"We Haven't Had A Crisis Like This": Tom Barrack Says US Property Market Is In "Chaos"

If there is one person who knows real estate, it's Tom Barrack, and if what Tom Barrack sees in the US real estate market is accurate, a real estate crash worse than 2008 is coming.

Speaking to Bloomberg TV, Barrack - whose Colony Capital owns a $50 billion real estate portfolio - said the US property market is in "chaos" and still on the verge of collapse because the federal government and local authorities are allowing renters and homeowners to skip payments because of the coronavirus.

"We haven’t had a crisis like this,” Barrack said in an interview Friday on Bloomberg Television. "We’ve never had one where we just have a government taking of revenue."

In a move that prompted Moody's to predict that up to 30% of all mortgages will default in the near future - one which we said presages the next crisis - the stimulus bill passed by Congress last month included a provision allowing borrowers to defer payments for as long as a year without penalty on federally backed mortgages. Meanwhile, cash flows have further collapsed as cities and states throughout the country have suspended evictions and foreclosures to help the tens of millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs in the past 5 weeks.

While lenders and landlords can normally use the legal system to enforce rent and interest obligations, "all those options are out the window", Barrack said. One month ago, the Colony CEO was the first big real estate investor to warn publicly about the perilous state of the industry and to call for government intervention. He proposed an orchestrated forbearance, a "time out" in which any payments could be accrued onto leases and loans.

And now that got much of what he was expecting, Barrack is suddenly getting second thoughts.

Many of the measures he sought then, including market liquidity from the Federal Reserve and delays in new accounting rules, were adopted. Others, such as a halt on margin calls by banks and a suspension of mark-to-market requirements on financing arrangements, weren’t. One can imagine which ones were far more important to Colony Capital, whose portfolio - when marked to market - is imploding as a result of the sudden halt in inbound cash.

Federal efforts such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Main Street Lending Program are “difficult to utilize” for companies like Colony, which is structured as a real estate investment trust, Barrack said. “We’re not using those,” he said. "We’re encouraging many of our borrowers and our users to rely on whatever subsidies they can get to continue to make their payments."

Looking at Colony's real-estate portfolio, Barrack said its digital infrastructure investments - cell towers, data-storage facilities and fiber-optic networks - are holding up best. Retail and hospitality assets are the worst performers.

Somewhat paradoxically, and refuting Barrack's apocalyptic outlook, in April the number of Colony tenants who made rent payments was “amazingly good,” dropping only 3% to 5% from normal levels, Barrack said. But he expects fewer will remain current next month. 

Barrack, who first saw property prices collapse during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s, predicted that big companies like Colony, which he said still has “plenty of liquidity,” will survive the recession and real estate shakeout.

“The people who’ll be crushed are the people who own the equity, the people who own bonds and debt, the pensioners,” he said. But it was his gloomy conclusion that was most jarring:

"At the end of the day, the government is going to have to step in and subsidize it all if people don’t go back to work."

In other words, just like the government re-nationalized the housing sector in 2008 when it took over Fannie and Freddie, this time the government will have to do the same.