When it Comes to Loan Quality, Who Knows?

Seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, which has flipped the U.S. economy into a deep recession, it’s still difficult to make an accurate assessment of the banking industry’s loan quality.

When states locked down their economies and imposed shelter-in-place restrictions last spring, the impact on a wide range of companies and businesses was both immediate and profound. Federal bank regulators encouraged banks to offer troubled borrowers temporary loan forbearance deferring payments for 90 days or more.

The water was further muddied by passage of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which included the Paycheck Protection Program – aimed at a broad range of small business borrowers – as well as weekly $600 supplemental unemployment payments, which enabled individuals to continuing making their consumer loan repayments. The stimulus made it hard to discriminate between borrowers capable of weathering the storm on their own and those kept afloat by the federal government.

The CARES Act undoubtedly kept the recession from being even worse, but most of its benefits have expired, including the PPP and supplemental unemployment payments. Neither Congress nor President Donald Trump’s administration have been able to agree on another aid package, despite statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and many economists that the economy will suffer even more damage without additional relief. And with the presidential election just two months away, it may be expecting too much for such a contentious issue to be resolved by then.

We expect charge-offs to increase rapidly as borrowers leave forbearance and government stimulus programs [end],” says Andrea Usai, associate managing director at Moody’s Investors Service and co-author of the recent report, “High Volume of Payment Deferrals Clouds a True Assessment of Credit Quality.”

Usai reasons that if there’s not a CARES Act II in the offing, banks will become more selective in granting loan forbearance to their business borrowers. Initially, banks were strongly encouraged by their regulators to offer these temporary accommodations to soften the blow to the economy. “And the impression that we have is that the lenders were quite generous in granting some short-term relief because of the very, very acute challenges that households and other borrowers were facing,” Usai says.

But without another fiscal relief package to help keep some of these businesses from failing, banks may start cutting their losses. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of loan forbearance. “They will continue to do that, but will be a little more careful about which clients they are going to further grant this type of concessions to,” he says.

For analysts like Usai, getting a true fix on a bank’s asset quality is complicated by the differences in disclosure and forbearance activity from one institution to another.  “Disclosure varies widely, further limiting direct comparisons of practices and risk,” the report explains. “Disclosure of consumer forbearance levels was more comprehensive than that of commercial forbearance levels, but some banks reported by number of accounts and others by balance. Also, some lenders reported cumulative levels versus the current level as of the end of the quarter.”

Usai cites Ally Financial, which reported that 21% of its auto loans were in forbearance in the second quarter, compared to 12.7% for PNC Financial Services Group and 10% for Wells Fargo & Co. Usai says that Ally was very proactive in reaching out to its borrowers and offering them forbearance, which could partially explain its higher percentage.

“The difference could reflect a different credit quality of the loan book,” he says. “But also, this approach might have helped them materially increase the percentage of loans in forbearance.” Without being able to compare how aggressively the other banks offered their borrowers loan forbearance, it’s impossible to know whether you’re comparing apples to apples — or apples to oranges.

If loan charge-offs do begin to rise in the third and fourth quarters of this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that bank profits will decline as a result. The impact to profitability occurs when a bank establishes a loss reserve. When a charge-off occurs, a debit is made against that reserve.

But a change in accounting for loss reserves has further clouded the asset quality picture for banks. Many larger institutions opted to adopt the new current expected credit losses (CECL) methodology at the beginning of the year. Under the previous approach, banks would establish a reserve after a loan had become non-performing and there was a reasonable expectation that a loss would occur. Under CECL, banks must establish a reserve when a loan is first made. This forces them to estimate ahead of time the likelihood of a loss based on a reasonable and supportable future forecast and historical data.

Unfortunately, banks that implemented CECL this year made their estimates just when the U.S. economy was experiencing its sharpest decline since the Great Depression and there was little historical data on loan performance to rely upon. “If their assumptions about the future are much more pessimistic then they were in the previous quarter, you might have additional [loan loss] provisions being taken,” Usai says.

And that could mean that bank profitability will take additional hits in coming quarters.