Will Investors in Nonperforming Loans Flock to Europe?

Chris Seyfarth, Partner, Ernst & Young L.L.P.: Only a year or so ago, global investors in distressed loans were primarily focused on the U.S. Today, as our fifth annual survey of the Nonperforming Loan (NPL) sector attests, investors increasingly are seeking investments in Europe’s emerging market for distressed debt.

Chris Seyfarth, Partner, Ernst & Young L.L.P.

Only a year or so ago, global investors in distressed loans were primarily focused on the US. Today, as our fifth annual survey of the Nonperforming Loan (NPLs) sector attests, investors increasingly are seeking investments in Europe’s emerging market for distressed debt. They also continue to look for investment opportunities in the United States. Although the U.S. distressed loan market has slowed, the market still offers ample investment opportunities, according to our current survey. In fact, almost 70 percent expect the national market to remain active over the next 12 to 36 months.

Yet, conflicting signals abound in today’s U.S. non-performing loan (NPL) market.

On the plus side, bank earnings have soared, while loan loss provisions, loan charge-offs, failed bank closures and the number of problem banks have all declined. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) fourth quarter banking data paints a picture of a stable and steadily improving banking industry. In commercial real estate, the heady growth enjoyed by certain property types and locations has allowed certain borrowers to keep their loans current, continue to invest in their properties and take advantage of refinance opportunities.

However, issues remain. Property values have increased mainly in key U.S. markets for high-quality assets. Elsewhere in the country, values remain depressed and borrowers continue to struggle. Real Capital Analytics reports that U.S. $164 billion in commercial real estate mortgages remain distressed. Furthermore, tens of billions in looming maturities are a constant threat to both borrowers and lenders because depressed property values limit borrowers’ ability to refinance, increasing the risk of default at maturity.

As for banks, commercial real estate (CRE) loans constitute only 7 percent of the total assets of big banks. However, for banks with U.S. $10 billion or less of assets, CRE loans account for a disproportionate 26 percent of total assets. These banks will likely focus on reducing the percentage of CRE loans on their balance sheets through sales and other measures, which could provide opportunities for investors to acquire loan portfolios or individual loans. Yet, big global investors with huge pools of capital are starting to look outside the nation. It’s no secret that the U.S. nonperforming loan market has not lived up to the expectation of these investors. In the meantime, European banks have increasingly begun to reduce their exposure to NPLs via portfolio sales. Consequently, global NPL investors are turning their attention to Europe, and for good reason. An estimated €1 trillion of NPLs are sitting on the balance sheets of the region’s banks, far surpassing the magnitude of distress in the US.

Investment activity

Survey respondents expect the U.S. NPL market to remain active, but for a shorter time period than they did a year ago. More respondents to this year’s report said they expect the market to remain active for 12 to 18 months; a year ago, many respondents thought it would stay active for 24 to 36 months. As in past surveys, investors said their first choice for accessing the market is through off-market transactions or direct negotiations.

Deal size

Fewer investors are seeking deals of less than U.S. $50 million, while more investors are looking for deals in the U.S. $50 million– US$100 million range. Investors who plan to allocate less than U.S. $100 million of capital in NPLs this year may prefer deals in this range to transactions of less than U.S. $50 million. Fewer investors are seeking deals in the U.S. $100 million–U.S. $500 million range, perhaps because not as many investors have the capital to buy NPLs in this range, or there simply were fewer deal opportunities. About 8 percent of respondents, presumably including the biggest NPL investors, are looking for deals of U.S. $1 billion or more.

Leverage

Investors appear to be putting more equity into transactions. All- cash buyers increased in our latest survey, and the percentage of investors using less than 50 percent leverage increased while those using more than 50 percent declined.

Investment returns

Investors appear to have lowered their return expectations somewhat, possibly because values of the properties underlying NPLs have been improving along with a general recovery in commercial property prices, and NPL yields are declining. More investors are seeking 10 percent–15 percent returns, and fewer are looking for returns of 20 percent or more. Those targeting 15 percent–20 percent returns remained about the same as a year ago.

About a third of investors said they have shifted their primary focus to Europe, which is emerging as the world’s largest market for distressed loans. Investors targeting Europe are primarily interested in NPL investment opportunities in Germany, the U.K., Ireland and Spain. More than half of them expect the European market to remain active for 36 to 48 months.

Capital allocation

More investors said they have allocated less than U.S. $100 million for investment in NPLs this year. This may be because they expect to invest less in NPLs in 2013, and they are directing their investments more toward buying smaller portfolios from regional or local banks. Investor allocations of more than U.S. $100 million to more than U.S. $1 billion are about the same as a year ago.

The full survey including Ernst & Young’s observations on the market, may be downloaded in PDF format at www.ey.com/realestate.