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Commercial Real Estate Could Be Next Economic Threat

Banks hold large amounts of debt tied to business properties. Lower property values and rents are making it harder for owners to pay their loans. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is the VOA Special English Economics Report.

The American housing collapse was a major cause of the recession. The housing market is showing new life after three years of falling prices and too much supply. But now there are worries that banks could face big losses next on business properties.

For example, one effect of a weak economy is less demand for office space. As a result, property owners earn less and charge less in rent. This puts pressure especially on owners who borrowed a lot money.

Easy credit helped fuel an explosion of development. The market hit a high point in two thousand seven.

Now, late payments are growing. Almost three percent of commercial mortgages were reported at least ninety days late between April and June. That was double a year earlier.

One major lender lost more than a billion and a half dollars in the second quarter. Capmark Financial Group said it might seek bankruptcy protection from its creditors. Medium and small banks also face a growing risk.

Banks hold one and a half of the three and a half trillion dollars in debt that supports the commercial real estate market. Housing debt is much higher. Still, around two trillion dollars in commercial mortgages are expected to come due for payment within the next five years.

Commercial properties face two serious problems. One is falling prices -- down by one-fourth since two thousand seven. The other is refinancing.

Most commercial real estate loans have terms of ten years or less. They often end with a large payment, a balloon payment, which owners usually refinance. But lower property values and tighter lending requirements mean a harder time getting new loans.

One way to make capital available for new loans is to sell mortgage-backed securities. But since last year there has been little activity in the seven hundred fifty billion dollar market for commercial mortgage securities. The Federal Reserve recently extended into next year a loan program designed to get investors to buy more securities like these.

The United States is not alone. Commercial rents in Moscow, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai have fallen thirty percent or more.

American housing sales, though, have improved in recent months, helped by lower prices and a tax credit for first-time buyers. The S&P/Case-Shiller national index of home prices rose in April, May and June. That was the first three-month increase in three years.

And that's the VOA Special English Economics Report, written by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember.