The following feature appeared in the fourth quarter 2022 edition of Bank Director magazine. It and other stories are available to magazine subscribers and members of Bank Director’s Bank Services Membership Program. Learn more about subscribing here.
For John Asbury, CEO at Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp., a $19.7 billion bank headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, concerns about the direction of the U.S. economy have a familiar feel to them. It was just two years ago that Asbury and the rest of the banking industry were staring into the abyss of an economic catastrophe caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The U.S. economy shrank 31.2% in the second quarter of 2020 when the country was put into lockdown mode to fight the pandemic. And while the economy made a dramatic recovery, growing 38% the following quarter, it was a time of great uncertainty for the nation’s banks as they dealt with an unprecedented set of economic and operational challenges.
For bankers like Asbury, it’s déjà vu in 2022.
“Once again we find ourselves in a period of great uncertainty — which is a familiar place to be,” says Asbury. This time the economic challenges come from a sharp rise in inflation, which came in at 8.5% in July — well above the Federal Reserve’s target rate of just 2%. The Fed clearly misread this sudden increase in inflation, thinking it was driven primarily by supply chain disruptions coming out of the pandemic, and now is trying to catch up with a fast-moving train.
Year to date through September, the Fed’s rate setting body — the Federal Open Market Committee — raised the federal funds rate five times, including three successive rate increases of 75 basis points each, bringing the upper limit of the target rate to 3.25%. It’s been a long time since the Fed raised interest rates by such a substantial margin in so short a time. The FOMC was scheduled to meet again in November and December, and Federal Reserve officials indicated in September that rates could reach 4.4% by year-end.
During the early days of the pandemic, the Federal Reserve also pumped money into the economy through a policy tool called quantitative easing, where it bought long-term securities from its member banks. Earlier this year, the Fed began to reverse that policy to reduce liquidity in the economy, which should help boost interest rates.
The result has been a dual economic outlook, with the immediate future looking more promising than it has in years — but with the longer-term prospects clouded by the threat of inflation and the Federal Reserve’s determination to bring it to heel. Rising interest rates are generally a boon to most banks, but there is a threshold point at which higher rates can lead to a prolonged economic downturn — which is not good for banks or most other companies.
“It remains to be seen what [the Fed] will do when push comes to shove but at least for now, it looks like they’re more concerned about reining in inflation than any of the effects — like a slowdown — that such actions could cause,” says R. Scott Siefers, managing director and senior research analyst at the investment bank Piper Sandler & Co.
The challenge for banks is plotting a course through such a confusing landscape. Do they push for loan growth at the beginning of an economic slowdown of unknown depth and duration, or adopt a more conservative posture toward credit? Should they compete for deposits as funding costs inevitably go up, or be content to let some of their excess funding run off? And lurking in the background is the risk that the Federal Reserve ends up tipping the economy into a deep recession as it seeks to choke off inflation.
By a traditional definition, the U.S. economy has already entered a shallow recession. The country’s gross domestic product, which is the monetary value of all goods and services produced in a specific time period, was -1.4% in the first quarter and -0.9% in the second quarter. Recessions are generally thought of as two quarters of economic contraction, but a variety of factors and data are part of that consideration. The Business Cycle Dating Committee, which is part of the National Bureau of Economic Research, is the group that declares when the U.S. is in recession and has yet to declare this current cycle one.
By other measures, however, the economy is doing surprisingly well. The country’s unemployment rate in August was just 3.7% — down from a peak of 13.2% in May 2020 — and the economy added over 500,000 new jobs in July and another 315,000 in August. In another piece of good news, August’s inflation rate was 8.3%, down from 8.5% in July and 9.1% in June, offering a glimmer of hope that the Fed’s rate hikes are beginning to work.
