Why banks aren’t lending: The silent liquidity squeeze

Published on Intrepid Report, by Ellen Brown, July 20, 2011.

Where did all the jobs go? Small and medium-sized businesses are the major source of new job creation, and they are not hiring. Startup businesses, which contribute a fifth of the nation’s new jobs, often can’t even get off the ground. Why?

In a June 30 article in the Wall Street Journal, titled Smaller Businesses Seeking Loans Still Come Up Empty, Emily Maltby reported that business owners rank access to capital as the most important issue facing them today; and only 17 percent of smaller businesses said they were able to land needed bank financing. Businesses have to pay for workers and materials before they can get paid for the products they produce, and for that they need bank credit; but they are reporting that their credit lines are being cut. 

They are being pushed instead into credit card accounts that average 16 percent interest, more than double the rate of the average business loan. It is one of many changes in banking trends that have been very lucrative for Wall Street banks but are killing local businesses.

Why banks aren’t lending is a matter of debate, but the Fed’s decision to pay interest on bank reserves is high on the list of suspects. Bruce Bartlett, writing in the Fiscal Times in July 2010, observed:

Economists are divided on why banks are not lending, but increasingly are focusing on a Fed policy of paying interest on reserves—a policy that began, interestingly enough, on October 9, 2008, at almost exactly the moment when the financial crisis became acute . . .

Historically, the Fed paid banks nothing on required reserves. This was like a tax equivalent to the interest rate banks could have earned if they had been allowed to lend such funds. But in 2006, the Fed requested permission to pay interest on reserves because it believes that it would help control the money supply should inflation reappear.

. . . [M]any economists believe that the Fed has unwittingly encouraged banks to sit on their cash and not lend it by paying interest on reserves … //

… Finding alternatives to a failed banking model

Paying interest on reserves was intended to prevent “inflation,” but it is having the opposite effect, contracting the money and credit that are the lifeblood of a functioning economy. The whole economic model is wrong. The fear of price inflation has prevented governments from using their sovereign power to create money and credit to serve the needs of their national economies. Instead, they must cater to the interests of a private banking industry that profits from its monopoly power over those essential economic tools.

Whether by accident or design, federal policymakers still have not got it right. While we are waiting for them to figure it out, states can nurture and protect their own local economies with publicly-owned banks, on the model of the Bank of North Dakota (BND). Currently the nation’s only state-owned bank, the BND services the liquidity needs of local banks and keeps credit flowing in the state. Other benefits to the local economy are detailed in a Demos report by Jason Judd and Heather McGhee, titled

Banking on America: How Main Street Partnership Banks Can Improve Local Economies, 22 pdf pages. They write:

Alone among states, North Dakota had the wherewithal to keep credit moving to small businesses when they needed it most. BND’s business lending actually grew from 2007 to 2009 (the tightest months of the credit crisis) by 35 percent. . . . [L]oan amounts per capita for small banks in North Dakota are fully 175 percent higher than the U.S. average in the last five years, and its banks have stronger loan-to-asset ratios than comparable states like Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana.

Fourteen states have now initiated bills to establish state-owned banks or to study their feasibility. Besides serving local lending needs, state-owned banks can provide cash-strapped states with new revenues, obviating the need to raise taxes, slash services or sell off public assets. (full long text).

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