Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Problems of the Savings Industry

In an earlier post I reported that the weakness being experienced in the year-over-year rate of growth of the M2 measure of the money stock could be attributed to shifts in deposits from thrift institutions into commercial banks. (September 25:

On Tuesday, September 29, I wrote about commercial banks and how bank holding companies had raised a substantial amount of funds in the capital markets from the second quarter of 2008 to the second quarter of 2009 but most of the funds raised by these institutions went into non-bank subsidiaries. Chartered U. S. banks saw some increase in assets over this time period but these funds went into cash assets, government or agency securities, and mortgages, mostly of the commercial type.

We also have data from the flow-of-funds accounts that give us some insight into what is happening at savings institutions and credit unions. The real success story seems to be that connected with credit unions. The credit union industry ended the second quarter of 2008 with almost $900 billion in financial assets. All other savings institutions had assets of about $1,400 billion and the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) reported that thrift institutions had assets that amounted to only $1,100 at the end of the second quarter.

Who would have ever thought that the credit union industry would ever be about the same size as the thrift industry?

Credit Unions grew by $73 billion, year-over-year, and the credit that they extended seemed to expand during this time period at a fairly steady pace.

The bad news: savings institutions, which include savings and loan associations, mutual savings banks, and federal savings banks, performed abysmally. For one, industry assets, according to the OTS fell by 27% over the last year, reflecting the failure and sale (to commercial banks) of several large thrift institutions. Total loans at these institutions fell by 35%.

The total decline in financial assets for the industry was $420 billion: the mortgage portfolio of the industry declined by almost a third or $360 billion. Consumer credit also declined by about $14 billion.

According to the OTS, the industry as a whole earned a profit of $4 million—yes, that’s million—in the second quarter. This is the first quarterly profit since the third quarter of 2007.

The industry added almost $5.0 billion—yes, that’s billion—to loan loss provisions in the second quarter. This loan loss provision was exceeded in history by only five other quarters. However, these five other quarters were the five quarters just preceding the second quarter of 2009.

The OTS reports, however, that “96.2% of all thrifts exceed ‘well-capitalized’ regulatory standards.” These institutions, we are told comprise 95.9% of industry assets but most of them are relatively small. So, institutions with approximately $45 billion in assets are in not “well-capitalized” thrifts, by industry standards. The number of problem thrifts reached 40 at the end of the second quarter.

Yet the industry has about $40 in what are called troubled assets, about 3.5% of Total Assets. Troubled assets are noncurrent loans and reposed assets.

It seems as if the thrift industry is dying and needs to be consolidated and merged into the commercial banking industry. (And this from a person, myself, who successfully turned around two thrift institutions.) I don’t believe that there should be a merger of thrift institutions with the credit union segment of the industry. Credit unions seem to be doing something right. (I have worked, in recent years, with groups to form three credit unions and I believe that credit unions can fill a very important gap in consumer finance, credit and banking services.)

The thrift industry played a very important role in the history of the United States (and elsewhere in the world). In the current era of securitization and financial innovation, I believe that savings institutions have exceeded their useful lifetime. The savings and loan crisis saw the collapse of the industry and the 2000s just verified that the industry really needs to continue to shrink and become incorporated into other segments of the market.

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