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My report on bank lending last month was headlined "Finally, Some Real Loan Growth At The Banks". Well, loan growth has continued through March. Loans and leases at commercial banks increased by over $10 billion in March, bringing the total rise in loans and leases up to $95 bullion for the first quarter.

The interesting thing is that this increase occurred predominately in the "small" banks in the country, the roughly 6,265 banks that comprise the Federal Reserve's definition of small. The "large" banks are the largest 25 domestically chartered commercial banks in the country. A total of $79 billion, or, 83 percent of the increase in loans and leases at commercial banks in the United States over the first quarter, came from these "smaller" banks.

This is certainly good news. Economic growth in the United States had been rising since June 2009, but the growth rate has been pretty tepid. Two reasons for the slow growth were that many individuals and businesses in America were deleveraging and the commercial banking system was trying to get itself in order given all the bad assets that were on the balance sheets of the banks.

The concern has been that as long as the banks were re-structuring and individuals and businesses were attempting to lessen the debt on their balance sheets, economic growth would remain shaky. For things to feel more secure, banks would have to start lending again.

Loans and leases at commercial banks were up 4.7 percent, year-over-year, in March. Almost two-thirds of this growth came in the past six months, and over one-third of the growth came in the last three months. This is encouraging.

In the smaller commercial banks, the largest increase in loans came in the residential real estate area. Residential loan growth rose by more than $31 billion in the past quarter and about $53 billion in the past year.

The interesting "turn-around", however, was in commercial real estate loans. For the year as a whole, commercial real estate loans at the "smaller" banks were down by almost $13 billion, but, for the last quarter they were up by more than $14 billion, a $27 billion reversal.

Commercial real estate loans were still down in the largest 25 banks by over $5 billion in the quarter, but on the whole, the strength shown in this area is 'hopeful" and worthy of continued watching.

Business loans at commercial banks (commercial and industrial loans) have been up year-over-year for several months now, but the real strength has been at the largest banks. For example, year-over-year, commercial and industrial loans at the largest 25 banks in the country were up by almost $105 billion compared with an increase of $42 billion at the smaller banks.

However, in the first quarter of 2012, business loans at the largest banks rose by $25 billion as compared to a $24 billion increase in the "smaller" banks.

This, to me, is a good sign for economic growth. Although it may not translate immediately into much faster growth, I take this strength in lending as protecting against a downside fall-off.

Consumer lending was particularly weak in the first quarter of 2012 as consumer lending fell by more than $2 billion. This would seem to indicate that consumers were still consolidating and/or reducing their debts and were not out spending. This, of course, can help to account for the continued weakness in economic growth.

Overall, the information coming from the banking system is encouraging. Commercial bank lending is increasing and it is increasing in both the business and real estate sectors of the economy. Furthermore, bank lending is showing more strength amongst the "smaller" banks in the country. This is good news to me not only because it might indicate that "main street" is beginning to show some life, but this could also be an indication that the health of the "smaller" banks is improving.

One final point has to do with the cash balances carried by the commercial banks. In March 2011, commercial bank cash holdings averaged $1,443 billion. In March 2012, cash holdings averaged $1,594 billion, up $151 billion for the year. Commercial banks are still carrying a lot of cash on their balance sheets. (According to Fed statistics, excess reserves in the commercial banking system averaged $1,362 billion in March 2011, and averaged $1,510 in March 2012.)

However, this cash figure for March 2012 is down from the $1,838 figure of September 2011. So, commercial banks are holding less cash now than they were at certain times last year.

One reason for this is that foreign-related institutions are holding a lot less cash than they were last year. In September 2011, these institutions held almost $1.0 trillion in cash assets. In early April 2012, this figure was down to about $650 billion. A large portion of these assets were lent out to "related foreign offices" of the foreign-related institutions. From March 2011 to a peak in February 2012, roughly $285 billion flowed from these foreign related institutions to their "related foreign offices." These flows were closely connected with the financial problems being faced in Europe. With the efforts to resolve the debt crisis in Greece and with the lending down by the European Central Banks, the needs for cash from the United States lessened. Lending to "related foreign offices" fell by almost $90 billion between early February and early April as the pressure from the crisis in Europe receded.

We are not yet out-of-the-woods in terms of the problems in Europe and in terms of our need for stronger economic growth in the United States. However, particularly concerning the latter, I feel better now that commercial banks seem to be producing more loan growth. We can only hope that this loan growth will continue to modestly expand.

Source: Loan Growth Continues To Pick Up At Commercial Banks