Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Credit Market Debt: Why Is So Much Going to Bank Holding Companies?

Credit market debt increased by only 3% from the end of the second quarter of 2008 to the end of the quarter of 2009, a total of roughly $1.5 trillion. Of course, the primary story concerns the shifts in borrowing that took place during this time. The data used in this analysis is from the Flow of Funds accounts from the Federal Reserve.

One should note that the only two really substantial increases in credit market debt during this time period were the Federal Government and bank holding companies. Bank holding companies?

The Federal Government is easily identified as one of the primary borrowers during this time period as the debt of the government rose 36% or a total of $1.9 trillion. This is the largest year-over-year increase, dollar-wise, in history! But, this is not a surprise for we knew this was coming.

Note, that this increase does not include other sources of government debt extension in what are called “Funding Corporations” that include the creations of the Federal Reserve System to fund AIG and so on. This source of government funding reached a maximum of $445 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 and dropped off to only $224 billion by the end of the second quarter of 2009.

One thing that has interested me is the performance of the commercial banking industry. The commercial banking industry, as a whole, has increased its use of credit market debt by a little more than 23%, although U. S. chartered commercial banks have actually reduced its reliance on this source of funds by about 6%. Note, too, that the credit market debt of the whole financial sector declined by about 1%.

The difference has come in the dramatic increase in the use of credit market debt by bank holding companies. Bank holding companies increased their use of this source of funds by 50%, an increase of $365 billion. In the process, the bank holding companies reduced their reliance on commercial paper by $78 billion and raised a net of $443 billion in corporate bonds. Thus there was not only a substantial increase in the funds bank holding companies raised during this time period, there was also a lengthening of the liabilities of these institutions.

One should call attention to the fact that Goldman, Sachs and Morgan Stanley became bank holding companies during this time period. How much of an impact this fact had on these aggregate numbers is hard to tell, but one should be aware of this movement. These two organizations became bank holding companies on September 22, 2008 and the bank holding numbers did not really increase appreciably during the third or fourth quarters of the year. Although total financial assets in bank holding companies rose modestly from the end of the second quarter to the end of the fourth quarter, actual credit market liabilities decreased. The numbers really began to jump upwards at the end of the first quarter of 2009.

Another factor influencing bank holding company debt during this time is the guarantee on bank bonds provided by the federal government. This gave bank holding companies the ability to raise funds relatively more cheaply than they could have raised them otherwise: a good reason to raise funds.

The interesting thing is that the raising of these funds did little or nothing to spur on bank lending or commercial bank growth. Investment in bank subsidiaries by bank holding companies went up by about $112 billion but this certainly doesn’t seem to have gone into bank loans since most of the increase in U. S. chartered commercial bank assets has been in the form of a rise in cash assets and government securities.

Total financial assets at banks rose by about $950 billion from the end of the second quarter of 2008 until the end of the second quarter of 2009. However, cash assets and reserves at the Federal Reserve rose by $430 and Government, Agency and GSE-backed securities rose by $185 billion. The only lending category to show much of a rise was the mortgage category, $233 billion, and this was primarily in commercial real estate. Commercial loans actually declined by about $100 billion. Something called Miscellaneous Assets rose by about $160 billion. Not a lot of lending going on in the banking sector.

However, investment by bank holding companies in nonbank subsidiaries actually rose by about $630 billion and investment in Other Miscellaneous assets rose by about $150 billion!

Thus, bank holding companies invested almost $800 billion in funding nonbank assets.

It seems as if big financial institutions are continuing to behave in the same way that they did before the financial markets started to unravel toward the end of 2007. That is, they put their money into non-bank operations, areas that the regulators did not have a lot of insight into or control over. That is, the banking system is still not relying on the fundamentals of banking to make money these days! They are returning to the areas that proved to be so profitable to them before the crash. And, once again, we seem to be in the dark as to what exactly they are doing.

Even through the credit crisis of 2008 and 2009, the credit markets provided some issuers of debt a substantial amount of funds. However, it seems as if these funds are going into hands that were very similar to the ones that were obtaining funds right before the crisis took place.

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