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Guest column, Ron Quinn: Wild cards continue to pile up in heavyweight economy
Ron Quinn.jpg
Ron Quinn

Faced with numerous challenges since 2020, our economy has taken a bruising and fought back like a prize fighter ­— refusing to go down while brashly flaunting record profits across many sectors. 

In early rounds, we faced off against COVID-19 and a battered supply chain. Teetering a bit at first, we learned how to Zoom and work around our closed offices, restaurants and shops. Then came inflation in 2021 that has since rocketed higher in the first quarter of 2022. Still, we trudge on despite higher interest rates looming ahead.

In Northeast Georgia, I’ve always said we are fortunate to lead a state economy that is routinely recognized as one of the nation’s top places to do business. Even if our national economy should slow down, we are well-positioned to fare much better than the rest of the country. We’ve already proved it time after time.

However, the war in Ukraine deals a new wild card that trumps all economic spades over the last two years, including the pandemic. We’ve already witnessed the tremendous volatility in the stock markets. Investors do not like uncertainty. Neither do small business owners.

Throughout our region, I’ve begun to detect a degree of caution and pulling back on the reins in many of our businesses — indicating that the conflict in Ukraine may become one straw too many in a stretched economy, particularly if war spreads outside Eastern Europe. 

In local banking, Peach State Bank and others have already tightened underwriting requirements in reaction to rising housing and construction costs that still haven’t peaked. 

Witnessing a resurgence in diners, restaurants are hesitant to expand or open new locations due to labor shortages that seem never ending. On the Gainesville square and in midtown, we’ve seen these scenarios play out with tentative owners cutting back hours of operation, or as in one case, closing a restaurant within a week of its grand opening.

Our local poultry industry has also been under stress. Meat producers are operating at near 60% capacity partly due to labor shortages. Huge price hikes in corn (used in poultry feed) have added even more pressure as a result of the war in Ukraine and the Biden administration’s plans to allow higher ethanol levels in gasoline.  

Here in the Poultry Capital of the World, I’ve already noticed shortages in chicken meat at local grocery stores. On one recent Sunday, I visited three grocers in search of chicken for grilling. The shelves were bare at all three. 

The recent rise of avian flu in chickens, already wiping out millions of birds across the country, is another economic crisis threatening poultry. A major outbreak here in Georgia could be devastating to our local and state economy. 

In the area housing market, we’ve seen new mortgages and home refinancings finally leveling off from their torrid pace over the past year. Soaring material costs and longer buildout periods have impacted construction, while rising interest rates are making it less feasible for homeowners to restructure debt. 

Meanwhile, more residents are turning to apartments in response to low inventories of available homes, especially starter homes, with higher sales tags across all residential price points. The domino effect has spilled over to pricier lease rates, making it near impossible to escape higher costs of living anywhere.

Of course, exorbitant fuel prices are another symptom of the Ukrainian conflict, and as the war lingers, we will surely see crop prices escalate higher as well. Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of fertilizer and grains.

Whether it’s the war across the ocean or the bird flu at home, there’s not much consumers like us can do to slow or stop the economic damage. Maybe that’s why, despite sky-high energy costs, we are seeing more families taking trips to the beach and mountains — as evidenced by a huge boom in tourism in the wake of COVID.

I still believe our local economy is foundationally strong enough to withstand a recession in the near term. For now, however, we all need to focus on the things we can control, work harder, tighten our belts and hunker down as we wait out economic conflict and a war that is so far away — yet way too close for comfort.          

Ron Quinn, president and CEO of Peach State Bank & Trust, serves as the Georgia delegate for the Independent Community Bankers of America and is former chairman of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia.