Bankers and credit union executives counting on a December windfall from holiday-shopping consumers are likely to be disappointed.
A survey released Monday indicates most consumers plan to spend roughly the same amount they did last year, or less, even though the economy has strengthened markedly over the past year. That could constrain the annual bounce in credit card and debit revenue that financial institutions count on about this time every year.
The survey results are a sign that the gains of the past 12 months have been distributed unevenly across the economy, said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. And that reality could have a longer-term impact on the banking sector.
Brobeck, who called income inequality a "huge issue," noted that 47% of the 1,009 adults surveyed said they do not have enough saved to cover an emergency expense totaling $1,000. "That isn't good news for small banks and credit unions. These people can't afford to borrow much, and they'll never be able to afford a mortgage," he said.
They are also more likely to default on loans, added Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
Each year, households typically face two or three unplanned expenditures of at least $200, Brobeck said.
The survey was commissioned by the CFA and the Credit Union National Association. It is their 15th annual analysis of consumers' holiday spending plans.
Brobeck's concerns over income inequality echo those of Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen. In a speech delivered in Boston Oct. 17, Yellen said the divide in income between haves and have-nots has widened over the past few decades to levels not seen since the early years of the 20th century.
"It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority," Yellen said.
Calabria said income inequality is "absolutely a real trend," adding that Yellen could do more to combat it than perhaps anyone in the country by spearheading an increase in interest rates.
Credit unions experienced solid growth in 2014 and expect the trend to continue in 2015, according to Michael Schenk, CUNA's senior economist. However, he acknowledged people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder are receiving few if any benefits from recent economic growth.
"Elements of our survey underscore the fact many consumers continue to reflect significant concerns about their personal finances, most especially in the realm of weak income gains," Schenk said. "Because of this we expect the increase in holiday spending this season to be modest."
Only 10% of survey respondents said they planned to spend more on the holidays this year than in 2013. The vast majority - 87% -- said they intend to spend the same amount or less. A total of 43% said they were either somewhat or very concerned about paying their monthly bills.
Schenk said financially stressed individuals tend to favor community financial institutions because they figure lenders there are more likely to "listen to their stories."
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent $600 billion on the winter holidays in 2013. For banks and credit unions, that activity usually translates into huge spikes in credit and debit card revenue. "They're the fastest-growing segments in December, but they're also the fastest-contracting in January," Schenk said.
John Buhrmaster, president and CEO of 1st National Bank of Scotia, in Scotia, N.Y. , and the chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said November and December are the biggest months of the year for card revenue across the financial industry. He said he expected credit and debit card income at his $421 million-asset bank to be "strong" this holiday season, but he added that he does not doubt holiday spending overall will be restrained.
"The economy has not moved along at a pace that encourages more spending," he said.
Other holiday-spending surveys painted a more optimistic picture than the CUNA-CFA study. The NRF says holiday spending will increase about 4%.
John Reosti is a community bank reporter at American Banker.
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