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Distressed Note and REO purchases (part 2)

Part 1 of this series dealt with representations and warranties that are typically provided in distressed note purchases and distressed REO purchases.  This post gives an overview of some of the diligence issues that must be addressed in purchases and sales of (whole) distressed notes.   (Other issues arise in the context of sales or purchases of participations in notes, which are not addressed in this post.) 

Why do due diligence?  When a lender chooses to sell, rather than to enforce, a distressed note secured by CRE, it may have made that decision for any one of a number of reasons.   For example, the lender’s regulator may have decided that the lender is carrying too many distressed real estate loans, and may have told the lender it needs to quickly rebalance its portfolio.  Or the lender may need to improve its liquidity quickly, and may determine it can do so faster by selling one or more distressed notes rather than by enforcing them, then selling the distressed REO after it is foreclosed upon by the lender.  Or it may have decided to get out of a given type of lending business, and therefore to sell all its loans in that line of business.  It may be rebalancing its risks geographically, or based on changes in the market.  Alternatively, the lender may need to improve the overall quality of its portfolio quickly.   Or it might be selling to change its yield and duration risks.   It might be selling the note due to its merger with another lender.  Another reason a lender might sell is because it thinks it will have a tough battle with the borrower to enforce the note, and does not want to commit the time or money.  Or the property may carry with it liabilities of one sort or another:  for example, foreclosing on a retirement home or a hospital may create public relations problems for a lender; or the lender may simply not want to, or have the resources to, manage certain types of property, such as land not yet subdivided; or a property may have environmental problems that concern a lender.   Or, in a declining market, the lender may decide it ultimately can collect more in a fast note sale (or lessen its costs — such as property taxes and other costs it must advance — to hold the declining property) than in a slow foreclosure (and possible bankruptcy). 

A potential buyer simply does not know why a lender is selling a distressed note, and so it needs to do diligence at two levels to understand and price the risk it is taking by buying the loan: 

  • First, it must do diligence to determine the status of the note, the other loan documents, the borrower, any guarantor, and the relationship and actions to date taken by the borrower and the selling lender, because the buyer will be stepping into the shoes of the selling lender; and
  • Second, it must do diligence to determine the status of the real property and any other collateral securing the note as if it were buying that property, so that it can understand, evaluate and price the current value and possible risks inherent in foreclosing upon that collateral.

“Due Diligence” defined.  Although most of you probably know what “due diligence” is, a simple definition is that “due diligence” means an appropriate investigation about all aspects of a note or an interest in property on behalf of a person or entity who plans to purchase an interest in it.  Generally, in commercial real estate transactions, the rule is “Buyer Beware!” which means the buyer must ferret out all the information it needs about what it is buying to make sure it is actually getting what it thinks it should be getting in its deal.

Lender/Seller’s position on due diligence.  A lender typically will agree to some diligence concerning the loan:  it should be willing to provide access to and copies of  its loan documents, correspondence to and from borrower and related parties, and loan file (other than any privileged documents and any appraisals) to the buyer and its counsel for review after a loan purchase agreement has been negotiated and before the buyer (and its deposit money) is irrevocably committed to complete the purchase.  Typically, a lender will require a buyer to enter into a nondisclosure and confidentiality agreement prior to providing such information, which is usually a reasonable thing to require.

It is in the lender’s interest, up to a point, to have the buyer do its own diligence on the loan documents and underlying collateral:  the lender’s goal is to get as close as possible to an “as-is” sale, and a lender will typically insist that the buyer make express representations that it has had the opportunity to perform diligence on the loan and on the collateral, and that the buyer is relying solely on its own diligence in electing to purchase the note.  Structuring a deal that way provides a selling lender some comfort that the sale will truly be final, and the buyer will not later be able to argue that the seller should be liable if the buyer has problems with the loan it buys.

Recommended due diligence for distressed note purchases.  While it’s pretty straightforward to review a lender’s loan file (assuming a complete loan file can be located), the process for evaluating the underlying collateral can be more complex. 

To review a loan file, one must carefully read (and preferably also have counsel read) all of the loan documents and all of the correspondence between the lender and the borrower.   The purpose of this review is to confirm the basic business terms of the loan (its amount, times and terms for payment, etc.) as well as the legal effects of the loan:  that the loan was made and documented properly, that it appears to be enforceable against the borrower and the property, and that the security documents work (create liens against the property that is collateral for the loan, whether personal or real property).   It’s usually a good idea to run a litigation search on the borrower to see if it or its principals have a history of litigation — that can be an indication of how hard it might be to enforce the loan.  Further, a legal analysis of the likelihood that the borrower has defenses to payment or other leverage (such as a fraud or other lender liability claim) that it could use to oppose the enforcement of the loan should be done by competent CRE counsel.  For example, my group has a standard form CRE loan checklist that we use to review loan documentation; it is quite long and detailed, and reminds us to check (and to document in summary form) a wide range of issues that can hamper the enforcement of a CRE loan.  After we complete initial diligence for a loan purchase, we provide that checklist (as well as an executive summary of it) to our client, so that it can make its internal determination about what to follow up on.  It is not uncommon for an initial round of diligence both to resolve certain issues and to uncover other issues that must be investigated further in order to really understand the risks of enforcing a particular loan. 

Typically in a loan purchase transaction, the buyer’s lawyer first looks at the lender’s loan file; if there are insurmountable problems in it, then the deal may be terminated before review of the collateral takes place.  But if the loan file seems okay, then the next order of business is typically the due diligence review of the real estate collateral securing the loan.

Diligence concerning the real property collateral should ideally be essentially like diligence on any purchase of real property.   What amount of diligence is “due” depends upon the circumstances, including the risks created by the prior use of the property, the risk tolerance of the buyer, the monetary value of the transaction, and the budget available.  The type of investigation that a buyer and its lawyer should perform in any real estate transaction depends upon both the type of transaction and the kind of land which is being purchased or encumbered.  However, some basic questions common to all types of land are outlined below:

  1. What interests in the property collateral are encumbered by the loan?
  2. What is the value of these interests?  Are they sufficiently valuable that if the note borrower fails to pay the note, the buyer can collect the amount owed by foreclosing on the land or taking other allowed liquidation actions?
  3. Who owns the property collateral? (Generally, it should be owned by the borrower.)
  4. What is the property used for? (This information is very important in determining the value of the land and the likelihood that it is environmentally contaminated.)
  5. Where is the property located? And can it be located with specificity on a survey? Has it been subdivided (so that it can be resold after a foreclosure if necessary)?
  6. How has the property been used in the past? (Also very important when determining environmental risks.)
  7. If it were to have to foreclose, what use could the buyer make of the land?
  8. Does anyone other than borrower (and typical easement holders, like utilities) have any rights to all or parts of the land?  If so, could such interest holders block buyer’s use of the property after a foreclosure?

The common goal of all of these questions is to find out precisely what the seller is selling and what the buyer is buying. This sounds simple but is not.  The key is to be able to find out about the property while relying only on sources of information that are known to be highly accurate (and, if possible, on sources that carry liability insurance against their own errors).  I could go on and on about the specifics of due diligence, but won’t:  just understand that in order to know whether it makes sense to buy a distressed CRE note, a buyer must do diligence on the collateral property as well as on the note. 

Key due diligence provisions in note purchase and sale agreement.  In negotiating the due diligence provisions of a note purchase and sale contract, the parties usually have to negotiate several points:  (a) the length of time the buyer has to  complete its due diligence; (b) whether the buyer can do environmental testing or physical inspection of the underlying property collateral (both are very important, but frequently the would-be note buyer’s access to the property is constrained by the seller/lender, which may itself only have limited rights to access the property; (c) the amount of cooperation during the diligence process that the selling lender must provide; (d) what happens if the buyer completes its diligence, then new information comes up about the status of the loan or the property collateral; and similar issues.  These issues and others are typically negotiated in the note purchase and sale agreement; once negotiated, both seller/lender and buyer must comply with those terms.

What we’re seeing now.  We’re seeing generally an uptick in distressed note purchases and sales.  However, there are fewer of these sales than one might expect.  It appears that regulators who in other CRE downturns might have pushed lenders to sell notes to maintain their liquidity, are instead allowing them to wait longer or go through foreclosures and other enforcement actions instead of doing faster note sales.  Many lenders think they can get a better return by enforcing the notes themselves, through foreclosure, then selling the real property collateral.  Further, there seem to be a lot of would-be investors in distressed notes relative to the number of distressed notes on the market, so there seems to be a fairly stiff competition to buy these notes — and many investors seem to be buying them at prices that do not take into consideration the potential costs and likelihood of enforcing these loans through foreclosure, or even despite a borrower bankruptcy; so it is unclear if many of these deals are actually healthy for the buyers.


