COVID-19's immediate negative impact on the economy. COVID-19′s immediate negative impact on the economy. (Source: Shutterstock)

The U.S. unemployment rate will peak at 25% this summer, rivaling levels last seen when Herbert Hoover left the White House in 1933, according to Steven Rick, chief economist for CUNA Mutual Group.

For credit unions and other financial institutions, loan charge-offs might be double or triple the levels they were a year ago, and “the vast number of financial institutions in this country” might be showing net losses by 2021.

“The next two years may be the most challenging for financial institutions since the Great Depression,” Rick said.

Rick said he expects the Fed to keep short-term interest rates near zero for the next two to four years. “They won’t raise that until the unemployment rate returns to around 5%, which could be many years into the future.”

“We’re going to see margin compression like we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Like pages flying off a calendar in an early talkie, economic forecasts have worsened by the week since COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization March 11.

CUNA predicted March 24 that the nation’s jobless rate would peak at 6.5% in this year’s third quarter and fall to 6% by the end of the year. On April 8 it predicted joblessness would peak at 15% this year.

Rick said the U.S. unemployment in late April was already 20%, reflecting the 26.5 million jobs lost from March 15 through April 18.

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released April 3 showed the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.4% in March, up from 3.5% in February.

At that point, the Labor Department report had shown an unprecedented surge of 10.2 million initial unemployment claims March 15-28, with about 6.6 million claims occurring after the BLS sampling period for its March unemployment estimate.

And from March 29 to April 18, another 16.3 million Americans made first-time unemployment claims.

“By June we expect the unemployment rate to continue to rise up to 25%. These numbers are similar to what we saw during the Great Depression of the 1930s,” he said.

In the first four years of the Great Depression, U.S. economic output shrank by a third. The unemployment rate rose from 4% in 1929 when the stock market crashed to 25% in 1933 when Franklin D. Roosevelt was first sworn in as president, according to David C. Wheelock, deputy director of research at the St. Louis Fed.

Rick said he expects the unemployment rate to subside to 20% by October and 15% by year’s end.

“By the end of 2021, we could still be seeing a 10% unemployment rate,” he said. “We typically see this with the unemployment rate: It goes up quickly and takes years to come back down.”

Comparisons with the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 are becoming less apt. Economic forecasts before this month said the crisis wouldn’t cause a downturn as bad as the recession that lasted from late 2007 to mid-2009. Now, forecasts are tending to show our condition is already worse.

During the Great Recession, the jobless rate peaked at a seasonally adjusted 10% in October 2009, four months after the recession’s official end. From June 2009 to early this year, the U.S. economy added 22 million jobs.

“Basically the 22 million jobs we added have all been wiped away,” Rick said.

Meanwhile, the Madison, Wis., group’s monthly Credit Union Trends Report released Tuesday predicted:

  • Loan portfolios will grow 2% this year, 3.5% in 2021 and 7% in 2022. A month ago Rick predicted 3% loan growth for 2020, down from 6.4% in 2019.
  • Membership, which grew 3.5% last year, is expected to grow 1% this year and 1.5% in 2021.
  • ROA, which was 0.93% last year, will fall to about 0.30% this year.
  • New auto loan balances, which fell 0.1% last year, will fall more than 20% this year, “greater than the decline reported during the Great Recession.”
  • Mortgages, which have been the bright spot for credit unions, will lose some of their luster this year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to decrease credit union purchase mortgage activity this year due to massive job losses and grim income expectations reducing the demand to purchase a home. Moreover, social distancing measures will prevent homebuyers from even interacting with the housing market,” the report said.

The April 2 forecast from the Mortgage Brokers Association predicted first mortgage refinances to rise 31.4% to $1.2 billion this year, while purchase mortgage originations will fall 2.4% to $1.2 billion.