As with auto loans and mortgages, credit unions have routinely outperformed other financial institutions in business lending. This is reflected in a near tripling of market share of outstanding loans from 3.5% of depository small-business loans in 2007 to 9.7% in 2017. Business lending growth should remain strong over the next year. The Small Business Optimism Index rose to 108.8 in August, easily beating market expectations and landing as the highest reading in the survey’s 45-year history. The index set new records in terms of owners reporting “job creation plans” and “job openings.” Hopeful signs.
Some headwinds and areas of concern are on the horizon, however. The biggest of these has to do with tariffs and the potential for higher prices and related market disruptions. Nearly all economists agree free trade is good for economic growth in the long-run. Free trade allows countries to specialize in what they’re good at, creating more and better products at lower prices for everyone and contributing to economic growth. In a similar vein, trade disputes threaten the benefits arising from free trade. A recent National Association of Business Economists survey found that 90% of economists consider the “current tariffs and threats of tariffs as having unfavorable consequential impacts on the U.S. economy.” The Tax Foundation estimates the cost to the U.S. economy of enacted and announced tariffs is a 0.6% reduction in long-run gross domestic product ($150 billion), a decline in wages of 0.4%, and a loss of 470,000 jobs.
To date, the negative economic effects of current trade disputes have largely been isolated to sectors directly hit by retaliatory tariffs (e.g., agricultural goods, American steel and aluminum, dairy, seafood, and alcohol), and to downstream industries such as auto manufacturing. CUNA economists don’t expect the current trade disputes to have much of an impact on the overall number of people joining credit unions or on members’ behavior. And we’re not hearing from many credit unions about significant adverse impacts yet.
However, if President Donald Trump’s administration implements tariffs on autos and auto parts, the impact on credit unions could be significant. In the short-term, there may be an increase in memberships and new-car loan originations as people try to beat the tariffs. More important, if and when the tariffs are enacted, the National Automobile Dealers Association estimates a 1.2 million unit decline in new-car loan originations—which would translate into a decline in credit union new-auto originations of roughly 360,000. That total represents an approximate 9% decline in the movement’s aggregate annual new-vehicle originations based on 2017 totals. Demand for used cars, however, may increase if consumers substitute used vehicles for new ones. That could soften any blow from the loss of new-car loan originations. But the impact on consumer confidence isn’t easy to forecast.
MIKE SCHENK is CUNA’s deputy chief advocacy officer for policy analysis and chief economist.