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Recent trends in commercial bank balance sheets, Part 2

Data on securities held by commercial banks

The H.8 Release from the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors details aggregate balance sheet data (assets and liabilities) for all US commercial banks, and the data can be found in FRED. Our previous post on this topic covered total bank assets for large versus small commercial banks. Neither of these posts provides a comprehensive examination of the US banking sector, but we’re continuing to highlight a few key trends in light of recent developments.

This post (the 2nd of 3) examines recent trends in the securities held by large and small domestically chartered commercial banks: Securities comprise the second-largest category on the asset side of the balance sheet, with two subcategories.

  • Treasury and agency securities are obligations issued by the federal government (Treasury securities), US government agencies such as the Federal Housing Administration, and US government-sponsored enterprises such as the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”).
  • “Other securities” are mortgage-backed securities not issued or guaranteed by the US government or other entities, such as those issued by states or political subdivisions.

In the latest reporting week (March 22, 2023), the value of Treasury and agency securities for US commercial banks totaled $4.15 trillion and Other securities totaled $1 trillion.

The FRED graph above plots Treasury and agency securities as a percent of total bank assets for (i) large and (ii) small commercial banks from the week ending January 7, 2015, to the week ending March 22, 2023. This 8-year period encompasses the previous FOMC tightening cycle (2015-2018), the pandemic recession in early 2020, and the current economic recovery and current FOMC tightening period since March 2022. The graph also includes the yield on 10-year Treasury notes, which is a common benchmark yield for longer-term loans such as 30-year fixed-rate residential mortgages.

At the beginning of 2015, large and small commercial banks held a roughly equivalent percentage of their assets in the form of Treasury and agency securities—about 15.5%. Since then, large banks have increased their holding of Treasury and agency securities to a little less than 24% of their total assets—though that percentage is down modestly from its peak of 26.3% on February 16, 2022.

Small banks, however, were reducing their holdings of Treasury and agency securities until just after the recession ended: Government securities as a percentage of assets fell to 12% in late May 2020. Thereafter, small banks began to increase their holdings of securities, which reached 17.1% in late August 2022. Since then, small banks, like large banks, have begun to reduce their holdings of government securities, so that the percentage of assets as of March 22 (15%) is now slightly less than the percentage that prevailed in January 2015 (15.5%). The recent reduction in securities holdings by banks is not surprising, given the recent rise in interest rates.

So, how do movements in interest rates affect bank holdings of securities? One of the fundamental relationships in finance is the inverse relationship between bond prices and interest rates. The price of a bond, and thus its yield (interest rate), is determined by a myriad of factors that influence both the supply of and the demand for bonds. One determinant of the demand for bonds is investors’ expectations of future inflation. All else equal, an increase in expected inflation means that the fixed payments promised by a bond’s issuer (e.g., the US government) will have a lower value than originally expected. In that case, the price of the bond will fall and the interest rate will increase. Similarly, if bond investors expect interest rates to rise—perhaps because of higher inflation and future actions by the Federal Reserve to tamp down inflation—bond prices are expected to fall, leading to the expectation of a capital loss. This also makes bonds less attractive. (See this On the Economy blog post.)

As the FRED graph above shows, small and large commercial banks were adding to their holdings of government securities during a period of rising interest rates (and higher inflation). In essence, banks were adding securities that were paying more in interest, which increased their interest earnings. However, the trade-off is that the market value of their bond portfolio was declining. This is not necessarily a problem if the bank intends to hold the security to maturity.

The peak in government securities holdings for large banks (as a percent of total assets) occurred in the week ending February 16, 2022 (26.3%), roughly a month before the FOMC increased its federal funds target rate, which commenced the current rate-tightening period. By contrast, small banks continued to add to their holdings of government securities; the peak (17%) did not occur until roughly six months later, the week ending August 24, 2022. Since then, as noted, securities as a percentage of assets have declined at large and small banks as interest rates have risen. Thus, there were realized or unrealized losses on commercial banks’ securities portfolios during the period of rising interest rates. According to the FDIC, total unrealized losses on securities that are available for sale and those held to maturity was about $620 billion at the end of 2022.

The third related post on this topic will examine recent trends in loans and leases and deposits. FRED users who are interested in monitoring the US commercial banking sector can do so by analyzing weekly trends in commercial banks’ balance sheets found in the H.8 data.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “10-year market yield.” Click on “Edit graph, open the “Add Line,” and search for “Treasury securities large banks.” To that new line, add a series searching for “Total assets large banks” and apply formula a/b. Repeat for small banks. Open the “Format” tab and set the y-axis position to the right for the last two lines. Finally, restrict the sample period to start on 2019-01-01.

Suggested by Kevin Kliesen and Cassie Marks.

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