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Home > Industry Analysis > Research & Analysis > National Edition Regional Outlook, Third Quarter 2001

National Edition Regional Outlook, Third Quarter 2001

In Focus This Quarter

Slowing Economy Reduces
Demand for U.S. Office Space

  • Demand for U.S. office space contracted during the first half of this year as the amount of newly vacated space exceeded the amount of newly occupied space for the first time since at least 1981.
  • The U.S. office vacancy rate jumped 250 basis points in the first half of 2001, from 8.3 percent to 10.8 percent.
  • With construction levels remaining high and demand still weak, the vacancy rate could rise further by year-end.


Commercial real estate (CRE) markets traditionally have been--and remain--highly cyclical. During the 1990s, most U.S. office markets experienced a strong upswing. However, declining office employment growth along with other recent signs point to a possible downturn. As reported by Torto Wheaton Research (TWR), the U.S. office vacancy rate, which stood at a 19-year low of 8.3 percent at the end of 2000, jumped in only six months to 10.8 percent, the largest six-month increase in the 20 years TWR has tracked these data. Office vacancy increases range from modest levels in some markets to high levels in markets where supply and demand imbalances are more pronounced.

An uptick in construction activity combined with a substantial drop in demand for office space has led to a slackening of office market conditions. In light of the ongoing uncertainty as to the near-term direction of the U.S. economy, these trends make the current situation difficult for office market participants to read.

This article reviews recent developments in U.S. office markets and describes demand-side and supply-side trends that have contributed to the recent weakness.1 It notes the role played by the changing fortunes of high-tech firms in a number of metropolitan areas and how this situation has increased the volume of space available for sublease. Finally, the article focuses on the local construction loan exposures of insured banks and thrifts that have the task of managing their risks under changing market conditions.

1 For further discussion of demand and supply trends, see Sally Gordon, "CMBS: Red--Yellow--GreenTM Update, Second Quarter 2001 Quarterly Assessment of U.S. Property Markets," Moody's Investors Service, July 6, 2001.

Vacancy Rates Have Risen Quickly from Cyclical Lows

At year-end 2000, the U.S. office vacancy rate stood at 8.3 percent--a 19-year low. Many individual metro areas posted even lower vacancy rates. For example, at year-end 2000, vacancies were 4.4 percent of available space in Seattle, 1.3 percent in San Jose, and 3.0 percent in Oakland. Beginning with first quarter 2001, as a result of a slowing economy and the fallout from the so-called "tech-wreck," the U.S. vacancy rate rose by 120 basis points to 9.5 percent--the highest absolute quarterly increase since these data were first published in 1981. Another record increase of 130 basis points occurred during the second quarter, bringing the vacancy rate to 10.8 percent. To put these increases in perspective, consider that the national office vacancy rate has increased more than 50 basis points in any given quarter only twice.2 Nonetheless, the current vacancy rate of 10.8 percent remains low by historical standards, as the average rate for the past 20 years has been 13.9 percent.

2 TWR notes increases of 60 basis points in the second quarter of 1989 and in the first quarter of 1999.

Most of the nation's large metro areas saw increases in office vacancies during the first half of 2001. Forty-eight of the 53 major metropolitan areas tracked by TWR recorded a higher vacancy rate in June 2001 than at year-end 2000. Thirty-eight markets experienced increases of at least 100 basis points, and four markets saw vacancy rates jump by more than 600 basis points. As shown in Table 1 most of the markets experiencing the largest jump in vacancy rates also are home to concentrations of high-tech employment.3 As high-tech markets spurred higher demand for office space in the recent past, these markets are now giving back greater quantities of previously occupied office space. Table 2 lists office vacancy rates and changes along with lending concentrations, construction activity levels, and high-tech employment percentages for 53 major metropolitan areas and for the nation.

3 Seven of the ten markets with the highest first-half 2001 vacancy rate increases are also among the top ten cities having the greatest levels of high-tech employment.

