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Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL-Commercial real estate lenders should pay closer attention to what happens on the residential side as a harbinger of economic troubles ahead, the Mortgage Bankers Association’s top experts are advising members gathered here Tuesday.Douglas G. Duncan, MBA chief economist and senior VP of research and business development, led the morning’s economic outlook session with Jamie Woodwell, senior director of commercial/multifamily research. They are expecting the nation’s housing market to recover during the latter half of this year, though trouble spots such as California and Florida may take more time to overcome excess inventories.

“The rest of the country is in relatively good shape,” said Duncan, who addressed thousands of professionals from across the country gathered at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resort for the four-day Commercial Real Estate Finance/Multifamily Housing Convention & Expo concluding Wednesday.

Beyond the fact that “Califlorida” accounts for 18.5% of the US Gross Domestic Product, Duncan observes that widening spreads between 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and 10-year Treasuries–now around 200 basis points–are constraining other types of lending. He cites a Federal Reserve survey released this week indicating 80% of banks have tightened lending for commercial projects, an all-time high.

Rather than blame the ongoing credit crunch purely on subprime mortgages, Duncan pointed out that leveraged buy-outs are a far greater concern, given that one of every four homes now in foreclosure are owned by property investors.

Surprisingly, multifamily financing has been the least affected by single-family housing troubles and is also now rated stronger than other commercial sectors, Woodwell said, noting that renters overtook owners in household growth last year.

“Location matters, the property matters,” Woodwell said. “We’ve had this rising tide lifting all boats, and now we’re going to start to see some differentiation.”

Although the downturn in commercial mortgage-backed securities is limiting lending for multifamily projects lately, Woodwell pointed out that the delinquency rate on such loans is less than 1% across all lending groups–including banks, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, life insurers and CMBS.

During the MBA CREF conference, Freddie Mac announced it purchased a record $44.7 million in new multifamily business transactions last year, 55% more than in 2006 and including $3.7 billion targeted affordable housing products. Mike May, Freddie Mac senior VP of multifamily sourcing, attributed the increase to “a mid-year exit of conduits from the market.”

Duncan pointed to a slowdown in private-payroll numbers, combined with a slight increase in national unemployment, are causes of concern for the possibility of a recession occurring in months to come. It’s too soon to tell whether the Bush administration’s economic stimulus proposal, or another anticipated Fed interest-rate cut of 25 or 50 basis points, will have any preventive impact, he said.

“There is a 50-50 chance that we are in a recession. I think it’s because economists have two hands.”

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