Three Critical Challenges for Bank Audit Committees

audit-committee-5-17.pngAs the effects of the banking crisis continue to recede, regulatory agencies have shifted their focus. As asset quality concerns gradually diminish, regulators are scrutinizing corporate governance and risk management issues more closely.

In this environment, audit committees are being challenged to meet a higher standard regarding their understanding of their organization’s risk profile and often must adapt their approach to reflect changing business priorities. Three areas of concern merit special attention as they present audit committees with significant challenges.

Challenge 1: Cybersecurity Risk
Cybersecurity is a paramount issue in financial institutions today, ranking as the number one concern of bank executives and board members in the annual Bank Director Risk Practices Survey for two years running. In the 2016 survey, 77 percent of the respondents said cybersecurity was their top concern, and more than half said preparing for cyber attacks is one of their biggest risk management challenges.

Those numbers are not surprising because banks are a natural target for hackers. But the challenge of managing cybersecurity risk is complicated by banks’ natural reluctance to publicize breaches due to their legitimate fear of alerting other hackers to their vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, this justifiable secrecy makes it more difficult for other banks to learn from their peers’ experiences and hinders banks’ ability to recognize comparable weaknesses in their own systems and third-party relationships.

Another complicating factor is the makeup of the audit committee itself. Committee members very rarely have professional IT backgrounds, so they must rely on qualified third parties to provide insights into risks and mitigation strategies.

Recent regulatory guidance can help overcome this challenge to some extent. Audit committee members should be thoroughly familiar with the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council’s two-part Cybersecurity Assessment Tool, which was issued in 2015 to help institutions identify their risk exposure and determine if their risk management programs are appropriately aligned. The audit committee should make sure management completes this assessment and integrates its principles into the overall risk management effort.

In addition, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) regularly issues joint statements with other bank regulatory bodies on specific cybersecurity concerns such as new malware developments, extortion attempts, and other current trends. Committee members should stay abreast of the most recent OCC statements on the agency’s website and confirm that management is following the specific preventive steps listed in those statements.

Challenge 2: Reallocating Audit Resources
In the current industry environment of shrinking margins and growing cost pressures, audit committees often must address increasing regulatory compliance demands and growing cybersecurity risk while struggling with resource constraints. Fortunately, there often are unrecognized opportunities to control risk management costs by reallocating resources to reflect changing business models.

For example, as customer habits and access methods change, some financial institutions are reassessing whether it is cost-effective to continue applying the same level of risk mitigation activity at the branch level. Steps such as lengthening the intervals between traditional branch audits and reassigning certain risk control responsibilities to operational managers make it possible to reallocate some internal audit resources to new, more pressing areas of risk. Audit committee members should be alert to such opportunities to reassess and fine-tune the audit approach to reflect today’s business reality.

Challenge 3: Adapting to New Strategies
Shrinking margins also are leading banks to look for opportunities to diversify their revenue strategies. But every new revenue stream requires new operational and support functions and opens up new categories of risk that must be assessed, controlled, and managed. One of the important responsibilities of the audit committee is to actively assess how a new business line will affect the institution’s risk parameters and to determine how those parameters can be addressed effectively and efficiently.

New revenue streams and changing business strategies are nothing new, of course. Historically, bank directors always have been challenged to adapt to shifts in economic and business priorities. In today’s environment, however, with greater regulatory emphasis on the management of risk, the challenges to audit committees are intensified. An effective response to these challenges can have a direct, significant and positive effect on an institution’s long-term success.


Sal Inserra