Table 1

[D]Table 1 In Many Markets, Office Vacancy Rates Reflect

Table 2

[D]Table 2 Office Market and Banking Data on 53 Metropolitan Areas

Unlike the last cycle, during which office vacancies shot up primarily in overbuilt downtown areas, recent increases are occurring more sharply in suburban than downtown sections of metropolitan areas. As of June 30, 2001, the average downtown office vacancy rate was 8.5 percent, and the average for suburban markets was 12.1 percent. Increases in office availability are dispersed among Class A office properties as well as Class B/C properties, yet vacancy rates do show disparities across many submarkets. For example, the South of Market area in San Francisco reports significantly higher office vacancy rates than the Financial District.4 Similarly, in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, the technology-intensive northern Virginia office market has experienced higher office vacancy increases than downtown Washington, DC, or suburban Maryland.

4 Louis, Arthur M. July 24, 2001. "Empty Offices, Economic Downturn, Overconstruction Leave Commercial Landlords with More Space on their Hands." San Francisco Chronicle.

Office Demand Drops

Net absorption, the primary indicator of demand for office space, was negative during first quarter 2001 for the first time since TWR began reporting the series.5 (Negative absorption occurs when space returned to the market by existing tenants exceeds the space occupied by new tenants.) This negative performance was repeated in the second quarter. The decline in the volume of competitively leased space totaled 30 million square feet during the first half of 2001. (See Chart 1.)

Chart 1

[D]Chart 1 Net Absorption Turned Negative in 2001

5 Net absorption is the net change in total competitively leased space per period, as measured in square feet.

The bulk of negative absorption in the first half of 2001 is due to the return of office space to the market through subleasing.6 TWR reports that there were 43 million square feet of space "give-backs" through subleasing in the first half of 2001, and after offsetting absorption of 13 million square feet, negative absorption was 30 million square feet.

6 In some metropolitan areas, over half the total office space available for rent (vacant space) is sublease space.

Office employment growth, the source of new office space demand, tends to be driven by the finance and services sectors.7 Year-over-year job growth in the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) and services sectors combined was more than 3 percent in every month from January 1993 through June 2000. Since the middle of 2000, job growth in these sectors has fallen steadily to a year-over-year rate of less than 1.5 percent in June 2001. A spring 2001 survey conducted by Salomon Smith Barney indicated that tenants estimated their growth in office space demand to be only 0.6 percent over the following 12-month period.8 Also contributing to reductions in demand are increases in worker layoffs. Announced layoffs during the first seven months of 2001 totaled over 983,000 individuals, more than triple the number of announced layoffs during the same period last year.9

7 TWR constructs its office employment index based on trends in the FIRE sector plus selected categories of the services sector. See TWR Office Outlook, Spring 2001, Vol. II, p. A.1.

8 Boston, Gary, Ross Nussbaum, and Jonathan Litt. May 16, 2001. "Real Estate Demand Survey." Equity Research: United States, Real Estate Investment Trusts. Salomon Smith Barney.

9 Data provided to Haver Analytics by Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

The slowdown in the demand for office space contrasts sharply with the situation last year, when absorption rates and office employment growth were robust in most markets, and leases were executed quickly for newly constructed properties. As shown in Chart 2, absorption of office space in 2000 actually outstripped the trend in office employment by a considerable margin. Why? With relatively easy access to initial public offering and venture capital funding, many startup firms anticipated rapid growth and leased office properties accordingly. In fact, venture capital funding facilitated historically higher rates of office space absorption by high-tech and other startups. In active bidding wars, new high-tech firms increased their office space holdings. A phenomenon of space hoarding developed in which some high-tech companies leased large quantities of office space in anticipation of future expansion.

Chart 2

[D]Chart 2 Office Demand Spiked in 2000 as Employers Took on More Office Space than Needed

More recently, because of a slowing economy, curtailed funding, and failures to achieve sales expectations, many high-tech and dot-com firms have closed or scaled back operations significantly. At the same time, traditional firms have reconsidered plans to expand, adopting a "wait and see" attitude. Consequently, as demand for space declines, large blocks of office space are returning to markets for sublease.

