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Written by Cyndie Martini
on May 03, 2022

Inflation hit a high of 7% in December, which rivals numbers not seen in decades. Worse, the most recent print was 8.5%. High inflation pushes up costs for companies and creates hardships for consumers, especially when wages aren't keeping up. But how do credit unions fare in a high inflation environment?

It's the FED's job to keep inflation in check. As is the case now, increasing inflation is well above the FED's 2.0-2.5% target. To rein in inflation, the FED raises interest rates. This has the effect of decreasing spending, which slows inflation. The reason behind the decrease (in economic activity) is that borrowing costs have increased. Without access to new funds (i.e., loans) because of high-interest rates, growth slows as companies cannot spend as much.

Increasing interest rates also affect the private sector. Auto loan and credit card interest rates rise. Mortgage rates also rise, which dampens home purchases. Decreased home buying and building trickle into the construction industry. A major negative side effect of the FED raising interest rates is that it can lead to a recession.

Consumers with fixed-rate loans do well in an increasing interest rate environment. However, credit unions with fixed-rate loan portfolios lose out on refinancing and new loans (at higher rates). Additionally, any variable rate liabilities that the credit union has on its books aren't offset by higher rate loans since fewer people want to borrow at higher rates. The result is a squeeze on margins.

For those consumers with variable-rate mortgages, they'll need a salary increase to offset the additional expense. But for those who aren't receiving a pay increase, they are at higher risk of default. Should foreclosures begin hitting the market because of an economic contraction, homes could flood the market, driving values down. These foreclosures blow back onto banks and credit unions.

Target levels of inflation are healthy for the economy. But once inflation starts running away, it makes the FED's job extremely difficult — They are caught between trying to lower inflation without pushing the economy into a recession.


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