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Bank : Commercial Lending Crisis

(Mon, 13 July 2020). Banks are rolling in PPP loan fees, but a potential wave of commercial real estate defaults may make this their best quarter for the foreseeable future. A crisis in commercial lending could be the biggest risk facing banks in the long term. After second quarter earnings, the financial sector won’t have much to cheer about.

The Paycheck Protection Program gave banks $24 billion in fees. With interest rates back at zero, this one-time gain will be offset by declining interest revenue and compressed margins. Even worse, commercial real estate faces significant challenges as the economy retools. While earnings season is off to a rough start, banks are likely to have a decent quarter. That’s due to a one-time event, and trouble lurks on the horizon for the banking sector once again.

 

A Stealth Bailout For The Banks

First, the good news. Bank stocks look to be in decent shape right now and should fare well with earnings this quarter. That’s because several banks have benefitted from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). While they didn’t personally take the funds, banks do receive fees for the (mostly forgivable) loans they made to businesses to keep them afloat. The total amount of PPP loan fees comes to $24 billion. Some banks have pledged to donate the profits from these fees.

The average PPP loan was less than $150,000, meaning a large number of fees were made from banks large and small. For smaller banks, the fees from this program are as good a lifeline as the PPP loans themselves. In a way, the banks have stealthily gotten a bailout before they’ve had to deal with any devastating issues. That’s good, as the Federal Reserve’s decision to cut short-term interest rates back to zero means there’s trouble ahead for the banks.

 

Commercial Real Estate A Ticking Time Bomb

With interest rates near zero, bank profit margins will likely fall. That’s because banks tend to make money on the “spread” between borrowing money from depositors and lending long. Right now, depositors are making next to nothing in interest. That makes other assets like bonds and stocks look more attractive right now (which may explain the surge in retail trading).

Lower profit margins are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Between the PPP and the CARES Act to expand unemployment benefits, fiscal stimulus will fall off a steep cliff at the end of July. As that happens, layoffs may start to rise again. The hardest-hit spots will be in commercial lending this time, not housing. From shopping centers to office spaces, many of these properties are now being underutilized, if used at all. What’s worse, banks themselves, looking to avoid the danger of another housing crisis, invested heavily in the commercial space.

Although the commercial space has half the total debt as the housing market, the investment concentration by banks in recent years is a medium-term danger likely to get worse before it gets better. Housing, having lower debt ratios than during the last recession, has risen this year, against an 11% decline in commercial properties so far. So two cheers to the banks when they report earnings in the coming weeks. It may be their last hurrah for some time.

 

 


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