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LTV and DCR Are Not the Only Determining Factors for Defaults on Commercial Mortgages

Note: This article was originally published in Winter 2014 issue of  CREFC World Magazine published by the Commercial Real Estate Finance Council.

By:
Steve Guggenmos, Senior Director, Freddie Mac
Jun Li, Director, Freddie Mac
Yu Guan, Analyst, Freddie Mac
Malay Bansal, Senior Director, Freddie Mac

For simplicity, some models used by CMBS investors assume that the non-recourse borrower will default immediately if the DCR falls below 1.0 or LTV goes above 100 (percent). This is sometimes referred to as “ruthless default” behavior. In reality, however, borrowers do not choose to default just because DCR is below 1.0 or LTV is higher than 100. This article examines some historical data and attempts to look at various factors that have an impact on the borrower’s decision to default, and presents historical default rates for each category.

Using different default rates for the different categories may be a better approach for scenario analysis for CMBS investors than trying to use fixed cutoff numbers for DCR and LTV to examine each loan to determine if it will default or not.  An important underlying factor that motivates borrower behavior is the option value embedded in owning the real property.

Also, borrower selection impacts ruthlessness.  Market expertise helps borrowers measure the benefits of supporting an underperforming property based on potential future upside.  Further, key to the decision to support the property is the borrower’s access to capital and overall liquidity – without which there is no ability to subsidize the property until the market improves.

Introduction

As part of their investment analysis, CMBS Investors run various scenarios of changes in economic conditions, cap rates, vacancies, NOIs, etc. The resulting DCR and LTV are used to decide if the loan will default in that scenario and what the loss severity will be in case of default. If DCR falls below 1.0, that clearly increases the likelihood of default during the loan term as borrowers are required to pay out-of-pocket to cover property expenses.  When the property value is below the loan amount default is more likely and losses will be higher in case of default. Also, if the LTV is above 100 at maturity, the loan is not likely to not qualify for a new loan without putting more equity into the property, and hence there may be a maturity default.

In practice borrowers do not choose to default just because DCR is below 1.0 or LTV is higher than 100. There is an option value to owning real property that impacts borrower behavior. The option value captures the possibility of upside in the future.

Investors are aware of the option value. However, if 1.0 DCR and 100 LTV are not the cut off points, what are the levels that drive borrower behavior? Even more complex models must address this question as well. In this research we focus on the multifamily loans and look at the borrower default behavior in loans in both CMBS and Freddie Mac collateral.

See full article at: Freddie Mac Research page, or CREFC World website.

By Malay Bansal

Why did CMBS perform well in 2012 and what lies ahead.

Note: These views were originally quoted on 19 Dec 2012 in article “Rally Drivers in Structured Credit Investor. This article was also published on Seeking Alpha.

In 2012, the CMBS market had a significant rally as is evident from the table below showing bond spreads over swaps.

2011 Year End

2012 Year End

GG10 A4

270

150

CMBS2 Senior AAA (A4)

120

90

CMBS2 Junior AAA

265

140

CMBS2 AA

400

180

CMBS2 BBB-

700

470

Not only were the spreads tighter significantly over the year, the performance was better than expectations by almost any measure. Issuance for the year was $48 Bn compared to forecast of $38 Bn. The new issue 10 year AAA spread to swaps ended at 90 compared to forecast of 140, and new issue BBB spreads ended at 410 compared to a forecast of 587 (all forecasts are averages of predictions by market participants as published in Commercial Mortgage Alert). The spread tightening was not limited to new issue either, legacy CMBS prices were up significantly too. Why did CMBS do better than expected, and can this trend of higher issuance and tighter spreads continue?

Why did Spreads Tighten?

There are two widely talked about reasons for spread tightening that generally apply to most of the spread products, and a third one that is specific to and very important for CMBS and commercial real estate.

First driver of spread tightening is the purchase of large amount of mortgage securities by the Federal Reserve under its quantitative easing programs and investors search for yield in this low yield environment.

Second significant factor is that the universe of spread product is shrinking as mortgage payoffs are greater than new issuance. $25-30 Bn of net negative supply per year in CMBS means that the money that was invested in CMBS is returned to investors and needs to be reinvested. More demand than supply leads to higher prices and tighter spreads.

The third factor is a chain reaction that is more interesting and significant. As the above two reasons lead to tighter spreads for new issue CMBS bonds, the borrowing cost for commercial real estate owners decreases. Lower debt service payments from lower rates mean they can get higher loan amounts on their properties. That means a lot of existing loans that were not re-financeable or were border-line and expected to default can now be refinanced and do not need to default. As more loans are expected to payoff and expected defaults decrease, investors expect smaller losses in legacy CMBS deals. That means tranches that were expected to be written off may be money good or have lower losses. So investors are willing to pay more for them, and as people move down the stack to these bonds with improved prospects, the result is tighter spreads for these legacy bonds. Lower financing cost resulting from tighter bond spreads also helps increase liquidity and activity in commercial real estate market as it allows more investors to put money to work at returns that meet their requirements. More activity in the real estate market leads to more confidence among investors and increases real estate values, further reducing expected losses in loans leading to even tighter bond spreads. This chain creates a sort of virtuous circle – the exact opposite of the downward spiral we saw in previous years when the commercial real estate market deteriorated rapidly.

Looking Ahead

As the virtuous cycle mentioned above continues, barring any shocks, spreads can continue tightening and lower financing cost from CMBS means that it can compete more with other sources of financing which means that CMBS volume can keep increasing. Indeed, the forecasts for CMBS issuance for 2013 generally range from $55 Bn to $75 Bn, up from $48 Bn in 2012.

