Banks are in the risk business, and 2023 is shaping up to be a risk-on environment that will keep management teams busy.
The transformation of last year’s tailwinds into this year’s headwinds is stunning. Slowing economic growth, driven by monetary policy aimed at halting inflation, could translate into weaker loan growth. Piper Sandler & Co. analysts expect net interest margins to peak in the first quarter, before being eroded by higher deposit costs. Credit costs that cannot go any lower may start to rise. Banks may see little boost from fee income and may grapple with controlling expenses. Piper Sandler expects that financial service firms will have a “bumpy” 2023.
The environment is so novel that Moody’s Analytics Chief Economist Mark Zandi made headlines by describing a new phenomenon: not a recession but a coming “slowcession — growth that comes to a near standstill but that never slips into reverse.” The research firm is baking a slowcession into its baseline economic forecast, citing “generally solid” economic fundamentals and well-capitalized banks, according to a January analysis.
This great uncertainty — and the number of ways banks can respond to it — is on my mind as I get ready for Bank Director’s 2023 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, which will run from Jan. 29-31 in Phoenix. Is growth in the cards this year for banks, and what would it look like?
Historically, growth has been a necessity for banks. As long as banks can generate growth that outpaces the costs of that growth, they can generate increased earnings. Banks grow their asset base organically, or through mergers and acquisitions, have been two popular ways to generate growth. In a slowdown, some banks may encounter attractive opportunities to buy other franchises at a discount. But growth won’t be in the cards for all — and maybe that’s a blessing in disguise.
“[W]ith the threat of a recession and dramatically increasing cost of funds, there is a solid argument to be made that banks should be shrinking rather than growing,” wrote Chris Nichols in a recent article. Nichols is the director of capital markets at the $45 billion banking company known as SouthState Corp., in Winter Haven, Florida. Growth can exacerbate issues for banks that are operating below their cost of capital, which can push them toward a sale faster. Instead, he’s focused on operational efficiency.
“Financial pressure will be greater, and bank margins will be higher. This combination means that banks will need to focus on the quality of their earnings,” he wrote. Instead of growth, he argued bankers should focus on making their operations efficient, which will direct more profits toward their bottom line.
It makes sense. In a bumpy slowcession, banks aren’t able to control the climb of interest rates and the subsequent changes in economic activity. They may not encounter growth opportunities that set them up for long-term success in this type of environment. But they can control their operational efficiency, innovation and execution — and we’ll talk about that at #AOBA23.