Economy Watch: The State of the Economy, Big Bank Regulation

The Federal Reserve released the latest “Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District"; and regulators finalized a final rule about big-bank liquidity.

The Federal Reserve released the latest “Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions by Federal Reserve District,” better known as the Beige Book, on Wednesday. According to the report, economic activity has expanded in all the 12 Federal Reserve districts since the previous book, but “none of the Districts pointed to a distinct shift in the overall pace of growth.” The New York, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco districts characterized their growth rates as “moderate,” while Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Kansas City reported “modest” growth.

Residential real estate has indeed slowed down overall, the report noted, though there are pockets of strong activity. “Barely half of the Districts reported stable or growing residential real estate activity related to the construction of new homes and sales of existing houses,” it said. New construction and existing home sales generally grew modestly, with market conditions varying by metro area and by neighborhood within metro areas.

Commercial real estate is faring a bit better. A little over half of the districts reported some degree of growth in nonresidential real estate activity, with increased construction, leasing, or both tied to steady or falling vacancy rates and to rent increases. “None of the Districts reported a decline in overall activity, although New York and St. Louis described activity as mixed,” the report said. In addition to traditional office space, certain districts reported increased demand for other property types. Boston, for instance, noted demand for construction in the hospitality sector, while Philadelphia cited industrial and warehouse projects. Richmond noted distribution centers, and St. Louis reported new retail and mixed-use projects as well as new industrial facility construction.

Big Bank Liquidity Regulation Finalized

Regulators promulgated a final rule about big-bank liquidity on Wednesday, capping a long process with its roots in the financial crisis of 2008, when even the largest financial institutions had problems with liquidity. The Federal Reserve approved the rule unanimously, as did the FDIC. Fed chair Janet Yellen asserted that the regulation would “strengthen the resilience of internationally active banking firms.”

Under the new rule, the U.S. banks with at least $250 billion in assets will be obliged to hold cash and cash-like instruments to finance their business for 30 days; banks between $50 billion and $250 billion will need to hold 30 percent less than that. The rule will add an estimated $100 billion more in cash or cash-like assets to the holdings of the nation’s top 30 banks. When it was first proposed last fall, the expectation was an aggregate of $200 billion more, but as the rule went through the approval process, that expectation changed. Another change is that banks with between $50 billion and $250 billion in assets will be able to calculate their liquidity positions every month, rather than on a daily basis, as initially proposed.

The thinking behind the new requirement is that banks need enough liquid assets to cover all of their net cash outflows for a month during times of economic crisis, and that – in a broader sense – the rule will discourage excessive risk-taking by financial institutions. Banks have to until 2017 to comply with the new rule.

Wall Street had another mixed day on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising by 10.72 points, or 0.06 percent. The S&P 500 edged down 0.08 percent, while the Nasdaq was off 0.56 percent.