Spreads, however, have less scope for tightening than last year in my view. Looking at historical spreads in a somewhat similar environment (see What’s Ahead for CMBS Spreads? April 4, 2011), CMBS2 AAA spreads could be tighter by 20 bps and BBB- by another 140 bps this year. Generally rising confidence in underlying assets should result in a flatter credit curve, which implies more potential for gains in the middle part of new issue stack. Spreads will move around. Given the unprecedented low yield environment, the search for yield by investors could drive spread slower than expected. At the same time, events in or outside US could cause unexpected widening. The market obviously remains subject to any macro shocks.

One concern cited by many investors is the potential loosening of credit standards by loan originators as competition heats up. That is a valid concern and if industry participants are not careful, history could repeat itself. However, though credit standards are becoming a little looser (LTVs were up to 75 in 2012 from 65-70 in 2011 and Debt Yields were down to 9-9.5% from 11% a year ago), we are nowhere close to where industry was in 2007. Still, investors should watch out for any occurrences of pro-forma underwriting if it starts to re-emerge.

Looking further ahead, maturities will spike up again in 2015-2017, with around US$100bn of 10-year loans coming due. This could cause distress, but hopefully the commercial real estate market will have recovered enough by then to absorb the maturities. Still, it is something that we need to be mindful of for next few years.

For me, one of the most important factors to watch out for is the continued supply of cheap financing for real estate owners. That has been one of the main factors that has brought us to this point from the depths of despair at the bottom and was the basis for programs like TALF & PPIP (see Solving the Bad Asset Pricing Problem) four years ago.

In the current low-growth and low-cap rate environment, investors cannot count on increase in NOI or further decrease in cap rates to drive real estate values significantly higher. That makes availability of cheap financing critical and much more important than historically for achieving their required rates of return to make investments.

Any disruption in availability of cheap financing can quickly reduce the capital flowing to real estate sector and may reverse the positive cycle that is driving spreads tighter and increasing real estate values. Anything that could reduce the availability of financing for commercial real estate owners will be the most important thing I will be looking out for this year other than the obvious factors.

In commercial real estate, hotels and multi-family have improved the most. Hospitality sector, with no long leases, was the first to suffer and among the first to gain as economy started improving. Multifamily sector has done well benefiting from the financing by GSEs. Office and retail sectors have seen increasing activity but face a high unemployment and low-growth environment. If the economy keeps improving at the current slow rate, I think the industrial sector will offer more opportunities and see more activity this year.

Note: The views expressed are solely my own and not of any current or past employers or affiliated organizations.

By Malay Bansal

Why New Issue CMBS deals see little interest in Mezz classes and what Issuers can do about it.

A year ago around this time, the mood amongst CMBS market participants was quiet optimistic. Estimates of new issuance for 2011 from market participants generally ranged from $35 Bn to $70 Bn or more, on the way to $100 Bn in a few years. However, over the course of the year, the optimism has faded. New issuance totaled just $30 Bn in 2011, and forecasts are not much higher for 2012.

With more conservative underwriting, higher subordination levels from rating agencies, and wider spreads, new issue CMBS was expected to be attractive to investors. Yet, investors seem to have pulled back, and spreads have widened for both legacy and new issue deals. Macro level issues, especially uncertainty about Europe, are part of the reason. However, CMBS spreads have been far more volatile than other sectors including corporate and other ABS. As the table below shows, even new issue AAA CMBS spreads widened a lot more than other sectors. This spread volatility not only deters investors, but also loan originators from making new loans as they do not have a good hedge to protect them while aggregating loans for securitization. It also requires wider spreads for CMBS loans which makes them less attractive to borrowers.

New Issue Spread Comparison Table

One of the main reasons CMSB spreads widen quickly is that the sector has far fewer investors than other ABS sectors and corporate bonds. The reason there are fewer investors is that, with fewer loans, CMBS deals are lumpy and investors need the expertise to analyze collateral at the loan level. Not every investor has that expertise. So, they can feel comfortable analyzing RMBS, Credit card, Auto, Equipment, and Student Loan etc deals, but not CMBS. The creation of a super-senior AAA tranche helped bring more investors to AAAs by making the tranche safer needing less analysis. That is part of the reason AAA spreads have tightened.

Spreads for classes below AAA, however, continue to be very wide, as the mezz tranches have even fewer investors. Unfortunately, Insurance companies, which are perhaps the most knowledgeable commercial real estate investors and ones with resources to analyze the CMBS deals at loan level, tend to buy mostly senior tranches. Mezz tranches are left to a very small set of buyers. That means lower liquidity for these tranches, and less certainty about receiving a decent bid if needed. An additional issue is lack of transparency on pricing, as these are small tranches that do not trade frequently and each one is different depending on deal collateral. These factors make these classes even less attractive to buyers.

The table below shows the structure of a recently priced CMBS deal. The $674 mm deal has $118 mm of senior AAA, $55 mm of junior AAA, $104 mm of mezz tranches and $44 mm of B-Piece.

Last 2011 CMBS Deal New Issue Spreads

What makes Mezz tranches more difficult for investors is that they have lower credit enhancement than AAAs and they are generally very thin tranches representing about 3% to 4% of the deal. In other words, a 3% higher collateral loss could result in 100% loss on the tranche. That means investors require even more conviction and expertise to invest in these classes. The thin tranches are also more susceptible to rating downgrades if any collateral in the deal faces problems. This fear of ratings volatility is another big concern for investors.

