Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Banking System Continues to Shrink

According to the latest statistics of the Federal Reserve on the banking system, the banking system, as a whole, continues to shrink. Over the last 12 months, the total assets of all commercial banks in the United States banking system shrank by $560 billion or by about 5%. In the three months ending in January 2010, total bank assets dropped about $170 billion, with about $40 billion of the drop coming in January, itself.

Concern is still focused on the small- to medium-sized banks. Last week additional attention was focused specifically on 3,000 of these banks in terms of the problem loans they have on their books. (

Elizabeth Warren, who heads the TARP oversight panel, is quoted as saying: “The banks that are on the front lines of small-business lending are about to get hit by a tidal wave of commercial-loan failures.”

There are a little more than 8,000 banks in the United States banking system and they had about $11.7 trillion in assets in January 2010. The largest 25 banks in terms of asset size held about $6.7 trillion in assets or about 57% of the assets in the banking system. “Small” domestically chartered banks held about $3.6 trillion in assets or around 31% of the assets in the United States banking system while the assets of foreign-related institutions amount to $1.4 trillion or 12% of the assets of the banking system.

So, there are a very large number of very small banking institutions that make up only about one-third of the bank assets in the country.

The total assets at these “small” banks dropped by $42 billion in January 2010, although by only about $14 billion in the last three months. The more interesting thing, however, is in the composition of this decline.

During this time period the loans and leases at these “small” banks fell by $20 billion in January and by $36 billion over the past three months. These banks are just not lending!

The primary decline came in real estate loans: they dropped $12 billion in January and $22 billion over the last quarter. We have, of course, heard of the problems these banks are facing with respect to commercial real estate loans and the numbers support this concern. At the “small” banks, commercial real estate loans fell by $10 billion in January and by $21 billion since October 2009.

Things were not very robust in other lending areas, but the declines reported in these other loans were not nearly so dramatic. I will call attention to the fact that consumer loans dropped by about $5 billion at these small institutions in January, a rather substantial decline.

Another indication of the difficulties “small” banks were facing is the decline in the securities portfolios at these institutions. Securities dropped by $31 billion in January, a time in which the “large” banks and the “foreign-related” banks both added securities to their asset portfolios.

And, where were the “small” banks building up their assets? In Cash Assets! Cash assets at “small” banks rose by $8 billion in January, and the increase totaled $21 billion over the last three months.

The smaller banks in the United States are putting more and more assets into cash as their balance sheets and loan balances shrink. This certainty supports the idea that many of these banks are in severe straits.

Large banks, on the other hand, actually reduced their holdings of cash assets in January by a whopping $71 billion. Over the past three months they reduced they cash assets by $118 billion.

These banks were not putting funds into loans, however. They were putting funds into their securities portfolio, adding $17 billion in January and increasing the portfolio by $60 billion over the last three months. The vast majority of these funds went into United States Treasury securities or federal agency securities. One can certainly sense a riskless arbitrage-type of strategy going on here.

Loans and leases at these large banks actually dropped in January by $46 billion, being spread fairly broadly over Commercial and Industrial loans (dropping $11 billion), Real Estate loans (dropping $18 billion) and Consumer loans (dropping $11 billion). It should be noted that in the consumer loan area there have been massive declines in credit card and revolving credit, $14 billion in January alone, but $27 billion over the last three months.

American commercial banks are not lending…period!

The largest banks seem to be living off of the riskless arbitrage situations that are available. They are doing little to nothing to help stimulate the economy along. But, why should they get into risky business and real estate loans when they can earn a pretty handy return without risking anything? Thank you, Mr. Bernanke!

The smaller banks seem to be drawing up the ramparts, becoming more and more conservative. This is where the loan problems are and the behavior of these organizations certainly lend credence to that belief. The fact that these banks are even getting out of their securities raises additional concern about the seriousness of their situation.

Note: The behavior of foreign-related institutions during this time period is also of concern. In the last three months, foreign-related institutions reduced their securities portfolio by $19 billion, their trading assets by $26 billion and their loans and leases by $33 billion, a total of $78 billion.

And where did they put the proceeds of this reduction in assets? They increased cash assets by $73 billion!

Foreign-related institutions in the banking week ending February 3, 2010, held $473 billion in cash assets, 38% of all the cash assets held by the banking system in the United States.

I don’t know right now, whether or not this fact should be a concern, but I would like to understand a little bit more about the situation of these banks. The “small” banks in the United States are moving in this direction because of the “poor” state of their loan portfolios. Is this move on the part of the foreign-related institutions of a similar nature? Or, are they going to move assets out of the United States?

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