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Macro-Prudential Delusions: Bank Credit Outlook 2H 2017

In the mid 2000s, just before the financial crisis began, US banks were reporting credit metrics for all asset classes in loan portfolios that were quite literally too good to be true. And they were. The cost of bad credit decisions was hidden, for a time, by rising asset prices.

The same aggressive, low-rate environment used by the Fed to artificially stoke growth in the early 2000s has been repeated in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, only to a greater extreme. Today US banks report credit metrics in many loan categories that are not merely too good, but are entirely anomalous. Negative default rates, for example, are a red flag.

A decade ago, the more aggressive lenders such as Wachovia, Countrywide and Washington Mutual were actually reporting negative net default rates, suggesting that extending credit had no cost – in large part because the value of the collateral behind the loans was rising. In those heady days of comfortable collective delusions, non-current rates for 1-4 family loans were below 1%, the lowest levels of delinquency since the early 1990s.

This situation changed rather dramatically by 2007, when several large west-coast non-bank mortgage lenders collapsed. By the start of 2008, funding for banks, non-banks and even the GSEs was drying up and default rates were rising rapidly. The cost of credit reappeared. Net-charge off rates for 1-4 family loans in particular went from 0.06% early in 2005 to 1.5% by the end of 2008 and peaked at 2.5% by the end of 2009.

Today the irrational exuberance of the Federal Open Market Committee has created huge asset price bubbles in sectors such as residential and commercial real estate. A combination of low rates, a dearth of home builders (down 40% from ~ 550k firms in 2008 to ~ 330k firms today) and even less construction & development (C&D) lending (down ~ 30-40%) has constrained the supply of homes. But low rates sent prices for existing homes soaring multiples of annual GDP growth – both for single-family and multifamily properties.

Keep in mind that the folks on the Federal Reserve Board think that asset price inflation is helpful – thus the “wealth effect.” Specifically, the FOMC believes that manipulating risk preferences, credit spreads and therefore asset prices helps the economy to generate more income and employment. Many analysts have debunked the notion of a “wealth effect,” but the FOMC persists in this thinking even today. Mohamed E-Erian writing in Bloomberg has it right:

“Forced to use the 'asset channel' as the main vehicle for pursuing its macroeconomic growth and inflation objectives – that is, boosting asset prices to make consumers feel wealthier and spend more, and also to increase corporate investments by fueling animal spirits – the Fed has ended up providing exceptional multiyear support to financial markets using an experimental array of unconventional tools and forward policy guidance. Indeed, most investors and traders are now conditioned to expect soothing words from central bankers – and, if needed, policy actions – the minute markets hit a rough patch, virtually regardless of the reason.”

In an economic sense, the Federal Open Market Committee is the heart of the Administrative State. The use of the “asset channel” to pretend to boost economic activity is part of the larger delusion at the Fed known as “macro-prudential” policy. The macro-prudential worldview sees the Fed as an all knowing, all-seeing global managerial agency that can somehow balance goosing economic growth using asset bubbles with preventing the associated systemic risks. Note that regulating whole industries and constraining growth is, in fact, a key part of the Fed’s macropru model.

Having maintained low interest rates and used trillions of dollars of bank reserves to fund open market purchases of Treasury bonds and agency mortgage paper, the FOMC now faces an asset market that has understated the cost of credit for over a decade. From 2001 through 2007, and then 2009 through today, the FOMC has boosted asset prices – but without a commensurate and necessary increase in income. The Fed has, to paraphrase El-Erian, decoupled prices from fundamentals and distorted asset allocation in markets and the economy.

SO the question that concerns The IRA is when will the credit cycle turn and how much of the apparently benign credit picture we see today is a function of the Fed’s social engineering? If this latest round of Fed “ease” is more radical than that seen in the early 2000s, will we see an even sharper uptick in bank loan loss rates than we saw in 2007-2009?

Total Loans

Let’s start with the big picture perspectives of all US banks using our favorite chart, which juxtaposes pre-tax income with provisions for credit losses in the chart below. Note that quarterly pre-tax income for all US banks has slowly crawled back over $60 billion, resulting in net income in the low $40 billion range. The industry’s average tax rate was just below 30% on the $18.8 billion in taxes paid in Q1 2017.

Source: FDIC

Looking next at the $9.3 trillion in total loans for all US banks, the picture in the chart below is relatively calm. Note that the rate of non-current loans at 1.3% is still elevated above pre-crisis levels as are net loan charge-offs. Also, particularly note that in 2009 all non-current loans spiked to over 5%, yet net-losses after recoveries (loss given default or “LGD”) peaked at just 3%.

Source: FDIC

Loss given default at 75% is near the historic lows seen in 2006 and previously in the early 1990s. Think of LGD as the inverse measure of recoveries since the quality of the collateral behind the bank’s loan is the key determinant. Industry LGD for all bank loans fell to a low of 70% in 2014 when the bubble in residential and commercial real estate was roaring. Rising LGD for all bank loans today suggests that the bloom is off the rose in bank loan portfolios.

Source: FDIC

1-4 Family Loans

The $2.4 trillion in loans secured by 1-4 family residential properties is actually smaller in absolute terms and as a percentage of the bank balance sheet than