Sunday, January 21, 2018
Business

As Florida banks get stronger, many customers are still waiting to reap the benefits

Florida, a financial minefield of failing banks six years ago, is overflowing with healthy, top-rated community banks, including a dozen in Tampa Bay alone.

Big banks are acing the federal government's stress tests and are poised to start doling out dividends to shareholders again. Loan delinquencies have fallen in tandem with the percentage of borrowers with subprime credit.

These may not be boom times again, but both community banks and megabanks have rebounded strongly from the Great Recession.

Is that trickling down to their customers? Not so much.

Mortgage and auto loan rates remain historically low. But with the exception of some commercial borrowers and those with great credit, many bank customers are not necessarily reaping other benefits from their banks, whether they're savers or borrowers:

• The Federal Reserve has been reluctant to raise interest rates for years, and is unlikely to act quickly amid repercussions from Britain pulling out of the European Union. That means persistently low CD rates for bank customers are unlikely to improve.

• In this low-rate environment, meanwhile, it's tough for banks to make much money from loans, so they're unlikely to cut routine bank fees or lower interest rates for credit cards. To the contrary, last year's annual bank fee survey by Bankrate concluded that using a checking account may cost a customer more than ever, with record-high fees for everything from withdrawing money from an ATM outside a bank's network to overdrawing an account.

An analysis by SNL Financial and CNNMoney earlier this year found the three biggest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo — earned more than $6 billion just from ATM and overdraft fees in 2015. That translates to $25 for every adult in the country.

• Moreover, some consumer activists say there's little incentive for banks to give consumers more breaks as competition among banks has diminished. With few startups, the number of banks statewide has continued to drop through mergers and consolidation.

Even in one of the brighter spots for borrowers — low mortgage rates — banks have an edge. The Wall Street Journal recently reported, based on data from Freddie Mac, that banks have been slow to drop mortgage rates as quickly as government bond yields have been falling. That bigger spread means more profits for banks and less of a break for their customers.

"The bottom line is that low rates, which are meant for a purpose of monetary policy to stabilize the economy, have not been friendly to most consumers," said Ken Thomas, a longtime banking consultant and economist based in Miami.

"We're paying lower rates on mortgages, but the question is, 'Who is getting a mortgage?' It's not across the board."

Data from the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, or HMDA, shows Tampa Bay companies made 21,000 mortgage loans in 2014, the most recent year available. The vast majority of those loans went to upper-income individuals.

Low- to moderate-income residents — who make up 40 percent of Tampa Bay's population — received less than 15 percent of the loans.

The good news is that many consumers are financially stronger than they were just a few years ago. And amid increased competition from credit unions and online alternatives, local bankers say the market has gotten more competitive — as long as you're in the pool of customers with good credit who meet higher regulatory standards.

"People who are in a good spot from an underwriting standpoint can get loans today a lot easier than they could three, four or five years ago," said Joe Chillura, CEO of USAmeriBank in Clearwater, among the region's highest-rated community banks for financial stability.

"Not only the big banks but the smaller banks are much more active in soliciting new business and they are aggressive with rates and terms to the right borrowers."

Another encouraging sign is that Tampa Bay's economy has continued to not just strengthen, but diversify.

No longer are tourism, retail, health care and the area's bellwether boom-and-bust industry — construction — the sole job generators. New jobs in professional and business services led the way as the bay area added a net 46,000 jobs over the past year.

"I feel like we're back on our feet," Chillura said, "but we're in a place now where we're not just relying on construction to drive the economy."

The hope is that a healthier business climate has a rising-tide effect, expanding the pool of customers whose credit is solid enough to qualify for loans at competitive terms.

Contact Jeff Harrington at [email protected] Follow @JeffMHarrington.

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