One idea, that addresses both the spread volatility and the potential ratings volatility, is to do the opposite of what we did for the AAA – combine all the Mezz tranches into one single class. In this deal, instead of creating classes B, C, D, and E, there could be just one Mezz class. It will be a $104 mm class with average rating of around A-. At a thickness of 15% of the deal, this class will not be at risk of 100% loss if collateral loss increased by mere 3%, and so will be much less susceptible to spread and rating volatility. Also, with just one larger class, there will be more owners of that class and there is likely to be more trading and visibility on spreads, enhancing transparency and liquidity. If the combined Mezz tranche is priced around 640 over swaps or tighter, the issuer will have the same or better economics as with the tranched mezz structure. This will still be a significant pickup in spread for the same rating compared to other sectors and will probably bring in some new investors who were considering CMBS but were hesitant. At about 15%, the Mezz tranche is thicker, but still a small part of the deal. So, even a small number of new investors will make a difference.

And the issuers can try this structure without taking any risk at all. That is possible by using a structural feature that has been used in residential deals (which are also REMICs): Exchangeable Classes. The deal can be setup so that some investors can buy the tranched classes while others buy a single Mezz class. The structure allows owners of one form to exchange for the other form at any point in future using the proportions defined in the documents. This has been used for a long time. I used exchangeable classes extensively in $52 Bn of new CMOs when I was trading and structuring CMOs. Freddie, Fannie, and Ginnie deals regularly have them under the names MACR, RCR, and MX respectively.

There is no single magic bullet, but small changes can sometimes make a big difference. Some, like this one, are easy to try with a little extra work, no downside, and possibility of enlarging the pool of CMBS investors with all the benefits that come from it for investors, issuers, and people employed in the sector.

Note: This article was originally published in Real Estate Finance and Intelligence.

Update 6/15/12:  UBS & Barclays introduced an exchangeable class combining part of mezz stack in their $1.2 Bn UBSBB 2012-C2 conduit CMBS deal. The 10 year tranche priced at S+160. The exchangeable class combining AS, B, and C tranches reportedly priced at S+280.

Update 7/9/12:  Morgan Stanley & Bank of America introduced a thick tranche combining parts of mezz stack in their  $1.35 Bn MSBAM 2012-C5 conduit CMBS deal.

Update 7/30/12:  Morgan Stanley  used exchangeable classes in  $340 mm MSC 2012-STAR CMBS deal.

Update 8/3/12:  Deutsche Bank & Cantor Commercial  introduced a thick tranche called PEZ combining the AM (junior AAA), B (AA), C (A), and D (BBB+)  classes  which is exchangeable into individual components in the $1.32 Bn COMM 2012-CCRE2 deal.

Understanding TRX.II

October 5, 2011

By Malay Bansal

Newly launched TRX.II may seem complicated, but is not difficult to understand.

Markit launched TRX.II or TRX 2 indices this week. Details and various documents can be found on their website, but for those not familiar with the working of the index, or if the details on upfront payment and dynamic nature of the index are not clear, this article might help understand the mechanics and the underlying logic.

The Basic Concept

The concept is simple. Going long or buying the TRX.II (or TRX) index is similar to buying a bond. If you buy a bond, you get the coupon. Also, if the spread goes lower or tightens, resulting in lower yield, the bond price increases. Same is true with going long the TRX index. If you go long the index, you get a coupon, and if spread tightens, the value of your position goes up. And just like a cash bond, if spreads widen, the value of the position goes down.

The concept is similar, but there are some differences in implementation as the TRX is a contract (Total Return Swap contract) rather than a physical bond. For one party to go long, there has to be another party to take the short side. All that is needed for a TRX trade are the two parties wanting to take the opposite positions, and neither has to actually own or find the underlying bonds to initiate or close a position. TRX contracts will trade with quarterly expirations with a maximum length of one year. Since the contracts will be standardized, the trade may be initiated with one party taking the other side, and may be closed before expiry, if desired by either party, by doing an opposite trade with a third party. This ability to short easily is what makes it possible for loan originators to hedge their loans being aggregated for securitization.

Once they enter into a contract, at the end of every month, the short party pays the coupon equivalent to the long party. Also, if the spread is tighter at the end of month than at the beginning, then the short side pays the price appreciation calculated based on average duration and spread change to the long side, and vice versa. These payments take place at the end of every month, or till the end of contract. Each month, the spread at the beginning of the month becomes the new starting point for spread change for that month. Also this spread is the coupon that the long party gets for that month. It is paid by the short party and represents the cost of hedging.

Upfront Payment

The main purpose of the upfront payment in TRX is to handle trades initiated in the middle of the month.

For example, if someone goes long on 11th day of month, they should get the coupon only for the remaining 20 days in the month, even though the short will pay full 30 days interest or coupon at the end of the month. So, just like in cash bond, the buyer pays an accrued interest for 10 days to the short. Net result will be the short will pay and the long will get net 20 days of the coupon for that month.

Similarly, upfront payment adjusts for spread movement and traded spread. An example may help. Let’s assume the spread at the beginning of the month was 200, at the time of the trade was 230, and at the end of month was 220. In this case, spread tightened from 230 at the trade date to 220 at the end of month. So, the long party should get payment for the value of 10 basis points tightening at the end of the month. However, the standard payment mechanics will see widening from 200 at the beginning of the month to 220 at the end of the month, and will require the long party to pay the value of 20 bps. The upfront payment provides the adjustment that enables the normal end of month payments to take place in the usual manner. In this case, the upfront payment will be the value of 30 basis points (30 bps widening from 200 at the beginning of the month to 230 trade spread) paid by the short to the long. The net effect will be the long getting the value of 10 bps tightening, as he should.

