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Banking Turmoil Deepens Recession Concerns, Clouds Mortgage Lending Outlook

As if there wasn’t enough uncertainty coming into 2023, the failure of three banks in March has darkened the outlook for an economy that otherwise seemed to be holding its own in the first quarter.

The banks affected had significant exposure to technology and cryptocurrency, and included:

  • Silvergate Bank (cryptocurrency) announced on March 8 it was winding down due to losses in its loan portfolio
  • Silicon Valley Bank (technology-start up lender) taken over by California regulators after experiencing a run on the bank due to its failure to raise needed bank capital
  • Signature Bank (cryptocurrency) closed by bank regulators, citing systemic risks

Although state regulators, the FDIC and the U.S. Treasury Department all stepped in quickly to attend to the failed banks and reassure the entire banking system, there were plenty of investors, industry pundits and business owners with the jitters in the weeks that followed.

The question for the housing industry is, how might the banking industry problems affect the long-term outlook for real estate sales in general and interest rates in particular?

Credit tightening

The most immediate concern highlighted by many industry analysts is that nervous banks may tighten their credit standards, affecting every aspect of lending, from consumer credit and auto loans to residential and commercial mortgage loans.

Susan M. Wachter, Wharton professor of real estate and finance, said bank investors are anxious about real estate lending because commercial real estate lending has become “unattractive” due to rising vacancies.

Speaking on the Wharton Business Daily radio show that airs on SiriusXM, Wachter said, “Banks are likely to respond to their investors’ distress by lending less, and this is not a good thing for real estate.”

But she quickly qualified her remarks by noting that an “economy-wide credit crunch” would most likely be avoided, given the federal government’s quick response that quelled fears within the banking industry.

The real estate industry is also keeping its eye on what this all means for the economy in general and further potential interest rate escalation.

Looming recession

Responding to stronger-than-expected economic data, Fannie Mae’s Economic and Strategic Research (ESR) Group revised upward its first quarter 2023 GDP forecast in its latest monthly commentary, projecting a modest recession to begin in the second half of 2023, rather than in Q2 as previously forecasted.

“While uncertainty has risen following turbulence in the banking sector, the ESR Group noted that bank failures often foreshadow economic downturns,” Fannie Mae stated. “As such, the ESR Group believes that the recent events may act as the catalyst that tips an already precarious economy into recession, primarily via the combination of tighter lending standards among small and midsized regional banks and weakened business and consumer confidence.”

In its March 2023 release, the Conference Board mirrored Fannie Mae’s outlook, saying U.S. GDP growth defied expectations in late 2022, and early 2023 data has shown unexpected strength. The Conference Board said this is due to the fact that consumers have resisted the dual headwinds of high inflation and rising interest rates.

In light of this, they upgraded the Q1 2023 forecast to 1 percent growth. However, they also continue to forecast that the U.S. economy will slip into recession in 2023 and expect GDP growth to contract for three consecutive quarters starting in Q2 2023, largely due to persistent inflation and Federal Reserve hawkishness.

Minutes from the March Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting released on April 12 also indicated that the potential economic effects of the recent banking-sector developments would most likely result in the economy falling into a mild recession starting later this year. But given the underlying economic fundamentals, the participants saw this as short-term, with a recovery over the next two years.

Inflation and interest rate outlook

Inflation dropped from a high of 9.1% in June to 6.5% in December, but then slowed its pace of decline, easing only a half-percent to 6% over the course of the first two months of 2023. This slower pace did not impress the Federal Reserve, and so in spite of the banking crisis that was evolving during its March meeting, they raised the federal funds rate another 25 basis points.

However, the March numbers were more encouraging, with the CPI rising only 5% over the last 12 months, according to the April 12 release by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represents the smallest 12-month increase since the period ending May 2021, and shows that inflation is continuing to cool off in the wake of dramatic increases in interest rates.

More than half of respondents in Bankrate’s First-Quarter Economic Indicator poll said the all-important federal funds rate is likely to peak at 5-5.25%, indicating they believe the Fed will only raise rates one more time. Slowing inflation, the banking crisis, and recessionary indicators could all play into the Federal Reserve’s decision to put an end to rate hikes for the remainder of 2023.

In that same survey, more than 80 percent of respondents said the Fed was unlikely to make any move to cut interest rates until 2024, in an attempt to give the economy more time to cool down.

Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors, said he believed the Federal Reserve would take into account the banking crisis and its overall effect on the economy in considering further rate hikes, opining in an interview for Realtor Magazine, “The Silicon Valley Bank failure, along with a few other banks, means that the Federal Reserve cannot be so aggressive in raising its short-term interest rates. Therefore, mortgage rates will decline.”

In the final analysis

The economy has consistently reacted in non-traditional ways since the onset of the pandemic, constantly surprising pundits with its persistently healthy fundamentals. The unexpected strength in the employment sector in the first quarter of 2023 and the better-than-expected growth in GDP were acting together to moderate recessionary concerns until the March bank failures reawakened those fears.

The same can be said for the real estate industry. In spite of high mortgage rates, real estate sales showed some improvement in February, and homebuilder sentiment has been on the upswing with new permits on the rise.

But the banking crisis has added another element of uncertainty into the mortgage and real estate industry for the foreseeable future. While it could precipitate lower interest rates as Yun suggested, tightening lending standards could well offset any gains realized.

Only time will tell how all of this will play out as the industry continues to keep a watchful eye on how the Federal Reserve handles both the banking crisis and interest rates in the coming months.

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