Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Can Obama Get Banks To Loosen Lending?

Obama met with top financial institutions to encourage them to loosen lending to help the economy recover in reciprocation of receiving significant help from American taxpayers during the financial crisis. However this encouragement may not be enough to overcome the higher risk of lending in a poor economic environment. See the following from Economist's View.

Obama tells bankers they should lend more to small businesses and homeowners:
Obama Tells Bankers That Lending Can Spur Economy, by Helene Cooper and Javier Hernandez, NY Times: President Obama pressured the heads of the nation’s biggest banks on Monday to take “extraordinary” steps to revive lending for small businesses and homeowners, drawing a firm commitment from one large bank to make more loans and vaguer assurances from others.

Meeting with executives from 13 financial institutions, Mr. Obama sent a clear message that the industry had a responsibility to help nurse the economy back to health and do more to create jobs in return for the bailout last year that kept Wall Street and the banking system afloat.

But ... Mr. Obama also confronted the limits of his power to jawbone the industry. ... The heads of three of the biggest firms — Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup — did not even make it to the White House meeting in person, having waited until Monday morning to travel to Washington and then being held up by fog.

“America’s banks received extraordinary assistance from American taxpayers to rebuild their industry,” Mr. Obama said in remarks after a midday meeting with bankers at the White House. “Now that they’re back on their feet we expect an extraordinary commitment from them to help rebuild our economy.” ...

Bank of America said after the meeting that it would increase lending to small and mid-sized businesses by $5 billion next year over what it lent to them in 2009.

Speaking outside the White House, Richard K. Davis, the chief executive of U.S. Bancorp,... said financial institutions would re-examine small business loans that had been denied, but he cautioned that banks had a responsibility to carefully evaluate the qualifications of each client. “We simply want to assure that we make qualified loans,” he said. ...

The tone for the White House meeting with the bankers was set Sunday night when CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcast an interview in which Mr. Obama said “I did not run for office to be helping out a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street.” ...

“We have to get them off the sidelines and get them to play a more active role in our economic recovery,” Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said on Sunday. “They play an essential role in helping the economy grow.”
There are hurdles to get over on both the demand and supply side of the equation. Because of the recession, the demand for loans for new investment and for other purposes is down, but when firms do apply for credit, they are less likely to get it because banks assess credit worthiness partly based upon current economic conditions. The poor state of the economy has led them to conclude that many loans that might be made in better times are too risky to make right now

On the demand side, tax cuts and other incentives would help, but the supply of credit has to be addressed too. Yes, there's plenty of liquidity available, bank vaults are overrun with funds, but banks are reluctant to lend in this environment (particularly small and medium sized banks who face lots of uncertainty over their exposure to commercial real estate loans that may or may not be paid off). A solution to this is for the government to insure the loans in some way through tax write-offs, direct loss sharing, subsides, etc., there are lots of ways to do this, but it's hard to imagine anything like this happening in the present political environment, and the desirability of encouraging risky loans as a solution to our problems is questionable in any case (the money may be better spent on public projects with a high social return). However, if the government wants to encourage more lending in the private sector, something along these lines will need to be done. I don't see how speeches and meetings with bank executives asking them to lend more will do much to solve the problems, particularly the problems at smaller banks.

This post has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.

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