With credit quality metrics at generationally stellar levels, concern about credit risk in 2022 may seem unwarranted, making any deployed defensive strategies appear premature.
For decades, banking has evolved into an orientation that takes most of its risk management cues from external stakeholders, including investors, trusted vendors, market conditions – and regulators in particular. Undoubtedly, becoming defensive prematurely can add challenges for management teams at a time when loan growth is still a main strategic objective. But waiting until credit metrics pivot is sure to add risk and potential pain. Banks have four key reasons to be more vigilant in 2022 and the next couple of years. These, and the suggested steps that prudent management teams should take in their wake, are below.
1. The Covid-19 sugar high has turned sour.
All of the government largesse and regulatory respites in response to Covid-19 helped unleash 40-year-high inflation levels. In response, the Federal Reserve has begun ramping up interest rates at potential intervals not experienced in decades. These factors are proven to precede higher credit stress. Continuing supply chain disruptions further contribute and strengthen the insidious inflation psychology that weighs on the economy.
Recommendation: Bankers must be more proactive in identifying borrowers who are particularly vulnerable to growing marketplace pressures by using portfolio analytics to identify credit hotspots, increased stress testing and more robust loan reviews.
2. Post-booking credit servicing is struggling across the industry.
From IntelliCredit’s perspective, garnered through conducting current loan reviews and merger and acquisition due diligence, the post-booking credit servicing area is where most portfolio management deficiencies occur. Reasons include borrowers who lag behind in providing current financials or – even worse – banks experiencing depletions in the credit administration staff that normally performs annual reviews. These talent shortages reflect broader recruitment and retention challenges, and are exacerbated by growing salary inflation.
Recommendation: A new storefront concept may be emerging in community banking. Customer-facing services and products are handled by the bank, and back-shop operational and risk assessment responsibilities are supported in a co-opt style by correspondent banking groups or vendors that are specifically equipped to deliver this type of administrative support.
3. Chasing needed loan growth during a credit cycle shift is risky.
Coming out of the pandemic, community banks have lagged behind larger institutions with regards to robust organic loan growth, net of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Even at the Bank Director 2022 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference, investment bankers reminded commercial bankers of the critical link between sustainable loan growth and their profitability and valuation models. However, the risk-management axiom of “Loans made late in a benign credit cycle are the most toxic” has become a valuable lesson on loan vintages – especially after the credit quality issues that banks experienced during the Great Recession.
Recommendation: Lending, not unlike banking itself, is a balancing game. This should be the time when management teams and boards rededicate themselves to concurrent growth and risk management credit strategies, ensuring that any growth initiatives the bank undertakes are complemented by appropriate risk due diligence.
4. Stakeholders may overreact to any uptick in credit stress.
Given the current risk quality metrics, banker complacency is predictable and understandable. But regulators know, and bankers should understand, that these metrics are trailing indicators, and do not reflect the future impact of emerging, post-pandemic red flags that suggest heightened economic challenges ahead. A second, unexpected consequence resulting from more than a decade of good credit quality is the potential for unwarranted overreactions to a bank’s first signs of credit degradation, no matter how incremental.
Recommendation: It would be better for investors, peers and certainly regulators to temper their instincts to overreact – particularly given the banking industry’s substantial cushion of post Dodd-Frank capital and reserves.
In summary, no one knows the extent of credit challenges to come. Still, respected industry leaders are uttering the word “recession” with increasing frequency. Regarding its two mandates to manage employment and inflation, the Fed right now is clearly biased towards the latter. In the meantime, this strategy could sacrifice banks’ credit quality. With that possibility in mind, my advice is for directors and management teams to position your bank ahead of the curve, and be prepared to write your own credit risk management scripts – before outside stakeholders do it for you.