US property developers latest to seek bailout

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The Independent Online

Commercial property developers are lobbying for a piece of the US government's Wall Street bailout fund, warning yesterday that a real estate crash could wreak new havoc on the banking system next year.

A Federal Reserve scheme to kickstart the market for credit card lending and small business loans should be extended to cover commercial mortgages, where $160bn (£108bn) of loans are due for refinancing in the next 12 months, the industry says.

The intensifying lobbying efforts have put developers at the head of a growing line of industries – from banks to insurers to car manufacturers – asking for government assistance.

"We are not talking about a bailout for developers," said Jeff DeBoer, president of the Real Estate Roundtable, a Washington trade group. "We are talking about restarting the credit markets."

The biggest office or retail developments tend to be financed using commercial mortgages lasting between five and seven years, meaning that they must be regularly refinanced. Before the credit crisis, banks were able to parcel out the loans to other investors through the securitisation market, but the market for commercial mortgage-backed securities has cratered in the past few months, because of fears that the recession will cause rents to slump and property developers to default. There is not going to be enough lending available to refinance even highly profitable developments, the industry is warning.

That would mean that ownership of large parts of the $6.5 trillion commercial property market could revert to the nation's fragile banks, and the banks would struggle to sell these assets without causing a collapse in prices, Mr DeBoer said. "The banking system is already under stress, and the losses would be borne throughout the system, not just by the banks but also by pension funds, which have invested heavily in commercial property, and by local authorities, which rely on property taxes," he said.

Last month, the Federal Reserve announced a $200bn programme to kickstart the market for student loans, credit card lending and small business loans. It will fund purchases of securities backed by these kinds of loans, using a $20bn handout from the $700bn Wall Street bailout fund to cover any losses. Real estate trade groups say commercial mortgage-backed securities should be included in the programme, or in a similar specially crafted programme of their own.