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Fitch Ratings reduced its 2023 outlook for the U.S. real estate investment trust (REIT) sector outlook from “Neutral” to “Deteriorating,” citing the tumult in the commercial real estate space.

While Fitch noted that most of its rated REITs “have the capacity to withstand such a slowdown within rating sensitivities [and] those with ample dry powder could capitalize on distressed property sales by weaker capitalized players.” But at the same time, the ratings agency warned that banks – which account for nearly half of the $5.5 trillion commercial mortgage market – saw their lending levels drop by 20% between February and April, with more tightening expected.

“At minimum, this will lead to further contractions in CRE credit, further limiting conditions for property transactions,” Fitch added in its announcement of the outlook reduction, adding that “CRE transaction volume has steadily declined since early 2022 due to the confluence of operating fundamentals pressure, higher interest and capitalization rates, limited buyer financing, and looming recession risk. The rapid jump in rates has resulted in unusually wide value discrepancies between buyers and sellers across most property types and markets, particularly in the struggling office sector. Our forward-looking U.S. equity REIT ratings incorporate assumptions about future property disposition volumes and valuations.”

Fitch predicted the U.S. economy will go into a recession, most likely late in the year – a previous forecast put the downturn at mid-year – and forecasted property performances will vary by sector over the next two years.

“Sectors experiencing strong fundamentals, such as industrial and shopping centers, will likely see some cooling in demand, with tenants showing greater reluctance to lease space, including delaying decisions, resulting in less pricing power for landlords,” Fitch continued. “Tighter lending conditions and weaker economic growth will add to the secular pressures facing some property formats (e.g. office, enclosed malls). The office REIT sector has met, or modestly underperformed, our low expectations during 2023. Leasing volumes have generally underperformed as occupiers add the business cycle to the list concerns and reasons for conservatism, along with secular pressure from remote work. Conversely, the industrial sector, although no longer white hot, continues to deliver above average occupancies and outsized rent growth that have modestly exceeded our projections.”

While Fitch stressed that REITs were “unlikely to directly encounter meaningful stress” based on the recent problems in the banking industry, although it also acknowledged that it did not expect “REITs’ access to unsecured revolvers will be impeded, although facilities up for renewal will likely see higher pricing and some banks have reduced appetites for traditional bank syndicate activities, such as making funded term loans – particularly in hard hit sectors, such as office. We also do not expect meaningful portfolio vacancies caused by bank tenant failures, which are unlikely to be widespread.”