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Real estate leader on NY Fed board warns on commercial real estate risks

People walk in the rain by commercial real estate for rent along 125th street in the Harlem area of New York City

By Michael S. Derby

NEW YORK (Reuters) -An executive who also serves on the board overseeing the New York Federal Reserve warned on Twitter of potentially systemic problems in the real estate finance market and called on the industry to work with authorities to avoid things getting out of hand.

Noting there is $1.5 trillion in commercial real estate debt set to mature in the next three years, Scott Rechler, who is CEO of RXR, a large property manager and developer, tweeted: “The bulk of this debt was financed when base interest rates were near zero. This debt needs to be refinanced in an environment where rates are higher, values are lower, & in a market with less liquidity.”

Rechler said he’s joined with the Real Estate Roundtable “in calling for a program that provides lenders the leeway and the flexibility from regulators to work with borrowers to develop responsible, constructive refinancing plans.”

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"If we fail to act, we risk a systemic crisis with our banking system & particularly the regional banks” which make up over three quarters of real estate lending, which will in turn put pressure on local governments that depend on property taxes to fund their operations, Rechler wrote.

The executive weighed in amid broad concern in markets that aggressive Fed rate hikes aimed at lowering high inflation will also break something in the financial sector, as collateral damage to the core monetary policy mission.

The Fed nearly held off on raising its short-term rate target on Wednesday after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank rattled markets. The failure of Silicon Valley Bank was linked to the firm's trouble in managing its holdings as markets repriced to deal with higher Fed short-term interest rates.

The real-estate sector has also been hard hit by Fed rate rises and commercial real estate has also been hobbled by the shift away from in-office work during the pandemic.

Also weighing in via Twitter, the former leader of the Boston Fed, Eric Rosengren, offered a warning on real estate risks, echoing a long-held concern of his dating back a number of years.

Pointing to big declines in real estate investment indexes, he said "many bank lenders will be pulling back just as leases roll, with high office vacancies and high interest rates. Regional bank shock and troubled offices will be negatively reinforcing."

Real estate woes are on the Fed's radar, but leaders believe banks can navigate the challenges.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday following the Fed’s quarter percentage point rate rise, central bank leader Jerome Powell said “we're well-aware of the concentrations people have in commercial real estate,” while adding “the banking system is strong, it is sound, it is resilient, it's well-capitalized,” which he said should limit other financial firms from hitting the trouble that felled SVB.

Rechler serves as what’s called a Class B director on the 12-person panel of private citizens who oversee the New York Fed. That class of director is elected by the private banks of the respective regional Feds to represent the interest of the public. Each of the quasi-private regional Fed banks are also operated under the oversight of the Fed’s Board of Governors in Washington, which is explicitly part of the government.

The boards overseeing each of the regional Fed banks are made up of a mix of bankers, business and non-profit leaders. These boards provide advice in running large organizations and local economic intelligence. Their most visible role is helping regional Fed banks find new presidents, although bankers who serve as directors are by law not part of this process.

Central bank rules say that directors are not involved in bank oversight and regulation activities, which are controlled by the Fed in Washington.

(Reporting by Michael S. Derby; Editing by Andrea Ricci)