YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Despite inflation that is driving interest rates higher, area bank leaders are certain they can help customers navigate this economic climate.
“We’ve actually seen a little bit of downticking in consumer delinquencies,” says Ralph Lober, president and CEO of Consumers National Bank. “We’re cautiously optimistic, you could say. We, and most of the community banks, know our borrowers very well. Our borrowers came through the financial crisis of 2008 really well. They came through the pandemic really, well. And we anticipate them to come through [this period] very well.”
Lober denies there is a recession to recover from.
“We’re in the camp that it’s going to be a soft landing. Because you’re still seeing projects on the construction side, equipment purchases,” he says.
He does, however, expect a slowdown, but it is difficult to know the timeline. “We don’t necessarily see a total crash or a hard landing of the economy,” he says.
Ted Schmidt, regional president PNC Bank, says he believes the craziness of 2023 started in March with a lot of noise in the banking industry around liquidity and bank concentrations. PNC economists are predicting a 40% probability of a mild recession in 2024, although things are continually changing, he says.
The Federal Reserve Bank has predicted GDP growth will slow to just 1.5% in 2024.
Despite unprecedented interest rate increases by the Fed, Schmidt says PNC economists do not believe the central bank will continue that trend by raising rates again.
Inflation spiked and started to affect people’s pocketbooks, he explains. In some cases that led to people turning to credit cards, which may impact consumers over the next three to six months. Schmidt also believes unemployment could start to rise, perhaps to 4% next year.
Gary Small, president and CEO of Premier Bank, says he’s concerned about the implications for those who are starting to repay their student loans again. He notes how hard this economy is hitting people depends on their stage of life.
Small sees fewer problems for someone later in their career who is getting good interest rates, for the first time in a long time, from bank investments such as CDs and money markets. Many of these people may have their house paid off or are locked into a lower mortgage rate.
“Expenses are probably fine and Social Security dollars keep going up with inflation. That’s the one positive with inflation, and they’re making more than they’re paying. So they’re wondering what all of the hubbub is about,” says Small.
LOCAL ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
In the Mahoning Valley, bankers continue to see a positive outlook despite the national headwinds.
“We have not seen a major slowdown in the area,” says Schmidt. “Businesses are still growing and they need to continue to support that growth with working capital lines of credit and that’s been pretty active with our client portfolio. We’ve also seen continued growth in capital investments. The equipment needs are there.”
Dan Griffith, senior vice president of wealth strategy for Huntington’s Private Bank, says a recent survey of clients in the Midwest showed more than half project growth and expansion in 2024.
And the majority were “surprisingly optimistic,” with 57% believing 2024 will be a decent year and only 8% saying they are worse off now than before the pandemic.
“A lot of them had very strong responses, not just that they were doing OK, but that they were having really good years and were doing well,” says Griffith. “Overall there is a lot of reason for optimism, particularly in the Valley where the news economically has been really solid.”
Sam Huston, Huntington’s marketing president for the Mahoning Valley, says area businesses are responding to wage inflation and workforce challenges, in some cases by automating their processes – which creates demand for lending.
“The business climate base here in the Mahoning Valley is extremely optimistic for multiple reasons,” Huston says. “There is a lot of exciting about things happening here and there is a lot of outside investment looking at the Valley.”
Premier Bank’s Small notes that one concern businesses are facing is repricing of their loan rates. Going from a 4% or 5% rate to a possibility of 8% could be a big hit, but he is confident local businesses are ready to handle it.
“They’ve had a year to figure it out, so it won’t be a surprise when it happens and for some it won’t be for another year or two,” says Small. “So, I’ve got a lot of confidence that businesses will make the proper adjustments. And I think the whole Covid environment showed us just how radically you could make adjustments and not have the whole place implode on you.”
As Premier works to build its deposits, Small says the bank is taking care of current clients and those with whom it is seeking relationships.
“But we’ll be judicious overall because we’ve only got so much money that we can deploy,” he says. “That is probably happening everywhere right now.”
Barry Robinson, chief consumer banking officer for First National Bank, says during challenging times it is important for both businesses and consumers to have strong relationships with their bank.
“Among the many areas where banks can provide value,” Robinson says, “are working with customers and clients to develop strategies to get through challenges, examining their credit, understanding the impact of interest rates on their short- and long-term goals, and exploring lending, financing and refinancing options.”
Huston points to Huntington’s Capstone Partners acquisition as beneficial in helping clients to navigate their financial investment futures. The bank acquired Capstone, an investment banking and advisory firm, in June 2022.
Additionally, Huntington is helping clients make transitions, including succession planning and acquisitions. “We see a lot of businesses in the Valley looking to be the acquirers,” Griffith says.
“We’re able to lean into the lending environment right now,” Huston says. “I think we’re well positioned to roll into 2024 and serve the Valley extremely well.”
MORTGAGES, AUTO LOANS
Consumer borrowing is showing improvement despite the slowdown.
Consumer Bank’s Lober says the pipeline has slowed, but it has not stopped. And he is seeing improvements in residential real estate as well.
“Residential has slowed to almost a standstill. But we have seen signs of life in the last month or so,” Lober says. “For our quarter ending in September, our sales income on residential mortgages was up about 20% over the prior year.”
Lober notes that residential mortgage rates that correlate to the 10-year treasury bill have come down about 50 base points in the last six weeks, giving home buyers more buying power.
“That young family that wants to buy their first house or a little larger house, the rates impacted them some. But the supply of housing, which drove prices. impacted them more than interest rates,” Lober says.
The lack of supply is raising the cost more than inflation. But inflation has affected the cost of building a home, which is significantly higher than just three or four years ago, says PNC’s Schmidt
Additionally, interest rates are affecting car loans, which Small says can lead to someone deciding to buy a $32,000 used car instead of a $52,000 new one.
Small believes it may take time for people to adjust to the new higher interest rates for both houses and automobiles. For those new to the housing market, a 7% mortgage rate can mean less buying power, but it can also be refinanced down the road.
TECHNOLOGY AND AI
Since the pandemic, the number of banking customers using digital banking has accelerated, leading area banks to invest more heavily in technology and AI.
Robinson says First National Bank has been investing in technology for years. He points to the bank’s Clicks-to-Bricks, an omnichannel banking experience that blends in-person and digital channels to give customers flexibility. His bank also is using technology and AI to prevent identity theft and fraud, and allow customers to more easily apply for a loan.
Premier just upgraded its digital banking system, providing users with a better experience, including better security, and card controls on their debit card, according to Small. It is “very intuitive and easy to use,” plus the new vendor allows the bank to be nimble in responding to what customers want now and in the future.
Lober says Consumers is getting its technology prepared to take advantage of FedNow, which was introduced by the Fed to allow for faster transactions.
Through the Zelle money sending platform, Schmidt says, customers can securely and quickly send or accept cash in seconds. PNC is encouraging clients to make payments without checks because of potential fraud. But if they do receive a paper check, “You can take a picture and boom, it’s in your account.”