Space available for sublease is similar to landlord-offered space available for rent--space under both categories should count toward a market's available rental space. However, in the case of subleasing, tenants, rather than landlords, offer properties for rent. Tenants may attempt to sublease the property themselves or use a broker; however, in general, only space handled by a broker is included in the tally of a market's available rental space. Consequently, current office vacancy increases could be higher than reported.

Meanwhile, Construction Continues

An uptick in office construction activity that began in many metro areas during the late 1990s has been a key element contributing to recent increases in office vacancies. According to the Bureau of the Census, U.S. expenditures on office construction totaled $47.5 billion in 2000, continuing a seven-year cycle of expansion. Adjusted for inflation, this amount represents about 78 percent of the peak level of office construction expenditures that occurred in 1985. Recently, the pace of construction has slowed slightly, falling to an annualized rate of $44.3 billion in May 2001.

Reflecting these large dollar outlays on office construction, TWR projected in December 2000 that 111.3 million square feet of new office space (or 3.6 percent of existing stock) would be completed during 2001. This newly completed space will come on the market following a period of rising construction activity from 1998 through 2000, during which the volume of completed office space averaged 84.9 million square feet per year. As shown in Chart 3, however, current office construction activity as a percentage of existing stock falls well below that of the 1980s.

Chart 3

[D]Chart 3 Office Construction Activity Increases in Recent Years yet Remains Well Below Level of the 1980s

Many metropolitan areas currently experiencing high levels of construction activity also are seeing the largest increases in office vacancies. For example, cities that are positioned toward the upper right quadrant of Chart 4 are characterized by higher vacancy rate increases and more new office space construction. The ten cities with the highest first-half 2001 vacancy rate increases had total square footage of under-construction office space at 6.5 percent of existing stock as of year-end 2000.10 By comparison, total office space under construction nationally was 4.5 percent of existing stock.11

Chart 4

[D]Chart 4 Some Markets with Large First Half 2001 Office Vacancy Increases Also Have High Construction Activity

10 One measure of a metropolitan area's exposure to overbuilding and rising vacancy rates is the degree of construction activity. This measure is found by dividing a metropolitan area's completions square footage or the under-construction square footage by the total stock of office property.

11 The national 4.5 percent level for office properties under construction at December 2000 is higher than the 3.6 percent level for projected completions in 2001 because not all properties being built in 2001 will be completed during the year.

Even as most projects move toward completion, some developers are reconsidering office construction plans. Builders have stopped construction of significant projects midstream in the Austin, Dallas, Seattle, and northern Virginia markets in response to retrenchment by major tenants and competition from subleased space.

Softening Extends to Other Commercial Real Estate

Other major commercial real estate markets are also feeling the effects of a slowing economy and, with the exception of the retail sector, are experiencing increasing vacancy rates.

Industrial vacancy rates had fared well in recent years. As of year-end 2000, the national vacancy rate of 6.7 percent was the lowest since 1984. Now, however, a 150-basis-point increase has occurred, with industrial vacancies increasing to 8.2 percent in the first half of 2001.12

12 Torto Wheaton Research.

As the economy and the nation's high-tech and manufacturing sectors continue to slow, demand for industrial space for research and development and storage and distribution is declining. Industrial property subleasing is on the rise, and negative absorption occurred in the first half of 2001. At the same time, completions of industrial space during 2001 are estimated to exceed 220 million square feet, the highest level since 1988. Landlords are offering concessions, such as lease terms of one year compared with five to ten years, in an attempt to attract new tenants.

Industrial properties are somewhat less exposed to risks from overbuilding than office properties because of shorter construction periods and the ability to respond quickly to any change in demand. An exception is the telecommunication hotel,13 a new entry into this market. This property type is characterized by a longer construction cycle and the fact that it typically has a "single use" design. In recent months, construction of these structures began in many high-tech markets to provide enhanced levels of data service. With declining demand, some telecom hotels stand vacant.

13 Telecom hotels are large, high-energy-consuming warehouses that house machinery, servers, routers, and switches that are the physical underpinning of the electronic commerce conducted on the Internet. They are hotels in the sense that they house equipment belonging to many different telecommunication companies. John Holusha, "Home for Machinery of the Internet," The New York Times, August 16, 2000.

