Published — November 20, 2009 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Are ‘zombie buildings’ the next economic calamity?

Bad loans for commercial real estate threaten regional and community banks


While the overall U.S. financial system is showing signs of stability, a rapidly rising tide of troubled loans for commercial real estate threatens the survival of hundreds of the nation’s small and medium-sized banks.

Financial reports this month from federal regulators and industry analysts detail a new cycle of uncertainty that they fear could cripple the economic recovery. Billions of dollars in commercial debt will have to be paid back or refinanced at a time when property values have plummeted. About $500 billion will come due in 2010 alone and an equal amount every year through at least 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.

Many banks that cater to regional and community developments were largely unscathed by the residential mortgage meltdown. But now they are facing huge numbers of possible defaults by builders who erected thousands of office towers, condominiums and shopping centers with the easy credit available five years ago. With few tenants, those developments are turning into what industry insiders call zombie buildings.

Commercial real estate loans generally have terms of five to seven years. Many of the loans issued at the height of the credit bubble are coming due. By mid-November, $150 billion worth of commercial properties, about 7,500 in total, were in distress, according to Real Capital Analytics Research Inc.

Next year “looks like an unavoidable bloodbath for a multitude of ‘zombie’ borrowers, investors and lenders” and the shakeout could continue for “several years,” says a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Land Institute drawn from confidential interviews with industry experts.

Stephen Blank, a principal researcher for the report, said that regional and smaller banks that made the loans are bracing for big losses that could overwhelm their resources.

“The number on the street – what we hear – is that as many as 400 banks might fail before this is over,” Blank said in an interview.

As of mid-November, 123 banks had failed this year, largely split open by commercial debt. More than 400 banks now are on a problem list maintained by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Industry analysts, such as the Real Estate Roundtable trade group, point out that a sick commercial market hurts any hope for recovery. Local government revenues suffer. Construction jobs — and all sorts of ancillary jobs — disappear. Retirement funds are vulnerable.

In recent Capitol Hill testimony, Roundtable President Jeffrey D. DeBoer pointed out that “a growing number of Americans have a stake in commercial property” because of their investments in pension plans, 401(k) plans and direct investments in real estate investment trusts. He estimated that $160 billion of retirement savings are invested in commercial real estate.

In October, federal regulators issued a statement encouraging banks to work with borrowers to extend loans, rather than call them in. The federal government is also trying to entice investors to buy back bonds based on commercial mortgages through a government-run emergency fund aimed at salvaging the credit market.

Despite those efforts, the banks’ problems are continuing to grow, said Michael Stevens, senior vice president for regulatory policy at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors.

“It’s not the next big thing. It is the big thing,” Stevens said. “We’re dealing with it right now. We wouldn’t be at 120 bank failures if we weren’t seeing it now.”

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Bob FrankstonLinda GordonET69Jello Beyoncesam fetters Recent comment authors
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sam fetters
sam fetters

What do AT&T, Verizon and Crown Castle International Corp have in common? The largest institutional shareholders of each includes firms like: Vanguard, BlackRock, State Street (the “Big Three”), Invesco, Fidelity (FMR), JP Morgan, Wellington Management, Geode, T Rowe Price, Bank of America, and other of the largest money-management and investment firms, whom operate collaboratively (even comprising the largest shareholders of each other), forming virtual monopolies amongst the largest “competing” corporations, in most every single industry, via large share holdings. (source = These are the same firms whom also largely own the third largest telecom, T-Mobile. The own the largest… Read more »

Jello Beyonce
Jello Beyonce

I’ve a theory that the supposed “Trade Wars” and “sanctions” and political/military strife going on between the U.S., China, Russia, etc. are merely distractions, serving to divert attention away from the growing authoritarianism and Oligarchic control spreading across the globe. “Nationalism” is being used as a propagandist covert means of continued increasing Globalism. As this article states: “A Russian woman stood up to speak at one of these public meetings, and she said that when she lived in Russia, the government slam dunked her and she had no say,” King said. “Now she lives in the United States of America,… Read more »


Marx was right about capitalism . Capital gets more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. There is no way out of this greed. We need socialism!

Linda Gordon
Linda Gordon

5g is a kill grid. The depployment of this weapon is an act of terroism genocide and ecocide. The marketers need to be jailed as terrorists.

Bob Frankston

The real issue with 5G is that it’s an attempt to roll back the Internet and return to the telecom of the 1970s when the phone company controlled all.