Esther George is not “Debbie Downer,” but she is also not yet convinced that the United States’ economy will smoothly find that “soft landing” that optimistic financial experts have predicted. However, the former president/CEO of the Federal Reserve in Kansas City is also not predicting doom and gloom in 2024.
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“Any time that you have the kind of aggressive rate increases that we’ve seen ‘The Fed’ undertake, it’s going to slow down things in terms of farm operations…credit tightening for them, too,” George told American Farmland Owner. “Nothing bad has happened yet. Nothing is broken in that sector. But you do see the beginning of a slowing in terms of ag credit.”
ESTHER GEORGE BIOGRAPHY
Joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City: 1982.
Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City president/chief executive officer: 2011-2023
Reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 earlier this year.
George brings perspective to the conversation. She worked for the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City for 41 years and served as its president from 2011 until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 earlier this year. She dealt with the “Great Recession” from 2007-2009 near the middle of her tenure there and then the COVID-19 pandemic at the end.
“They both were a headache when you’re sitting at the Federal Reserve,” she said.
RELATED: Dr. Robert Rich, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland senior economic and policy advisor, lays out the causes of the Great Recession. Read that here.
Those two economic crises had much different characteristics, though, George explained. She blamed the Great Recession on “excessive leverage.” Some of the country’s largest lenders were on the verge of financial collapse at a time when borrowers who would normally not qualify for a loan, in many cases, got access. Home prices soared. The housing bubble burst. The federal government bailed out financial institutions. The Obama administration enacted stimulus programs and tax cuts to aid the recovery.
For the pandemic more than a decade later, George said, “We didn’t have a playbook for an economic shutdown.”
The Trump administration, along with the nation’s governors, temporarily shut down parts of the economy as health leaders tried to access what could be done to prevent the virus (which health leaders knew little about) from sickening millions of people quickly and overwhelming the health system.
The president and Congress authorized a series of taxpayer-financed aid packages to help families, businesses, governments and non-profits to recover.
George said that virus-induced recession was very deep “but bounced back quickly.” However, she said, that she underestimated the impact federal stimulus measures would have in the recovery. “How much trillions and trillions of dollars put in the hands of consumers and businesses would not only sustain the economy but actually produce the kind of demand that we saw.”
What remains to be seen, George said, is how the economy slows down enough for inflation to get back to the target range of about two percent. “A lot can still happen while inflation is in the ‘threes’”, she said.
The economy could continue to gradually slow, which would be ideal and let The Fed then slowly bring down borrowing costs. Or the economy, due to those higher interest rates, could fall more quickly into recession and inflict financial harm on various sectors of the country’s economy. The Fed would likely reduce rates more quickly in that scenario to try to lessen the financial harm.
George doesn’t think The Fed will lower rates soon. At the December meeting, members kept rates where they are.
“I think next year…the timing of that (lowering rates) is hard to pin down,” George said.
George remains optimistic for farmland and its potential to remain valuable for investors, despite higher rates right now. Farmland owners aren’t nearly as leveraged now as they were in the 1970s and 80s, George points out as a reason for her optimism. “That’s a positive right now,” George said, “That allows both the asset value of that land to stay buoyant in some respects. Whether the operation part of that gets hit harder, we’ll have to see. But my sense is there is a lot more equity than debt relative to past periods.”
NOTE: Esther George will be a keynote speaker at the 17th Annual Land Investment Expo in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, on January 9th, 2024, where she will discuss the biggest economic factors in the United States and what she expects in 2024.
To check out the full list of speakers, unique experiences and to register, click here.