WASHINGTON Banks have been hearing about looming credit quality problems for so long now that warnings about default levels seem like boilerplate in every regulatory report on the industrys health.
But some observers are beginning to wonder if a different threat may be on the horizon specifically, a liquidity crisis.
Recent studies by regulators indicate an increase in bond market defaults arising at the same time that banks are experiencing little or no deposit growth. That low deposit growth has been driving banks toward the capital markets to finance loans and settle obligations.
If bond default numbers continue to rise, making the capital markets less hospitable to new issues, and if deposit growth remains stagnant, banks could find it more expensive perhaps prohibitively so to keep loan growth at current levels.
To some degree thats already happening, said David D. Gibbons, deputy comptroller for credit risk at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Since the third quarter of 1998, he noted, interest rate spreads in the commercial paper markets have been widening, and they would only widen further with rising levels of bond defaults.
At a risk management conference in New York last week, Michael DeStefano, a managing director with Standard & Poors financial institutions ratings group, said he worried that banks have moved perilously far from their traditional funding sources. They have forgotten the value of core deposits, and the fact that they are worth paying for, he said.
Other observers shared these concerns.
Loans to deposits are very high, and we are looking at how banks are funding loans, said Eileen A. Fahey, a group vice president with the ratings agency Fitch IBCA, Duff & Phelps. Because banks have grown more reliant on wholesale funding in recent years, she said, her agency has become more sensitive to how that is accomplished.
We try to make sure that the funding sources are well diversified, and a banks participation in the brokered deposit market increases the risk that capital will be rapidly pulled out of it, Ms. Fahey said.
Mr. Gibbons said community bankers, who may not have as much experience in the capital markets, need to be particularly sensitive to quick liquidity shifts.
They are dealing with expertly managed money, so they have to become experts in managing their liquidity risk, he said.
Some bankers downplayed the risk of a future liquidity problem, and took issue with the charge that they have forgotten the value of core deposits.
Carl L. Tannenbaum, chief economist ABN Amro/LaSalle Bank, said that bank liquidity has become a huge issue and there are no easy solutions. However, he said, the focus on the loan-to-deposit ratio has really lost its usefulness. Not all loans are created equal.
Many banks hold highly liquid loans such as mortgages, he said. Because the strong secondary mortgage market is somewhat insulated from credit quality swings, a banks mortgage-based assets can actually be viewed as a source of liquidity.