The demand for hotel rooms is adversely affected by a slowing economy. Businesses have cut travel budgets and consumers have scaled back leisure plans, contributing to a decline in occupancy levels and revenue per available hotel room in most markets throughout 2001. Currently, upscale and luxury hotels are suffering more than limited service hotels. According to Smith Travel Research, limited service hotels, particularly budget hotels, represent the only lodging sector with higher occupancy levels through the first four months of 2001 when compared to the same four month period in 2000.

The supply of new hotel properties is lower than in the past, as financing for new hotel construction for the most part has been curtailed in recent years. However, limited service hotels are reported to be overbuilt in a number of markets in the Southeast and Southwest.14 Annualized expenditures for new construction of all hotel types were $12.1 billion as of May 2001, falling to the lowest level since 1996.15

14 Kozel, Peter P. June 18, 2001. "U.S. Commercial Property Markets in a Slowing Economy: Implications for CMBS Credit Performance." Standard and Poor's Structured Finance.

15 Data provided to Haver Analytics by U.S. Bureau of the Census.

The multifamily sector has experienced robust construction and equally strong absorption in recent years as new household formation, the driver for apartment demand, continues to increase. Annualized construction expenditures of $25.5 billion as of May 2001 were at the highest level since 1989.16 Despite the relative equilibrium between supply and demand for apartments in most markets, vacancy increases and rent declines are occurring in some locations. This decline has been most acute in the more concentrated high-tech markets, such as San Francisco, where reported average rental rates dropped 8.1 percent between the end of March and the end of May 2001.17

16 Ibid.

17 Associated Press, News in Brief from the San Francisco Bay Area, June 13, 2001.

Despite a slowing economy, the retail sector has performed reasonably well, as consumers maintain relatively high spending levels. Many of the store closings in 2000 and 2001 have been absorbed by new tenants as landlords have acted quickly to avoid letting vacant space linger. Meanwhile, robust construction has continued, with total expenditures in 2000 of $52.6 billion and an annualized level of $52.2 billion as of May 2001. Each of these two years' expenditure levels exceeds all previous years' retail construction amounts since data were first gathered in 1964.18

18 Data provided to Haver Analytics by U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Taking note of the robust level of retail construction activity, a recent Moody's article finds that the nation's mall retail and "power center"19 space grew by 3.3 percent in 2000, while population growth expanded by only 1.2 percent. The article raises concerns for potential excess supply of retail space resulting from a construction rate that is almost triple the population growth rate.20 A negative consequence of the high rate of retail construction is found in a recent Standard and Poor's study. This article points out that most of the retail mortgages (held in commercial mortgage-backed pools of assets) that defaulted during 2000 did so because of competition from new retail establishments.21

19 According to the Urban Land Institute, a power center is a community shopping center in which at least 75 to 90 percent of the selling space is devoted to multiple off-price anchors and a discount department store or warehouse club. It is the "power" of its anchors that gives the center its name.

20 Sally Gordon, op. cit.

21 Kozel, Peter P. April 20, 2001. "Outlook for Property Markets in a Slower-Growing Economy and the Implications for CMBS Credit Performance." Standard & Poor's Structured Finance.

Implications for Insured Institutions

Office vacancy rates during the first half of 2001 increased at an unprecedented rate. What does this mean for insured institutions? On the one hand, at mid-2001 vacancy rates remained below their 20-year average. Yet the speed of the increase and the number of metropolitan areas that have experienced softening make this a trend that deserves the close attention of insured institutions, especially those with significant concentrations in commercial real estate and construction lending.

Financial indicators of real estate credit quality in banking remain favorable, with losses and delinquencies trending up modestly from minimal levels. Noncurrent construction and development (C&D) loans as of March 31, 2001, remain at a relatively low .92 percent of all outstanding C&D loans. (Noncurrent C&D loans as a percentage of all C&D loans averaged .93 percent for the past five year-ends.) Similarly, noncurrent CRE loans22 as of March 31, 2001, were .82 percent of all CRE loans, a level consistent with the average for this ratio of 1.08 percent for the past five year-ends. Charge-off ratios at March 31, 2001, for both C&D and CRE loans were each at .02 percent and remain below the averages of .05 percent for each for the past five year-ends. These favorable numbers are the legacy of a strong economic expansion, whereas current economic events suggest the potential for future deterioration in credit quality.

