Banks Failing to Lend is Not the Problem

It's a myth that the slump persists due to the banks' squeeze on credit, so 'fixing' them will not mean escaping the downturn

One of the big myths of the current downturn is that the reason the slump persists is that banks are refusing to lend.
The story goes that because the banks have taken such big hits to their
capital as a result of the collapse of the housing bubble and record
default rates, they no longer have the money to lend to small- and
mid-sized businesses.

We then get the story about how small businesses are the engine of job creation, responsible for most new jobs. Therefore, if they can't get capital, we can't expect to see robust job growth.

story of banks not lending is used to justify all sorts of special
policies to help out small businesses and banks. In fact, the Obama
administration has plans to make a special $30bn slush fund available to banks if they promise to lend it out to small businesses.

reality, every part of this argument is completely wrong. First, small
businesses are not special engines of job growth. Small businesses do
create most new jobs, but they also lose most new jobs. Half of new
businesses go under within four years after being started. Jobs do get
created when the businesses start, but jobs are lost when the
businesses fail.

The reality is that businesses of all
sizes create jobs. There is no special reason to favour small
businesses in promoting job creation. We should favour businesses that
create good paying jobs with good benefits and conditions, regardless
of their size.

The other parts of this story make even
less sense. Let's hypothesise that many banks are crippled in their
ability to lend because of the large hits to their balance sheets from bad mortgage debt. Well, not all banks got themselves over their heads with bad mortgages. There are banks with relatively clean balance sheets.

it were the case that a substantial portion of banks are now unable to
issue many new loans because of their inadequate capital, we would
expect to see the healthy banks rushing in to fill the lending gap.
There should be accounts of dynamic banks that are taking advantage of
this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and rapidly gaining market share.

this may be happening, there certainly have not been many accounts in
the media of banks that fit this description. In other words, it does
not appear to be the view among banks, including those with plenty of
capital, that there are many good potential customers who are unable to
borrow money.

The other missing part of the story has to
do with the nature of competition between small firms and their larger
competitors. We know that large firms have no difficulty attracting
capital at present. They can issue bonds at near record-low interest
rates. They can also borrow short-term money at extraordinarily low
interest rates in the commercial paper market.

If small
and mid-sized companies were being prevented from expanding due to
their inability to raise capital then we should be seeing larger
companies rushing in to take market share. Retail stores should be
opening up new outlets everywhere. Factories should be rapidly
increasing output and transportation companies should be rushing into
new markets.

Of course, we don't see any of this
happening. If anything, most large businesses are expanding at a slower
rate than they did before the crisis. If their competitors have been
hamstrung due to a lack of credit, no one seems to have told Wal-Mart,
Starbucks and the rest. They have both slowed the rate at which they
are adding new stores, not sped it up as the credit-shortage story
would imply.

There is truth to the credit-squeeze story,
but it goes in the other direction. Stores that have seen their
business plummet as a result of the downturn are, in fact, worse credit
risks from the standpoint of banks. Many businesses that were
profitable in 2006 and 2007 are now highly unprofitable and may not be
able to stay in business. As a result, the banks that were happy to
lend money just a few years ago are no longer willing to lend money to
the same business. This drying up of credit happens in every downturn.
It is just more serious this time because of the severity of the

The moral of this story is that we should not
think that "fixing" the banks will get us out of the downturn. The
problem is that we have to generate demand, which means having the
government spend more money to stimulate the economy. Unfortunately,
the politicians in Washington are scared to talk about larger deficits,
so more spending seems off the table at the moment - therefore we get
this nonsense about insufficient bank lending.

But hey, at
the rate we created jobs in April, we should be back at full employment
in seven years anyhow. Who could ask for anything more?

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