What is the bigger risk to banks: inflation, or the steps the Federal Reserve is taking to bring it to heel?
Community banks are buffeted by an increasingly complicated operating environment, said speakers at Bank Director’s 2022 Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference in Chicago, held June 13 to 15. In rather fortuitous timing, the conference occurred in advance of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting, where expectations were high for another potential increase in the federal funds rate.
On one hand, inflation remains high. On the other hand, rapidly increasing interest rates aimed at interrupting inflation are also increasing risk for banks — and could eventually put the economy into a tailspin. Accordingly, interest rates and the potential for a recession were the biggest issues that could impact banks over the next 12 to 18 months, according to a pop up poll of some 250 people attending the event.
Brandon Koeser, a financial services senior analyst at audit and consulting firm RSM US, said that inflation is the “premier risk” to the economic outlook right now. He called the consumer price index trend line “astonishing” — and its upward path may still have some momentum, given persistently high energy prices. Just days prior, on June 10, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the CPI increased 1% in May, to 8.6% over the last 12 months.
Koeser also pointed out that inflation is morphing, broadening from goods into services. That “rotation” creates a stickiness in the market that will be harder for the Federal Reserve to fight, increasing the odds that inflation persists.
It is “paramount” that the economy regain some semblance of price stability, Koeser said. In response, central bankers are increasing the pace, and potential size, of federal fund rate increases. But jacking up rates to lower prices without causing a recession is a blunt approach akin to “trying to thread a needle wearing boxing gloves,” he said.
While higher interest rates are generally good for banks, an inflationary environment could dampen loan growth while intensifying interest rate and credit risk, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s 2022 Risk Review. Inflation could lead consumers to cut back on spending, leading to lower business sales, and it could make it harder for borrowers to afford their payments.
At the same time, banks awash in pandemic liquidity added longer-term assets in 2021 in an attempt to capture some yield. Assets with maturities that were longer than three years made up 39% of assets at banks in 2021, compared with 36% in 2019, according to the FDIC. Community banks were even more vulnerable. Longer-term assets made up 52% of total assets at community banks at the end of 2021.
Managing this interest rate risk could be a challenge for banks that lack institutional knowledge of this unique environment. Kyle Manny, a partner at audit and consulting firm Plante Moran, pointed out that many banks are staffed with individuals who weren’t working in the industry in the 1980s or prior. He shared an anecdote of a seasoned banker who admitted he was “caught flat footed” by taking too much risk on the yield curve in the securities portfolio, and was now paying the price after the fair value of those assets fell.
And high enough rates may ultimately send the economy into a recession. In Koeser’s poll of the audience, about 34% of audience members believe a recession will occur within the next six months; another 36% saw one as likely occurring in the next six to 12 months. Koeser said he doesn’t think it’s “impossible” for the central bank to avert a recession with a soft landing — but the margin for error is getting so small that a downturn may be “inevitable.”
Banks have limited options in the face of such macroeconomic trends, but they can still manage their own credit risk. David Ruffin, principal at credit risk analytics firm IntelliCredit, a division of Qwickrate, said that credit metrics today are the most “pristine” he had seen in his nearly 50 years in the industry. Still, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation could hide emerging credit risk on community bank portfolios. Kamal Mustafa, chairman of the strategic advisory firm Invictus Group, advised bankers to dig into their loan categories, industry by industry, to analyze how different borrowers will be impacted by these countervailing forces. Not all businesses in a specific industry will be impacted equally, he said.
So while banks can’t control the environment, they can at least understand their own loan books.