Bank lending perked up in December, compared with January, but 2009 as a whole saw the lowest growth in 17 years, thanks in part to a sharp slump in lending to business that was driven, ironically, by banks themselves.

Figures from the Reserve Bank this morning show total private credit grew 1.5% in the 12 months to December, the lowest 12 month growth figure for a calendar year since 1992 when the figure was -0.5%.

The 12 month figure for 2009 compares with the 16.3% annual growth seen in the year ending December 2007, as the credit crunch was evolving.

Demand from business credit remained weak in December, falling 0.2% after the sharp 1.0% fall in November.

Over the year to December, business credit declined by 7.0%, down from the 8% growth in 2008 and the huge 23.7% explosion in 2007.

The 7% fall in business credit in 2009 was the lowest recorded by the RBA for a 12 month period, nearly matched by the 6.9% in the year to December, 1992.

Normally that would be headline news, but the past year has seen listed companies raise tens of billions of dollars from the stockmarket: more than $70 billion by some estimates.

Along with that, fund raising companies were forced to cut their bank borrowings (by bankers nervous about their clients level of debt, and no doubt worried about their own bonuses).

In some respects the slump in business credit was self inflicted by the combination of nervous banks and panicky, or cautious clients.

The winners were the fund managers and advisers to companies (more fees, thank you) and those super and investment funds that picked up the cheap shares from the CBA, ANZ, Nab, Fairfax, Mirvac and others, and are now sitting on big capital gains.

The RBA said total credit grew 0.3% in December, up from 0.1% in November – a sign that demand for loans remained slack, except in housing.

Housing credit rose 0.7% in December, following a similar sized increase in November. Over the year to December, housing credit rose by 8.2%, compared to the 7.8% growth in calendar 2008 and 11.7% over 2007.

The RBA said housing credit rose over December due to growth in lending to both owner-occupiers and investors.

Loans to owner occupiers stood out again, up 0.7% in December over November (0.8% growth in that month), for annual growth of 9.9%, 7.8% in 2008 and 11.7% in 2007.

Other personal credit rose by 0.7% over December, following a rise of 0.5% in November. Over the year to December, other personal credit fell by 0.4%.

Peter Fray

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