And in many respects, the experience of bankers on the ground is also at odds with the economic data. “What I’ve found myself saying as I speak to our clients and to our teams is that I feel better than I do when I simply read the financial press,” says Asbury. “Despite all the uncertainty, we’re actually in a pretty good place at the moment. Asset quality remains very benign. We see no end in sight to that, which is one of the more astonishing aspects of the whole pandemic, continuing even to now. Liquidity is still very good. We would have expected to see more deposit runoff than we have. It’s really all about business and consumer sentiment, which seems to be going up and down … The reality is that we’re in a pretty good spot.”
Ira Robbins, chairman and CEO at Valley National Bancorp, a $54.4 billion regional bank headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey, offers a similar assessment. In addition to New Jersey, the bank also does business in New York, Alabama and Florida. And a bank’s experience during an economic downturn may depend on its geographic location, because not all regions of the country are affected equally. “I’m sitting in Florida today, and it doesn’t feel like a recession here at all,” says Robbins in a recent interview. The economy might fit the traditional definition of a mild recession, but that doesn’t seem to bother him very much.
“I really don’t think it’s all that relevant to be honest with you,” he says. “When I look at the behavior of our consumers and commercial customers, we would say we’re not in a recession based on activity, based on spending habits, based on the desire to still have capital investments. When it comes to commercial endeavors, the economy still feels very, very strong.”
Valley National is a large residential lender, and Robbins says that the rise in interest rates has chilled the mortgage refinancing market and made it more difficult for first-time home buyers looking for an entry-level home. “But general activity in the purchase market is still very strong,” he says. “The Florida market is still on fire for us. Prices really haven’t abated yet. And the demand is still very strong in the market from a residential perspective.” Commercial real estate activity, including multi-family housing, is also booming in Florida thanks to the continued influx of people from out of state, according to Robbins. “We still have many of our borrowers — developers — looking to this footprint to grow,” he says. “And the rise in interest rates really hasn’t impacted their desire to be in this market.”
Valley National is also seeing a lot of multi-family development in the Jersey City, New Jersey market, where the bank is an active lender. “We have an environment where the supply hasn’t kept up with demand for a long time,” Robbins says. “Irrespective of what’s going on in the interest rate environment, there’s still a lot of people demanding newer product that just isn’t available to them today.”
If Asbury and Robbins see the current economic situation from a glass-half-full perspective, Tim Spence, CEO at $207 billion Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, Ohio, sees it as half empty. Spence has chosen to position the bank more conservatively given the economy’s uncertain outlook going into 2023. “We’ve elected to be more cautious as it relates to the outlook than many others have been,” he says. That caution has manifested itself in tougher expense control, “paring around the margins in terms of the lending activity” and using swaps to protect the bank’s net interest margin should the Fed end up cutting interest rates in the future, Spence explains.
While the U.S. economy may be slowing down, there are other factors that should buoy the industry’s profitability through the remainder of 2022. Most banks benefit from a rising rate environment because they can reprice their commercial loans faster than market competition forces them to reprice their deposits.
Deposit costs have yet to increase upward even as interest rates have shot up dramatically, and there is still a lot of liquidity in the country’s banking system. Siefers points to Fed data that deposits grew 0.6% in the first half of the year and remarks in an email exchange that he’s “been surprised at how resilient the deposit balances were. The conventional wisdom is that commercial balances have been looking for other homes, while consumer [deposits] have [gone] higher. Net/net, very little movement in total balances.”
One of the dichotomies in the economy is the industry’s strong loan growth despite the evidence of a slowdown. Citing Federal Reserve data, Siefers points out that loans excluding Paycheck Protection Program loans grew 5.5% in the first half of the year. While it might seem counter-intuitive that loans would grow while the economy is cooling off, Tom Michaud, CEO of investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, says that many commercial borrowers have been returning to the loan market after staying out during the early days of the pandemic. “The government took much of the role of lending out of the industry’s hands with the Paycheck Protection Program and other support elements,” he says. “And then after Covid started, most middle market corporations didn’t see any reason to increase borrowing a lot until they had a better feeling about the economy.”
The industry’s asset quality has also remained at historically low levels and along with the Fed’s interest rate hikes, has created what Siefers calls a “Goldilocks environment” with rising margins, strong loan growth and benign credit trends.
