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Consumers to Banks: Give Us a Little Credit


Statistical obfuscation can't hide the fact that banks aren't lending.

Even the Treasury Department's best attempts at statistical obfuscation can't hide the truth that credit remains off limits for most Americans. Banks -- despite billions in government handouts -- still aren't lending.

A Wall Street Journal study of lending data supplied by the 19 biggest recipients of TARP funds paints a decidedly less-rosy picture than does the Treasury's analysis of the same information.

New lending, as measured by aggregate loans made in February compared to last October -- which was the month then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson poured tens of billions of dollars into Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC), Citigroup (C) and other big American banks -- is down 23%. This tally, arrived at by the Journal, contrasts Treasury Department figures that measure the change in lending by looking at the median amount of new loans made by the same group of banks.

No surprise, government methodology arrives at numbers that make things markedly better.

And while no one data point can truly claim to be the best measure of the entire US lending environment, that government officials chose the method that supports their claim that borrowing is still possible for the most creditworthy Americans, shouldn't be surprising.

Even as the Treasury, Federal Reserve, FDIC and even Congress urge banks to make new loans, loudly assuring the American people the government has their best interests in mind, the borrowing public isn't listening: Americans continue to shun credit.

A spokesperson for JPMorgan Chase (JPM) said the bank aggressively made credit available "despite the fact that loan demand has dropped dramatically." This assessment is consistent with reports from community banks that consumers simply don't want to take on new debt.

About the only corner of the lending market that's booming is mortgages. Artificially low interest rates, falling home prices and aggressive marketing from the National Association of Realtors has led to a spike in new home loan originations.

Yet, as property values continue to spiral downward, banks like Wells Fargo (WFC), who tout their mortgage division as a strong earnings driver, are lending against an asset class that continues to tumble in value.

Increasingly, Americans are reassessing their own personal income statements. And with an economic future that's cloudy at best, taking on more debt isn't sounding like a great idea.

Not convinced? Examine the lengths to which automakers like Ford (F) are going to get buyers to open their wallets: payment insurance against job losses.

These sorts of marketing tricks are not dissimilar to teaser rates and no-money-down loans that were so prevalent during the mortgage boom. And we see how well that turned out.

Until Washington accepts the new reality -- that credit is driven not just by supply, but also demand -- we'll keep reading suspect analysis of data ostensibly supporting crackpot theories that credit markets have thawed, and a return to the go-go years of unsustainable economic growth is just around the corner.
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