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.