Distressed REO and Note Purchases (part 1)

As more borrowers default on commercial RE loans, more lenders are starting to sell either the defaulted notes or, after foreclosing on the property securing the loan, the REO (real estate owned) properties.  These deals are typically “as is” deals, subject only to certain negotiated representations and warranties from the lender/seller to the buyer. 

I thought it might be useful to outline some of the typical representations and warranties we’re seeing in these deals; and also to set forth a reminder about the due diligence that should be done by buyers so they know what they are getting, and don’t just become knife catchers.  In today’s post, I’ve outlined typical reps and warranties.   I’ll outline typical due diligence issues in the next post.

First, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a big difference between buying foreclosed REO and buying a distressed note.   If you’re buying REO property, the borrower has already been foreclosed upon, and therefore you as buyer will not have to either foreclose the loan or take the risk that the borrower will file for bankruptcy.  If you are buying a note, however, you as buyer are taking those risks.  This means that a buyer of a note must take additional precautions and do additional diligence in order to make sure that the distressed note is actually worth what the buyer is willing to pay for it.

One way to determine the value of a distressed note, is to evaluate the market value of the underlying real estate collateral, then to take a discount from that in the amount estimated to reflect the likely cost to enforce the loan (possibly all the way through a borrower bankruptcy), adjusted by the likelihood that the borrower (and guarantors, if any) will fight the foreclosure.  This requires both a business and a legal analysis — the latter to determine if there are any defects in the loan documents that would make the loan harder or easier to enforce.

In purchases and sales of distressed REO, the terms of the deal are basically like other purchases and sales of real estate, with a few exceptions.  The seller of REO, typically a lender which has foreclosed upon the property, will not usually make a lot of representations about the property because it is not as knowledgeable as the typical seller — the lender’s position is usually that it made a loan, and will make representations about its ownership of the loan, but not about the underlying real property.  So most sellers of REO will generally represent and warrant as follows:

1.  that the lender/seller has the authority to enter into the sale of the REO, and that the agreement to sell the REO is enforceable against it;

2.  that no interests in the REO have been previously conveyed to others by the lender/seller;

3.  that there is no litigation concerning the REO  other than as disclosed in writing in an exhibit to the purchase and sale agreement;

4.   that the information provided by the lender/seller is true, complete and correct to the extent it has been created by the lender/seller (note that a lender/seller will usually provide copies of third party reports, such as environmental reports, but expressly will not accept liability for their accuracy — buyers need to either engage the provider of such original reports for downdates of them so that they can rely on such reports, or to have new reports done for them); and

5.  other representations typical in CRE purchase and sales agreements may be included.

If a distressed note is being sold, rather than REO, additional representations of lender/seller may include:

6.  that the lender/seller has provided to the buyer copies of all of the contents of its loan file, including all loan documents, modifications and copies of all correspondence relating to the loan;

7.  that the lender/seller is selling the whole loan (or, if the sale is of part of a loan, what part);

8. that the lender/seller owns the distressed loan, and has not conveyed any interests in it to any third party (except as disclosed in writing in the agreement).

In both REO and distressed note sales, there may be more representations and warranties running from the buyer to the lender/seller than in a typical CRE purchase agreement.  In a sale of REO property, in addition to the standard representations that the purchase contract is enforceable against the buyer and the buyer’s signatory has the authority to execute the contract,  the following representations may be included:

1. that buyer has investigated and completed its due diligence on the property, and will rely only on that diligence in electing to purchase the property;

2.  that the buyer expressly agrees its purchase of the REO is “as is, where is”;

3.  that the buyer complies with the Patriot Act;

4.  that the buyer is not an insider or affiliate of the lender/seller.

Sometimes in distressed note sales, a buyer will also represent that it is a sophisticated investor, and can bear the risks of purchasing a distressed note.  These lists of representations are not exhaustive, but should give you an idea of the sorts of reps you’ll typically see in these deals.

Next post:  Due diligence needed for purchases of REO and distressed CRE notes.

