The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation oversaw the closing of six banks on Friday, April 15. This brings the total for 2011 up to 34 banks, a pace of about 2.3 banks per week.
In 2010, 157 banks were closed, a pace of about 3.0 banks per week.
The problem bank list published by the FDIC every quarter rested at just under 900 banks (out of 6,529 banks in the banking system) on December 31, 2010. We are waiting for the release of this number for the March 31, 2011 date.
The other number that is important in this respect is the number of banks that were acquired or merged into other banks. Last year there were 153 banks dropping out of the industry due to such consolidations.
Thus, the number of banks in the commercial banking system declined by 310 units last year or at a rate of approximately 6.0 banks leaving the system per week.
Most of the banks dropping out of the banking system are smaller institutions. However, last week a $3.0 billion bank was closed so it is not all just the very smallest banks that are leaving the system. Still, it not the largest 25 commercial banks in the banking system, the banks that control almost 60% of the total assets of the industry, that are departing.
The question still remains about the health of this industry. Is the number of problem banks in the industry going to remain around 900 institutions? Are bank departures going to continue to run off at the rate of 5 to 6 banks a week? Will these rates lessen this year? Or, will they increase?
Supposedly, the condition of the smaller banks is getting better. But, as we saw with Bank of America last week, the overhang of bad mortgage loans still plagues some institutions. Right now, I believe that the drop off in foreclosures on residential mortgages is misleading because the whole foreclosure issue has become so political that we probably won’t really have a good idea about the situation in the housing industry and in loan writeoffs for some time.
We do know, however, that there are a lot of commercial real estate loans coming due over the next twelve months and the word I hear about the refinancing of these loans is not good. Vacancies in commercial properties remain high and cash flows have not picked up significantly. Furthermore, as more and more political entities downsize, more and more office properties used by these state and local governments are being vacated. This was not expected a year ago.
In addition, I am also hearing that more small- and medium-sized businesses have exhausted their efforts to re-structure and just cannot go on much further. As their loans come due, they are informing their banks that they are not going to be able to pay off their loans and must re-finance.
Thus, the banks have to make a decision about whether or not they roll over the loans for another period of time. Or, do they “bite the bullet” and say they just cannot keep the loan going with no real sign that things are going to get better.
Then there are the examiners looking closely over the shoulders of these bankers. The regulators are still running scared and, given all the restructuring of the regulatory institutions, don’t want to have the people in the new regulatory alignment holding them accountable for being too easy on these “failing” banks. There is enough finger-pointing going on with respect to the “lax” regulatory environment that existed in the past.
Bankers, especially from the smaller banks, feel caught in the middle of this exercise. They want to do what they can to help their customers survive. Yet, they are being pressed by the regulators, who also feel they are under excessive pressure, to not show overly-optimistic hopes about the ability of these businesses to repay. In fact, the result may be that a too pessimistic approach is taken toward the quality of the bank loans.
As a consequence, we will probably see the list of problem banks remain somewhere around their current highs and we will probably see business loans and commercial real estate loans continue to decline on the balance sheets of the banking industry.
And we will continue to experience a decline in the number of banking institutions in the United States.
The crucial element of this decline is that it is that the decline takes place in an orderly fashion.
I believe that the Federal Reserve has contributed greatly to the achievement of this orderly reduction in the number of commercial bans in the banking industry. Keeping short-term interest rates so low and pumping so much liquidity into the banking industry has reduced what could have been a very chaotic evacuation into a relatively peaceful exodus.
Of course, there are other consequences to the Fed’s policy and we will have to deal with those in the future. For now, the Federal Reserve has kept the banking system open.
Until the history of the recent financial collapse is fully understood and written up, most of us will probably not know how serious the banking crisis has been. We get bits and pieces of this seriousness, but government officials have not really believed that the depth of the problem should be presented to the rest of the world.
For example, buried in the column Global Insight by Tony Barber in the Financial Times this morning is this observation: “For the truth about the eurozone’s crisis…is that the rescues of Greece, Ireland and Portugal are at heart rescues of European banks…Restructuring these countries debts would involve losses for German banks…” (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4ed1d54a-6915-11e0-9040-00144feab49a.html#axzz1JsjXsOj5). But this is not what is expressed in most governmental commentary.
It appears as if the credit inflation of the past fifty years in America, and in Europe, seriously infected the banks and the cure for this infection is taking a very long period of time to achieve and is creating, in the process, economic and financial dislocations that we may not fully recognize for many years.
For now, however, we can only hope that the cure takes place in an orderly fashion.