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Uh-oh: Big banks shrink lending

May 1, 2012: 6:00 AM ET
Why it's time to break up the 'too big to fail' banks

Lending dropped at the big banks

Credit card lending and home equity lines of credit cut by big banks in the first quarter.

FORTUNE -- Here's another sign that the economic recovery may be fizzling: Big bank lending, which had risen for most of last year, dropped in the first three months of 2012.

The loan drop comes as big banks face new scrutiny from regulators and bond rating firms, and when there are growing signs that the economy is weakening, again. Last week, the government said that GDP grew just 2.2% in the first quarter, which was less than analysts had predicted. On Monday, Goldman Sachs' top U.S. economist Jan Hatzius predicted that the economy only added 125,000 jobs in April. That would be down from 240,000 jobs just two months ago.

A drop in lending is another worrying sign for the economy. When banks cut their lending, it makes it harder for small businesses to get money to expand. But a drop in lending could also signal a drop in demand for loans, meaning businesses and individual don't want to borrow because they are worried about the economy.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Wells Fargo (WFC), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) cut their lending by a collective $24 billion in the first three months of the year. That was a change from last year when lending rose $34 billion at the nation's four biggest banks in all of 2012. The biggest drops were in consumer lending, where credit card loans fell nearly 6% and home equity lines of credit dropped just over 2%. Mortgage lending was up slightly, but much of those home loans were the result of people refinancing to lower rates, and not actual new loans.

What's more, the drop at the big banks comes at a time when lending at banks in general appears to be growing. That's an other sign that the nation's biggest banks still haven't fully healed from the financial crisis. On Monday, the Federal Reserve said that banks in general had eased their lending standards in the first quarter. According to Fed data, the overall volume of bank loans in the U.S. rose by about $95 billion in the first quarter.

The biggest drop in loans came at Bank of America. Loans outstanding at B of A have dropped $78 billion in the past two years. Last year, the bank got out of the business of funding loans sold by outside mortgage brokers. The firm now only makes home loans that are sold by a bank employee. That has cut the bank's home lending activities dramatically.

"Bank of America got hurt pretty badly by its mortgage business," says analyst Dick Bove, who follows bank stocks for Rochdale Securities. "Banks are still in protection mode."

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About This Author
Stephen Gandel
Stephen Gandel

Stephen Gandel has covered Wall Street and investing for over 15 years. He joins Fortune from sister publication TIME, where he was a senior business writer and lead blogger for The Curious Capitalist. He has also held positions at Money and Crain's New York Business. Stephen is a four-time winner of the Henry R. Luce Award. His work has also been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the New York State Society of CPA and the Association of Area Business Publications. He is a graduate of Washington University, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

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