Banks Failing to Lend is Not the Problem
It's a myth that the slump persists due to the banks' squeeze on
credit, so 'fixing' them will not mean escaping the downturn
by Dean Baker
ONE OF THE BIG myths of the current downturn is that the reason the
slump persists is that banks are refusing to lend. The story goes that
because the banks have taken such big hits to their capital as a
result of the collapse of the housing bubble and record default rates,
they no longer have the money to lend to small- and mid-sized
We then get the story about how small businesses are the engine of job
creation, responsible for most new jobs. Therefore, if they can't get
capital, we can't expect to see robust job growth.
This story of banks not lending is used to justify all sorts of
special policies to help out small businesses and banks. In fact, the
Obama administration has plans to make a special $30bn slush fund
available to banks if they promise to lend it out to small businesses.
In reality, every part of this argument is completely wrong. First,
small businesses are not special engines of job growth. Small
businesses do create most new jobs, but they also lose most new jobs.
Half of new businesses go under within four years after being started.
Jobs do get created when the businesses start, but jobs are lost when
the businesses fail.
The reality is that businesses of all sizes create jobs. There is no
special reason to favour small businesses in promoting job creation.
We should favour businesses that create good paying jobs with good
benefits and conditions, regardless of their size.
The other parts of this story make even less sense. Let's hypothesise
that many banks are crippled in their ability to lend because of the
large hits to their balance sheets from bad mortgage debt. Well, not
all banks got themselves over their heads with bad mortgages. There
are banks with relatively clean balance sheets.
If it were the case that a substantial portion of banks are now unable
to issue many new loans because of their inadequate capital, we would
expect to see the healthy banks rushing in to fill the lending gap.
There should be accounts of dynamic banks that are taking advantage of
this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and rapidly gaining market share.
While this may be happening, there certainly have not been many
accounts in the media of banks that fit this description. In other
words, it does not appear to be the view among banks, including those
with plenty of capital, that there are many good potential customers
who are unable to borrow money.
The other missing part of the story has to do with the nature of
competition between small firms and their larger competitors. We know
that large firms have no difficulty attracting capital at present.
They can issue bonds at near record-low interest rates. They can also
borrow short-term money at extraordinarily low interest rates in the
commercial paper market.
If small and mid-sized companies were being prevented from expanding
due to their inability to raise capital then we should be seeing
larger companies rushing in to take market share. Retail stores should
be opening up new outlets everywhere. Factories should be rapidly
increasing output and transportation companies should be rushing into
Of course, we don't see any of this happening. If anything, most large
businesses are expanding at a slower rate than they did before the
crisis. If their competitors have been hamstrung due to a lack of
credit, no one seems to have told Wal-Mart, Starbucks and the rest.
They have both slowed the rate at which they are adding new stores,
not sped it up as the credit-shortage story would imply.
There is truth to the credit-squeeze story, but it goes in the other
direction. Stores that have seen their business plummet as a result of
the downturn are, in fact, worse credit risks from the standpoint of
banks. Many businesses that were profitable in 2006 and 2007 are now
highly unprofitable and may not be able to stay in business. As a
result, the banks that were happy to lend money just a few years ago
are no longer willing to lend money to the same business. This drying
up of credit happens in every downturn. It is just more serious this
time because of the severity of the downturn.
The moral of this story is that we should not think that "fixing" the
banks will get us out of the downturn. The problem is that we have to
generate demand, which means having the government spend more money to
stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, the politicians in Washington
are scared to talk about larger deficits, so more spending seems off
the table at the moment – therefore we get this nonsense about
insufficient bank lending.
But hey, at the rate we created jobs in April, we should be back at
full employment in seven years anyhow. Who could ask for anything
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How
the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (
www.conservativenannystate.org) and the more recently published
Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of The Bubble Economy. He also
has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage
of economic issues.