Lending Latitudes

The horse latitudes often refer to a section of the Atlantic ocean where there was little wind for a period of time, causing sailing ships to get “stuck” in the middle of the ocean.  There are two winds that drive a developed economy like that in the U.S – the demand for loans and the willingness of banks to make those loans.

Every 3 months the Federal Reserve Board (FRB) interviews a number of bank loan officers on their lending practices, risk management of and demand for commercial, industrial, mortgage and consumer loans.  The latest October 2010 survey  shows small increases in demand for commercial and industrial loans.

In questions 11 and 12 of the survey, loan officers were asked about residential mortgages. Demand for prime mortgages remains relatively unchanged.  34 loan officers responded that they do not originate non-traditional mortgages like interest-only or no income verification.  There were so few responses to questions about sub-prime mortgages that the FRB did not list the results.  If you anticipate being in the market for a mortgage in the coming years, you can conclude that it will be difficult to find a non-traditional or sub-prime mortgage.

Loan officers surveyed saw little overall change in demand for home equity lines of credit but a quarter of them said that they had tightened slightly their lending standards for these types of loans and 12% said that they had lowered existing lines of credit.

Consumer credit was largely unchanged but there was a hopeful sign for businesses.  Over 25% of smaller banks reported that they had increased business credit card limits.  The signs were not so hopeful for those in commercial construction as 20% of officers reported that they had decreased lines of credit for their existing customers and half of respondents anticipate that their lending standards for commercial construction will remain tighter for the foreseeable future. 

For consumers and homeowners the future does not look rosy.  The survey includes a category called the “foreseeable future”, not just the next two years, when asking loan officers about their anticipated lending standards.  40% of loan officers anticipate tighter standards for residential construction and 34% foresee tighter standards for prime mortgage homeowners (62% for sub-prime holders) wanting to borrow money against the equity in their house. Over half of loan officers see the same tightening for credit card and other consumer loans. 

Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s that depend on remodeling and construction dollars have seen a 10%+ increase in their stock prices the past month.  Given the current lending environment, it may be difficult for these companies to maintain the sales growth that justifies the expectations implied by such a dramatic stock price increase.  The reluctance to lend will continue to suppress growth in the consumer market which accounts for over 2/3 of this country’s GDP. 

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