U.S. lenders, criticized for being too reckless in the past and too stingy in the present, have been sitting on as much as $1.29 trillion in cash, equal to a record 98 cents for every dollar of existing business loans.
The ratio of cash to corporate loans has more than quadrupled from 21 cents in June 2008, according to Jan. 13 Federal Reserve data compiled by Bloomberg News. Corporate loans shrank 14%, to $1.32 trillion during that period as bankers tightened standards to curb record defaults and meet demands by regulators for more liquidity.
Banks are leaving more cash idle amid slack demand from borrowers throughout the economy and concern that regulators will require more liquidity to forestall another financial crisis.
That's crimping profit, and the result may be a drop in returns on equity by about 33% from precrisis levels, according to analysts at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
"It is a less-sexy business," said David A. Hendler, senior financial services analyst at CreditSights Inc., who sees banks losing their image as a growth industry on Wall Street. "The master-of-the-universe action-figure banker is now a relic on eBay."
Cash piled up even as President Obama beseeched bankers to lend more and drive down the 9.7% jobless rate. Among the three biggest U.S. banking companies, the one with the highest ratio of cash to corporate loans is Citigroup Inc. — whose biggest investor is the U.S. government with a 27% stake.
Citigroup's $193 billion in cash and deposits with other banks at Dec. 31 stood at $1.15 for each dollar of existing corporate loans, which totaled $167 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
That's double the ratio in June 2008, when cash totaled $113 billion against $222 billion of corporate loans at Citigroup, which ranks third in the U.S. by assets.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., ranked second, showed a ratio of $1.08 as of September, the month of its most recent report to the Securities and Exchange Commission of its commercial loan totals.
At Bank of America Corp., the biggest U.S. lender, cash and deposits at other banks tripled to $146 billion, or 64 cents for each dollar of commercial loans at the bank.
"Generally speaking, our cash balances are higher this year than in previous years as a result of more stringent liquidity requirements that require stable sources of funding," B of A spokesman Jerry Dubrowski said.
Loans declined recently "because of lower demand and the fact that some clients are taking advantage of the robust bond markets to manage bank debt levels," Dubrowski said.
The lost earnings power tied to idle cash could amount to several billion dollars a year industrywide. If banks were earning 5% on the $200 billion of business loans that vanished since June 2008, they would have another $10 billion of annual interest revenue.
Citigroup's stash earned 0.6% in annualized average interest in the three months through December, while its corporate loans averaged 5.78%, the company reported.
Based on that difference, if Citigroup lent out $50 billion of its cash — which would restore its corporate loan book back to its June 2008 size — the bank would make $2.5 billion more in annual interest revenue.