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Audit Committee: Important Questions to Ask Regarding Your Strategic Plan

July 10th, 2012 |

questions.jpgIt is obvious that the banking industry has undergone some dramatic changes over the past five years. The national and global economic crisis and the ongoing recovery have changed the playing field, making it more difficult for community banks to successfully operate with the same business plan as just a few years ago.

This new reality has made it increasingly important that audit committee members understand their institution’s strategic plan for the next three to five years so they can appropriately conduct their oversight role. This was a focus of my presentation at the Bank Director Audit Committee Conference in Chicago last month. After talking with audit committee members during a peer group exchange and throughout the general sessions, it was clear that some boards and management teams have gone to great lengths to make sure that they have developed a clear vision of the strategic plan and how their organization will adapt to the new environment, while other organizations have not yet turned their focus to the future.

With that in mind, there are a number of questions that audit committee members should be asking themselves, their board colleagues and their management teams:

What is our strategic plan?  It is increasing important that boards of directors and management teams have a clear direction as to the strategic focus and goals of their institution. Directors should determine with management the role that directors play in establishing the plan, measuring the institution’s progress with the plan and modifying the plan, as necessary.

How does our strategic plan affect our risk monitoring?  Different strategic goals may give rise to different risks and different risk management tools may be necessary. For instance, an institution that is focused on growth through acquisitions may have different risk thresholds and considerations than a company that is focused on steady, organic growth. These differences should be taken into account by the audit committee when approving the company’s internal audit plan and reviewing the internal audit reports.  

How is our relationship with the regulators?  It is crucial in today’s environment that your organization has a solid, respectful relationship with its regulators. As a director, you should be comfortable that your management team is responsive to the regulators’ questions and suggestions. Additionally, it is important that the directors can show the regulators that they are engaged in their oversight role and are exercising independent judgment. Directors should consider reviewing the lawsuits recently filed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation against directors to understand some of the practices at other institutions that have led to potential director liability.

What is our current capital structure?  Regulators and investors place a heavy emphasis on capital levels and this will continue into the future. Basel III, the Dodd-Frank Act and the unspecified “regulatory expectation” will shape what future capital requirements will be for all institutions, regardless of size. Not only are there going to be higher capital requirements, but the components of capital will also change, with a clear bias toward more permanent common equity. Capital plays a key role in an institution’s strategic plan, and all directors should have a clear understanding of the following to help ensure that capital issues do not interfere with the company’s plan:

  • their institution’s current overall capital levels;
  • the different capital components and how their institution’s capital is comprised (levels of common capital vs. trust preferred, TARP preferred, subordinated debt, etc.);
  • how much capital will be needed in the future; and
  • how their institution can raise additional capital.

What is occurring with M&A in the industry? Are we going to participate?  Over the past 18 months, industry insiders have been indicating that a wave of consolidation is right around the corner. While the level of merger activity has remained somewhat muted, it is likely that there will be more activity in the near future. Directors should understand their institution’s M&A plan and how it fits within the company’s overall strategic plan. Whether or not the company is planning to be an active acquirer or is contemplating selling, it is important to understand the industry trends, what investors are looking for and what your competitors may be planning.  Additionally, it is important that all institutions have an understanding of what different opportunities exist within their market areas. Having such current knowledge will help ensure that the company can act quickly if the company’s circumstances change and participation in a strategic transaction is in its stockholders’ best interests.

rfleetwood

Rob Fleetwood is part of Barack Ferrazzano’s financial institutions group and heads the group's securities law practice area. Recently, he has been counseling clients through issues arising from the economic environment, and navigating clients through various government programs for the financial sector.

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