Fire or Ice in 2010?

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire. . . .

— Robert Frost

Happy New Year, everyone!  Over the holidays, I spent some time  reading economic news, trying to figure out what’s happening,  and how it will affect the commercial real estate industry this year.  (As have you, probably.)

A lot of folks think that the federal government’s actions in 2009 and 2010  to “print money” to support the economy ultimately will result in inflation, or even hyperinflation.  Another group predicts deflation, as fewer buyers of various goods and servicers mean less demand, and more competition to make sales.  What if they’re both right?

It’s pretty clear from publicly available statistics that in real terms we did not grow the economy in 2009:   almost all of the GDP growth last year was triggered by the government stimulus, and not by private demand.  At least, that’s the view of a lot of economic pundits, including for example Stephen Pearlstein of the Washington Post, and’s own Robert Knakal.

I’m not an economist, but for what it’s worth, it looks like we might be heading into a period of both inflation and deflation:  inflation in necessities, commodities, interest rates and any supply constrained goods or services(which always seems to include anything I want to buy!); and deflation in the areas where there is an oversupply or room to lower costs.  

And we don’t have much growth coming from the private sector, so “stagflation”, an economic condition of slow growth and high unemployment  prevalent in the 1970’s,  may revisit us.  It was not fun the first time, and, like the color combination of harvest orange and avocado green so beloved then,  probably won’t have improved with age.

Unfortunately, commercial real estate looks like one of the deflationary sectors.  The 2010 prognosis looks poor, even though I expect more deals will get done than in 2009.   It looks like we’re heading into a time of price discovery as CMBS and other loans come due  or default, and owners can no longer fund the expenses of properties whose actual cash flow is coming short of their earlier projections.  (CMBS loans are reportedly at their highest default rate ever, over 6%, as reported by Jon Prior at Housing Wire.)

The last few years of construction may not have looked like overbuilding at the time because consumer sales were driving the economy, burning easy credit (including HELOCs).  But the growing number of hotel, broken condo and retail foreclosures suggests an overvaluation pattern more like the late 1980’s.  Virtually every business’ forecast of the demand for its own goods or services — and the space it would need to sell them — was too high.  These forecasts were based on faulty assumptions about continuing consumer purchasing power and easy credit.   Technology shifts like telecommuting, office sharing, internet shopping, videoconferencing and the like will continue to make more efficient use of commercial real estate, diminishing the need for offices, retail and hotels.

CRE values have sunk — no one knows exactly how far, but 40 – 55% off the peak is mentioned frequently.  Owners and lenders are generally, and understandably, reluctant to do deals at corrected low prices which would cost them money (or in the case of lenders force recognition of losses).  Still, eventually owners get tired of carrying properties, and loans come due.  Barring massive additional government stimulus directed at CRE,  circumstances will slowly forcibly close the bid-asked gap, at least on some deals.  That’s when price discovery will occur, and buyers and investors will become more likely to act. 

For players in the industry, the slow freeze of 2009, where so few deals were done, should thaw somewhat in 2010.    As time forces sellers’ hands, we’re starting to see more deals:  smart sellers with multiple properties are making triage decisions about which ones to hold on to, and which to sell to generate cash (or staunch the bleeding cash flow) so that they can survive this great recession.  Buyers are starting to buy properties and notes — though with significant discounts to face value, and at prices where a return is virtually guaranteed (even factoring in the cost of foreclosing in note sales).  Careful underwriting is back, and unlikely to change for some time.

On the legal side, this shift from a seller’s to a buyer’s market is leading to more careful  negotiation of deal terms, more attention to completing careful diligence, longer time periods for diligence and stronger representations, warranties and indemnities from sellers.  Perhaps as an industry we’re all shutting the barn door after the horse already ran away, but it’s an understandable reaction to the excesses of the last few years.

