Citigroup targets Europe as lenders stoke CMBS revival

, Bloomberg

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Citigroup

U.S. banks are looking to capitalize on a dearth of financing for Europe's commercial property market that's driven lending margins to five times the level prior to the 2008 crisis.

Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley, Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. are following insurers and distressed investors allocating capital to the region as local banks, which overextended during the last boom, are forced to contract amid new regulations. Europe faces an $82 billion shortfall between the amount of real-estate debt maturing through this year and the funding available to replace it, according to real-estate broker DTZ.

The scarcity of capital means lenders can charge as much as 3.75 percentage points over benchmarks for the safest pieces of commercial mortgage debt, about five times the spread in 2007, according to Alvarez & Marsal, an adviser on real estate transactions. Those margins will enable banks to revive the market for commercial mortgage-backed bonds, which parcel loans and slice them into securities of varying risk, after it largely shut in 2008.

"Nature abhors a vacuum," said Robin Priest, a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal's real-estate business in London. "The need for debt finance is much greater than the bank-market supply," he said. "This is therefore positive for the CMBS market."

Europe's recession caused the amount of new lending for commercial property in the region to drop by about 77 percent from 2007 through 2011, according to estimates from Michael Haddock, a London-based research director at CBRE Group Inc.

Portfolio Sale

Commerzbank AG, Germany's second-biggest lender, is shuttering its Eurohypo unit, Dutch lender SNS Reaal NV is selling its entire $10.5 billion commercial real estate loan portfolio and Irish Bank Resolution Corp. has been liquidated by the government. IBRC's assets will be sold on the open market or to the country's National Asset Management Agency.

Citigroup will give commercial mortgages for "property finance to less straightforward trades, provided they are well structured and we are comfortable with the underlying asset," said Wesley Barnes, head of European commercial real estate finance at the New York-based lender. That includes providing debt for the purchase of non-performing loans — pools of mortgages where the borrower has defaulted — and corporate acquisitions, he said.

Europe's banks stopped their real-estate lending or reduced it as they repaired their balance sheets. As a result, "there's no real natural provider of the senior part of a debt structure," Barnes said.

Wells Fargo plans to increase its U.K. business, after providing credit to office buildings, industrial properties, multifamily housing projects and hotels, Chip Fedalen, head of institutional and metro-markets at the bank's commercial real- estate division, said by telephone.

Bank of America gave a $1.4 billion loan to Fortress Investment Group LLC's Gagfah SA, the third-biggest publicly traded owner of German real estate by market value, this month. Together with Wells Fargo and Royal Bank of Canada, the lender provided $610 million of five-year senior debt to London-based Maybourne Hotels Group in December.

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