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Higher confidence among bankers in the nation's heartland helped push the Rural Mainstreet Index to its highest level in years. But experts cautioned the picture is still far from rosy.
February's 54.8 figure, up from 46.8 in January, pushes the overall index above the growth neutral level of 50 for first time since July 2015. It also marks the best showing for the index since May 2014.
Even the experts at Creighton University's Heider College of Business who produce the index weren't expecting this.
"Given that fewer than one in four, or 23.9 percent, of bankers reported economic growth in their area, the solid February reading surprised me," said Ernie Goss, a business professor at the school. "However, weak agriculture commodity prices continue to weigh on the rural economy."
One of the brightest spots was the confidence index, which reflects expectations for the economy six months out. It jumped to 52.4 this month from 46.7 last month, indicating rising economic optimism among the rural community bankers surveyed for the index. But once again, Goss sounded a note of caution.
"An unresolved North America Free Trade Agreement, a weak USDA 2018 farm income projection, and anemic agriculture commodity prices continue to undermine economic optimism," said Goss.
Indeed, February's farmland and ranchland-price index remained below growth neutral. It came in at 46.3, up from January's 42.2. While it's the highest reading since July 2014, it is the 51st straight month the index has fallen below growth neutral.
More than 63 percent of the bankers surveyed projected that agriculture equipment sales will decline further this year. But that's better than last February, when nearly three-quarter of the bankers expected a slump in farm equipment sales for the year.
"We are seeing farmers with somewhat reduced income and moderate operating loan carryovers," said Jim Eckert, president of Anchor State Bank in Anchor, Illinois. "However, without rain prior to planting, 2018 could be a bad year."