So, freely acknowledging my lack of an economics degree, I will put on my mystical “Deal Doer” turban instead, and predict that 2010 will be  a lot like 1992 was in California.  We’ll see  some deals, mostly heavily distressed/discounted, and the deal volume gradually will increase as the new reality of lower prices sinks into everyone’s consciousness.   The big unknown is what steps the government might take, if the downturn in CRE values appears to threaten the stability of the banking system or starts to cause a second downturn.  Fundamentally, and unfortunately, governmental intervention in real estate generally seems to be designed to keep real estate prices inflated even if that means rewarding folks who took inordinate risks.  The argument is that such support provides a slower and arguably softer landing, but it risks serious stasis, as in Japan and our own 1970’s stagflation, and I think is misguided.  Ultimately, just like the sun comes out after the rain, the CRE industry will eventually bounce back after price discovery.  Assets will find new prices, and new uses — people and businesses still need roofs over their heads.  Many owners and lenders will realize their losses.  Some sharp buyers will snap up deals.   But all of that can’t happen until the market is allowed to work to reset prices down to rational levels, and the overall business climate improves.

UPDATE:  Thursday January 7, 2010:

I just attended the Jones Lang LaSalle Forecast 2010 event in downtown LA this morning.  JLL fielded a strong array of speakers who have a considerably  more optimistic view of current economic conditions than I do. 

Notably, JLL’s Global CEO, Colin Dyer, informed the gathered real estate luminaries that JLL’s worldwide offices are seeing (1) a strong recovery in most Asian CRE markets driven by the economic expansion there; (2) a slower recovery in Europe, led by the historically strong commercial areas in London and Paris; and (3) the US CRE markets generally lagging, but picking up in coastal markets first.  Bob Hertzberg, former speaker of the California State Assembly, pointed out that 7 of the worst markets in the US are in California.

Richard Weiss, EVP and Chief Investment Officer of City National Bank was also generally positive, opining that the US economy is in recovery mode, and predicting that the recovery would be strong enough that the Fed would allow interest rates to start rising in April. 

Generally, the consensus view from the speakers at the JLL 2010 Forecast was that perhaps the lack of pressure on banks to recognize losses and foreclose, coupled with massive governmental stimulus, might in fact be creating a relatively soft landing — with CRE prices falling 35 – 55% from peak, but without an overcorrection.  Time will tell.

Happy Holidays, 2009: CRE is Scrooged

I’ve thought the market was overvalued, and that a wave of foreclosures was coming, for several years.  I was wrong in 2005 and 2006; by 2007 a fair number of folks thought the CRE market was overvalued, but we did not see many defaults, at least here in Southern California.  In 2008, the CRE  market seemed to be generally stuck.  This felt very similar to 1991 — everyone knew values of CRE had fallen, but no one wanted to take action — as if denying reality might make it go away. 

But many of us, including me, have been surprised by how long it has taken for the weakness in the overall economy to affect the CRE market this time, and how long it has taken before an uptick in defaults, workouts and foreclosures.   In some parts of the country, like Michigan and Florida, the wave of foreclosures brought on by falling values has already hit.   But in California, where we have generally seen only limited CRE foreclosures in 2009 (but a lot of modifications), it looks like we’re in the trough of activity looking up at the crest of the wave now.

Just today, in connection with a discussion of a consensual workout of some prominent San Francisco real estate, Bloomberg reports

“Commercial mortgage defaults more than doubled in the third quarter from a year earlier as occupancies fell, according to Real Estate Econometrics LLC.  .  . Property sales financed with commercial mortgage-backed securities plunged 95 percent from a record $237 billion in 2007, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. “

Bloomberg goes on to quote Moodys, as saying that values “may fall 55 percent from their peak” due to a lack of securitized debt.

 Third quarter 2008 was bad enough:  double that default rate is ugly. 

A drop of CRE values anything like 55% obviously will be even worse news for highly leveraged projects — and could gouge the LTV ratios for even the most conservative lenders.

Probably we’ll see a greater number of underwater owners giving back their properties to lenders, either by deeds in lieu, agreements to not fight foreclosure, or the like.  Often these graceful surrenders are made in  exchange for limiting guaranty exposures.   In the case of CMBS loans, we’re starting to see lots of resales of the property made consensually through a receiver to a willing buyer/new borrower who is willing and able to assume the existing loan, as modified.    These can be fairly simple and effective workout deals, if documented correctly to avoid the traps presented by California law.  We’re also seeing some lenders who don’t want to battle through foreclosures quietly moving to sell their loans to buyers willing to undertake those legal fights in exchange for a discount on the note price.

True to 1991 form, we don’t seem see borrowers or lenders completely capitulating to reality yet:  there’s still a persistent gap (though a diminishing one) between what lenders are willing to sell distressed debt or foreclosed property for, and what buyers are willing to pay.

