best thing you can do for your hard money investors is to stay in business –  calling for late payments, force-placing fire insurance, exercising your assignment of rents, getting receivers appointed, moving properties out of Chapter 11, hiring property security companies, cleaning up the properties, winterizing the properties, renovating the properties, renting the properties, and selling the properties.

Yeah, your private investors will be pissed at you for awhile.  Remember, however, that most of then are invested in several different hard money mortgage funds.  When their other hard money shops close up entirely, their whole attitude will change.  The portfolios of these competing mortgage funds will get devastated by vandals, breaking pipes, and even worse, by greedy attorneys and their fees.  Your investors will bless you for raising their loan servicing fees and property management fees, thereby staying in business.

Anyway, now back to the needs of our commercial loan brokers.  Blackburne & Sons doesn’t use a mortgage fund.  We syndicate every new commercial loan that we make – maybe 30 investors or so per deal.

Now the sexy thing about being a syndicator is that wealthy private investors always have dough to invest.  It’s merely a matter a price (interest rate).  Therefore Blackburne & Sons intends to stay in the market, making commercial real estate loans, every single day of the Coronavirus Crisis – just like we did during the S&L Crisis, the Dot-Com Meltdown, and the Great Recession.

If you are a commercial loan broker, your eyes should be seeing dollar signs right now.  The banks are now out-of-the-market, and so are 95% of the commercial hard money mortgage funds.  Commercial loan brokers by the tens of thousands have probably resolved to find another occupation.

Because of the Coronavirus Crisis, commercial real estate is likely to once again fall by 45%.  All of the banks will soon be out of the market.  They will no longer be competing against you.  You have broken into the clear.  The businessmen near you who own commercial real estate surely need money, and you know one of the few commercial lenders still making loans.   Go feast!

Contact every business owner you know who owns commercial real estate.  Do you need cash?  Seriously, who doesn’t need cash right now?

By George Blackburne