There’s a lot that makes Washington Federal Bank President and CEO Brent Beardall nervous for the state and nation in this pandemic-ridden economy, but he’s also hopeful.
“Bottom line, where do we stand? I would say the economy is strong, despite COVID,” Beardall said in delivering the Bellevue Chamber’s second annual midyear economic forecast in a webinar for which more than 500 people registered to hear the chief of the Seattle-based bank with $18.2 billion in assets and operations in eight Western states.
Clearly, there’s economic pain today and probably more coming, he said.
“The key for all of us to get through this is we need to go out there and we need to behave like we used to behave in terms of spending,” Beardall said in concluding his roughly 45-minute presentation. “We need to adhere to all the proper distance (and) safety protocols, but we need to go out. We need to lead by example,” visit restaurants and stores “and enjoy ourselves and start to spend the money like we used to — and that is the key to get our economy back on its feet.”
Beardall began his forecast listing what makes him nervous, sharing a “pretty dire list” topped by COVID-19 resurgence and the related human and economic tolls.
“What I worry about most is there are a lot of small businesses that took really a very difficult punch … from the first shutdown, and then what happens if we have another shutdown? Those businesses were able to survive because of government programs, the PPP, so forth, dipping into savings, and they were just barely able to survive. So, if we have another shutdown, I think we could see far more in terms of way of the bankruptcy of small businesses, which I think would be a very bad thing,” he said.
His other concerns: a net loss of 250,000 jobs this year in Washington, and how many will return and when; a “staggering” national debt of $26.5 trillion and cost of servicing that debt when interest rates rise; what will happen to commercial real estate as more people work from home and for which office construction has been important to the local economy; a widening wealth gap, which also plays into social unrest “and for good reason;” an equity bubble, in part as the price-to-earnings ratio for the S&P 500 is about double its roughly 40-year average; and a state budget with an estimated $8 billion to $9 billion shortfall and how that will be addressed.
Giving him hope: the entrepreneurial nature and diverse economic base of Seattle and Bellevue; the financial strength of many borrowers and the banks; higher residential real estate values and the equity in homes; “uber low interest rates,” which are fuel for the economy; pent-up consumer demand waiting to be unleashed as COVID is controlled; and massive government intervention.
Asked about mortgage rates, Beardall sees an 80 percent likelihood they’ll hover between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent for the foreseeable future.
Asked if Seattle’s new payroll tax and political unrest could benefit the Eastside, Beardall believes it will.
“I think more and more businesses are asking themselves: Do we want to be headquartered in Seattle?” he said, worried about compounding issues by taxing businesses needed to survive. He prefers to grow revenue through economic growth, as the state demonstrated the last decade.
“I’m nervous for Seattle. …,” he said. “We have real issues; I’m not trying to shy away from that. We have real issues that need to be addressed. We have real issues in terms of systemic racism. We have issues in terms of the wealth gap. There’s all kinds of issues to be addressed, but if we’re going to put forth an agenda that’s aggressively taxing the very businesses we need to grow, I think that’s shortsighted.”
Beardall also was asked what small businesses will need to survive. If a business is struggling, speak up, he said. There are many people and organizations willing to help, as are banks, which have offered payment-deferral programs, he added.
“If you’re having a problem, don’t be shy about it, raise your hand and let people know you’re having a problem,” he said. “Work with your landlord, work with your suppliers, so forth and try to work through it, but reach out to the chamber and see how you can come together and work through this.”