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The hidden threat to big banks that may be worse than a housing collapse

The biggest single risk factor facing the big four ASX banks may not be as worrisome as another growing threat.

While all eyes are on the large provisioning set aside by our largest mortgage lenders due to fears of consumer and SME loan defaults, its $63 billion of commercial property loans that’s keeping bankers awake at night.

This is according to a report in the Australian Financial Review quoting unnamed senior banking executives.

Dividend and earnings threat

This could be a surprise to many as the attention is placed on over indebted households and small businesses most exposed to the devastating COVID-19 shutdown.

This is why the National Australia Bank Ltd. (ASX: NAB) share price was under the most pressure during the coronavirus fallout as it is most exposed to small business lending.

But Westpac Banking Group (ASX: WBC), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (ASX: CBA) and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (ASX: ANZ) are also under pressure with the big four collectively setting aside more than $5 billion to due with problem loans.

Loan provisions under threat

Provisioning may have to increase if commercial property loans become as big a risk factor as the AFR is suggesting.

That means the big dividend cuts we’ve seen over the past three months may be a more permanent feature than what many are forecasting.

Bankers are worried because large companies and multinationals may decide they do not need large expensive offices in the CBD anymore.

Structural risks to ASX banks

The COVID-19 lockdown that forced record numbers of Australians to work from home is driving this rethinking. Aussies are equally if not more productive working from home. Law practices, accounting firms and investment banks may be tempted to economise by saving on rent.

If this happens, landlords will be forced to write-down the value of their prime properties. This will be a problem for the big banks who are using these high-end addresses as loan collateral.

While the $63 billion worth of such loans sound tiny relative to the mortgage books of the big four (CBA’s alone is worth around $500 billion), it’s still potentially big enough to trigger an earnings collapse in bank profits.

Another overlooked risk factor

Meanwhile, there’s a second possible structural change looming. As highlighted in my article this week, mega mall operators could also be forced to change their business model as the coronavirus shut-in accelerated the shift to online shopping.

I suspect these shopping destinations have reached their peak in terms of their strategic value and we could also see write-downs in these assets.

Structural change takes years to manifest. The fact that bankers are already starting to worry about some of these trends is a warning to investors not to take their eye off these emerging challenges.

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Motley Fool contributor Brendon Lau owns shares of Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Limited, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank Limited, and Westpac Banking. Connect with me on Twitter @brenlau.

The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.