Revolving Nature of TRX.II

One big difference between TRX and TRX.II is that TRX.II is a dynamic index and has a revolving underlying portfolio whereas the original TRX or TRX.I was a static index. The TRX.II will be rebalanced every quarter to include recent deals meeting the inclusion criteria. The initial TRX.II index has 18 bonds. The index rules specify a maximum of 25 bonds. Once the index reaches 25 bonds, the older bonds will be removed as new bonds are added.

The dynamic nature introduces some complexity, but key points to keep in mind are that all TRX.II trades for a specific maturity are fungible with one another and each payment calculation references spreads and average duration for the same set of index constituents. What that means is that when the index changes, the end of month spread for payment at the end of that month is based on the old index, and the starting index for next month is based on the new version of index with new bonds. To enable this, Markit provides numbers for both the old and new version of the index. Rest of the mechanism stays the same.

Spread Determination

The spreads used for monthly settlements are calculated and provided by Markit based on spreads provided by the ten participating dealers for the underlying cash bonds. The fact that the TRX.II will settle every month to actual cash bond spreads means that it will be expected not to stray too far from cash bond spreads. The resulting high correlation with spreads on recently issued cash bonds makes the TRX.II a good hedge for loan originators.

The dealers provide spreads on the individual constituent bonds, not the spread for overall indices, which are computed by Markit. This ensures consistency between spreads for the old and new versions of the index, when the index is adjusted to include new deals.

For the more technically oriented, Markit’s calculation methodology involves using individual bond cashflows to calculate prices from the average bond spreads for each bond and then using aggregated index cashflows and average price to generate index spread, weighted average life, and duration. The end of month calculation of price change from spread change uses the averages of beginning and ending durations and index prices, which captures the majority of the convexity effect.

Outlook for TRX.II

I have asked for creation of a new TRX index for a long time (Restarting CMBS Lending, Feb 9, 2010). So I am happy to see it getting launched. I also like that Markit created a dynamic index which will always reflect spreads on new issue bonds, though that makes it more attractive to hedgers than to investors who may prefer to go long a known set of bonds.

TRX.II is a much better hedge than CMBX as it settles every month based on cash spreads and so is correlated with cash bond spreads, unlike CMBX which pays only when there are actual defaults (far into the future) and can trade purely based on technical factors with no correlation to new issue cash bond spreads. TRX.II is also a better hedge than TRX.I which references the old legacy CMBS deals and does not correlate well with new issue CMBS spreads.

One question on the minds of many people is if the index will gain traction. The general view is that the demand from originators will be there to short to hedge loans being aggregated for sale via securitization, but there may not be enough demand from the long side. It may turn out to be the other way. With spreads wide at present and few deals in the pipeline, the index may see more demand from long side than short side. Hedging of loans for spread movement today is not an almost mechanical process it used to be (CMBS Hedging Requires a New approach, July 5, 2011) and different originators favor different strategies. However, no matter what method is used, hedging has a cost. When spreads are wide and expected to tighten, many originators prefer to hedge just the interest rates and not the loan spreads. Barclays created a CMBS 2.0 index earlier in the year, but it has not been used much, partly for that reason. The TRX.II may benefit from the fact that some originators are now being pushed by their risk management groups to be fully hedged, and TRX.II will have higher correlation with actual cash bond spreads than any alternative. Also, TRX.II has ten licensed dealers. So, there may be more liquidity and more openness by their internal origination groups to use it for their hedging.

By Malay Bansal

CMBS loan hedging issues have often tripped even smart real-estate lenders. The current environment requires a careful and different approach than in the past.

Recent spread widening and volatility in CMBS market have drawn attention to hedging issues for loan originators in securitization shops.

An article in this week’s Commercial Mortgage Alert (New Markit Index May Solve Hedging Woes) reported comments from market participants that the recent spread widening, which was equivalent to about 3% decline in value of loans held, hit all lenders, though to different extent depending on their hedging approach. In an increasingly competitive market with declining profit margins in loans, a 3% hit is clearly very significant for any origination business.

Last week, a Bloomberg news story reported  that spread volatility was  as an important factor in Starwood Property Trust’s decision to back away from originating debt that would be sold entirely into securitizations.

Hedging issues, even when people believed they were hedged, have tripped many very smart real estate lenders in the past. During the previous crisis, after the Russian debt problems in late 90s, the hedges made a huge difference. At the time, many CMBS lenders hedged using only treasuries. Only some used swaps. Those who used only treasuries were hurt doubly as treasury yields declined increasing the prices of treasury hedges they were short, while swap spreads jumped higher decreasing the value of their assets which were valued at a spread over swaps. Those who had hedged using swaps did not suffer that much. Those who did not use swaps had devastating losses. After that painful experience, everyone in the market moved to hedging with swaps.

Hedging with swaps still left the risk of adverse movements in CMBS bond spreads, a smaller risk most of the time. Few years later, as competition increased and profit margins declined, some started using total return swaps on the Lehman CMBS indices (now Barclays Indices) to hedge that risk too. Those legacy indices are not useful now as they contain old deals. Some people have turned to CMBX1 for hedging, as it is closest to the new issue bonds amongst the five CMBX indices. CDS on IG Corp indices have been used at times by some, and I have heard people exploring use of other tools like equity indices. However, all of these approaches need to keep in mind that any hedge used needs to have a very good short-term correlation with new-issue CMBS bond spreads – longer-term relationships do not mean anything. If the hedge can move in the opposite direction of the asset in the short-term, it’s not really a hedge.

