Rural America ended 2019 with modest growth, but bankers are pessimistic for 2020 because of weak farm income, according to a monthly assessment of the region's economy.
It's the fourth consecutive month—and 10th out of the last 12 months—that the Rural Mainstreet Index has stayed above the growth-neutral mark, hitting 50.2 this month after 54.2 in November. Any score above 50 suggests a growing economy, while a score below 50 indicates a shrinking economy.
The index, a real-time analysis of the rural economy in 10 states, is based on a survey of bank CEOs in some 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300.
"Federal agriculture crop support payments and somewhat higher grain prices have boosted the Rural Mainstreet Index," said Ernie Goss, a professor at Creighton University's College of Business, which produces the index.
Overall, though, weak farm income continues to dampen bankers' outlook for 2020. The confidence index, reflecting bank CEO expectations for the economy six months out, reflected that anxiety, falling to 36.5 from September's 42.9.
When asked about farm income, almost two-thirds (65.7%) of bankers said they had increased collateral requirements, while 34.3% reported rejecting a higher percentage of farm loan applications last month.
In fact, said, Goss, "one of nine bank CEOs expect 2020 farm loan defaults to expand by 10% to 20%."
This month's index reflected farmers' difficulties in loan approvals: The borrowing index sank to 50.0 from November's 51.4.