The story in the iconic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” is one that a lot of bankers can relate to.
The obvious connection: The protagonist, George Bailey, is a banker. But bankers can also see themselves in the tough choices George faces throughout the movie. Over and over again George must decide between taking the easy way out or doing something that’s more difficult, but which he knows in his heart is right. The banking industry currently finds itself in a similar tricky situation.
After years of new regulations and low interest rates, growth and earnings are hard to come by. To cope, banks have looked inward, focusing on cost-cutting and regulatory compliance, often at the expense of their customers. This frequently manifests itself in the most important discussion there is between a bank and their commercial customers: the negotiation of loan pricing.
Focusing on better pricing means shifting priorities at banks and doing some very difficult work in the immediate future. It’s a hard path to follow, but it’s the right choice; the one George Bailey would make. Banks that elect to take this route must learn to avoid three common mistakes when it comes to pricing loans.
1: Focusing on the Math, But Not the Execution
Truly successful pricing has two dimensions: Price setting and price getting.
Price setting is the math of determining what price is appropriate given the structure and risk profile of any particular deal. Most banks do fairly well with this dimension.
Price setting covers everything from the communication of the math from the back of the bank to the front, to the negotiation between borrower and lender. Many banks continue to struggle with this dimension. To make matters worse, when their pricing isn’t working, they always turn to the math to find a solution. The bottom line is that you can’t “out-math” the competition. You have to be better at the price getting aspect, which is all about how you interact with and serve your customers.
2: Opting for “Let Me Check With My Boss”
To that end, the first issue banks should focus on is moving the pricing decision closer to the customer. In most loan negotiations, the lender knows the starting point (i.e. the desired outcome) of the deal. However, once the customer pushes back on the pricing, the lender does not know how to reach the target profitability without losing the deal, and has to resort to the classic car salesman line of “Let me check with my boss to see if we can do that.”
Generally, the lender and borrower will discuss a price and structure, and then an analyst will input the deal into a pricing model. The deal is being measured on a pass or fail basis. If the deal fails, the bank must either go back and re-trade everything with the customer, or, more likely, just decide to take less on this deal, and “try to do better next time.” The only fix for this issue is to move the decision closer to the customer. The lender should be measuring against targets, and have the ability to negotiate on the fly while the customer is sitting in front of them.
3: Making It “All About the Rate”
Part of that negotiation will, of course, be about interest rate. It is the most visible and contested part of the deal. It is also the “sticker price” from your competitors when borrowers start shopping.
However, the great thing about commercial loans is that all aspects are negotiable, and they all move the needle in terms of risk and profit. Why not make that 60-month balloon a 55-month balloon to remove interest rate risk? Why not add collateral to reduce expected loss and provisions? If the lender can easily see what all of those terms are worth, they can trade any of them for rate.
In today’s world, customer expectations have changed. They are used to being able to get what they want, when they want it. They expect the same from their bank, and this is the best way to provide that. Give your lenders the ability to custom build financing for their customers in a responsive way, and you will earn the higher returns that you seek.
Just like in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” your tough choice will lead to a happy ending for everyone involved.