Why Banks Aren’t Lending

Remember the old story about commercial banks? Commercial banks only lend to people who don’t need to borrow.

Well, that seems to be the “truth” about bank lending now. The story going around is that the larger banks have increased their business lending, but the lending is really only going to those institutions that have a lot of cash on hand. Otherwise, the commercial banks will sit on their excess reserves.

This also seems to be the story in Europe: commercial banks are just not lending anywhere. (link)

And, the relevant question is not “Why aren’t commercial banks lending?” The relevant question is “Why should commercial banks be lending at this time?”

The first reason why many banks shouldn’t be lending right now is that there is still a large number of banks who may be severely undercapitalized or insolvent. Many commercial banks have assets on their balance sheets whose economic value is substantially below the value the asset is accounted for on that balance sheet.

The most notorious case of this is the sovereign debt issues carried on the balance sheets of many European banks. The values that many of these banks have on their balance sheets for these assets have the credibility that the recent “stress tests” administered to more than 90 banks by European banking authorities. (Note that the European Union moved today to recapitalize 16 banks).

But, the problem is not limited to Europe. How many assets on the books of American banks have values that need to be written down to more realistic market values. For example, small- and medium-sized commercial banks in the United States have a large portion of their loan portfolios in commercial real estate loans. The commercial real estate market is still experiencing a depression and market values continue to decline in many areas. The write off of these loans can take large chunks out of the capital these banks are still reporting.

The bottom line here is that commercial banks that still have problems are not willing to take on any more risk than they have to while they still have to “work out” these depreciated assets, or, at least, wait until the markets recover and asset values rise once again to former levels. If you don’t make another loan…it will not go bad on you…so why take the risk of making a new loan.

And there are 865 commercial banks on the FDIC’s list of problem banks and many more surrounding that total that have not met the specific criteria of the FDIC to be considered a problem bank.

The second reason why many banks shouldn’t be lending right now it that the net interest margin they can earn on loans is hardly sufficient to cover expense costs. I have talked with many bankers now that say the only way to make any money through bank operations is to charge for transactions. That is, to generate fee income.

A general figure that represents the expense ratio of a bank is by taking expenses and dividing them by total assets. Recent data indicate that this expense ratio is in excess of 3 percent, being around 3.15 percent to be more exact. This means that on basic lending operations a commercial bank must earn a net interest margin of 3.15 percent in order to “break even”.

Is there a problem here? You betcha’!

Adding to this dilemma is the fact that the Federal Reserve has added on a new “operation twist” to the mix. All these banks need is a flatter yield curve. (link)

There are two ways to respond to a flatter yield curve. First, one can take on more risk in their lending. (link) Or, commercial banks can attempt to earn more money through additional fees, or principal investments (private equity or venture capital), or through the assumption of systematic risk taking. (link)

Is this what the Fed wants? The Fed seems to be caught in the bind that it must be seen as doing something, even though that something may not be very productive (QE2) or even counter productive (leading to bubbles and other speculative activity).

The take on Fed behavior during the Great Depression has been that the central bank did not do enough. Hence, Mr. Bernanke and crew are taking the position that history will not brand them with the same interpretation. For the past three years they have operated so as to avoid the claim that they did not do everything in their power to counteract the forces causing a great recession, slow economic growth, or economic stagnation.

And, here they face the possibility of “unintended consequences”. If the flattening of the yield curve results in even less bank lending than would have occurred otherwise, the Fed could actually be exacerbating the situation. The stock market declined upon hearing the Fed’s policy.

The third reason why banks may not be lending now is the absence of loan demand. Fifty years of government created credit inflation has resulted in excessive debt loads being carried by individuals, families, businesses, governments (at all levels) and not-for-profit institutions. People, faced with under-employment, declining asset values, and income/wealth inequities, are attempting to de-leverage. This de-leveraging will continue until people feel more comfortable with their debt loads, or, the Fed creates sufficient inflation so that people will start to take on more debt again.

If the Fed achieves the latter, then we have returned to the credit inflation situation that has existed for the past fifty years. This period of credit inflation has resulted in an 85 percent decline in the purchasing power of the dollar, more and more under-employment of labor, and greater income/wealth discrepancies within the society.

The fourth reason is the uncertainty created in “the rules of the game.” The Dodd-Frank financial reform act has created a great deal of uncertainty within the financial community. For one, only about 25 percent of the regulations have actually been written and only a portion of these have passed. As a consequence, commercial banks don’t know what rules they will have to follow…or, even more important, what rules they will have to find ways to circumvent. Another new set of rules, these on taxation, were introduced by President Obama this week. George Shultz, former Secretary of the Treasury, has argued that new, complex tax proposals not only lead to short-term uncertainty about what must be dealt with, but that over time “the wealthy and GE” will find ways to manipulate the tax laws in their favor. But, unfortunately, people, families and businesses, will devote time and resources to dealing with these “rules of the game” and not allocate this time and resources to more productive activities.

Again, I raise the question “Why should banks be lending?”, not the question “Why aren’t banks lending?”

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About John Mason 79 Articles

Professional history: Banking--President and CEO of two publically traded financial institutions; Executive Vice President and CFO of another. Academic--Professor at Penn State University and at the Finance Department, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Government--Special Assistant to Secretary George Romney at Department of Housing and Urban Development; Senior Economist in Federal Reserve System. Entrepreneurial--work in venture capital and other private equity; work with young entrepreneurs in urban environment.

Visit: Mase: Economics and Finance

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