Lack of a good hedge was one of the reasons that delayed restarting of CMBS lending.  Last year, I suggested to Markit to create a new TRX 2 index based on the few new deals that had been done so far (Restarting CMBS Lending, Feb 9, 2010). The idea did not get much traction then. Julia Tcherkassova, who heads CMBS research at Barclays, articulated the need for a CMBS loan hedging mechanism internally, resulting in Barclays creating a US CMBS 2.0 Index earlier this year. That index provided a mechanism to hedge loans but it was not used much.

An instrument existed to allow hedging of loans but no significant attempt was made to use or develop liquidity in it by the industry. The reason is probably as simple as the fact that new issue spreads were generally in a continuous tightening mode till the recent sudden widening episode, and that made spread hedging seem not that important. Another factor is that the hedging is expensive. In the past, the cost of hedging with Lehman index was around 30 bps (on an annualized basis). With CMBS2 indices, that cost would have been about 110 bps. Given that the loan volumes are lower, giving up profitability becomes tougher. So the new Barclays index came, but was not met with a strong demand and remained unused. The wider bid-ask spreads also make hedging expensive.

Commercial Mortgage Alert reported that Markit is close to rolling out a new TRX index, dubbed TRX.2. Since it is coming out after a widening that was painful for many, it might attract more attention. Hopefully, it will provide a liquid instrument that can be used effectively for hedging loans being aggregated for securitization.

However, another point to think about is that the new TRX index will likely come with or be followed by new CMBX indices. It remains to be seen if the new synthetic CMBX indices will introduce more volatility in cash markets as did the legacy CMBX indices. One thing is sure though – hedging is as important as anything else for loan originators and needs to be given proper attention. All the careful real estate analysis while making loans can come to nothing if sufficient attention is not paid to hedging while loans are being aggregated for securitization. Mechanically following the past methodologies will not be the best approach. The current environment calls for adjustments and creative ideas for hedging to be effective and less costly.

By Malay Bansal

A revived CMBS market, with new deals getting done, is helpful to REITs and other commercial real estate owners as it has started making financing available again. Spreads had generally been narrowing which helped loan originators by reducing the hedging cost and has been good for owners of CMBS bonds. However, recent spread volatility has left some people concerned, and wondering about the future direction of spreads and how to look at spreads on the new CMBS 2.0 deals in the context of 2006-7 legacy deals.

I always find it useful to start with views of market participants, and historical data for some perspective. Also, for legacy deals, estimates of losses are an important element. Below are forecasts for spreads for 2007 vintage CMBS for June 2011 published by industry’s weekly newsletter, Commercial Mortgage Alert at the beginning of the year, along with some other data. Comments and thoughts follow.

CMBS Spread Forecasts For June 2011

Loss Estimates (%) by Market Participants

S e t

CMBX1 (2005) CMBX2 (2006) CMBX3 (Early 2007) CMBX4 (Late 2007) CMBX5 (Late 2007/ 2008)
1

6.7

7.2 10.3 12.0 9.9
2 6.6 8.3 10.9 13.9 12.3
3 4.2 6.2 6.9 8.8 7.5
4 6.8 8.4 11.8 15.6 13.3
5 7.0 10.1 12.7 14.0 13.9
Note: Loss estimates from market participants including sell-side research group, rating agencies, and advisory services. Periods for each CMBX series are approximate.

 

Recent Spread History

Spread Over Swaps

Dec 2010

11 Feb 2011

18 Mar 2011

1 Apr 2011

Generic 2007 A4

215

150

195

165

GG10 A4

245

190

240

190

CMBS 2.0 AAA

130

110

120

110

 

Historical Spreads
Average Spread Over Treasury 2003 2004 2005
CMBS AAA 78 72 74
CMBS AA 87 79 85
CMBS A 97 88 95
CMBS BBB 150 125 147
CMBS BBB- 200 164 196
Corp – Generic A Rated Industrial 88 69 74

Recent Spread Widening

To focus first on what had people worried most recently – widening of GG10 A4 bonds by 50 basis points from mid Feb to mid March, it is important to step back and look at the bigger picture. GG10 spreads are more visible because it is a benchmark deal and trades more frequently. As the table “Recent Spread History” shows, (i) spreads did widen out, but are generally back to where they were before widening, and (ii) even when they widened out, they were inside where they were at the beginning of the year.

Another factor to look at is where spreads are compared to market’s expectations. The table above shows average prediction for 2007 vintage A4 bonds to be 184 over swaps. Mid March wide was swaps + 190 and the current spreads are swaps plus 165. Again, not as alarming when looked at in that context.

CMBS 2.0 Spreads

Spreads for new CMBS 2.0 deals widened out too, but not by as much. They went from 110 over swaps at the tight to 120 and are back to 110, compared to swaps plus 130 at the beginning of the year. Spreads did not widen much, but where could they go now? One perspective is looking at the history. The underwriting, leverage, and subordination in the new deals are comparable to what they generally used to be 2003 to 2005. However, looking at spreads over swaps at that time will not be as helpful because of the impact of recent events in swap markets. A better approach will be to look at spreads over the risk-free rate, or the spread over treasury notes. In the 2003 to 2005 period, CMBS AAA bonds averaged around T+75, whereas generic single-A industrial corporates averaged T+77. Currently, new CMBS spreads are swap plus 110 or T+117 and single-A industrials are T+97. This back of the envelope analysis would suggest that new CMBS AAA spreads could tighten by 20 basis points from the current levels. The demand for bonds is there and there is not a big supply in the pipeline. So the technicals favor continued tightening.

