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Sale of real estate loan books should entice UK investors, says expert

OPINION: Commercial real estate has fallen drastically in value in the recession, giving US private equity firms the chance to buy up under valued debt and sell the distressed property assets they were secured on at a healthy profit.19 Sep 2012

But a change in approach by banks may give UK property companies the chance to grab a slice of the profitable business.

If they can convince banks that they have the skills to handle what is for them a new process, property companies could access a lucrative new market. This in turn could get the stalled property investment market moving again.

In the boom years of the 2000s banks lent to those seeking to invest in property and increasing prices made the loans and the investments look sound. But after the crash of 2008 banks were left holding loans that looked as though they could never be repaid by owners of properties that were much reduced in value.

Enter US private equity firms. These holders of investors' cash had what banks needed – cash, and years of experience working in similar markets in the US.

Having bought the right to be owed that money from banks at around 50p in the pound, private equity companies went about turning them into cash. They would enforce the terms of the loans and ask for repayment based on conditions that had inevitably been broken by owners struggling with under-performing assets.

Private equity companies could, then, take possession of the properties themselves if the loan conditions could not be satisfied. They sold these at about 60p or 65p in the pound, making a profit of 10-15% in the space of a few months.

Why is everyone not doing this? There is a simple answer: scale. The banks sell bundles of loans of up to £1 billion.

But that is changing. Banks may be about to start offering much smaller parcels of loans, down at the £450-500m level. All of a sudden this puts deals within the reach of UK property companies, and that is no accident.

Banks know that if they have more buyers they will get a better price, and reducing the size of packages on offer is a sure way of increasing the number of buyers.

The number of these deals that happens is going to increase as foreign lenders seek to retreat to home markets ad as lenders retreat from the commercial real estate (CRE) market.

If UK companies want some of the reduced-value pots to come their way, they will need more than just cash. The banks selling the debt will want to be sure that buying companies know what they are doing.

Buying defaulting CRE loans is not a simple business, and the US firms often have deep experience in this. They know that you need to fund the process as well as the purchase of the loan, and they have experienced teams of advisers to help them.

UK property companies will only convince selling banks and the providers of any loans they themselves need if they can show that they understand how to conduct what is still a relatively new kind of business.

It is an area where it is worth investing in expertise. Deals will begin to appear that demonstrate that selling banks are courting buyers of loans at a lower level than before. For an otherwise ailing sector, it is a potentially rewarding opportunity.

Gerry Mulholland is a real estate expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com

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