22CRE loans are nonfarm, nonresidential loans secured by real estate.

The outlook for commercial real estate credit quality depends on the depth and duration of the current economic slowdown and on the risk management practices of each institution. In this regard, as signs of increasing risk materialize in conjunction with a declining economy, lenders appear to be managing risks prudently and avoiding speculative lending.23 Anecdotal information suggests that borrowers are pressed to obtain higher prelease commitment levels in order to gain loan approvals. In addition, lenders are requiring more up-front equity.24,25

23 Speculative construction lending is defined as a loan not accompanied by a meaningful presale, prelease, or take-out commitment.

24 "Capital Is Still Plentiful for Right Projects." Midwest Real Estate News. July 2001. Vol. 17, No. 7.

25 Further information on bank underwriting practices can be found in Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Division of Research and Statistics, Report on Underwriting Practices,

The importance of risk management practices is magnified by the heightened lending concentrations currently prevailing at some banks. Institutions with elevated concentrations in CRE and C&D lending have been more likely to experience significant problems during times of economic stress (for further details, see History of the Eighties26). As shown in Chart 5, the percentage of insured institutions with commercial real estate loan concentrations between 200 and 400 percent of capital is higher now than it was in the late 1980s. However, there are relatively fewer institutions at the highest concentration level, in excess of 500 percent of capital. In fact, fewer than 1 percent of insured institutions are at this level. A similar story holds true for construction loans, as the increasing concentrations are in the range of 100 to 300 percent of capital (see Chart 6).

26 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. History of the Eighties--Lessons for the Future, Vol. 1: An Examination of the Banking Crises of the 1980s and Early 1990s, Chapters 9 and 10. 1997. Washington, DC: FDIC.

Chart 5

[D]Chart 5 Concentrations of Commercial Real Estate Loans between 200 and 400 Percent of Capital Are Higher Now than in the Late 1980s

Chart 6

[D]Chart 6 Concentrations of Construction Loans Have Moved Higher Loans Have Moved Higher

There are a number of issues for construction lenders and commercial real estate lenders to consider going forward. Because uncovered loans (C&D loans made without assurances of a firm take-out commitment) tend to be higher-risk, an important part of managing the risk in construction lending has traditionally been the lender's ability to obtain a take-out commitment.

Sources of take-outs for C&D loans include other insured institutions, pension funds, foreign investors, and life insurance companies, along with public-market real estate investment trusts (REITs) and conventional mortgage-backed securities (CMBSs). Anecdotal reports indicate that shifts in market sentiment in recent months have resulted in lowered investments in REITs and consequently less available capital for REITs to purchase real estate.27 Insured institutions may face increased challenges to convert construction and development loans into permanent loans should the reported REIT situation become a trend and other sources of permanent capital become less available to purchase C&D loans.

27 Smith, Ray A. August 1, 2001. "Property Held by Public Firms Drops." The Wall Street Journal.

Monitoring economic trends in general, and local real estate trends in particular, becomes even more important during a time of rapid change in market conditions. For example, reliance on appraisals based on outdated or top-of-market assumptions can result in a divergence between expected and realized collateral values or cash flows. Similarly, while preleasing commitments offer significant risk-reduction benefits to lenders, during a time of weakening economic conditions there is at least the possibility that a prospective tenant will be unable to honor a lease obligation, as has been the case with some firms in the high-tech sector in recent months.


Office market trends cannot, of course, be considered in isolation. The recent softening in office markets is a symptom of a slowing economy coupled with a rapid decline in the fortunes of some high-tech firms. Considered in this broader context, the challenge for insured institutions is simply to ensure that risk-management strategies are in place that will succeed under a more challenging economic environment.

Thomas A. Murray
Senior Financial Analyst

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Last Updated 09/21/2001

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