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In reviewing the banking data put out by the Federal Reserve System last month, I titled my post “Grasping at Straws” because there was some indication of an increase in lending at the smaller banks. In that post I made the following statement: “An interesting pattern is showing up in the data, however, and gives us something to look for going forward. The smaller, domestically chartered banks in the United States increased their loan balances a little bit over the four-week period ending in the week of July 7, 2010.”

In these releases the “smaller banks” are defined as all domestically chartered commercial banks in the United States with assets less than the largest 25 domestically chartered commercial banks in the United States. The largest 25 domestically chartered commercial banks in the United States hold roughly 67% of the banking assets in the United State while the other roughly 8,000 banks in the United States make up approximately 33% of the banking assets.

Focus is placed upon the smaller banks because this is where the vast majority of “troubled” banks in the United States reside and the concern about these troubled banks is significant enough that Elizabeth Warren has stated in Congressional testimony that there are serious problems which still persist in the smaller banks in the country and the Federal Reserve continues to keep its target interest rate low in order to help the process of bank consolidation flow smoothly.

The increase in bank lending at the smaller banks seems to have continued through July according to the latest data released by the Federal Reserve. Loans at small domestically chartered commercial banks in the United States rose in the four weeks ending August 4, 2010, by about $16 billion or roughly 0.7%. Loans at these banks are still down, year-over-year, by about 3%, but we are looking for “green shoots” and this represents the second consecutive four-week period in which we have seen an increase in small bank lending.

The gains are concentrated in the consumer area as residential loans rose by over $13 billion in the last four-week period, consumer loans added about $10 billion over the same period, and home equity loans increased by a little more than $1 billion during the time.

Business lending continued to fall as commercial and industrial loans dropped by about $8 billion and commercial real estate loans fell by $3 billion. Furthermore, these latter loans are down by more than $16 billion over the last 13-week period. It is in the area of commercial real estate that Elizabeth Warren and others believe continued problems will plague the smaller banks in the United States.

One can draw the tentative conclusion from these data that some of the smaller banks are beginning to lend, but primarily to consumers and mainly in areas where real estate can serve as collateral. But, this is good news.

Still, in the aggregate, the smaller commercial banks are managing their balance sheets in a very conservative manner. Cash assets at these institutions rose by more than $23 billion or by about 8.5% over the past four weeks, and by almost $30 billion over the past 13 weeks. Total assets at these institutions increased by $46 billion and $70 billion, respectively, over the same time periods.

Overall, however, commercial banking shows very little life in the lending area. Year-over-year, the total assets of all commercial banks in the United States rose by less than one percent and total loans at these institutions fell by a little more than one percent. Commercial and industrial loans were the hardest hit category, falling by almost 15%, followed by commercial real estate loans, which dropped by more than 8%. Shorter periods of time do not present a much different picture.

In my post “No Banks, No Recovery” I presented the following argument: “It is very difficult to see the United States economic recovery accelerating if the banking system is sitting on the sidelines. The part of the banking system to worry about is the 8,000 banks that do not make the list of the 25 largest domestically chartered banks in the country.”

This is why I am giving so much attention at this time to the smaller banks. We have looked for “Green Shoots” before in this economic recovery and have been disappointed. We continue to look for positive signs that are not just of a passing nature. Hopefully, the data on the commercial banking system contain some positive signs that will continue to show indications that the economic recovery is, in fact, progressing.

Disclosure: None

Source: 'Green Shoots' in Smaller Bank Lending?