Recession risk rises with rate hikes, say US regional banks

Executives at some of the largest regional U.S. banks see rising recession risks prompted by interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, even as those increases are expected to bolster lending revenues.

Fed policymakers are struggling to contain consumer prices which jumped 8.5% from a year earlier in March, with Chairman Jerome Powell saying a half-point rise in interest rate “will be on the table” in May.

While the increases will benefit banks in the short term by increasing the interest they collect on loans, executives say there is a danger the central bank will tighten too aggressively.

“It could be difficult to get the economy to a soft landing,” Greg Carmichael, chief executive of Fifth Third Bancorp, said in an interview. “In the latter part of 2023, we could be in a state of recession.”

Meanwhile, lending companies are stronger. First-quarter loan growth rose a median 1.4% from the previous three months among a group of the largest publicly traded U.S. banks that reported results on Thursday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Excluding loan balances tied to the Paycheck Protection Program and a portfolio of auto loans the company sold, KeyCorp’s average loans rose 15% in the first quarter from the same period a year earlier. That helped counter weakness in the Cleveland-based company’s investment bank, which CEO Chris Gorman attributed to market volatility.

“If you were to make an initial public offering, you wouldn’t knowingly go into a choppy market,” Gorman said in an interview.

In the near term, the lender expects full-year loans to increase by a percentage in the mid-teens, and other banks are also optimistic.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc. expects loan growth to average 10% for the full year, Chief Financial Officer Robert Reilly told analysts and investors on an earnings call last week. The bank did not provide guidance on this metric when it reported first quarter 2021 results last April.

Even with such a rosy lending outlook, executives are aware that the economic situation could darken.

“While we believe the economy is on sound footing in the near term,” Truist CEO Bill Rogers Jr. said on a conference call with analysts on Tuesday, “headwinds of uncertainty geopolitics coupled with the inflationary environment and aggressive monetary tightening expectations create a wide range of economic prospects as we move forward this year and next.