This will likely lead to higher profitability in the latter half of the year. “You’re going to see a significant expansion in bank net interest margins in the third and fourth quarters — the likes of which we’ve probably not seen in a couple of decades, because you’re going to have the cumulative impact of the May, June and July rate hikes flowing into the third and fourth quarters,” says Ebrahim Poonawala, who heads up North American bank research at Bank of America Securities.
The dichotomy between low deposit costs and higher rates won’t last forever, of course. David Fanger, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, says that deposit rates typically move very little during the first 100 basis points in rate hikes when the Federal Reserve begins to tighten its monetary policy. And even when they do begin to move upward, it’s never on a one-to-one basis. “Even at the end of the [last] rate hike cycle, deposit rates increased only 30% of the increase in [the federal funds rate],” says Fanger. Once deposit rates do begin to rise — certainly in 2023 if not later this year as the Fed continues its tight monetary policy — that will probably cut into the expanding net interest margin that most banks are currently enjoying, although Fanger does not expect the industry’s margin to contract unless loan growth drops significantly.
What probably will change, however, is a decline in the industry’s liquidity level as banks decide not to compete for excess funds that seek out higher rates than they are willing to pay. Through a combination of federal stimulus legislation like the CARES Act, passed in March 2020 during the Trump administration, and the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021 during the Biden administration, along with $800 billion in PPP loans that banks originated and the Fed’s quantitative easing policy, trillions of dollars were pumped into the economy during the pandemic. Much of this money ended up on banks’ balance sheets at historically low interest rates. (The federal funds rate in May 2020 was 0.05%.) As rates rise, some of the money will start looking for a higher return.
“I don’t think banks are going to manage their companies just for the absolute level of deposits,” says Michaud. “I believe they’re going to manage their deposits as the market becomes more competitive for deposits relative to the size of their loan portfolio or what they believe is the size of their core bank. Some banks even started doing that in the second quarter. They were happy to let deposits run out of the bank, and they were more willing to focus on their core deposits.”
While it’s possible that the inflation rate peaked in June, Michaud doesn’t expect the central bank to begin lowering the fed funds rate anytime soon. “I think, if anything, the Fed is going to wait to see the outcome from their policy actions to ensure that inflation has gone back down to the level that they wish to see,” he says.
Asbury is of the same mind. “There have been lots of studies that suggest that if the Fed backs off too quickly, that will be a bad thing,” he says. “So, I don’t think rates are coming down anytime too soon.”
In fact, in late summer, there was a disconnect between the fed funds futures market and information coming out of the Federal Reserve. Activity in the futures market implied that the Fed would cut rates next year, even though messaging coming out of the central bank strongly suggested otherwise. The Fed’s summary of economic projections, which includes its dot plot chart that reflects each Fed official’s estimate of where the fed funds rate will be at the end of each calendar year three years into the future, suggests that the median rate will be 4.4% at the end of this year and 4.6% at the end of 2023.
And in a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual policy symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in late August, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned that “[r]educing inflation is likely to require a sustained period of below-trend growth. Moreover, there will very likely be some softening of labor market conditions. While higher interest rates, slower growth and softer labor conditions will bring down inflation, they will also bring some pain to households and businesses. These are the unfortunate costs of reducing inflation.”
Translation: If it takes a recession to bring the inflation rate back down to 2%, so be it.
Inflation has several direct effects on bank profitability. Like most other industry sectors, banks have seen their employment costs rise in a tight job market. “We’ve had to make adjustments, and we continue to look at what needs to be done to remain competitive for front line, client-facing teammates,” says Asbury. “The war for talent is raging.” Valley National also gave raises that went into effect in June, 5% to those making less than $65,000 a year, and 3.5% for those earning between $65,000 and $75,000 a year. “Those are permanent raises,” says Robbins. “It’s going to cost us almost $5 million a year in increased salary expense. So, we have to do a much better job on the revenue side to make sure we’re generating enough to support those expenses.”