That’s what we seem to be seeing now, as we go into the holidays.  I’d be interested in hearing whether you are seeing that too — or seeing something different.  Please let us know by posting a comment.

Happy Thanksgiving!

In a tough year like this one, where so many of our friends, colleagues and neighbors are having very difficult times, it’s important to thank each other for the ongoing support and friendship we receive from each other. 

Many thanks to all of you who read and have enjoyed this blog to date.  Your comments (both public and private) have been frequently thought-provoking and always kind, and have made writing this blog a much more fun project than I would have guessed. 

I hope that you and your families and friends have a warm and pleasant Thanksgiving holiday, and a good rest from the worries of the current commercial real estate world, if only for a few days.

Best regards,


Receiverships Now: Bill Hoffman of Trigild talks

Recently I had the pleasure to talk with Bill Hoffman, of Trigild, which is a receiver based in San Diego that handles receiverships of troubled assets across the country.  I asked Bill to tell us a bit about what he and his colleagues at Trigild are encountering in the current commercial real estate markets they serve.

O’Connor:  What are you seeing in the market now?

Hoffman:  We first saw housing developments, condominium construction and conversions failing in 2008. Also, restaurants started to fail early in this cycle, at a rate worse than lenders believed possible.

Next, shopping centers started to fail early in 2009 and calls on failing shopping center projects are now coming in daily. The pace of these business failures has accelerated rapidly and we don’t see a bottom yet. Calls to our offices on distressed hotels are increasing daily and many of those hotels have already been in default for many months or longer. Some experts estimate that as many as 500 hotels in California are already in default, but awaiting action from lenders and servicers, who are already swamped with other product types. In previous hotel down cycles, it was the smaller independent, often family operated properties that were the early defaults. However, in this cycle higher end, nationally branded hotels have been the first to go down, with current values being far below even the debt amount, and those values expected to decline further. Bigger hotel players are just walking away because there is no near-term likelihood of recovery, and they see no equity returning for many years. With the smaller properties, the franchise is often switched to a lower category, but the luxury branded hotels are much more likely to stay in place, keeping their market presence and avoiding the stigma of “losing” property. The public rarely realizes that it is the franchisee/owner who has failed, and merely connects the failure with the brand name.

As lenders and servicers continue to add staff and begin to get better control over the sudden flood of defaults, we will begin to see earlier action toward foreclosure or bankruptcy.  Few sources in any sector of commercial real estate see a light at the end of the tunnel yet.

Many of the impending loan defaults are not a matter of failing to make regular debt service payments; instead the mortgage is maturing and needs to be replaced. Loans on properties whose values have already shrunk to less than the current debt are not viable candidates for re-financing, especially in this current dry well of financing.

We are also seeing an extraordinary number of “jingle mail” defaults: a property worth perhaps only half of the outstanding debt has no value to the borrower, and property owners are sending keys back to the banks. A side effect of this flood of defaults combined with so many developers, management companies, brokerage firms and other real estate people seeing huge drops in their normal business income, we are seeing a huge increase in people claiming to be qualified to serve as receivers – perhaps 10 times the number of just 2 years ago. We can expect to see a variety of other problems for lenders as a result.

O’Connor:  What do you think you’ll see in the next 6 months to 1 year?

Hoffman:  In next 6 months to 1 year, we think we’ll see 4 – 5 times the number of hotels going into receivership and/or bankruptcy than we did just 12 months ago. Historically, down cycles are slow at the beginning, then speed up once lenders start dumping inventory, leading to even greater discounts in selling prices. Hotels are already being auctioned – a rare disposition method in previous down cycles. We will see unfinished construction of hotels stop, with some simply being mothballed for a few years.

We think the climate for commercial real estate will get worse before it gets better.  Commercial real estate is in trouble all over:  the long spell of increasing occupancies and rates came to a screeching halt, and those loans made on the basis of overly optimistic projections have reversed loan-to-value equations in most asset classes.  Higher end hotels are forced to compete by lowering their rates dramatically without compromising service, with resulting massive losses. Many try to maintain their apparent “rack rate” by offering other discounts – free nights, meal credits, etc.

O’Connor:   In your opinion, what is different about this down cycle as compared to the 1990’s?

