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More and more it appears as if the banking system of the United States is bifurcating into two parts, the largest 25 banks and the rest. These designations, large and small, are used by the Federal Reserve System for the data they release for the whole commercial banking system.

Over the past year, the total assets of the domestically chartered commercial banking system in the United States hardly grew at all. Yet, throughout the year, the smaller banks made their balance sheets much more conservative than did the largest banks.

For one, the smaller commercial banks increased their holdings of cash assets by 10% from December 2009 to December 2010; the largest banks decreased their cash holdings by more than 21%.

Both the large banks and the smaller banks increased their securities portfolios over the year, but the smaller ones increased their securities portfolios by almost 9% while the largest banks increased theirs by only about 3%.

Over the whole year, Commercial and Industrial Loans declined across the board with the larger banks portfolio of C&I loans dropping by almost 5% while in the smaller banks, C&I loans fell by only about 3%. Real Estate loans also fell during the year dropping about 4% and 5% at the largest and the smaller institutions, respectively. Consumer loans were re-defined over the year for this Federal Reserve release so that the data year-over-year growth rates are not meaningful.

The largest declines since December 2009 came in commercial real estate loans. At the largest banks, commercial real estate loans dropped by almost 11%; at the smaller banks they fell by 8%. The troubles in the commercial real estate area show up very clearly in the banking statistics.

The conservative movement in the balance sheets of the smaller banks was continued over the last 13 weeks ending with the banking week finishing on January 5, 2011. Total banks assets fell during this time period, but not by very much. Over this time period, however, the smaller banks increased their holdings of securities by over 7% while their loan portfolios fell by more than 3%.

During this time period, loans making up the loan portfolios of the smaller banks fell across the board: C&I loans dropped by 4%; real estate loans fell by 3%; and consumer loans declined by about 4%.

The loans at the smaller banks also continued to drop through the Christmas season with C&I loans falling by over 2% in the five-week period ending January 5, 2011; real estate loans fell by just 2% during this time period; and consumer loans dropped by almost 5%.

Interestingly enough, there was a front page article in the Saturday Wall Street Journal with the title “Banks Loosen Purse Strings” which reported data from Equifax Inc. and Moody’s Analytics. In this article the claim is made that “In the third quarter (of 2010), lenders made more than 36 million consumer loans, up 3.7% from a year earlier...That is the first year-over-year gain since the crisis began. Consumer-loan originations are expected to climb 5.9% this year, much higher than the slim 1.1% increase in 2010.” The article goes on to say that “The totals include bank-issued and retail credit cards, auto loans, consumer-finance loans, home-equity lending and student loans”. Whoops, these are not all banks are they!

But, the commercial banks do not seem to be opening their purse strings when it comes to consumer lending. Besides the drop of 5% in consumer loans at the smaller commercial banks, the Federal Reserve data also showed that consumer loans fell by 5% at the largest 25 commercial banks over the past 5 weeks.

Again, the largest declining loan class over the last 5 weeks was still the commercial real estate loan area. The decline at the largest banks in the last 5 weeks was a little under 1%, while the decline at the smaller banks in this area was over 2%.

Everywhere, the aggregate banking statistics can be interpreted as showing that the smaller commercial banks continue to “tighten up” their balance sheets. The loan portfolios of these banks experienced further declines while the banks keep building up their cash positions and the size of their securities portfolios. The largest contractions have come in commercial real estate, the area that seems to have the biggest cloud over it for the next year or two.

Generally, the largest 25 domestically chartered banks in the United States seem to be doing well.

Of course, we all heard about the 47% profit jump at J.P.Morgan Chase which was announced on Friday. This week we will get more information on how the other “large” commercial banks are doing. It is expected that the reports coming out this week will show that the bigger banks are pulling ahead.

Of interest is the areas of lending that seem to be picking up at these larger banks. For one, commercial and industrial loans are, indeed, starting to increase. Over the past 13-week period, the largest 25 banks saw their portfolios of C&I loans increase by more than 3%; these loans also showed a gain over the past 5-week period.

The one other lending area that seems to be picking up at these larger banks is the area of residential loans, mortgages. (Note: this does not include equity-line loans.) Over the last 13-week period, residential real estate loans have picked up by slightly more than 3%; these loans also registered a modest increase over the last 5-week period.

So, I still firmly believe what I wrote in my January 3, 2011 post, “Four ‘Uncomfortable Situations’ to Watch in Early 2011". Two of these four “uncomfortable situations” are the health of the commercial real estate area and the solvency of commercial banks that fall into the small- and medium-size category.

The small- and medium-sized banks continue to “pull-in-the-carpet.” That is, these banks continue to shrink their balance sheets and they continue to re-allocate assets to either cash or “safe” Treasury securities. They have been doing this for more than two years and show no signs of acting any differently in the near future. To me, this behavior is a real “red flag” that these institutions are not doing well.

And, these smaller banks seem to be getting commercial real estate loans off their balance sheets as fast as they can just re-confirming the problems that exist in this area.

The Federal Reserve continues to pursue the policy they call “Quantitative Easing.” Perhaps a better name for it would be “Keeping the Smaller Banks Liquid.” The reason, I have argued, for keeping the smaller banks liquid is that this allows many of these smaller banks to keep their doors open in the short run so that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) can close as many of these banks as they need to in as orderly a fashion as possible. The data continue to support this conclusion.

Source: The Two U.S. Banking Systems: 25 Largest Banks - And All the Rest