Spokane-area bankers, whose prospects rise and fall with the regional economy, say they're peering into a clouded crystal ball as they make projections for 2009.
"It's probably the first time in my career that I would have to say I have no idea what's going to happen next year," Peter Stanton, chairman and CEO of Washington Trust Bank, of Spokane, says only half-jokingly.
Harold Gilkey, chairman and CEO of Sterling Financial Corp., which owns Sterling Savings Bank, of Spokane, says, "I guess the best thing that will happen in 2009 is we'll no longer be in 2008."
Randall L. Fewel, president and CEO of Inland Northwest Bank, says, "I've talked to a lot of small-business owners who've had pretty good years in 2008. None of them has expanded. They don't want to take on any more debt. They're hunkering down and waiting it out."
The U.S.'s loss of 533,000 jobs in November was "very lousy," Stanton says. He says consumer spending has gone from driving 70 percent of the economy "to nothing, overnight, like falling off a shelf."
"My sense is people stop spending because they're not sure what's going to happen," Stanton says. He adds, "We need to see some positive sign there," plus regained confidence in the real estate market.
Says Fewel, "In my mind, it's all about jobs. If they're there, the economy will rebound."
Gilkey expects that the Pacific Northwest economy will "hold on in the first half of 2009, and then we'll have a modest pickup in the last half of 2009." He says the U.S. government's efforts to add liquidity to the financial sector and president-elect Barack Obama's "preannouncement" of a stimulus package of hefty spending on road and bridge projects are "appropriate actions."
"Money is getting real cheap," Gilkey says. "As interest rates go lower, entrepreneurs will take risks, and banks will back them. Businesses can create projects that are more viable at low rates."
Because improved commodity prices gave Inland Northwest farmers and mining companies improved results for a time before softening in recent months, and because commodity producers paid off debt and made strong profits when they had the chance, "the inland area has gone into this recession pretty well-heeled,'" Gilkey says.
"I don't see a lot of additional damage" from the recession in the Inland Northwest, he says.
Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp. give the Northwest economy valuable diversity, and Boeing should be hiring people and building its Dreamliner aircraft by the second half of 2009, helping to fuel a regional recovery then, Gilkey says.
"In the single-family home construction market, I think we've reached 'approximate bottom,' although there may be some more foreclosures" beyond the normal level, he says.
Gilkey, Stanton, and Fewel all say the inauguration of a new U.S. president is the kind of signal event that can change the nation's mood.
"I think there's optimism with the new administration coming in," Stanton says. "These people are smart, and they're serious."
For 2009, he says, Washington Trust is projecting "very modest loan growth, maybe 5 percent or 6 percent, and maybe a little more deposit growth, of 7 or 8 perecent."
Inland Northwest Bank will log loan growth of 30 percent, asset growth of 21 percent, and deposit growth of 24 percent for 2008, but its profits will fall this year because of lower margins and increased credit problems, Fewel says.
For 2009, it's projecting growth in "the small single digits in all three categories," but has felt a softening in loan demand recently.
Gilkey won't comment on Sterling's full-year results for 2008 until after they're released, but says, "The first nine months have been difficult, and it's tied almost exclusively to single-family home construction." He adds, "'09 is going to be better than '08."
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