CMBS 2.0 Vs Legacy CMBS

Legacy CMBS deals are a bit more complicated given the losses expected by market participants (see table above). In general, expectations of losses seem to average around 11.5% for 2006-8 deals. One simple way of looking at the deals would be to assume subordination remaining after expected losses. On that basis adjusted subordination for legacy A4 bonds goes from 30 to 18.5, which is similar to the subordination for AAA bonds in new deals. Subordination for legacy AM bonds with loss taken out goes from 20 to 9.5. That is roughly between single-A and BBB bonds in new deals.

This simplistic approach ignores several other factors that also come into play, but does the market see these as comparable? Market spreads for legacy AM bonds, at swap plus 280 seem wider than 190 and 270 for new deal single-A and BBB bonds. Similarly, legacy A4 spreads at S+170 are much wider than S+105 for new issue AAA bonds. However, if you look at yields, legacy A4 is around 4.65, close to the 4.60 on new issue AAA. Similarly 5.80 yield on legacy AM bonds is between 5.42 and 6.22 on new issue single-A and BBB bonds.

Logical inference from above is that, in this yield-hungry world, the legacy bonds are generally in line with the new issue bonds in terms of yield, and legacy bonds should tighten along with new issue. The choice between them comes down to investors preference for stability, hedging, leverage, duration, etc.

The above would suggest that a general widening in legacy but not in new issue bond spreads, unaccompanied by any deal specific news, as happened recently, may be an opportunity to pick up some cheap bonds if you can do detailed deal analysis and are confident in ability  to pick better deals.

 

 

By Malay Bansal

Predictions about future bond spreads by market participants provide a window on their thinking about their expectations regarding the performance of the underlying asset class. CMBS industry’s weekly newsletter, Commercial Mortgage Alert published its semi-annual polling of predictions on CMBS spreads six months later last month. One interesting fact in the data was that not a single person asked for their prediction thought that the spreads will be wider six months later! Does this unanimity reflect wisdom of crowds and indicates a steadily improving commercial real estate market, or is this a contrarian signal with respect to where commercial real estate and CMBS spreads are headed? And how does that reconcile with forecasts of the real estate market conditions?

 

Pros See CMBS Rally Continuing to Yearend

For the commercial real estate property market conditions, The Real Estate Roundtable has just published its 3rd Quarter 2010 Sentiment Index survey of more than 110 senior real estate executives. While the survey found significant concerns and uncertainty about economic & job recovery outlook, government policy, and capital markets, the overall sentiment is that the industry is in for a long slow recovery. The survey reports a Current Conditions Index (reflecting how markets are today vs 12 months ago), a Futures Conditions Index (expectations on how markets will be 12 months from now), and an Overall Sentiment Index, which is the average of the two. For the first time, the survey’s current and future conditions indices merged, scoring an Overall Sentiment Index of 74 (down from 76 in the previous quarter).  This score suggests a relatively positive trend and a flat trajectory.

 

Real Estate Roundtable Sentiment Index

Real Estate Roundtable Sentiment Index

The actual data on commercial real estate is sending conflicting signals and is being read by different people in different ways. Cushman & Wakefield report last month showing US CBD office vacancy dropping to 14.8 % in Q2 from 15% at end of Q1 -first drop since 2007, CMBS statistics showing declining pace of deterioration in delinquencies, etc are seen by many as signs that the CRE market is stabilizing. Others point to declining rents and high unemployment as factors that point to further declines ahead. Both the viewpoints have some validity, which probably implies that the CRE sector might move sideways in near term with some volatility caused by which of the two views is stronger at any given point, till additional market data clarifies the picture more.

Going back to CMBS spreads, the tightening probably just reflects the sentiment expressed in other surveys of an expectation of slowly stabilizing CRE market. For CMBS, as opposed to properties, a consensus that the property price decline has stopped will be enough for bond spreads to tighten. Real estate prices do not necessarily need to go up for CMBS spreads to tighten. What happens if the sentiment on the economy sours impacting the view on the commercial real estate too?  Even in that scenario, more and more people are coming to the view that the senior most CMBS bonds will likely not suffer a principal loss, which makes them attractive given the additional yield they provide compared to other similar investments. So, worsening economic conditions may actually cause people to move up in capital stack, creating demand for senior most bonds, and providing support for spreads. No one knows what future will bring, but logically, odds look in favor of the spreads moving in the direction suggested by the unanimous view.

All of the above is fine for trying to understand these markets, but one practical conclusion, and the real point of this article is this: if senior CMBS securities can go up in value even when property markets go sideways, and will have some support if the property markets decline, then logically, senior CMBS bonds have to be better investments at present than commercial real estate properties or loans for those who can invest in any of those.

Note: A version of this article was originally published on Seeking Alpha.The views in this article and my spread predictions in the Commercial Mortgage Alert article referenced are solely my own.

Follow-Up: 12 Nov 2010: AAA Spreads have tightened from 350 mid-year to approximately 250.


By Malay Bansal

I was on a panel on Tranche Warfare last month in IMN’s 11th Annual US Real Estate Opportunity & Private Fund Investing Forum. It was a very well organized conference with a lot of people in attendance, and provided a great opportunity to exchange ideas with and listen to views of significant participants in the industry.  The conference and views expressed have been reported earlier. Below are some of my thoughts on what I heard.

The most common thread in a lot of comments, both in the panels and in private conversations, was the lack of opportunities to invest. Investors, remembering how much money was made purchasing cheap assets from RTC sales during the last real estate downturn of early 1990s, have raised a lot of money in anticipation of a similar opportunity this time around. However, those fire sales have not materialized, causing some disappointment. Many do not seem to realize that the investors were not the only ones who learnt from the early 90s experience. The owners of the assets, and the regulators, learnt too – if the assets are sold at cheap fire sale type of prices, investors make a killing, but the owners of assets lose out. So, this time around, the owners of the assets are trying to hold out as long as they can and it makes sense. Regulators, having learnt from the experience too, seem to be doing everything they prudently can, to give latitude to owners to avoid fire sales. Somehow, many seem to be disappointed at things not having played out the same way as they did in 90s! Seems logical that they should not, still many are surprised.

The good news from many was that the opportunities, though not as plentiful, are there. And people are doing deals. They take a little more searching, a little more digging into the things that are out there to separate the good ones from the bad, and they are often a little smaller than ideally desired, but they are there. On the easy ones, there is competition, and sometimes those assets get overbid. So, discipline in the process is as important as ever.

Another lesson that I came back with was that those GPs who gave themselves (or were able to get) more flexibility when raising funds in terms of types of investments, timeframe, and returns are better placed to take advantage of opportunities as they come up than those who got narrower mandates from their LP investors.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this time around, the process will be stretched out over a period of time. In commercial real estate, values are down – around 40% by some commonly used metrices, and there do not seem to be any immediate drivers that will quickly and significantly drive prices up. This is bound to result in transfer of assets from those owners who are overleveraged and do not have ability to put in more capital to refinance maturing loans in the new lower leverage environment. That will create opportunities for those with patient capital to invest. Just slowly. And they may not get fire sale prices, but they will be investing at today’s lower prices.

By Malay Bansal

The most important and the most basic issue related to ratings and rating agencies has not been recognized or addressed in reforms announced so far. Here’s a new idea on a practical solution to address this most fundamental issue, which also addresses the conflict of interest issue that has received the most attention so far.

The Reforms

Ratings agencies have been criticized heavily by many for their role in the U.S. financial crisis, in particular over conflicts of interest and their failure to recognize the high risks inherent in complex structured products. They have also been blamed for throwing fuel onto the fire of crises by belatedly and aggressively ratcheting down ratings. Numerous proposals have been put forward to reform the rating process to avoid these issues.

The US Congress, after resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions last week, is on the path to pass a sweeping financial regulatory reform bill aimed at increasing oversight and regulation of the US financial system. Among the issues addressed is reform of credit rating agencies. However, the compromise bill avoids most of the stronger proposals. The bill directs SEC to conduct a two-year study to determine if a board overseen by SEC should be setup to help pick which firms rate asset backed securities (the Senate version of the bill had required such a regulatory board). The bill also adopted a softer version of proposed liability provision than was in the house version of the bill (investors must show a company “knowingly or recklessly” failed to conduct a “reasonable” investigation before issuing a rating). The compromises are better than the extreme versions of proposals even though it means that the proposed regulations may not do much to change how the agencies operate.

Earlier, in mid April, SEC made some changes. In the update of Regulation AB, it eliminated the involvement of rating agencies in the shelf registration process by removing the requirement that the ABS be rated investment grade. This clearly has no impact on the rating process.

SEC also promulgated the Rule 17g-5, which went into effect on June 2, to address perceived conflicts of interest with issuer-paid ratings provided by nationally recognized statistical rating organizations (“NRSROs”). The rule aims to increase the number of ratings and promote unsolicited ratings for structured finance products. To achieve this goal, the rule requires issuers and hired rating agencies to maintain password-protected websites to share rating information with non-hired rating agencies. The concept is good, but if implementation means rating agencies will have to share all information with other agencies, they may have less incentive to dig deeper and find more data.

None of these changes are radical overhauls or even proportionate to the amount of criticism that was leveled at the agencies (Calpers has sued the three major bond rating agencies for $1 billion in losses it said were caused by “wildly inaccurate” risk assessments) or the wide ranging calls for ratings reform. In some ways, it is good that some of the more extreme proposals have not been adopted. But why is it so difficult to reform the rating process?

The Power of the Rating Agencies

One reason that makes it very difficult to make changes to the ratings process is that ratings are heavily embedded in almost every part of the financial systems around the world. They are used in investor’s charters defining what they can buy. They are used for calculation of capital charges for banks, insurance, and other financial companies. They are used in loan covenants and triggers on corporate debt. They are used to calculate haircuts on repo lines, along with many other uses.

Also, despite the recent failings, they serve a very useful purpose. Not everyone has the expertise and resources to analyze every security in detail. Presence of credit rating agencies gives smaller investors a starting point for analysis that they may not otherwise have.

This embedding of ratings in the financial system and reliance by so many participants on the ratings gives the nationally recognized statistical rating organizations or NRSROs tremendous power as ratings changes can have significant impact on companies, and even nations.

