Industry economists agree that should the U.S. plunge off the fiscal cliff Dec. 31, credit unions probably won’t see any ill effects right away.
However, the Credit Union Times spoke with five industry economists who identified three ways a Grand Bargain, or lack of one, could have a big impact on credit union balance sheets.
CUNA Vice President of Economics and Statistics Mike Schenk said even if a Grand Bargain combination of tax increases and spending cuts is reached, the result would “choke off the housing recovery and push us back into recession.“
That’s not good news, but Schenk added that doing nothing would only intensify a current lack of clarity about the future, which would hamper both business confidence and consumer confidence.
“If that happens, people will reduce spending on big ticket items, which means less lending for credit unions,” Schenk said.
NCUA Chief Economist John Worth agreed, recalling that when the federal government created an impasse in 2011 as it debated a solution to the debt ceiling, consumer confidence plummeted from a rating of 70 in June to just 55 in August.
Although Worth said he’s observed consumer interest in the fiscal cliff doesn’t seem as great as it was during the debt ceiling impasse, it would still impact consumers’ view of the future and result in less consumer spending and a weaker economy.
NAFCU Chief Economist David Carrier noted that because of economic slowdowns in China and Europe’s ongoing problems, the United States is actually driving the world economy. Should the already fragile economy here take another hit, the entire world would feel it, he said.
California Credit Union League Chief Economist Dwight Johnston likened the U.S. as the driver of the world economy to the recent snail’s pace transfer of the Space Shuttle Endeavor from Los Angeles International Airport to the California Science Center, where it will be on display.
“In some places, it was moving so slowly, you couldn’t even tell it was moving at all,” Johnston said, “kind of like the world economy.”
Brian Turner, director and chief strategist at Catalyst Strategic Solutions, a subsidiary of Catalyst Corporate FCU, said the way the fiscal cliff solution impacts job growth will have a bigger impact than a decrease in consumer confidence or higher taxes. Consumers aren’t spending less money because they’re anticipating a smaller or no tax refund, but rather, job insecurity.
“I don’t care what people are feeling, it’s what they’re doing that’s important,” Turner said. “Even though they are feeling better, they’re still not spending.”
Worth said liquidity could go either way: consumers could take a flight of safety out of equities markets and into federally insured money market accounts. However, if the economy sours and taxes increase, they would have less money to deposit, so it could be a wash. Turner agreed that liquidity is unlikely to be affected by fiscal cliff issues, because even if taxpayers have fewer refunds and year-end bonuses to deposit, loan outflow is still weak, so seasonal liquidity trends and loan-to-share ratios wouldn’t be greatly impacted.
Schenk said a double dip recession could mean more liquidity, as nervous consumers increase savings and borrow less.
Carrier and NAFCU lobbyists Brad Thaler said they’re concerned about the potential for the credit union tax exemption to get caught up in fiscal cliff negotiations.
While they don’t expect the topic of credit unions to come up directly in the fiscal cliff debate, the exemption could be “boxed in” if politicians agree to cut a set number of tax expenditures tin 2013 and set up pick-and-choose scenario next year.
“We don’t want to get stuck inside a tax reform box and have to fight our way out,” Thaler said.
Carrier said in terms of the effect on credit union balance sheets, taxation would take a bigger bite out of income than corporate stabilization assessments.
Washington veteran Worth, who once headed up the Treasury’s Office of Microeconomic Analysis, said that while credit unions could make a more persuasive case for their tax exemption than many, not one line in the tax code is included by mistake, and “everybody thinks their tax expenditure, like their kid, is above average.”