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Bankers Not Quite Bullish, But They’re More Optimistic About NJ Economic Outlook

Annual survey reflects more confidence in nation’s outlook than in state’s prospects, but overall picture seen as somewhat brighter

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New Jersey enjoyed its best year for private-sector job growth in over a decade last year, and the state’s banking community is not expecting those strong economic conditions to take a tumble any time soon in 2016.

Still, they say they’re feeling better about the national economy over the next six months than they are about New Jersey’s.

Less than one out of every 10 members responding to the New Jersey Bankers Association’s latest annual economic survey said they’re expecting conditions in the state to weaken over the next six months, while roughly eight out of 10 said they’re expecting conditions to generally stay the same.

But at the same time, only 12 percent graded New Jersey’s economic conditions as better than fair, compared to 40 percent for the national economy, according to the results of the survey released Friday.

The survey results come on the heels of New Jersey’s best year for private-sector job growth since 2000, with federal labor statistics showing the state added 64,500 private-sector jobs over the course of 2015.

Gov. Chris Christie has tried to highlight that recent economic progress while campaigning for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination on the eve of the New Hampshire primary.

Those efforts have come as primary opponents have cited New Jersey’s deep fiscal struggles, including a series of credit-rating downgrades during Christie’s tenure that have knocked the state’s debt grade down to the second-lowest among U.S. states.

Still, the bankers’ survey results provide another sign of general optimism about the state’s economy, largely echoing sentiments gauged in a recent poll of the state’s broader business community conducted late last year by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

The association’s previous survey found more than 10 percent of those who responded said they were expecting New Jersey’s economic conditions to weaken. But that figure dropped down to 7 percent in the latest survey.

Also, 84.1 percent rated the health of the state economy “fair” compared to 78.1 percent who rated it “fair” in the latest survey. The share saying the state’s economy was “good” increased from 8.4 percent last year to 12.1 percent in the latest survey.

“This year’s survey reflects their general view that things have continued to steadily improve as well as a sense of optimism for the future,” said John E. McWeeney, Jr., the president and chief executive officer of the bankers association.

He said his organization conducts its own annual economic survey because it believes bank executives “better than most, really have their hands on the pulse of New Jersey’s economy.”

The addition of 64,500 private-sector jobs in 2015 more than the doubled the 31,200 private-sector jobs added in 2014, according to a report prepared along with the survey results by Rutgers University professors James Hughes and Marc Weiner. Adding a total of 233,500 private-sector jobs since the end of the last recession, the state has moved closer to fully recovering all of the estimated 241,000 private-sector jobs lost in the recession

Unemployment here dropped to 5.1 percent at the end of December, the professors’ report noted.

Still, the report also made clear that New Jersey’s economic recovery is still lagging behind the nation as a whole. All of the jobs lost nationwide to the recession had been recovered as of March 2014.

And on Friday, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the federal unemployment rate dropped to 4.9 percent in January, the lowest U.S. jobless average since 2008.

More of the state’s bankers predicted a strengthening of the national economy over the next six months than those who predicted New Jersey’s would get stronger, and fewer said they expect conditions nationally to weaken than those expecting weakening conditions in New Jersey.

“Thus, the macro context of the current survey suggests that there should be an even stronger sense that the national economy has continued to advance in a sustainable, not excessive, fashion, and that this advancement should extend into the short-term future,” the report said.

In addition to gauging overall sentiments on economic conditions from the bankers, the survey also covered individual categories, including interest rates and real-estate values.

The latest survey found nearly 43 percent of those who responded believe long-term interest rates will go up within the next six months, while only 3.7 percent said they expect those interest rates to tick downward. More than 53 percent said they believe they will stay the same.

Only 3.7 percent said they expect short-term interest rates to go down over the next six months, with 68.3 percent saying they expect short-term rates to go up. Another 28.1 percent said they expect no change.

Nearly 65 percent said they believe real-estate values will remain the same over the next six months. But 33.1 percent said they’re expecting real-estate values to increase, up from 28.1 percent last year.

“Many of the individual metrics of the survey indicate that improvements in the state's banking industry took place in 2015, and that they will continue into 2016,” said Hughes, the dean of Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

The latest survey was the sixth straight conducted by the bankers association. Members were polled between October 16 and November 23, 2015, with more than 80 of the association’s 101 members participating in the survey.

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