A high-profile foreclosure in New York is highlighting the importance of disciplined underwriting.
Preferred Bank in Los Angeles disclosed recently that it has begun foreclosure proceedings on a pair of luxury apartment buildings in Manhattan, a move that will dramatically increase the level of nonperforming assets on its balance sheet. The loans have an outstanding balance of $41.7 million.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the $3.8 billion-asset bank expects the financial hit to be minimal because the loan-to-value ratio — the balance divided by the appraised value at origination — for each of the loans is below 70%.
Preferred’s experience serves a reminder of how important terms will be as loan demand increases, interest rates rise and lenders try to gain a competitive edge. Those who get too aggressive could be burned when the economic cycle takes the inevitable turn for the worse, bankers and industry observers said.
“If you’re going to compete on commodities — that’s where the cycle starts to turn,” said Joseph Campanelli, CEO at the $2.1 billion-asset Needham Bank in Massachusetts, adding that it can be tempting to follow the pack in areas such as rate and terms.
“Well, so-and-so is doing this rate, so let’s match it,” Campanelli said. “Or so-and-so is doing it without recourse, or doing a higher loan-to-value, let’s match it. That’s the slippery slope.”
The average loan-to-value ratio for commercial real estate deals increased to about 80% in the fourth quarter from 73% a year earlier, according to PrecisionLender, a technology firm that helps lenders fine-tune pricing and terms. The firm evaluated more than $2 billion in quarterly volume by its clients.
To be sure, many banks are sticking to their guns when it comes to LTV.
Campanelli and Edward Czajka, Preferred’s chief financial officer, said they are seeing very few signs that lenders are throwing caution to the wind.
“I don’t see any trends pushing standards in the opposite direction,” Czajka said, adding that the average loan-to-value ratio in Preferred’s $1.3 billion-asset commercial real estate portfolio is 56%.
“One of the things we’re seeing this go-around is a lot more liquidity going into deals,” Campanelli said. “It’s not uncommon to do a deal at 65% loan-to-value.”
Needham, like Preferred, is a significant commercial real estate lender with more than $400 million of CRE-related loans on its books.
While Preferred did not disclose the reason for the foreclosures, other media outlets have noted that Michael Paul D’Alessio, a developer and one of the properties’ owners, is facing lawsuits alleging that funds intended for a number of projects were improperly diverted for other uses.
D’Alessio is also being sued by three New York banks — Greater Hudson Bank, Westchester Bank and BNB Bank — that are trying to recoup $6.4 million through an involuntary bankruptcy petition filed last month in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.
D’Alessio did not respond to a request for comment.
The situation at Preferred shows how important it is to fully vet a borrower and not just an isolated deal, industry experts said.
“Problems can cascade,” said Jon Winick, CEO of the Chicago advisory firm Clark Street Capital. “Trouble with one project drags down another one. … A borrower can be highly coveted and, all of the sudden, no one wants to touch them.”
“What else does that developer or real estate group have going on?” Campanelli said. “If they’re overleveraged in other areas, you would have to conclude that, on a global basis, the cash flows aren’t strong enough, even though the individual project looks OK.”
Preferred still considers itself a conservative lender, Czajka said, noting that the bank’s credit quality had been uniformly excellent for years. While the bank is pursuing foreclosure now, it is is keeping all its options — including selling the loans — on the table.
In its first-quarter call report, Preferred reported $3.3 million of nonaccrual loans, or 0.11% of total loans.
Winick said he expects loan-to-value ratios to be lower on large CRE loans, which seems to be the case with Preferred’s deals. As a result, the bank’s minimal-loss forecast “seems reasonable,” but there are no guarantees.
“It does take time to sell buildings,” Winick said. “They’re probably fine, but it’s hard to tell.”