Last weekend, after looking at the latest H.8 statement by the Fed, we noted something concerning: total loans and leases by U.S. commercial banks were rising at an annual pace of about 4.6%, based on weekly Fed data. That is down from a 6.4% pace for all of last year and peak rates of around 8% in mid-2016. This is the slowest pace of debt creation since the spring of 2014. This deceleration has prompted numerous questions about the sustainability of the recovery, and led the WSJ to noted that the slowdown, “is at odds with the idea of a stronger economy and rising sentiment.”
But the slowdown was especially acute in the all important for growth Commercial and Industrial loan category, which after growing at a pace of 10% in the first half of 2016, had unexpectedly slowed to just 4.0%, nearly 50% lower than the 7% growth notched at the start of the year. This was the lowest pace of loan growth since July of 2011.
Fast forward one week, when after the latest update to the Fed’s latest weekly commercial bank loan data, we find that the trends have deteriorated substantially.
As shown in the chart below, after growing 4.6% one week ago, total loans and leases grew only 4.2% in the week ended March 8: the lowest growth rate since May 2014. However, it was once again the Commercial and Industrial loans creation – or lack thereof – which was more problematic, because after growing 4.0% on a year over year basis as of March 1, and 5.7% one month ago as of February 8, the growth rate has since tumbled to just 2.9%, a 1.1% decline in the growth rate over the past week.
As shown in the chart below, on a cumulative 4-week basis the slowdown in C&I loan creation tumbled by 2.8% as of the latest period: this was the biggest monthly slowdown going back to the financial crisis.
There has been no definitive explanation for this sudden phenomenon, prompting the WSJ to inquire “who hit the brakes?” which is ironic because just as troubling as the big drop in C&I loans is the relentless grind lower in auto loans, which are likewise growing at a pace of just 4.9% Y/Y, or half what it was as recently as last September, when Ford ominously warned that the US auto market had plateaued.
As we noted last week, two potential ideas have been put forth to explain the sharp slowdown: according to Barclays analyst Jason Goldberg it is possible that companies have shifted from the loan to the bond market, and are selling more bonds to lock in cheap financing before rates rise, while not encumbering assets with issuing unsecured debt. To be sure, corporate debt issuance in January soared by 43% from a year earlier, however the number may be misleading as it comes from a low base in the year-earlier period, when global markets were in turmoil.
The other, more troubling explanation is that either political uncertainty is causing companies and banks to put off big decisions until the outlook for trade and tax policy is clearer, or that consumer demand for loans has plunged, forcing a sharp slowing in loan demand, as the underlying economy suffering a steep slowdown perhaps on the back of surging interest rates. The lending slowdown began showing up clearly just before the election last year, which also coincided with the sharp jump in interest rates.
If it is uncertainty, and should it persist, caution on the part of lenders and borrowers could become a growing drag on the economy. Alternatively, if the slowdown is rate-dependent, any future Fed rate hikes will only further pressure loan growth: 3M Libor has continued its relentless rise higher, and with every passing day makes new 8 year highs.
Finally, to revise our forecast from last week, when we said “C&I loan growth may turn negative Y/Y within a few months” it now appears the inflection point can hit within the next few weeks, and since historically US economic growth has been a function of easy bank credit, should the recent drop not be arrested, the Fed may have no choice but to reverse its tightening course in the very near future.