Friday, December 10, 2010

Low-Rate Environments & Bank Profitability

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal finally published an article detailing how low interest rate environments hurt bank profitability.

My banking education dates from my first days at Chase Manhattan Bank in the early 1980s. Schooled on asset-liability management and repricing, I recall quite clearly that low-rate environments are worse for bank lending and asset management profitability than higher-rate environments.

Evidently, that hasn't changed in thirty years.

Thus, since 2008, banks already pressured by bad mortgage-related loans, securities and derivatives began to be squeezed by the Fed's lower interest rate policy.

The Journal story provides details of various banks and asset managers coping with slimmer margins. What the piece doesn't discuss is two other important phenomena which add to lower overall profitability of this environment.

One is, obviously, the greater probability of asset bubbles, against which loans may be made, in low-rate environments. We just saw this over the last seven years. Now rates continue to hover at record lows.

The second aspect involves risks versus rates. At ultra-low rates, projects of marginal merit appear to be worthwhile and may be funded. Yet they are precisely the most vulnerable loans, once rates begin to move upwards towards more normal, sustainable levels.

This will leave banks holding more problem delinquent and/or defaulted loans. It's a major reason why so many banks reportedly aren't lending now in the first place.

Of course, idle capital which is unlent is employed in money markets, which now is about the same as cash, i.e., the classic Keynesian liquidity trap.

Welcome to the world of low-profit banking so long as Helicopter Ben continues to hold rates near zero.

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