Construction workers atop a building under development on 11th Avenue in New York on June 11.

Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg

Before the pandemic emptied the city, few lenders benefited from the heady local real estate market as much as regional players New York Community Bancorp Inc. and Signature Bank.

Now they’re becoming a case study for potential trouble from a sudden downturn in the Big Apple’s property sector, and their share prices are suffering. New York Community Bancorp and Signature were among the top five most-active lenders in New York in the first half of the year, and almost all of their portfolios are tied to the area.

With retail and apartment vacancies rising and rents falling, and with the prospect of employers cutting their office space looming, the question is whether the hundreds of millions of dollars the banks have set aside for commercial-property loan losses will be enough. An epicenter of Covid-19, the city shut down in March, earlier than many parts of the U.S., and its reopening has been cautious, with workers still at home and restaurants not yet open for indoor dining.

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People walk along the water past the Manhattan skyline, in Brooklyn, New York, on Sept. 4.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

“It could be a two-, three-year window of things slowly working itself out,” Jim Costello, senior vice president at property-research firm Real Capital Analytics Inc., said in an interview. “There are going to be some price changes, but is it enough to get through to the lenders? That would have to be kind of severe.”

At New York Community Bancorp, mortgages make up more than 90% of the loan portfolio, accounting for almost $39 billion of financing as of midyear, mostly tied to real estate in the New York City area. Signature Bank says more than 60% of its loan book is secured by commercial real estate, “substantially all” of which is located in the New York area. By comparison, Wells Fargo & Co. was the most-active lender in the city in the first half of the year, but loans in New York state accounted for just 2% of its total lending portfolio at mid-year.

Loan Reserves

Westbury, New York-based New York Community Bancorp has $155.8 million set aside for soured mortgages after bolstering reserves in the first half of 2020. That represents 0.4% of its commercial real estate loan book, compared with the 2% Wells Fargo has set aside.

New York Community Bancorp’s debt outlook is negative at S&P Global Ratings. In June, the ratings firm said that multifamily loans make up about 75% of the bank’s total loan book, and that its “landlord borrowers will likely have reduced cash flows at least in the near term.” The lender’s retail real estate exposure could also be “vulnerable,” S&P analyst Barbara Duberstein wrote.

New York Community Bank’s loans in the city include a $21 million mortgage for an apartment building at West 160th Street that was formerly home to actor and civil rights icon Paul Robeson, a National Historic Landmark that bears his name, federal and city records show.

Regional banks have underperformed broader financial stocks

Chief Executive Officer Joseph Ficalora said on New York Community Bancorp’s second-quarter earnings call that “rent collections have been quite strong.” The firm granted payment deferrals for almost $6 billion of loans for a six-month period that expires in October or November for most borrowers.

Questions remain about how bad things will get, making it difficult to predict what losses may be coming for banks. On one hand, Facebook Inc. signed a massive lease for office space in Manhattan last month, a vote of confidence from one of the largest U.S. companies. Yet Manhattan office leasing in 2020 could slump to the lowest level in 20 years, according to brokerage Colliers International. And there is more space available as tourism-dependent sectors suffer, which “will undoubtedly place pressure on rents,” according to a July report from Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

Read more: Manhattan rental supply soars, pushing vacancies to a record

“We’re sort of waiting for the non-performers to show up, and what losses will eventually manifest themselves, but the biggest area for them is the retail” commercial real estate, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Herman Chan said in an interview. “Next year is going to show which banks did better from an underwriting standpoint versus others. It’s all about client selection. It’s all about underwriting and how conservative these banks were.”

Big Apple Backers

Banks loaned billions to commercial landlords in the first half of 2020

Source: Real Capital Analytics

New York Community Bancorp’s shares have sunk 30% this year through Wednesday, compared with a 0.2% gain for the S&P 500 and a 24% drop for the S&P 500 Financials Index. The declines have been even more dramatic for other regional lenders focused on New York. Signature Bank’s shares have slumped 39% and M&T Bank Corp.’s have plunged 46%.

Last year, New York Community Bancorp’s shares surged 28%, and Signature’s soared 33%, outperforming the 20% increase in the KBW Regional Banking Index. M&T’s stock increased 19%.

Short sellers are betting on further declines. Short interest represented 5% of tradable shares at New York Community Bancorp and 2.8% at Signature Bank, according to data from financial-analytics firm S3 Partners. That figure was less than 1% at the five biggest U.S. commercial banks.

For Signature, the bank’s “financial condition and results of operations may be affected by changes in the economy and the real estate market of the New York metropolitan area,” it says in regulatory filings.

A $50 million loan for a building on the Upper East Side that houses the Bentley Hotel is among Signature’s real estate financing in the city. During the pandemic, the hotel is housing more than 300 homeless men, with half of them in their own rooms, under a city contract, according to Elizabeth Lion, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Doe Fund.

The bank, based in New York City, has almost $340 million set aside for soured commercial real estate loans, or 1.2% of that book. On Signature’s second-quarter earnings call, CEO Joseph DePaolo said that payment collections on multifamily mortgages had been a “very pleasant surprise,” at more than 80%. Office collections were 65% to 85%, and retail was 35% to 65%, he said.

Construction Loans

While M&T Bank is larger than many regional competitors, with a presence across the mid-Atlantic region, the Buffalo, New York-based company has a large exposure to New York City and is big in construction lending — generally viewed as among the riskier areas of commercial real estate financing. It was the largest construction lender in New York in the first half of 2020, according to Real Capital Analytics. The bank led a $230 million construction loan for the retro-themed TWA Hotel at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In the second quarter, M&T reclassified almost $3 billion of commercial-property and commercial-construction loans as “criticized” — meaning regulators would view them as having credit weakness — bringing the total percentage of criticized loans for those portfolios to 11.6%. Following that, “the question is, do some of these end up going nonperforming?” CEO Rene Jones said at a conference last week.

Jones said he’s confident in M&T’s client selection and the protections the firm has in place on loan to value, or how much it lends as a percentage of asset values. “As we get into the fourth and first and second quarters, I think the picture becomes much clearer,” he said.

Largest Lender