Sunday, June 13, 2010

Commercial Banking: Still Hanging On

The commercial banking system continues to contract. Loan volumes keep falling.

Total assets in domestic commercial banks in the United States fell again over the past four weeks as the banking system continues to contract. From May 5 through June 2, total assets declined by about $105 billion while Loans and Leases dropped by $48 billion over the same period of time. This is from the H.8 release of the Federal Reserve.

In the past month, Securities held by domestically chartered banks declined by over $42 billion as Treasury and Agency securities at these institutions fell by almost $22 billion and other securities fell by $20 billion.

An interesting aside is that cash assets at foreign-related financial institutions fell by over $54 billion during this four-week period. Institutions took funds from the United States and parked them back in Europe where more liquidity was needed to weather the crisis taking place there.

Splitting this up we find that the total assets of large domestically chartered banks fell by about $86 billion whereas total assets fell at smaller banks by only $19 billion.

Driving this decline was a drop in purchased funds at the larger banks with a fall of $34 billion in borrowing from banks other than those in the United States and from a decline in net deposits due to related foreign bank offices. This would seem to mirror the turmoil taking place in Europe and indicates a reduction in the reliance in funds coming from elsewhere in the world.

Other deposits at these large domestically chartered banks rose by almost $21 billion to offset some of the decline in other sources of funds.

At the smaller banks, deposits continued to run off, declining by about $11 billion while borrowings from banks in the United States also fell, declining by over $5 billion.

Commercial and Industrial Loans (business loans) held roughly constant over the past month although they dropped by about $37 billion over the last 13-week period. Real estate loans continue to drop. They declined by almost $12 billion at the larger banking institutions and fell by over $10 billion at smaller banks. The drop over the past thirteen weeks was about $30 billion.

In addition, consumer loans dropped by over $11 billion at the larger banks over the last four weeks while they stayed roughly constant at the smaller banks.

Year-over-year total assets in the banking system dropped by $256 billion, year-over-year, from May 2009 to May 2010. Loans and leases fell by $222 during the same time period.

Commercial bank lending has declined for more than a year and shows no sign of stopping!

This, of course, is the type of situation that the economist Irving Fisher was worried about when he discussed a debt deflation. Loans that are being liquidated are not being replaced by new loans, hence the decline in loan balances. This is a difficult environment for a central bank. The monetary authority may be injecting funds into the banking system but since banks aren’t lending it feels like the central bank is “pushing on a string.” ( See

The concern is whether or not the “lending problem” is a demand problem or a supply problem. That is, if the problem is a demand problem, businesses are not going to their banker to borrow money. If the problem is a supply problem, commercial banks don’t want to make loans.

My belief is that the current dilemma has been created by both sides and this is consistent with Fisher’s concern about debt deflation. In the credit inflation, everyone, banks and non-banks alike, increase their use of leverage. In Fisher’s terms, the granting of new loans exceeds the liquidation of loans so that loan balances increase. In the debt deflation period, loans are being paid down.

And, how is this showing up?

Commercial banks are holding roughly $1.2 trillion in cash assets. Non-bank companies are holding about $1.8 trillion in cash and other liquid assets. This latter number comes from the Wall Street Journal article by Justin Lahart, “U. S. Firms Build Up Record Cash Piles,”

From the article, “U. S. companies are holding more cash in the bank than at any point on record…” The total of $1.8 trillion is up 26% from a year earlier and is “the largest-ever increase in records going back to 1952.”

The reluctance to borrow/lend is coming from both sides of the market as both banks and non-banks attempt to re-position their balance sheets to protect against further bad times and to be prepared for when the economy really begins to pick up speed once again.

In addition, there is still the concern over the health of the smaller banks in the banking system. The largest 25 banks in the banking system make up about two-thirds of the assets of the banking system. The other 8,000 banks still seem to have plenty of problems. About one in eight of these “smaller” banks are on the problem bank list of the FDIC and between 3.5 and 4 banks have been closed every week this year. This number will probably grow over the next 12 months.

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve continues to keep its target interest rate close to zero. This has been a boon to the larger banks, but is seemingly in place to keep the situation with respect to smaller banks from deteriorating even further. Many analysts believe that the Fed will keep its target interest rate low into 2011. This reinforces my belief that the “smaller” banks in the United States are still in serious trouble. Federal Reserve officials will not confess that the low target rate of interest is to keep as many “small” banks open as possible. To do so would be disturbing to depositors and other customers of these banks.

The question is, are we really in a period of debt deflation? Certainly the loan figures discussed above could be interpreted that way. But, is this all that is going on.

The interesting thing to me is that the economy seems to be bi-furcating in several ways. For one, there are a large number of people that are under-employed and seem to be facing an extended period in which they will be living off of their accumulated wealth, if they have any, or on government welfare. Yet, there are a lot of people that are doing very, very well.

The “big” banks are doing very, very well while the “smaller” banks are scraping by, at best.

The Wall Street Journal article referred to above indicates that businesses, especially larger companies, have a lot of cash on hand and are doing better than OK. We know, however, that there are a lot of other businesses that are not doing so well and still face bankruptcy or restructuring.

One could seriously argue that when the economy really does begin to pick up there will be a tremendous shift in the structure of United States banking and industry. And, if I were to choose, I would bet on the “big” guys! Sorry, little guys!

1 comment:

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