Hoffman:  The sudden and dramatic drops in value, with most experts predicting that the bottom is still in the future and will be much deeper.  The consensus also seems to still be extending the predicted date of the bottom, the length on the bottom, and the length of recovery.  Originally, CMBS loans were a vehicle which allowed the RTC to get commercial property back into the hands of owners rather than lenders.  The billions of dollars currently in CMBS loans do not yet have a magic bullet to accomplish that same recovery.  Many commercial borrowers are now dealing with special servicers who did not originate the loans, have no relationship with the borrower, and work under very strict guidelines and regulations which limit the options for resolutions.

Special servicers’ asset managers, like their banking colleagues, are dealing with extraordinary numbers of loans, and many are relatively new to non-performing loans,  sometimes recently moving from the origination side. There is of course a learning curve which further slows the process in dealing with the record volume.  Our staff spends a fair amount of time helping asset managers understand issues of receivership, bankruptcy, franchising, liquor license issues and a full menu of additional factors impacting their jobs.  This includes understanding the costs of maintaining any property, but further complicated for hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, truck stops, water parks and any other real estate project with a business enterprise aspect.

If several lenders are involved in the same project, Trigild often will be asked to serve as the one receiver for all lenders’ security.  This can simplify the process and operation and also dramatically reduce fees and costs. Unlike many other receivers, Trigild has operated hundreds of businesses like those mentioned above, and being able to perform both roles avoids overlapping fees for the receiver to “oversee” the management company.

Another development rarely seen in previous downturns is borrowers cooperating with lenders to have receivers sell property during the receivership, rather than waiting until the end of the foreclosure period, which can be very lengthy.  “The sooner the sale the higher the price” is a given in this economy, and often the borrower recognizes that there will be no equity even in the distant future.  Sales by receivers are becoming more commonplace in many state jurisdictions, and are already recognized in federal rules for receivers.  In the case of CMBS loans, sale by the receiver before foreclosure also allows the servicer to provide some financing from the existing loan.

O’Connor:  What should a lender/servicer seek in a receiver?

Hoffman:  Experience, experience, experience. The number of people claiming to be qualified to serve as a receiver has probably increased 1000% just this year.  There are few if any formal requirements for a receiver in many states, and some management companies, etc. will offer to do the receivership work “free” in order to get the management assignment.  The potential danger to a lender from receiver mistakes can be monumental.  A receiver who involves the lender in decision making for the property can open a claim of lender liability by a disgruntled borrower and cause the lender to end up legally as an owner or owner’s partner, losing its status as a secured lender.  We have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to utilities, vendors, franchisors and other borrower’s creditors which were not receivership estate obligations.  Loss of liquor licenses, gaming licenses and other critical assets are not uncommon with less experienced receivers.

Relatively few lawyers and judges deal with receiverships, and receivership law is very fluid, with no instruction books and few specific rules.  Judges will usually honor the lender’s recommendation of the specific receiver, and show little sympathy for the lender when mistakes are made.  Experienced receivers have earned the courts’ respect and judges rely on those receivers.  A receiver who plans to immediately retain legal and other counsel for advice on how to operate is unqualified.  Most judges will not allow for such immediate professional help without a more specific showing, since they expect the receivers to know the job.

O’Connor:  What distinguishes Trigild as a receiver?

Hoffman:  While Trigild has managed and acted as receiver for traditional real estate (office, retail, multi-family) for 33 years, we are known for our unique ability to act as a receiver for operating businesses, such as restaurants, convenience stores, truck stops and hotels, where the major value is the business enterprise, not merely the real estate.  We field a team of experts who have the experience to operate these businesses, and have done over 1,500.

We have been called upon to take over as many as 100 individual restaurants at one time using our affiliate company, Trigild Associates, as the new employer for sometimes thousands of employees in multiple states. Our staff covers every area of expertise and includes lawyers, paralegals, MBA’s, CPA’s and recognized experts in every branch of commercial real estate.

Finally, we also have a group of skilled real estate agents who are uniquely qualified to direct all aspects of selling these properties, working from our own extensive database and business relationships, and working in cooperation with other brokers through the country.