The sharp rise in interest rates has also led to an increase in bond yields, which has impacted those banks that over the last two years used their excess deposits to invest in lower yielding securities. This has resulted in unrealized losses in their accumulated other comphrensive income — or AOCI — line. While these losses are not charged against a bank’s net income or its regulatory capital if the securities are being held for investment rather than trading purposes, they still impact its tangible common equity capital ratios “and industry observers watch that,” says Michaud.
But the biggest impact of inflation is how it drives the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. Rising interest rates help fatten the industry’s net interest margin, but they also hike the debt service costs for corporate borrowers as their loans reprice higher. And some of those companies may end up defaulting on their loans in a longer, deeper recession.
As bankers look at the uncertainty hanging over the economy going into 2023, it’s important to give increased attention to customer communication and credit risk analysis. “Banks that have underwriting processes that have survived through multiple economic cycles and that are extremely client-centric will do better,” predicts Poonawala at Bank of America Securities.
“This is an appropriate time to step up communication with the client base, and we are doing that,” says Asbury. “You also have to run sensitivity analyses in terms of the impact of higher borrowing costs. We do this in the normal course of underwriting. Even when rates were at absolute historic lows, we still made credit decisions [by] running scenarios of higher rates and their capacity to service debt and repay in a higher rate environment. That’s just good banking.”
For his part, Robbins sees no need to pull Valley National back from its core commercial borrowers, even with the economy cooling off. “Seventy percent of our commercial origination comes from recurring customers,” he says. “Many of them have been through interest rate environments that have historically been much higher. Their ability to operate in this type of environment isn’t something that really concerns us.” Interest rates would have to go much higher before many of the bank’s core borrowers, particularly in an asset class like multi-family housing, where the demand for new product is high, would pull back from the market, Robbins says.
The larger risk occurs when banks stray beyond their comfort zone in search of yield or volume.
“Because we’ve been in a declining net interest margin environment, banks have been stretching to get into new geographies or asset classes they don’t have any real experience with,” Robbins says. And in an economic downturn, “banks that have done that but haven’t done it in the proper way are going to have real challenges,” he adds.
The difference in perspective may be more nuanced than truly material, but Spence at Fifth Third takes a more cautious view of the future beyond 2022. “From our point of view, it is a challenging environment to understand because the Fed has never had to move at the pace it has,” he says. “We’re coming off 15 years of zero or near-zero interest rates, and an environment where central banks were the largest bond buyers in the world. Now all of a sudden, they’re bond sellers.” Factor in the continued supply chain challenges that were initially driven by the pandemic but are now being accentuated by the war in Ukraine, along with a tight labor market, and it’s a very uncertain time.
Spence outlines three steps that Fifth Third has taken to address this uncertainty. First, the bank is spending even more time thinking about concentration risk. “Are we lending to sectors of the economy … that are going to be more resilient in any environment?” he says. On the consumer side, that has meant more emphasis on super prime customers and homeowners, and less on subprime borrowers even though they pay higher rates. And on the commercial side, that translates into greater focus on commercial and industrial loans to provide inventory financing, equipment purchases and working capital, and less emphasis on commercial real estate and leveraged lending.
Second, Fifth Third has used various hedging strategies to protect its balance sheet for a time when the Fed eventually loosens its monetary policy and begins to lower rates. Spence says the bank has added $10 billion in fixed-rate swaps to build a floor under its net interest margin for the next 10 years.
And finally, the bank is prepared for a scenario in which the Fed has to drive interest rates much higher to finally curb inflation. “In that case, nothing is more important than the quality of your deposit book,” says Spence, who believes that Fifth Third has a strong core deposit franchise.
Spence worries much less about the consequences of being too conservative than being too reckless. “In a business like ours that’s susceptible to economic cycles, the single most important thing that you can do is ask yourself what happens if I’m wrong,” he says. “From my point of view, if we are wrong, then we gave up a couple of points of loan growth in a given year that we can just get back later.”