‘Zombie Offices’ Spell Trouble for Some Banks

Graceful Art Deco buildings towering above Chicago’s key business district report occupancy rates as low as 17 percent.

A set of gleaming office towers in Denver that were full of tenants and worth $176 million in 2013 now sit largely empty and were last appraised at just $82 million, according to data provided by Trepp, a research firm that tracks real estate loans. Even famous Los Angeles buildings are fetching roughly half their prepandemic prices.

From San Francisco to Washington, D.C., the story is the same. Office buildings remain stuck in a slow-burning crisis. Employees sent to work from home at the start of the pandemic have not fully returned, a situation that, combined with high interest rates, is wiping out value in a major class of commercial real estate. Prices on even higher-quality office properties have tumbled 35 percent from their early-2022 peak, based on data from Green Street, a real estate analytics firm.

Those forces have put the banks that hold a big chunk of America’s commercial real estate debt in the hot seat — and analysts and even regulators have said the reckoning has yet to fully take hold. The question is not whether big losses are coming. It is whether they will prove to be a slow bleed or a panic-inducing wave.

The past week brought a taste of the brewing problems when New York Community Bank’s stock plunged after the lender disclosed unexpected losses on real estate loans tied to both office and apartment buildings.

So far “the headlines have moved faster than the actual stress,” said Lonnie Hendry, chief product officer at Trepp. “Banks are sitting on a bunch of unrealized losses. If that slow leak gets exposed, it could get released very quickly.”

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