While the overall economy appears to be humming along, at least according to the Fed which on Wednesday is expected (with 100% certainty according to the market) to hike rates by 25bps for the second time in three months on concerns it has fallen behind the inflationary curve, with last week's payrolls report providing some validation despite prevailing weakness within "hard data" in recent months offset by soaring "soft" sentiment reports, one area of material concern has emerged: a sudden collapse in loan growth in general, and the all important Commercial and Industrial Loan segment in particular, a drop which the WSJ recently dubbed an "ominous economic signal" and blamed policy uncertainty under Trump for the collapse in growth.
While the jury is out on whether Trump is at fault - after all the same Trump has managed to reportedly spark a historic "animal spirits" rally in the S&P, while prompting a record number of people to re-enter the labor force in the past two months - here are facts: total loans and leases by U.S. commercial banks are currently rising at an annual pace of about 4.6%, based on weekly Fed data. That is down from a 6.4% pace for all of last year and peak rates of around 8% in mid-2016. This is the slowest pace of debt creation since the spring of 2014.
While the deceleration has been broad-based across business, real estate and consumer lending and, as the WSJ notes, "is at odds with the idea of a stronger economy and rising sentiment."
But the slowdown has been especially acute in the all important for growth Commercial and Industrial loan category, which after growing at a pace of 10% in the first half of 2016, has suddenly and unexpectedly tumbled to just 4.0% as of the latest week, nearly 50% lower than the 7% growth notched at the start of the year. This was the lowest pace of loan growth since July of 2011.
There has been no definitive explanation for this sudden phenomenon, prompting the WSJ to inquire "who hit the brakes?" which is ironic because just as troubling as the big drop in C&I loans is the relentless grind lower in auto loans, which are likewise growing at a pace that is half what it was as recently as last September.
Two potential ideas have been put forth to explain the sharp slowdown: according to Barclays analyst Jason Goldberg it is possible that companies have shifted from the loan to the bond market, and are selling more bonds to lock in cheap financing before rates rise, while not encumbering assets with issuing unsecured debt. To be sure, corporate debt issuance in January soared by 43% from a year earlier, however the number may be misleading as it comes from a low base in the year-earlier period, when global markets were in turmoil.
The other, more troubling explanation is that either political uncertainty is causing companies and banks to put off big decisions until the outlook for trade and tax policy is clearer, or that consumer demand for loans has plunged, forcing a sharp slowing in loan demand, as the underlying economy suffering a steep slowdown perhaps on the back of surging interest rates. The lending slowdown began showing up clearly just before the election last year, which also coincided with the sharp jump in interest rates.
If it is uncertainty, and should it persist, caution on the part of lenders and borrowers could become a growing drag on the economy. Alternatively, if the slowdown is rate-dependent, any future Fed rate hikes will only further pressure loan growth: 3M Libor has continued its relentless rise higher, and with every passing day makes new 8 year highs.
At this pace, C&I loan growth may turn negative Y/Y within a few months, and since historically US economic growth has been a function of easy bank credit, should the recent drop not be arrested, it is likely that the Fed will have no choice but to reverse its tightening course in the very near future.