Help For Commercial Real Estate in 3 Easy Pieces

Help For Commercial Real Estate in 3 Easy Pieces

The potential commercial real estate crisis pales in size compared to the magnitude of the recent residential debacle, but it is certainly big enough to ruin an economic recovery that still has shaky legs Something needs to be done, and soon.

Forget the happy talk in the national media and from politicians. The facts show a different story. The Federal Reserve’s March 2010 Federal Reserve Beige Book Survey reveals that the twelve Fed districts report weak real commercial real estate and many of the districts reporting further declines from the previous period. Moody’s Investors Service reports that its index for February 2010 shows further price declines for commercial real estate. Banking statistics show commercial loan defaults are creeping up at accelerating rates. Why is it that at time when it would be logical to assume that incentives offered to private industry would help alleviate the commercial real estate meltdown, only disincentives are being pushed through? Nero fiddles while Rome burns. Let’s can the post-mortem hearings on the residential debacle and focus on the next big thing.

There are three relatively quick and simple actions that could be taken by the U.S. lawmakers to immediately rev-up investment to help stabilize the $6.7 trillion dollar commercial real estate industry:

#1 – Make a decision on what how carried interest on real estate partnerships will be taxed. This will take the uncertainty of political risk out of the equation and will help capital flow into the market. And please, try to remember what the increase in taxes will do to already distressed pricing of assets.

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The amount of capital available is significant. Research firm Preqin () estimates that through 2009, $44 billion was raised for investment in distressed estate debt and equity in the United States (termed “dry powder” because it has not yet been used), with another $61 billion currently being raised in 2010. These funds could be used to refinance properties, buy toxic real debt from banks and purchase properties in need of capital infusions. All these activities would have trickle down benefits for our economy in terms of employment, tax base, and healthy banks. The reason the powder stays dry is mainly political uncertainty in the U.S. regarding tax increases and regulations that would increase costs for private investment.

#2 – Walk the talk about being part of a global economy, and open up U.S. markets to more foreign investment by removing obsolete restrictions and taxes imposed by the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (FIRPTA). This act, passed in l980, was a move to protect U.S. farmland from being purchased by overseas investors. It imposed a tax that made it extra costly for sovereign wealth funds and overseas investors to buy commercial real estate in the U.S. as a way of discouraging investment, and later it was modified to include indirect ownership through real estate securities (i.e. REITS stocks). It is outdated and outmoded.

#3 – While busily putting together thousands of pages of bank regulations, include one that offers incentives for banks to recognize loan losses and start re-building balance sheets without playing games. Remember the basic management theory – you get the behavior you reward.

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In summary, private investment should be encouraged, not penalized, for stepping in to help stabilize commercial real estate. It is past time for Washington to focus on this looming crisis without waiting for disaster and once again going to unsuspecting taxpayers for bail outs.