By Arasu Kannagi Basil and Pritam Biswas

(Reuters) -Short seller Hindenburg Research on Tuesday disclosed a short position in digital bank Axos Financial, alleging lax underwriting standards and glaring issues with its loan portfolio, sending shares down 7.4%.

Hindenburg, a forensic financial research firm, said the bank was exposed to the riskiest asset classes, and had increased its total exposure to the deteriorating commercial real estate (CRE) market, while its peers backed away from the sector.

The bank’s exposure to CRE was at $9.9 billion at the end of March, compared with $5.5 billion three years earlier, Hindenburg said.

Axos’ customer base in the commercial and multifamily segments comprised “borrowers who couldn’t get loans from other banks,” which has resulted in problem loans for the bank, the short seller said in its report.

Hindenburg said the bank’s price/tangible book value was 35% above the multiple of its peers.

California-based Axos Financial said in a securities filing that the short-seller report is incomplete and misleading, adding the bank takes the most senior position in loans of its largest CRE portfolio, while having a low loan-to-value – a key metric used to determine the credit risk of a loan – in the multifamily segment.

Axos is the tenth-most shorted regional bank, according to S3 Partners. Short interest in Axos totals $319 million, or 11.84% of its free float.

“The question is how far they’ve pushed the envelope on pretend and extend schemes not to properly recognize problem assets or losses,” said Michael Ashley Schulman, a partner at Running Point Capital Advisors.

Shares of the bank, whose borrowers include former U.S. President Donald Trump, are down about 11% so far this year.

According to a public financial disclosure report filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics last year, Trump has two outstanding mortgages worth over $100 million with Axos Bank.

The two 10-year mortgages enabled Trump to finance Trump Tower in New York and the Trump National Doral golf course in Miami, the filing showed. They were issued in 2022 at 4.25% and 4.9%, respectively.

Hindenburg is best known for placing bets against companies that have been connected with allegations of wrongdoing. It was founded in 2017 by Nathan Anderson.

Among its high-profile bets was a short position in electric truck maker Nikola in September 2020. The company’s founder, Trevor Milton, was sentenced last year to four years in prison after a jury found him guilty of fraud.

Reuters could not independently verify the claims in the report about Axos.

The CRE market, impacted by elevated interest rates and lower occupancy, has been a cause of concern for banking investors, after New York Community Bancorp’s recent turmoil.

NYCB posted a surprise quarterly loss in January and slashed its dividend, due to exposure to commercial real estate, and wiped billions off its market value.

Last month, Starwood Real Estate Income Trust also temporarily limited share redemptions to avoid forced sales of its real estate holdings.

(Reporting by Arasu Kannagi Basil and Pritam Biswas in Bengaluru and Koh Qui Ging and Carolina Mandl in New YorkEditing by Shinjini Ganguli, Matthew Lewis and Nick Zieminski)

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