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Bank Loans: Still Contracting

Information from various sources suggests that the number of loans that banks are making to businesses continues to fall. The contraction appears to be driven by both supply and demand; banks are extending less credit, and businesses are asking for less. The restriction of credit may be one important factor that is constraining the current recovery, since businesses, especially small ones, rely on bank loans and access to credit to finance their operations, capital expenditures, and growth.

Business loans (including mortgages) have decreased by 11 percent relative to its 2008 peak. This represents the second largest percentage decline after the one that occurred in 1990–1993. Lines of credit have been greatly reduced as well, according to anecdotal evidence.

Nonfarm Nonfinancial Corporate Business Loans

The rapid pace of the decline is especially conspicuous when lending growth is compared across past recession-recovery cycles. Loans have tended to increase on average during the recovery phase. Only in 1990–1993 did loans decline at a comparable pace at this stage of the business cycle.

Nonfarm Nonfinancial Corporate Business Loans

Tight lending standards have contributed to the decline in loans. Evidence that current lending standards are unusually tight comes from the Senior Loan Officer Survey, which asks officers of large banks how their credit standards for commercial and industrial loans or credit lines havechanged over the past quarter. Officers reporting tightened standards have been outweighing those reporting eased standards for over three years. Since standards have been tightening for so long, their current level must be very tight. To see this clearly, we compute an index of how tight lending standards are, using a moving average of the net percentage of those reporting tighter standards. (More precisely, the index is a weighted average of current and past net percentage balances, with larger weights on more recent observations and smaller weights on older observations). This index is currently close to its historical peak, confirming that current lending standards are very tight.

Net Percentage Reporting Tightening Standards for C and I Loans to Small Firms

Weak demand for loans has contributed to the decline in loans as well. The Senior Loan Officer Survey also asks how the demand for commercial and industrial loans has changed over the past quarter, and officers reporting weaker demand have been outweighing those reporting stronger demand for almost four years. Since demand has been weakening for so long, its current level must be very low. A moving average of the net percentage reporting stronger demand is currently close to its historical low, confirming that current loan demand is very weak.

Net Percentage Reporting Stronger Demand for C and I Loans by Small Firms

For insight into what might be causing the decline in bank credit, we looked at some anecdotal evidence on small business credit. In 2010, the Federal Reserve hosted more than 40 meetings with bank and business representatives to gather information and perspectives on the credit needs of small businesses. The addendum to the Fed’s July 2010 report to Congress contains a summary of the main results. Participants reinforced the conclusion that declines in both supply and demand have contributed to the contraction in small business credit.

With regard to supply, participants emphasized that bank lending standards remain tight and that the availability of credit is restricted. To extend new loans and renew old ones, banks require stronger cash flows, larger collateral values, and higher credit scores. One important reason why banks are tightening credit seems to be their concern for their current and expected capital and liquidity positions.

Participants also reported that loan demand from small businesses is weaker, that the demand for loans and credit from creditworthy businesses has fallen, and that the quality of loan applications from small businesses has deteriorated. A few factors help explain the decrease in small business loan demand: the economic downturn, which has diminished sales for many small businesses, the uncertainty about business prospects and the economic outlook, and the deterioration in small businesses’ financial conditions.

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