The headlines in the Wall Street Journal shout out at us this morning, “Bank Lending Keeps Dropping” (See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124019360346233883.html#mod=testMod.) The bank lending they are referring to is the lending at “the nation’s biggest banks”, the banks that were the biggest recipients of government money. The results: the biggest recipients of taxpayer money “made or refinanced” 23% less in new loans in February than in October, the month the Treasury kicked off the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
This is just one more piece of information that the banking system still has major problems.
This is the case even though banks are posting first quarter profits. The latest, Bank of America posted a $4.25 billion net income figure for the quarter. (See http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124021187032334351.html#mod%3DtestMod%26articleTabs%3Darticle.) But don’t get overjoyed: Apparently, excluding merger costs, Merrill Lynch contributed $3.7 billion to the posted number which included a $2.2 billion gain related to mark-to-market adjustments on certain Merrill Lynch structured notes. The results also included a $1.9 billion pretax gain on the sale of China Construction Bank shares. What does this mean? I don’t know. Who has any trust in the financial reporting of banks anymore!
What information do we have that indicates that the banks still have massive problems? Let me suggest several bits of information that add up to an exceedingly weak banking system.
First, let it be noted, again, that the Monetary Base, the aggregate money figure that is defined as all bank reserves and anything that can become bank reserves (currency in circulation) has doubled in the past year (97.5% increase year-over-year using non-seasonally adjusted data). This measure was increasing at a 2.0% annual rate in August 2008.
The in-bank component of the Monetary Base, Total Reserves in the banking system, in March, was increasing at a 1,722% annual rate (again, year-over-year using non-seasonally adjusted data). We have never seen figures like this before!
In August 2008, the annual rate of increase was -1.0. Yes that is a negative one percent year-over-year rate of increase.
And, what are the banks doing with these funds?
They are holding onto them!
Excess reserves in the banking system (non-seasonally adjusted) were right at $2.0 billion in August 2008. These are funds in the banking system that are just sitting idle on the balance sheets of banks in the banking system—not earning interest or anything. In the banking week ending April 8, 2009, excess reserves totaled $724.6 billion.
Let me put this in perspective. On September 4, 2008, the assets of the Federal Reserve System totaled about $945 billion. So, in the first week of April 2009, the banking system was keeping, in cash, a little less than the total amount of funds that the Federal Reserve had put into the banking system in the first week of September 2008!
If I look at the Federal Reserve Release H.8, I see that commercial banks in the United States, non-seasonally adjusted, had Cash Assets on their balance sheets in March of $915 billion, again quite close to Federal Reserve assets in early September. One year earlier these banks had Cash Assets of only $300 billion, so Cash Assets rose by 205% in the past year.
Now, the total banking system, in aggregate, is lending some. Total bank credit outstanding rose at an annual rate of 3.2% from March 2008 to March 2009. Within this category, Commercial and Industrial loans rose by 4.3% and real estate loans rose by 4.7%. Consumer credit rose by about 9.0%, of which credit card debt rose by 13.0%. So lending in these categories were increasing, but not by major amounts.
The interesting thing to note, security lending—Federal Funds lending and Repurchase Agreements with brokers—dropped by a third, -33.0% and Interbank loans remained basically flat. Banks reduced their lending to other financial institutions, including other banks, during this time period. Talk about risk averse.
The major story that these data tell is that commercial banks are afraid to lend, especially to their own kind. Delinquencies continue to rise, write-offs continue to rise, and banks continue to increase the provision they set aside for future charge-offs. The banks have gone back to lending only to those that don’t need to borrow, the way banking used to be. They are afraid to lend to anyone else and they are still uncertain about the value of the assets that they already have on their books.
This situation is not going to change overnight. There is not much that the Federal Reserve can do if banks won’t even lend to banks!
We see that “U. S. May Convert Banks’ Bailouts to Equity Share.” (See the New York Times article, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/20/business/20bailout.html?_r=1&hp.) Still the question remains, “How deep is the hole in bank balance sheets?” We cannot provide the answer to this. Ultimately, the bankers, themselves, will have to provide that answer, and my guess is that bank lending will not start to pick up again until these bankers have that answer.