The commercial banking system is still holding onto cash rather than lending or investing. Over the thirteen weeks ending August 26, 2009 the assets of the banking system dropped by $246 billion, but the cash assets of the banking system rose by $87 billion. In the most recent four week period bank assets did rise by $85 billion, but cash assets at the banks rose by $183 billion during the same time span.

Overall, banks, during the last 13-week period, have reduced, at a more rapid pace, their holdings of loans and investments as write-offs have increased, as there has been little incentive to make new loans, and as the banks have gotten out of securities that are not issued or guaranteed by the U. S. government. This is evidence that the banks are de-leveraging and are attempting to clean up their balance sheets. More detail of this behavior is presented below.

The total amount of cash assets in the banking system was $1.1 trillion in the banking week of August 26. This amounted to 9.3% of the total assets in the banking system as total assets averaged $11.8 trillion for the week. Note that banks were required to hold an average of only $62 billion ($0.06 trillion) in reserves behind their deposits during the two week period ending August 26. The excess reserves in the banking system averaged around a whopping $0.8 trillion during this same two week period. (The peak level of excess reserves in the banking system was about $0.85 trillion in the month of May.) Also, note that bank reserve balances with Federal Reserve Banks averaged around $0.83 trillion in the banking week ending August 26.

Beginning in December 2008, the banking system has held an average of $0.76 trillion in excess reserves every succeeding month. Before September 2008, the banking system held, on average, $0.002 trillion in excess reserves. To put these figures in context, bank assets in the banking week of August 26, 2009 were only $0.8 trillion larger than they were in the banking week of August 27, 2008. Thus, the entire increase in bank assets over the previous 52-week period was in cash assets!

The banks certainly have not been lending or investing. Over the past 13 weeks, commercial banks reduced their holdings of securities by $335 billion and they also reduced their holdings of loans or leases by $237 billion.

The interesting shift in the investment portfolio is in government guaranteed mortgage-backed securities. These have been increasing over the past 13 weeks. (See the Wall Street Journal article “Banks Load Up on Mortgages, in New Way,” The banks have also been purchasing U. S. Treasury and Agency (non-MBS securities) issues over the same time period.

The big decline in security holdings has been in Mortgage-backed securities that were not guaranteed by the federal government or a government agency. Here it is important to note that the banking system still holds more than $200 billion in non-government guaranteed mortgage-backed securities and over $700 billion in assets that include other asset-backed securities, other domestic and foreign debt securities, and investments in mutual funds and other equity securities with “readily determinable fair values.” The banks were obviously chasing yield by investing in these securities. Over 75% of these holdings are in large commercial banks with small banks primarily investing in this category in state and local government securities, although this may not be comforting.

The decline in loans and leases spans the board. Commercial and industrial loans are down by $57 billion in the last 13 weeks whereas these loans are down by only $68 billion over the past 52 weeks. This decline seems to be speeding up as the decline over the last four weeks totaled about $34 billion.

Real estate loans are actually higher now than they were a year ago, but the volume of these loans is now decreasing. Home equity loans are down by $9 billion over the previous 13 weeks, residential loans are down $40 billion over the same time period, and commercial real estate loans have fallen by $29 billion.

Consumer loans are about the same as a year ago, as is credit card debt and other revolving credit. However, these figures have shown weakness over the past three months with total consumer credit declining by about $39 billion and the credit card and revolving credit debt falling by about $26 billion.

The commercial banking system continues to restructure. It is maintaining high levels of cash and is moving into less risky interest earning assets. The banking system, net, is not lending. We continue to hope that the restructuring will continue to occur without further surprises. Strong economic recovery, however, will not occur with bankruptcies and foreclosures remaining at high levels and with unemployment continuing to increase. Banks are not going to lend into this environment.

The bottom line from this analysis: the economy is recovering but economic growth will be anemic. Economic growth will remain anemic as long as the banking system stays on the sidelines.