Bankers see bright spots in struggling economy

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) âÄî Although economic conditions remain weak, particularly in the farming sector, rural bankers in 11 Midwest and Plains states say there are some bright spots. The bankers who responded to the monthly Rural Mainstreet survey cited small increases in farmland prices, new hiring and banking activity in March. The survey’s overall index rose slightly this month, to 18.7 from February’s record low of 16.9. A year ago, the index stood at 46.3. An index greater than 50 indicates a growing economy over the next three to six months. “Of course, all states in the survey are being negatively affected by the national and global recession. However, states with significant mining and natural resources industry, such as North Dakota and Wyoming, have held up much better than other states,” said Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss. Goss and Bill McQuillan, CEO of City National Bank in Greeley, Neb., created the survey, which covers Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The survey’s farmland index dipped again in March to a record low of 33.1, down from February’s 38.3. The farm equipment-sales index also hit a new record low, slipping to 30.0 from February’s 31.0. However, at least two bankers in Kansas reported strong farmland price growth. Michael Johnson, CEO of Swedish American State Bank in Courtland, said land in his area was fetching $3,400 an acre. Meanwhile, the survey’s confidence index, which reflects expectations for the economy six months from now, spiked but remained in negative territory for a sixth straight month. The March figure was 35.9, compared with February’s 21.2. The new-hire index rose to 23.0 from February’s record low of 14.7. The retail-sales index posted a small gain in March, to 18.7 from last month’s record low of 18.4. But the home-sales index remained unchanged at 24.6. Despite the economic turmoil, bankers reported healthy increases in banking. The loan-volume index rose to 46.2 from February’s 43.9. And, there were increases in checking deposits and CDs and other savings accounts. Bankers were also asked this month to comment on the U.S. Treasury’s steps to alleviate the country’s financial woes. About 37 percent of bankers gave a negative grade, with about 36 percent giving a positive one. “Treasury needs to articulate how they are going to rid the financial system of systematic risk of too big to fail,” said Bradley Robson, CEO of First State Bank in Belmond, Iowa. “No firms should be allowed to grow to the size that they jeopardize the whole financial system.” About two-thirds of the bankers who responded also said that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. should charge higher fees to bigger banks, rather than raise insurance rates for all members. Almost 200 communities are represented in the survey. The average community population is about 1,300. ___ On the Net: Creighton University economic surveys: