Mar 24, 2023
Short Sellers Step Up Bets Against Office Owners on Bank Turmoil
(Bloomberg) -- Money managers have stepped up their bearish bets against office landlords, wagering that the US regional banking crisis will slash the availability of credit to property owners that were already suffering from the pandemic and rising interest rates.
Hedge funds are using credit derivatives and equities to bet against the companies and their debt. Almost 40% of shares in the iShares US Real Estate ETF are sold short, the highest proportion since June, according to data from analytics firm S3 Partners.
At Hudson Pacific Properties Inc., short interest reached a record 7.4% earlier this week before dropping to about 5% of shares outstanding, according to data compiled by IHS Markit Ltd. That’s almost double the level a month ago. For Vornado Realty LP, short interest is the highest since January.
Three regional banks have failed in the US, raising concerns about the implications for commercial real estate finance. Many lenders are losing deposits, which might cut into their ability to finance real estate in the future. Regional banks account for about 80% of bank lending to commercial properties, according to economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc.
“What’s changed in the last few weeks is the credit markets,” said Rich Hill, chief of real estate strategy research at Cohen & Steers Capital Management Inc. “It went from a story of work-from-home and the impact on occupancy and the lack of rent growth to also the compounding of tighter financial conditions given everything happening with banks.”
Fears of tighter credit are adding to risks for offices that have been building for some time, Green Street analysts wrote in a Tuesday report. Hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, Marathon Asset Management and Polpo Capital Management founder Daniel McNamara are among those who have been betting for months that landlords will struggle to lure staff back to workplaces.
“This regional banking crisis is just throwing fuel on the fire,” McNamara said in a telephone interview. “I just don’t see a way out of this without a lot of pain in the office sector.”
Real estate was already the most shorted industry across global equities, according to a March 17 report by S&P Global Inc. It was the third most-shorted sector in the US.
That’s in part because interest rates have been climbing for the last year, which pressures real estate owners. Defaults remain low for now. But office assets are the collateral for about $100 billion of the $400 billion of US commercial real estate debt maturing this year, according to MSCI Real Assets.
Workplaces worth nearly $40 billion face a higher probability of distress, more than apartments, hotels, malls or any other type of commercial real estate, MSCI said on Wednesday. Almost $20 billion of office loans that were bundled into commercial mortgage-backed securities and are due to mature by the end of next year are already potentially distressed, Moody’s Investors Service estimates.
Credit availability for commercial real estate was already challenged this year as investors have grown less interested in buying commercial mortgage bonds, JPMorgan Chase & Co. analysts including Chong Sin wrote in a note. Sales of CMBS deals without government backing have fallen more than 80% this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
Smaller banks potentially retreating may bring a credit crunch to smaller markets, the JPMorgan analysts wrote.
Lenders advanced a record $862 billion to commercial real estate last year, a 15% increase from a year prior, data provider Trepp estimates. Much of that was driven by banks, which originated 50% more loans in the period. The pace of growth has slowed since then, Federal Reserve data show, as the outlook for real estate grows increasingly negative.
The pressure on offices means lending standards are now being tightened, bad news for landlords that have high levels of leverage and putting lenders at a higher risk of defaults.
“Recent developments have increased downside risk to commercial real estate values from expectations of tightening lending standards,” Morgan Stanley analysts including Ronald Kamdem wrote in a note on Monday. Office REITs may have to sell assets to help them successfully refinance, they said.
Shorts soared on office landlords last year as rising interest rates weighed on the industry. They dropped subsequently as investors wagered that borrowing benchmarks would top out at a lower level than initially expected or the Federal Reserve would begin to cut the rates earlier than previously expected.
Cohen & Steers, which oversees about $80 billion, including $48 billion in real estate investments, went under weight on offices during the pandemic and will steer clear until the market shows signs of hitting a floor.
“I actually want to see more signs of weakness,” Hill said. “The more headlines I see that things are really, really bad, the closer I think we are to the end.”
Chanos said on CNBC in January that he had been betting against SL Green Realty Corp., short interest in which reached the highest since the financial crisis in recent days. The landlord’s assets include a New York building occupied by Credit Suisse Group AG, the lender taken over by UBS Group AG after government-brokered talks. Short sellers borrow stock and sell it, planning to profit by buying it back at a lower price later.
An SL Green spokesperson directed Bloomberg to company comments at a March 6 investor conference, before the recent bank failures.
The landlord plans to sell $2 billion of properties, cut its debt by $2.5 billion and refinance a $500 million mortgage, Chairman and CEO Marc Holliday said at the Citigroup Inc. conference. Because the securitization market and life insurance financing weren’t receptive to deals, the firm is dependent on banks, which were already an uphill challenge.
“Banks are more likely to say no these days than to execute,” Holliday said. “Knock on wood, hopefully we can get that done.”
Mark Lammas, president of Hudson Pacific, said in an emailed statement that the firm is confident in its business fundamentals and long-term prospects. The company is investment-grade, a majority of its assets are unencumbered, it has $1 billion of liquidity, and no material debt maturities until 2025, Lammas said.
Chanos and representatives of Vornado and Boston Properties didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.
Hedge funds have also been using credit-default swaps indexes known as CMBX to bet against CMBS that are most exposed to offices. The derivatives are tied to portions of bonds backed by commercial mortgages and a number of them reached a record low this week amid fears about a number of regional banks.
Betting against commercial real estate has historically been a hard way to make money, because it can take a long time for losses to emerge, and the range of possible outcomes for even troubled property can be wide. “Shorting CMBX BBB- is regarded as the widowmaker — the undoing of many a young trader’s career,” Morgan Stanley trader Kamil Sadik wrote in a March 6 note.
But the spate of bad news means the BBB- portion of the 14th CMBX index is at the lowest level ever and the same part of the 13th index is at its lowest since the pandemic in 2020. Similar declines are also being seen in share prices of office landlords.
“Our conversation with investors suggests that there has been some capitulation and forced selling as the stocks have continued to underperformed,” Morgan Stanley analysts led by Kamdem wrote.
--With assistance from Priscila Azevedo Rocha, Reshmi Basu, Carmen Arroyo and Sam Potter.
(Updates with Moody’s data in paragraph 10. An earlier version of this story corrects Cohen & Steers’s assets under management in paragraph 17.)
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