Today’s “Chart of the Day” from Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog presents an alarming picture of the US economy viewed through the prism of bank business lending. The chart, which I have reproduced below, shows a precipitous collapse in lending*, described in dramatic language as “falling like a knife”. There is no doubt that the US economy remains in very poor health, but should we be getting as excited as Clusterstock?
Annual Change in US Commercial and Industrial Loans
Closer examination of the chart reveals that it is in fact quite misleading.
For a start, it makes the very common mistake of plotting a long series of data without adjusting for the fact that over time the value of the dollar has declined through inflation and the US economy has grown. As a result, more recent movements in the data take on an exaggerated scale.
Also, the chart shows annual changes without providing any sense of the base level of lending. Not only that, while attention is drawn to the US $300 billion annual decline in lending, the increase of close to US $300 billion just over a year earlier is ignored, when in fact the two largely offset one another. Certainly lending has declined, but rather than taking us into historically unprecedented territory, as the Clusterstock chart suggests, it actually means loan volumes are back to where they were in late 2007.
Both shortcomings are addressed in the chart below, which shows the history of loan volumes themselves rather than annual changes and overlays a series scaled by the gross domestic product (GDP) of the US to represent lending in “2010 equivalent” dollars.
US Commercial and Industrial Loans
Changes in lending do provide a useful reading of an economy’s health. But, it is important to be careful when using annual changes to read its current state. The change from January 2009 to January 2010 is affected just as much by what happened a year ago as by what happened last month. Since monthly data is available, we can in fact look at changes over a shorter period. The charts below show monthly changes, which are probably a little too volatile, and quarterly changes which are probably the best compromise. Since these charts extend only over a five year period, it is not as important to adjust for changes in the value of the dollar and the size of the economy.
Both of these charts reveal an economy that certainly remains unhealthy and lending volumes are still declining. However, the declines of the last couple of years evidently reflect an unwinding of the enormous increases of a few years earlier. So rather than fretting that lending is “falling like a knife”, we can take some comfort from the fact that the rate of decline is diminishing from the worst point of the third quarter of 2009. The moral of the story is that charts can mislead as easily as words and should always be treated with caution.