Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is Bank Lending to Business Starting to Pick Up a Little?

Last month I wrote a post about “Why is most of the Fed’s QE2 Cash Going to Foreign Related Banking Institutions.” (

This month the Fed’s “cash” injection has ended up at the largest 25 banking institutions in the United States. Cash assets at the largest domestically chartered banks rose by almost $160 billion over the past four weeks.

The cash assets at foreign-related banking institutions dropped modestly (about $4 billion) over the last four weeks but is still up approximately $125 billion since the end of last year.

According to the Fed’s data on the commercial banking industry, cash assets in commercial banks have risen by about $260 billion over the past nine banking weeks, with around $135 billion going to the largest 25 domestically chartered banks, $125 billion going to foreign related financial institutions and roughly zero going to the other 7,600 domestically chartered small banks.

Other than this fact, the interesting change within the United States banking system itself is that although credit extension at domestically chartered commercial banks declined rather substantially since the end of last year, the loans and leases at the smaller commercial banks actually went up.

Overall, loans and leases on the books of commercial banks declined by about $27 billion over the last four weeks and by $61 billion since the end of 2010.

Interestingly, the smaller banks recorded a $28 billion increase in loans over the last four weeks, with commercial and industrial (C&I) loans rising by $5.5 billion and commercial real estate loans increasing by about $18 billion.

It should be noted that residential mortgages fell by about $11 billion over the same time frame.
Is this a sign that commercial lending is picking up for the smaller banks. This is the first time in the last few years that commercial lending has actually shown any sign of increasing at these smaller institutions, especially in the area of commercial real estate.

C & I loans did pick up at the larger banks over the last four weeks and this dominated the activity in this area during the early part of this year.

However, commercial real estate lending declined at the largest banks by $25 billion, so that this category of loans did decline in total. Also, since the end of last year, commercial real estate loans at these large banks declined by $32 billion so that overall, the commercial real estate sector continued to decline throughout the early part of 2011.

So, the question is, “Is bank lending to businesses starting to pick up a little?”
Really, we only have a little information that it might be picking up. But, it certainly is something to keep our eyes on.

The big mystery still seems to be the placement of the QE2 money being generated by the Federal Reserve system. Reserve balances at Federal Reserve banks have increased by about $280 billion from the end of 2010 to March 2, 2011. This increase in Reserve Balances seems to be roughly divided between the largest 25 domestically chartered commercial banks and foreign-related financial institutions. But, loan at these institutions over this time period have actually gone down. What’s going on?

As for the smaller banks, they do not seem to have participated in this round of quantitative easing. Yet, it has been my belief that one rationale for QE2 has been to provide market liquidity for the smaller banks so that it will ease the strain on those banks that are especially having solvency problems. Given recent data released by the FDIC it seems as if there are still a large number of the smaller banks in the country that are still having major problems staying alive.

Thus, at least part of the purpose of QE2 is to help keep these banks open so that they can be closed by the FDIC in an orderly fashion. Through the first nine weeks of the year the FDIC has closed an average of just under 3 banks per week. This is down slightly from about 3.5 banks a week in 2010.

We continue to wait. Believe it or not, the economic recovery is just about a quarter short of being two years old. There are still areas of the economy that remain of concern like the banking industry, the residential housing market, the commercial real estate market, and state and local finances. And, there still are shocks around the world that threaten to bring everything else down: the unrest in the Middle East and arising oil prices; the earthquake in Japan; and the sovereign debt problem in Europe.

So the bad news is that the economic recovery is just about a quarter short of being two years old and underemployment is so large and manufacturing capacity is so low for this time in the business cycle.

The good news is that the economic recovery is just about a quarter short of being two years old
and the recovery seems to be robust enough to continue to meander along in an upward direction.

It would be nice to have more bank lending to spur the recovery along, but it will be even better if the financial system can continue to function without a disruption to the steady pace of the FDIC closing the banks it needs to close.

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