Sunday, August 9, 2009

Banking Sector Still Remains Silent

There is good news and bad news from the banking sector. The good news is that all is quiet. The bad news is that all is quiet.

In terms of the goods news, “quiet is good” because there have been no new “discoveries” of bad loans or bad assets that will shock the financial system. We continue to hope for silence here even with the continued growth in the unemployed, in bankruptcies, in delinquencies, and in loans coming due that need to be re-priced or re-financed.

In terms of the bad news, there is still no life in bank lending. If we are going to see a pick-up in the economy and a return to growth the banking sector is going to have to start lending again, especially in the commercial sector. Commercial and industrial loans were down by 3.3%, year-over-year in June, and in the last five weeks, all in July, these loans have fallen by another $24 billion.

Real estate loans peaked in May 2009 and have declined ever since, dropping approximately $60 billion through the end of July. Even the amount of home equity loans has declined steadily since reaching a peak in May. Consumer loans continue to drop, with credit card debt falling for the fifth consecutive month.

Total bank assets are still up on a year-over-year basis by 7.5%, but the main balance sheet increases are in cash assets, primarily deposit balances at Federal Reserve Banks, and in Treasury and agency securities.

Banks are still not doing any lending to speak of and are staying very, very liquid.

On the liability side of commercial bank’s balance sheets, demand deposits are still rising at a very rapid pace, about 38% on a year-over-year basis. Other checkable deposits at commercial banks are rising at a relatively rapid pace, 19.3%, but a surprising bit of information is that other checkable deposits at thrift institutions have only increased by a modest amount, by 2.9%, year-over-year.

Checking into the thrift institution situation a little further we find that savings deposits at thrift institutions have actually declined year-over-year at a 7.9% rate and small-denomination time deposits at thrift institutions have fallen at a 14.3% rate over the same time period. These balances at commercial banks have increased at a 16.3% rate and a 15.3% rate respectively.

Two shifts seem to be taking place in depository institutions. First, there seems to be a major movement of funds from thrift institutions to commercial banks. Second, individuals are holding more and more of their funds at commercial banks in demand or other checking accounts relative to time and savings accounts. One additional note to this: retail money funds have dropped by about 11.6% on a year-over-year basis indicating another shift taking place from non-banks to commercial banks.

Another trend continues to hold and that is in terms of currency holdings outside of the banking system. Year-over-year, the currency component of the money stock continues to rise in excess of 10%. Like the banks, the public wants to remain as liquid as possible in order to be able to meet the contingencies people experience in uncertain times.

This movement of assets is reflected in the aggregate money stock figures. The Fed publishes money stock growth figures using 13-week averages. On a year-over-year basis using the thirteen weeks ending July 27, 2009, the narrow measure of the money stock, M1, has increased at a 17.0% annual rate whereas the broad measure of the money stock, M2, has increased at an 8.7% annual rate. It is obvious that the growth rate of both measures is dominated by the huge annual rate of increase in demand deposits as people have re-allocated their funds from time and savings accounts to checkable deposits in commercial banks.

This shift is even more obvious if one looks at the relative rates of growth over the past three months. M1 growth is 15.4% while M2 growth is 3.1%, indicating that much of the re-allocation of funds has come in the past three months.

In terms of the Fed’s assets, there continues to be a runoff of dealers using the Commercial Paper funding facility indicating some easing of liquidity in the commercial paper market. This decline was expected to occur as the commercial paper market improved and this is a hopeful sign. Central bank liquidity swaps also continued to decline indicating an additional strengthening of foreign exchange markets around the world, another hopeful sign.

Both of these declines in the Fed’s balance sheet resulted in reserves leaving the banking system. All it means, however, is that excess reserves in the banking system declined. These excess reserves still remain well above $725 billion, while required reserves total around some $65 billion.

As reported before, the banking system seems to be coming out of the big financial bust in typical fashion. This is why the claim that things are quiet in the banking system is a good thing. We can only hope that this peace and quiet will continue.

There will continue to be bank failures. We reached 72 for the year this last week, but there were no surprises in the increase, they had already been identified. One concern arising from the figures presented above is the health of the thrift industry. With funds leaving the thrift industry as reported, what pressure is this putting on thrift institutions in terms of their assets and solvency?

The big question remains: “When are the commercial banks going to start lending to businesses again?” To answer this, we need to keep a close eye on the information coming out of the banking sector. My guess is that banks will not be too quick to start lending to businesses again. There are questions about how brisk the “back-to-school” season will be and there may not be much increase in lending during this time. The next really big test after that will be the holiday season that begins in October and early November. It will be interesting to see how lending activity behaves at this time.

The Fed continues to keep funds going into the capital markets in terms of acquiring Treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities while letting some of the other facilities that were created to support liquidity in different specific areas of the financial markets run off as it was hoped that they would do. As long as the banking sector remains relatively peaceful, this seems to be the way the Fed wants to act. Then as liquidity picks up in the stressed areas of the capital market, the Fed plan is to sell these other securities back to the private sector and reduce the size of its balance sheet.

The good news in the banking sector is that things are relatively quiet. May they stay that way. In my view we will have to wait a while before we see the banks beginning to refuel businesses and the real estate sectors.

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