Bloomberg on the Dearth of Lending

Bloomberg has a story on the lack of lending that Michael Lewis and David Einhorn slapped Henry Paulson around for here (bottom of the page).

Although the government has committed more than $8.5 trillion to energizing the economy, and the Fed cut a key lending rate almost to zero, banks haven’t made it easier to borrow. The Fed said consumer credit fell by $6.4 billion in August, the largest drop in 65 years, and then by $3.5 billion in October, the first time since 1992 that there were two months of declines in a year.

I like that Bloomberg uses the $8.5 trillion number there to show the magnitude of the crisis and the government’s response, but the story should have qualified it better. It’s not like the government has given $8.5 trillion to companies: Most of that total is for loans (many of them short-term) that will be paid back.

Check out credit-card interest rates:

While inter-bank lending rates have fallen since Congress approved the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program on Oct. 3, most bank lending to consumers remains tight and interest rates high. The average credit-card rate was 14.33 percent on Dec. 16, according to in Cleveland, almost unchanged from 14.41 percent in October 2007.

That’s prompted criticism from Alan S. Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton University in New Jersey and a former Federal Reserve vice chairman, who says the government should take a more active role as a stakeholder in the nation’s banks.

“With the banks in a state of catatonic fear now, they’re just sitting on the capital,” Blinder said in an interview. “I don’t fault the banks one bit, since this shows Wall Street they’re safer, but then this doesn’t get you much improvement. If you’re taking money from the public purse, we should get something in return, and we’re really not.”

What Bloomberg doesn’t say here about interest rates is that certainly it’s much riskier to lend to consumers today that it was a year ago. That could be one reason why rates haven’t budged despite all the cash infusions from Congress and the Treasury.

Jeffrey Garten, a professor of international trade and finance at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, and a Commerce Department undersecretary during the Clinton administration, says banks should be forced to increase their lending or risk having taxpayer money taken away.

“The government isn’t acting aggressively enough to demand a quid pro quo,” Garten said. “The public good is the key to the private good in this case. It’s not the other way around.”

It’s not irrational for banks to be hoarding cash right now. Can you really blame a bank for not wanting to lend money to refinance, say, commercial real estate? Which is why Garten says there must be a mechanism for the banks to be forced to lend the money taxpayers have given them for that purpose.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.