Can recovery and credit crunch coexist?

By J Saft
November 12, 2009

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

New studies from the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank show that, whatever else, a recovery in the economy is not being supported by a resumption in bank lending, raising concerns about how exactly growth will become self-sustaining when official stimulus ebbs.

The ECB last week released its loan survey showing banks tightened credit yet again for businesses and consumers, though at a less severe rate than in the previous quarter. Much was made of the fact that banks said they expected to ease terms to businesses, but not individuals, slightly in the last three months of the year.

Days later the Fed was out with its own survey, and again the news is getting worse more slowly, which must mean it is time to pop open the tap water. Banks are tightening terms and conditions to large firms, though fewer are doing so than before. Of course we should be thankful for small mercies, but the fact remains that this is a relative rather than an absolute survey, which means that even if fewer are being tougher the vast majority are being just as tight with money as they were three months ago when things were very tight indeed.

But wait, I can almost hear you ask, banks are making money again. If not making loans, what are they doing with it? Funny you should ask, they are lending it to the government. According to Fed data October marked the first time in years that banks held the same amount in Treasuries and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds as they did in commercial and industrial loans. Business loans have plunged 18 percent in a year, while Treasury and agency bonds are up 8 percent.

Banks are choosing to lend to the government and to government-backstopped mortgage firms because they see it as the best way to survive: hunker down, take fewer risks and content yourself with the thin gruel and thin margins of taking deposits and lending to the entity insuring those deposits. It’s a good way to get solvent but it will take a terribly long time.

Falling demand for credit is a factor too. Firms are concentrating on expanding margins by cutting back on costs, rather than positioning themselves for an upswing in demand. That means they want fewer loans to support capital expenditure. It also sadly means that they are not yet hiring.

OF JOB GROWTH AND SMALL FIRMS

The question becomes will the loans be there when companies do decide that it is time to tool up and hire again. There can be no certainty. Banks are still in pretty poor shape, more will fail and few look likely to expand.

If you believed in markets you would believe that this is simply setting the stage for new entrants to come in and make loans that the banks won’t. I’d like to believe this, but here we run into one of the terrible side effects of too-big and too-connected to fail. Who on earth wants to set themselves up in competition with government-backed firms? Some will do extremely well in making loans opportunistically to commercial real estate and industry over the next two years, but fewer than would be the case if there was a truly level playing field.

Two groups are doing reasonably well, but only because they don’t have to rely on bank credit: large credit-worthy borrowers and house buyers. Fannie and Freddie are still cranking out mortgages, and loans backed by the Federal Housing Authority have boomed. Rates are low, and though fees are high and terms tighter it has to be said that the decision to officially support the housing market by tax breaks and subsidized lending is making a difference. It may not be good policy, but it is effective poor policy.

Small firms seem to be getting particularly tough treatment; the Fed survey shows that terms, conditions, pricing and availability were all deteriorating more rapidly for the small than the large and medium-sized companies. Annaly Capital points out that while middle market firms paid only a slight premium in the loans market in 2007 and 2008, the difference between benchmark loans and middle market is now almost 6 full percentage points, meaning they pay nearly double.

A prepackaged bankruptcy for CIT Group and a chastened GE Capital will not improve things.

Two possibilities suggest themselves for how things play out. Banks may get their balance sheets in order and begin to lend again in force next year, meeting a need for investment as economic growth takes root, if indeed it does.

If demand rises and banks can’t meet it, look for more official arm-twisting, more ritual abasement by bankers called before Congress and, ultimately, more official interference in the process, probably in the form of insurance or even mandates.

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

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