While the audience was largely optimistic at Bank Director’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference in Chicago yesterday, many of the speakers, including Fifth Third Bancorp President and CEO Greg Carmichael, hit a note of caution in a sea of smiles.
During an audience poll, 51 percent said the nation will see a period of economic growth ahead but 28 percent said the nation has hit a high point economically. Bank stock prices soared following the presidential election. Credit metrics are in good shape and profitability is up. Capital levels are higher than they’ve been in decades. And political power in Washington has turned against bank regulation, as evidenced by the U.S. Treasury Department’s recent report on rolling back the Dodd-Frank Act.
“It’s unlikely we will have increasing regulatory burdens and instead, we’ll go regulatory light,” said Steve Hovde, an investment banker and chairman and CEO of Hovde Group.
Although there’s a sense that bank stocks may be overvalued at this point, or “cantilevered over a pillar of hope,’’ as Comerica Chief Economist Robert Dye put it, the economy itself is resilient. “We’ll have another recession and we’ll get through it fine,” he said.
But financial technology is transforming the industry and creating entirely new business models, said Carmichael. That won’t be a problem for banks as long as they adapt to the change. “The volume and pace of what’s emerging is amazing,’’ he said. “I’ve never seen it before in our industry.”
Carmichael, who has an unusual background as a bank CEO—he was originally hired by the bank in 2003 to serve as its chief information officer—is working hard to transform Fifth Third.
Sixty percent of the bank’s transactions are now processed through digital channels, such as mobile banking. Forty-six percent of all deposits are handled digitally. And the bank has seen an increase of 17 percent in mobile banking usage year-over-year.
To meet the needs of its customers, Fifth Third recently announced it had joined the person-to-person payments network Zelle, an initiative of several large banks. It has a partnership with GreenSky, which will quickly qualify consumers for small dollar loans, and which Fifth Third invested $50 million into last year. Consumers can walk into a retailer such as Home Depot, order $17,000 worth of windows, and find out on the spot if they qualify for a loan.
Fifth Third is gradually reducing its branch count, and new branches are smaller, with fewer staff that can handle more tasks. Carmichael is trying to make the organization more agile, with less bureaucracy, and less cumbersome documentation.
Automation will allow the bank to automate processes “and allow us to better service our customers instead of focusing on processes that don’t add value,” he said.
Banks that are going to do better are those that can use the data they have on their customers to better serve them, he said. But when it comes to housing enormous amounts of personal and financial data on their customers, the biggest worry for bank CEOs is cybersecurity risk, Carmichael said–not the traditional commercial banking risk, which is credit.
When he was a chief information officer, executives often asked how the bank could make its network secure, and his completely honest response was, “when you turn it off.”
Adding to the cybersecurity challenge, returns on capital are low for the industry compared to other, more profitable sectors, and measures of reputation are middling for banks compared to more popular companies such as Apple, Nordstrom, Netflix and Netflix.
Carmichael encouraged banks not to get mired in pessimism.
“There’s a lot of change but we can step up and embrace it and leverage it to better serve our customers and create more value for our shareholders and contribute to the success of our communities,” he said.