Weird California loan enforcement issues

When a lender needs to enforce a loan secured by California real property, there are several issues that may need to be addressed.  Some of them come up as a result of the California one-action and antideficiency rules which I’ve been blogging about for a while.  Some are just created by state law.  Some arise from the types of deals done here.  Here is a non-exhaustive list of some odd issues that sometimes need to be considered by lenders and their counsel:

Letters of credit:  It’s pretty clear that letters of credit are not generally subject to the antideficiency issues described earlier in this blog.  Generally, an issuer of a letter of credit that supports a real-estate-secured loan may honor the secured lender’s demand to draw on that letter of credit, and then compel reimbursement from the borrower (or guarantor), without triggering that  borrower’s (or guarantor’s) one-action and antideficiency defenses.

 Multi-state collateral:  Borrowers facing foreclosure of loans secured by property in several states including California will often seek the antideficiency and one-action protections of California law.  For this reason, it is important to carefully consider the structure of any such loan and how to enforce it — ideally before making such a loan, but at a minimum before taking steps to enforce it.  The law in this area is complex and far beyond the scope of this blog, but requires careful consideration by competent California counsel prior to enforcement.

Indian land:  An active local market is that of financing casino developments on Indian lands (lands held by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in trust for certain Native American tribes).  Many of these developments are on land that has little or no innate value.  Typically, these loans are collateralized by a combination of revenues from the tribes’ casinos and leasehold mortgages secured by long term leases of tribal lands to tribal development companies (because the tribes cannot directly mortgage their interests in their lands).   Transactions involving tribal lands tend to be complex because the tribes have sovereign immunity and are often reluctant to waive it when doing such deals.  For this reason, many traditional real estate remedies are not available, and enforcement of such loans can be challenging.

 Coastal land/Tidelands trust lands:  An extra layer of regulation is imposed upon coastal land in California.  As a practical matter, this means extra time must be allowed to make or enforce a loan secured by coastal lands.  Lender’s counsel needs to make sure the development securing the loan has been or will be approved by the Coastal Commission or other applicable agency, and that enforcement of the loan will not trigger adverse consequences to the development.

Limitations on lenders’ ability to use insurance and condemnation awards:   If a building burns down, many states allow a lender to require that insurance proceeds be used to pay off the loan.  However, even if the deed of trust provides this right to the lender, certain California laws limit a lender’s use of insurance and condemnation awards to pay down principal under a deed of trust if the borrower is not in default under the terms of the loan or if the lender’s security is not impaired.

 Limitations on late fees:  California law generally provides that liquidated damages provisions in commercial contracts are valid unless the party seeking to invalidate the provisions establishes that they are (were) unreasonable under the circumstances existing at the time the contract was made.  A California court may limit the right of a lender to impose prepayment penalties, late charges and a default rate of interest for defaults by a borrower under certain circumstances, if the court determines that such penalties bear no reasonable relation to the damage suffered by a lender as a result of such delinquencies or defaults.

Commercial Code provisions:  If the collateral for a loan consists of both personal property and real property, compliance with the California Commercial Code is required.  Although a discussion of these issues is beyond the scope of this blog posting, a secured party under Division 9 of the Commercial Code must comply with numerous requirements regarding the sale of personal property collateral.

Qualification to do business in California:  Regularly lending to California borrowers constitutes doing business in California, although California Corporations Code Section 191(d) states that certain loan servicing activities do not constitute “doing business”.  However, this exclusion does not extend to making the loan itself.  Therefore, a non-California based lender (other than a national bank) needs to qualify to do business in California (which is not terribly hard to do, but requires some filings and payment of fees).  In addition, under some circumstances, a non-California based lender may need to become licensed as a “finance lender” under the California Finance Lenders Law in order to make loans in California or to California borrowers.

Attorneys’ fees provisions:  In any action on a contract where such contract specifically provides that attorneys’ fees and costs incurred to enforce the provisions of such contract shall be awarded to one of the parties, a California statute provides that the prevailing party, whether it is the party specified in the contract or not, shall be entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees in addition to costs and necessary disbursements.  This sometimes gives borrowers leverage in a workout situation.


July 2018
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Attorney Advertising. This blog is a periodical publication of Maura O'Connor, a partner of Seyfarth Shaw LLP and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. You are urged to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal questions you may have. The contents are intended for general information purposes only and represent the individual views of Maura O'Connor only. Any tax information or advice contained herein is not intended to be and cannot be used by any taxpayer to avoid tax penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer.