Friday, April 23, 2010

The Changing Banking System

I remember when there were more than 14,000 banks in the United States. I also remember when there were 12,000 banks in the banking system. Even in those days, the financial industry only accounted for no more than about one-sixth of total domestic profits in America.

Now there are about 8,000 banks in the United States and about one in eight of these banks is either on the problem bank list of the FDIC or in rather serious trouble. The FDIC is closing three to four banks a week and it is expected to continue on this pace for another twelve to eighteen months.

The biggest banks in the banking system are doing well, profit wise. The reported earnings this week of JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Citigroup, and so on just re-confirmed the recovery of these giant institutions. Of course it is not the banking side of the business that is producing these results, although their loan problems seem to be diminishing. It is the trading side of the business that is creating such significant gains subsidized by the Federal Reserve zero interest rate policy. This is the “quiet” bailout of these banks because it does not require Treasury funds to support the effort and it helps bank assets improve so that insolvency becomes less and less of a problem.

Furthermore, regional banks appear to be recovering. PNC and BB&T have been doing well, but those lagging behind, Fifth Third Bancorp, KeyCorp, SunTrust Banks, and Huntington Bancshares all seem to be showing improvements which respect to their problem loans. PNC and BB&T actually reported profits for the first quarter, $671 million for PNC and $194 million for BB&T. So, the improvements continue down the supply chain (
We are still waiting for the small- to medium-sized banks to start perking up. But, this is where more of the problem or troubled banks lie and where most of the bank closures or acquisitions are going to be.

This fact points to one of the major changes taking place in the banking system. We are going through another period where the number of banks in the banking system is declining. I would not be surprised at all if the number of banks dropped to the 5,000 to 6,000 range over the next few years.

This movement will continue the consolidation of the banking industry in the United States. Right now, $2 out of every $3 in domestic banking assets resides in the largest 25 banks in the country. These are the huge banks mentioned above and the large regional banks mentioned above.

How high might this concentration go? I believe that regardless of what Congress does with respect to financial reform and trying to limit the size of banks that the total amount of domestic assets residing in the largest 25 banks in the country will go to about $4 out of every $5 in the relatively near future. This means that there will be at least 5,000 banks competing for that other $1!

Another change that is taking place in the United States banking system is the presence of more and more foreign banks. This seems to be a perfect time for foreign owned banks to pick up acquisitions in the United States and not only gain size but also gain presence in different regional markets. In this respect, note the article “Foreign Firms Scoop Up Failed U. S. Banks” in the Wall Street Journal, Canadian banks are especially taking advantage of the banking situation in the United States, but banks in Japan and other countries are seizing the opportunity as well.

In March, foreign-related institutions controlled over 11% of the assets in the United States banking system. This is up substantially from thirty years ago and is expected to climb further in the near future. My guess is that this number will be in the 15% to 20% range over the next five years or so. And, these assets will not be owned by small- or medium-sized financial organizations.

This is the problem now faced by President Obama and the Congress in terms of financial reform. I just don’t see these trends reversing themselves. And, as banks get bigger they will also be controlling more and more of the banking assets in the United States. And, as the banks get bigger they will continue to move into more and more areas of the financial market and they will continue to create more and more financial innovations.

And, if they are not done in the United States they will be done somewhere else in the world for commercial banking is, in fact, worldwide and not just the playing field of Americans. Big foreign banks are becoming a bigger part of the United States banking scene just as big United States banks are becoming a bigger part of the banking scene in other countries.

The difficulty in writing regulations that try to control what these banks can do is, in the words of economists Oliver Hart of Harvard and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, “doomed to fail because such regulations are extremely easy to bypass. It takes no time for a clever financier to design a contract that gets around most restrictions.” Finance is just information and information can be restructured in almost any way that someone wants it to be structured.

The evolution of the financial system is going to continue to be fought by those constrained to the old Keynesian fundamentalism. The current financial environment has been created by fifty years of government policy conforming to a dogma that considers an inflationary bias to the economy an necessary pre-requisite for sustaining high levels of economic growth and low levels of unemployment.

Well, this inflationary environment has fostered the undisciplined expansion of credit, the excessive leveraging of financial capital, and the creation of more and more financial innovation to underwrite both the expansion of the debt and the aggressive financial leveraging. It has also resulted in the relative growth of the financial industry.

Many of these same commentators have remarked about how the financial sector has grown relative to the rest of the economy. For example, Paul Krugman in “Don’t Cry for Wall Street”, has written: “In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the financial industry accounted for a third of total domestic profits — about twice its share two decades earlier.” He then makes the value judgment that “the fact is that we’ve been devoting far too large a share of our wealth, far too much of the nation’s talent, to the business of devising and peddling complex financial schemes — schemes that have a tendency to blow up the economy. Ending this state of affairs will hurt the financial industry. So?” (See

Well, this is the financial industry that a government following the Keynesian economic philosophy has created. Two final comments: first, care needs to be taken in creating economic policies because the long run effect of the policies may not be what you want even though the short run effects are what you want; and second, once the size and structure of an industry has been created, it does not go away until the industry becomes technologically obsolete. The financial industry is thriving using information technology, a field that is just in its infancy. Finance and information technology have a long way to go.

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