There are numerous examples of the impact that ratings changes can have. One recent one was during the onset of the 2010 European Sovereign Debt Crisis. What clearly played a role in triggering and escalating the crisis, even though it was not the cause, was the downgrade of Greece’s credit rating by three steps from investment grade BBB+ to junk rating of BB+. This came minutes after S&P downgraded Portugal by two steps to A- from A+. The announcement came at a sensitive time as the European Union policy makers and the International Monetary Fund were trying to hammer out measures to ease the panic over swelling budget deficits and create a financial rescue package for Greece. S&P followed the next day cutting Spain’s rating by one step to AA, and keeping the outlook as negative, reflecting the chance of further downgrades, with its projection of just 0.7% average real GDP growth annually from 2010 to 2016. Markets reacted violently to the cuts as investors worried about the safety of the debt of these countries, and contagion spread from Greece to other countries. Stock markets tumbled worldwide, and bond and currency markets had big moves and became very volatile.

Another way ratings impact markets is via the feedback loop between the markets and ratings through portfolios tied to indexes mandating certain holdings of particular debt. For example, the Barclays Euro Government Bond Index includes Greek debt as 4% of index, but only if the bonds maintain a certain credit quality based on lower of the rating from S&P and Moody’s. Greece had been 4% of that index but was excluded starting May 1, due to S&P’s downgrade. That in turn likely forced selling from investors tracking that index.

Critics assailed rating firms for fueling woe in Europe and Europeans criticized debt-rating agencies, accusing them of spooking the markets and worsening the plight of financially stretched governments such as Greece, struggling with heavy debt loads.

There are several other examples where a company needing to raise more debt in capital markets finds it cannot do so, or not at a reasonable cost, once it has been downgraded even while it was attempting to raise capital to improve its financial situation. The downgrade increases cost of financing as investors demand more yield reflecting lower rating. The downgrade may also result in existing investors having to sell holdings, further increasing the yields in the market. It can become a vicious circle increasing the likelihood of default. The downgrade reflects rating agency’s opinion of the outcome, but it also becomes a causal factor in determining that outcome. The rating agencies in effect become the judge, jury, and the hangman for the company.

The Real Problem That Has Not Been Recognized

In the current system, the rating agencies’ opinion can become a causal factor in making that opinion become reality. Time and again, in structured products and otherwise, it has been clear that the rating agencies are not infallible in their judgment, and do not have any special powers of predicting future. Their failures in predicting subprime mortgage performance have been appalling. But even if you look at the forecasts of defaults in corporate bonds, the predictions do not match the actual outcome, and the predictions themselves change over time, as they should.

So, if ratings are heavily embedded in the system and are needed, and yet rating agencies are not smarter than everybody else, and if they do not have special predictive powers about the future, how do we avoid giving their subjective opinions so much importance and extraordinary power?

The answer lies in recognizing the real problem – one that has not been addressed in any of the proposals so far. The real problem is that the rating agencies are combining two roles into one. First role is to provide a rating based on statistical analysis and past performance of the assets – remember that SR in NRSROs stands for Statistical Ratings. The second role is that of a research analyst to provide an opinion on what might happen in the future. Currently, rating agencies combine the two. The ratings are a mix of statistical analysis and somewhat subjective opinion on the future. This allows rating agencies to downgrade companies or countries even while they are in the process of attempting to improve their financial condition. At the same time, it leaves rating agencies open to criticism if they do not act and the feared worse outcome becomes reality before their downgrade. This also allows subjectivity and flexibility in ratings process that creates perceived conflicts of interest in issuer paid ratings.

 

The Solution

The logical solution is to separate the two roles. NRSROs should be doing Statistical Ratings – based on past performance of assets, known facts, events that have already taken place, and statistical models and methods that are well disclosed. They can put bonds on watch for upgrade or downgrade if a financial event is in progress or expected, but cannot downgrade or upgrade till the event actually happens. So they will not be precipitating events, and cannot be blamed for not downgrading sooner. This role will be limited to those approved as NRSROs.

The second role of providing credit ratings in the form of opinion on future performance should be separated from the NRSRO role, and should be open to any research provider, including NRSROs. These credit ratings could be designated as Informational Ratings without any legal or official role impacting investor charters, debt covenants, etc, which will only use the ratings designated as NRSRO Ratings. This will take the non-NRSRO rating agencies back to sort of where rating agencies started – as market researchers, selling assessments of corporate debt to people considering whether to buy that debt.

The information provided to NRSROs should be made available to all NRSROs and other non-NRSRO rating agencies, in a manner similar to password-protected website required under SEC Rule 17g-5. However, to promote competition and improve quality, the other rating agencies should be free to gather more information and not have to share it with others.

The conflict of issuer paid rating could be avoided if issuers were required to pay a fixed fee based on deal type (maybe to a group set up by the SEC or an industry association for that purpose) which would be divided between all NRSRO raters informing issuers of their decision to rate the deal after the issuers post the information on the password-protected website for credit raters. This will avoid ratings-shopping by issuers even though the agencies will be indirectly paid by the issuers. The NRSRO Rating will be provided to investors without any charge. The NRSROs will only provide the current rating, along with disclosing their rating methodology to investors. They will not provide any opinions or qualitative information.

For more qualitative information and opinions, investors will look to the Informational Ratings and more details from research providers (including NRSROs and non-NRSROs). This will be paid for by the investors looking for enhanced information and research. This will be the main source of income for credit raters and will incentivize them to compete with others for investor subscriptions and produce quality results.

Separating the two roles avoids the issues of rating agencies precipitating events if they act or facing criticism if they do not. It avoids the perception of conflict from issuer-paid ratings, by allocating costs between the issuer and the investors. It also preserves the role of rating agencies where its needed, while encouraging the investors to do more work on their own and look for third party unbiased research and opinion.

Note: Versions of this article were published in Structured Credit Investor and Seeking Alpha.


 

 

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