Commercial Borrowers Benefit as Lenders Ease Underwriting StandardsCommercial Real Estate Borrowers Benefit as Lenders Ease Underwriting Standards

It may be easier for Ben Bernanke to get a loan to buy an apartment building than to refinance his home mortgage.

While addressing a conference of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care in Chicago this fall, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve mentioned that he and his wife had recently been turned down by their lender after seeking to refinance their mortgage.

“The housing area is one area where regulation has not yet got it right,” Bernanke said. “I think the tightness of mortgage credit, lending is still probably excessive.”

Meanwhile, it certainly appears that commercial lenders have gotten it right, judging by the flood of capital available for commercial real estate borrowers.

However, after commercial real estate underwriting standards eased for the third consecutive year in a row according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s 20th Annual Survey of Credit Underwriting, some are beginning to sound a note of caution that perhaps lending standards are becoming too accommodating.

Surveyed banks noted that they have continued to ease underwriting standards and take on increased levels of credit risk in response to abundant liquidity for commercial property and competitive pressures in the current low interest-rate environment. Large banks, as a group, reported the highest share of eased underwriting standards among those surveyed.

Ratings agencies are particularly sensitive over underwriting standards after taking heat from Congress and investors for failing to adequately account for risks and when rating securities backed by residential and commercial mortgages before the recession.

Slippage in underwriting standards should remain a key credit concern for investors, particularly in certain segments such as construction where lending conditions have been relatively frothy, Standard and Poor’s said in its 2015 banking outlook issued this week.

“In some loan classes (e.g., construction and development loans), ultra-low net charge-offs are prompting a rebound in construction lending among some banks. We remain cautious that some U.S. banks with below-average exposure to this category may be easing credit standards somewhat and pricing loans more aggressively to generate growth, which could eventually lead to deceleration in asset quality,” S&P analysts noted in their report. “While we do not expect widespread degradation in U.S. banks’ asset quality in 2015, we do expect a gradual build-up of provisions for the banking industry as reserve levels bottom out and loan growth increases more consistently.”

In the recent OCC survey, one-third of bank respondents reported an easing in commercial construction lending. This is the highest level of responses in this category this century. Only 2% reported tightening standards for commercial construction loans, the lowest level this century.

In addition to acknowledging the relaxed credit standards, bank respondents also noted that the level of credit risk in their construction loan portfolios has increased, excluding residential development. Twenty-one percent reported that credit risk has increased somewhat – more than double the number of respondents who indicated this trend last year. In addition, 44% expected this risk to rise next year.

When it came to CRE lending for residential construction including multifamily, 13% of bank respondents noted that credit standards had eased. This is the first time in six years that any bank has noted that trend.

Thirteen percent of bankers also noted that this has raised the credit risk somewhat for their residential construction loan portfolios – none did last year. In addition, 25% expected this risk to rise next year.

Thirty-seven percent of banks said underwriting standards had eased in their other commercial real estate loan portfolios – up from 24% in 2013. Just 4% said underwriting had tightened. That is the lowest level this century and compares to the 76% who said they tightened standards during the Great Recession years.

Twenty-seven percent of bankers this year said the easing has raised the credit risk in their other commercial real estate loan portfolios. And 44% expected that risk to increase next year.

Jennifer Kelly, senior deputy comptroller for bank supervision policy and chief national bank examiner, sounded a reassuring note in the OCC survey: “As banks continue to reach for volume and yield to improve margins and compete for limited loan demand, [OCC] supervisors will focus on banks’ efforts to maintain prudent underwriting standards, monitor portfolio credit risk, and reduce exceptions to policy,” she said.

Source: CoStar Mark Heschmeyer December 17, 2014

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