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NEW YORK CITY-When it comes to determining how long the current downturn will last for commercial real estate,”the government has much more control over the outcome than we’ve ever seen before,” said Bruce Mosler, president and CEO of Cushman & Wakefield, at an Urban Land Institute New York panel Wednesday morning. “And that is a scary proposition.”

It wasn’t that Mosler and his fellow “Resetting Investment Strategies” panelists necessarily ruled out the potential long-term effectiveness of the federal government’s trillion-dollar efforts to stabilize and jump-start the economy. Tom Flexner, global head of real estate at Citigroup, noted that Wall Street hasn’t been enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s residential mortgage plan, but called it “absolutely a step in the right direction.” He also gave a vote of confidence to the Treasury Department’s newly launched TALF program, although to date it hasn’t included the commercial sector. However, Flexner said the unprecedented size of the government’s role in shaping the world in which commercial real estate will operate is also the primary source of the current uncertainty about what that world will look like.

Flexner charted two possible outcomes to the federal government’s economic recovery program: it will lead to stabilization and will help the industry find the floor on pricing, or it will help create “a very severe environment” for the long haul. In the near term, he predicted that “we’re going to reach a point of clarity in the market” over the next three to six months.

Along a similar timeline, Mosler told the audience that we’ll see rents reach the bottom over the next six to nine months. That’s also the time frame in which the effects of TARP will begin to make their way through the system, he said. If the markets correct themselves, office vacancy rates will peak at about 16%, compared to 20% to 25% in the trough of the 1980s.

The ULI event offered two back-to-back panels, with one addressing the question of “how” to obtain capital and the other discussing “where” to put the money. “Your existing lender is your best lender,” advised “how” panelist P. Sheridan Schechner of Barclays Capital.

Loans of under $40 million are “probably doable,” and most of the lending is coming from regional banks, said Schechner, managing director and US head of real estate at Barclays. As far as borrowing opportunities are concerned, “The insurance companies are becoming like unicorns–mythical beasts.”

Increasingly, Schechner said, debt yields are being looked at rather than loan to value. “It’s a way to avoid the whole valuation discussion,” he said.

Flexner cited some factors that could complicate the lending environment for some time to come. For one thing, the world banking system still has another $8 trillion to $9 trillion worth of de-leveraging to go through. For another, the securitization market is “dead,” and when it does return, it will be in a simpler and smaller form than CMBS. And he reminded the audience that about $300 billion to $400 billion of commercial mortgages will have to be refinanced over the next 18 months.

Moderator Michael Fascitelli, president of Vornado Realty Trust, identified two major trends: de-leveraging and deflation. “Deflation, left unchecked, is a killer,” he said. For would-be buyers facing the current lack of clarity in valuation, “The biggest mistake you can make in this cycle is being too early,” Fascitelli said. “You can be a hero by wading in, but you can become a dead hero pretty quickly.”

Although the commercial sector did not overbuild during the peak of the current cycle, it did make valuations based on speculative projections of rent growth, “which did almost the same thing,” commented Cia Buckley, partner in Dune Capital. Alice Connell, moderator of the “where” panel, sounded a similar theme in her opening remarks, observing that the meteoric highs in pricing between 2004 and 2007 were not achieved so much by real growth as by “undisciplined” leveraging. “Commercial real estate will not be spared a wrenching re-pricing episode,” she warned.

There was not a clear consensus on the question of what property types pose the best investment opportunities or the greatest risks. Bradford Klatt, partner in Roseland Property Co., favored multifamily, especially on grounds that GSEs are still lending in this asset class. Vice chairman David Henry of Kimco Realty wasn’t so sure about multifamily if an endorsement of this property type was based on the assumption that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will continue lending at the same rates. He felt that hotels have been “beaten on” and thus represent an opportunity to buy first-class assets at below replacement costs.

In the “how” panel, Mosler had predicted that foreign investors would return, with an eye particularly on gateway US cities. Marjorie Tsang, head of real estate for the New York State Common Retirement Fund, agreed during the “where” panel that key coastal markets are most attractive. However, she said, “there are a lot of foreign capital sources that look at the United States and cringe.” She later said that while domestic markets are what US institutional players know best, a number are looking overseas as well.

Although Russell Appel, president of the Praedium Group, was enthusiastic about acquiring debt, noting that “debt may be the new equity,” Henry and Klatt were more restrained. “The public markets do not look in favor on REITs that invest in debt,” said Henry in explaining why his company, a retail REIT, steers clear. Klatt said there will be “tremendous volume” when large loan portfolios, like those of AIG, come to market. So far, he said, that hasn’t happened.

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