Financial Crisis and the Real Economy, Part 2

The impact of the financial crisis on the real economy can be divided into two periods: before September 15 and after September 15. Before 9/15, it was clear that we were in an economic slowdown, beginning with the construction industry, and that troubled assets on bank balance sheets would probably lead to a long-term decline in lending, which might push the economy into recession. Since Lehman failed on 9/15, this general problem sharpened into a short-term credit crunch, in which various parts of the credit markets have stopped functioning or come close to it. Still, though, people want to know, what does the credit crunch mean for me?

Bloomberg reported that almost 100 corporate treasurers held an emergency conference call yesterday to discuss the challenges they are facing rolling over lines of credit with their banks. In some industries, lines of credit are the lifeblood of even completely healthy companies. They operate like home equity lines of credit: you draw down money when you need it (like to make payroll), and you pay it back when your customers pay you back. (In most business-to-business transactions, money changes hands some time after goods are delivered; hence the pervasive need for short-term credit.)

Now, however, banks are demanding much higher interest rates, lower limits, and stricter terms when lines of credit expire, or are even pouncing on forgotten clauses in contracts to force renegotiations of terms. Lines of credit are priced in basis points (a basis point is 1/100th of a percentage point) over LIBOR, a rate at which banks lend to each other. One company saw the price for its line of credit rise from 90 basis points to 325 basis points over LIBOR, which is itself running at high levels. The banks aren’t doing this because they think their borrowers are in any danger of not paying them back; they’re doing it because they want to hold onto the money because they are afraid of liquidity runs. “These are very different circumstances than many of us have dealt with before,” said one treasurer. “We’re all having to learn every day about provisions that were buried in documents executed 15 years before.”

This is how fear in the banking sector translates very quickly into higher costs and less cash for healthy companies in the real economy. Fortunately there are clear steps that Washington can take to bolster confidence in the banking sector, which will cause the flow of money through the real economy to pick up.