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[Commercial Grade] Greed Is Not So Good

Commercial Grade is a post by John Cicero, MAI who provides commentary on issues affecting real estate appraisers, with focus on commercial valuation. John is a partner of mine in our commercial real estate valuation concern Miller Cicero, LLC [1] and he is, depending on what day of the week it is, one of the smartest guys I know. Since I ended my Radar Logic gig, John has promised to bring more of his insight to Soapbox [wink] …Jonathan Miller

Greed is not-so-good after all.

If the movie Wall Street [2] were made today, they would give Michael Douglas an HP-12c [3] and make him a real estate investment banker.

I don’t think that I fully realized just how bad things had gotten until I learned that powerhouse Bear Stearns was being bought for $2/share. (For $2/share, even I could have bought itI always wanted to own an investment bank!). While this 90-year old institution, crippled by its losses in mortgages, was being rescued by JP Morgan Chase and the Fed, I was on a conference call with a couple of investment bankers (a Bear Stearns competitor) who were adamantly trying to convince me that my appraisal of a proposed apartment building was too low. There are clearly still some Masters of the Universe [4] out there that apparently don’t read the papers and are still underwriting business as usual.

Appraiser guru Jonathan Miller (my business partner) recently did a series of interviews about appraiser pressure [5] where he opined that as many as 80% of all residential appraisals were inflated during the housing boom. That is an astonishing number and when I challenged him on it, he stuck to his number and explained that not coincidentally as many as 80% of all home mortgages were originated by mortgage brokers. I have no idea how many commercial mortgages were underwritten by investment banks and securitized during the recent boom, but that’s probably a good indication of the number of commercial appraisals that were likely inflated.

Though the attention to date has been on residential mortgage brokers and the pressure that they exert on residential appraisers, inflated appraisals have also been greasing the wheels of the CMBS market [6]. Unlike a commercial bank, where FIRREA requires separation of the appraisal and underwriting, no such distinction exists in the investment banks (unless it happens to be the investment banking arm of a commercial bank). Therefore, the same 24 year old underwriting the CMBS loan, and who stands to realize a six-figure bonus at year end depending on how much money he pushes out the door, is also responsible for ordering the appraisal.

Just like 1987 all over again!

And the rating agencies, supposedly the watchdogs of the process, failed to see the abuses, or since they are also hired directly by the investment banks turned a blind eye.

With all of the recent high-level attention given to real estate lending practices, we seem to be at a turning point in the appraisal profession. However, without fundamentally changing the way commercial CMBS loans are underwritten, this problem will not go away.