Like homeowners walking away from mortgaged houses that plummeted in value, some of the largest commercial-property owners are defaulting on debts and surrendering buildings worth less than their loans.
Companies such as Macerich Co., Vornado Realty Trust and Simon Property Group Inc. have recently stopped making mortgage payments to put pressure on lenders to restructure debts. In many cases they have walked away, sending keys to properties whose values had fallen far below the mortgage amounts, a process known as “jingle mail.” These companies all have piles of cash to make the payments. They are simply opting to default because they believe it makes good business sense.
“We don’t do this lightly,” said Robert Taubman, chief executive of Taubman Centers Inc. The luxury-mall owner, with upscale properties such as the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, decided earlier this year to stop covering interest payments on its $135 million mortgage on the Pier Shops at Caesars in Atlantic City, N.J.
Taubman, which estimates the mall is now worth only $52 million, gave it back to its mortgage holder.
“Where it’s fairly obvious that the gap is large, as it was with the Pier Shops, individual owners are making very tough decisions,” he said.
These pragmatic decisions by companies to walk away from commercial mortgages come as a debate rages in the residential-real-estate world about “strategic defaults,” when homeowners stop making loan payments even though they can afford them. Instead, they decide to default because the house is “underwater,” meaning its value has fallen to a level less than its debt.
Banking-industry officials and others have argued that homeowners have a moral obligation to pay their debts even when it seems to make good business sense to default. Individuals who walk away from their homes also face blemishes to their credit ratings and, in some states, creditors can sue them for the losses they suffer.
But in the business world, there is less of a stigma even though lenders, including individual investors, get stuck holding a depressed property in a down market. Indeed, investors are rewarding public companies for ditching profit-draining investments. Deutsche Bank AG’s RREEF, which manages $56 billion in real-estate investments, now favors companies that jettison cash-draining properties with nonrecourse debt, loans that don’t allow banks to hold landlords personally responsible if they default. The theory is that those companies fare better by diverting money to shareholders or more lucrative projects.
“To the extent that they give back assets or are able to rework the [mortgage] terms, it just accrues to the benefit” of the real-estate investment trust, says Jerry Ehlinger, RREEF’s co-chief of real-estate securities.
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