In the twelve months to January, the lending of U.S. banks to households increased about 3 percent while, over that period, their loanable funds (excess reserves) soared by an incredible 59.4 percent.
Clearly, massive monthly asset purchases by the U.S. Federal Reserve (Fed) were of no great help. The banks' near retreat from their core business (consumer financing), along with sluggish income growth and a large slack in labor markets, weakened all the key pillars of private consumption.
Is it any wonder, then, that the inflation adjusted consumer spending – 70 percent of the U.S. economy – was growing at a rate of 2.2 percent in the first two months of this year, after a lackluster 1.9 percent growth during 2013?
Why are U.S. banks shunning their core business?
The void left by the weak bank lending to consumers has been filled by nonbank financial institutions (finance companies, credit unions, etc.). Lending to households by these companies rose a whopping 9 percent in the year to January, and was 47 percent higher than the amount of consumer loans booked by commercial banks.
Hence an interesting question of monetary policy: Why do banks prefer to keep their huge excess reserves ($2.5 trillion at the last count) at the Fed at an interest rate of 0.25 percent instead of making car loans at 4.4 percent or two-year personal loans at 10.2 percent?
I can take a guess at some answers, but that is irrelevant.
The important public policy issue here is what the Fed makes of all this, and how it intends to solve this well-known problem plaguing the U.S. economy over the last few years.
Monthly asset purchases – on top of a virtually zero percent interest rate – have been a relatively easy part of a sweeping crisis management. The verdict on that policy is given by America's demand, output and employment. It is perhaps time to adjust policy instruments and intermediation techniques to address some apparently structural issues whose solution does not seem to be in the wall of money thrown at the U.S. economy.
I have no doubt that the Fed's highly capable technical staff is fully aware of these problems, and that – given a chance – they could probably come up with specific remedies instead of continuing with an excessive monetary creation.
The euro area is looking at some of these specific measures to revive bank lending and to support a faster recovery. And here is a formidable can-do lineup that says "Europe will move …"
Renzi, Montebourg, Draghi, Weidmann
Renzi (Italy's prime minister) and Montebourg (French economics minister) are bursting with youthful energy and enthusiasm, coupled by the wisdom and experience of a steady pair of hands at the European Central Bank (ECB).
They all seem to be cheered by the German Chancellor Merkel, whose former economic adviser and her handpicked Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann is now advocating a range of more flexible ECB policies to spur demand and employment in the long-suffering euro area.
The ECB's Italian-German duo (Draghi and Weidmann) seem to be leaning toward specific measures of credit policy rather than money printing presses working overtime.