The trend toward deregulation of the banking community which is gathering momentum in the Congress promises a variety of interesting possibilities for real estate professionals to join with commercial banks in exploiting the opportunities that can be found in the troubled portfolios of the banks themselves.
These changes, the pace of change, and the ways in which these opportunities can be exploited are issues that will be intensely debated during the coming year.
The dismantling of the 62-year-old Glass-Steagall Act, which has defined the terrain of commercial banking since the Depression, is just one of the changes under consideration by Congress, which is seeking to deregulate the country's financial institutions.
Another indication of the changes under way is the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the policy of the Comptroller of the Currency that permits commercial banks to sell annuities, thus opening the door to a broader definition of permissible bank practices.
Written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the decision strongly recommends that lower courts defer to the Comptroller's judgment when "the administrator's reading fills a gap or defines a term in a way that is reasonable."
This could provide the justification for entry by banks in the near future into other heretofore prohibited business arenas, particularly real estate.
On the environmental front, matters are in a state of flux. As a result of an uncertain regulatory situation concerning lender liability under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, banks that hold environmentally troubled property (or troubled loans secured by such property) are particularly vulnerable.
Given the high degree of uncertainty, banks are searching for ways to divest themselves of these environmentally tainted portfolios without incurring open-ended liability for cleanup.
The prospect of wider business horizons for banks as a result of deregulation, combined with the uncertainty under the environmental laws provides significant opportunities for real estate entrepreneurs - and for the banks themselves.
There is a logical synergy between the activities of commercial banks and real estate entrepreneurs. Vast profit potential lies in the loan portfolios of the country's financial institutions.
Thus far, it is primarily only the real estate professionals who have been able to profit from these sources. If banks are given access to dealmaking activities, they too will be able to take advantage of the potential in the large number of troubled properties which are still being carried on their books.
Most of the troubled properties held in the portfolios of banks fall into three main classifications:
*Environmentally tainted properties.
*Distressed older properties.
Of these categories, environmentally troubled properties pose the most serious potential problems. However, they can also represent lucrative opportunities to seasoned real estate professionals with experience in this niche market.
Ironically, as the level of concern by the financial institutions about environmentally tainted properties has risen, it has decreased for those real estate redevelopers who have successfully gained an understanding of how to manage such risks.
In fact, many of the real estate success stories of the 1990s derive from turnarounds of these types of properties.
A focused effort to identify and contact this specialized group would serve the interests of the banks. Many of the professional firms have funds available for the acquisition of such properties.
An excellent avenue for a bank that wishes to capitalize on the potential of its troubled properties without committing itself to major expense is to engage a seasoned entrepreneurial real estate firm that already has the necessary management, leasing, and administrative staff to assess and revitalize the institution's portfolio. Many of these firms are willing to operate on a fee basis.
Most commercial banks that were heavily involved in financing commercial real estate in the 1980s have long since dismantled their real estate departments. Given the vagaries of the real estate marketplace, it would be a grave error for them to build these departments up again without first testing the waters.
Outside real estate professionals can provide excellent service on a fee basis, delivering expertise as needed. It must be noted however, that the expertise necessary in turnaround situations is highly specialized, and the outside firm should be selected with great care.
After it has assessed the potential of its portfolio, and the quality of its outside real estate experts, the bank might consider entering into a joint venture with its real estate consultant, who can then function as the active partner in maximizing the value of the portfolio.
The bank would serve as a conduit for the mining of its own troubled assets and would be freed to focus on its core business of lending money, while sharing in any profit potential from properties that had theretofore been nothing but a drain.
Mr. Bruder is president of the Brookhill Group, a nationwide real estate development and asset management firm based in New York.