Issues : Strategy

Can the Industry Handle the Truth on Credit Quality?

Maybe Jack Nicholson was right: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The actor’s famous line from the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men” echoes our concern on bank credit quality in fall 2019 and heading into early 2020.

Investors have been blessed with record lows in credit quality: The median ratio of nonperforming assets (NPA) is nearly 1%, accounting for nonperforming loans and foreclosed properties, a figure that modestly improved in the first half of 2019. Most credit indicators are rosy, with limited issues across both private and public financial institutions.

However, we are fairly certain this good news will not last and expect some normalization to occur. How should investors react when the pristine credit data reverts to a higher and more-normalized level?

The median NPA ratio between 2004 and 2019 peaked at 3.5% in 2011 and hit a record low of 60 basis points in 2004, according to credit data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on more than 1,500 institutions with more than $500 million in assets. It declined to near 1% in mid-2019. Median NPAs were 2.9% of loans over this 15-year timeframe. The reversion to the mean implies over 2.5 times worse credit quality than currently exists. Will investors be able to accept a headline that credit problems have increased 250%, even if it’s simply a return to normal NPA levels?

Common sense tells us that investors are already discounting this potential future outcome via lower stock prices and valuation multiples for banks. This is one of many reasons that public bank stocks have struggled since late August 2018 and frequently underperform their benchmarks.

It is impressive what banks have accomplished. Bank capital levels are 9.5%, 200 basis points higher than 2007 levels. Concentrations in construction and commercial real estate are vastly different, and few banks have more than 100% of total capital in any one loan category. Greater balance within loan portfolios is the standard today, often a mix of some commercial and industrial loans, modest consumer exposure, and lower CRE and construction loans.

Median C&I problem loans at banks that have at least 10% of total loans in the commercial category — more than 60% of all FDIC charters — showed similar trends to total NPAs. The median C&I problem loan levels peaked at 4% in late 2009 and again in 2010; it had retreated to 1.5%, as of fall 2019. The longer-term mean is greater due to the “hockey stick” growth of commercial nonaccrual loans during the crisis years spanning 2008 to 2011, as well as the sharp decline in C&I problem loans in 2014. Over time, we feel C&I NPAs will revert upward, to a new normal between 2% to 2.25%.

Public banks provide a plethora of risk-grade ratings on their portfolios in quarterly and annual filings, following strong encouragement from the Securities and Exchange Commission to provide better credit disclosures. The nine-point credit scale consists of “pass” (levels 1 to 4), “special mention/watch” (5), “substandard” (6), “nonperforming” (7), “doubtful” (8) and “loss” (9, the worst rating).

They define a financial institution’s criticized assets, which are loans not rated “pass,” indicating “special mention/watch” or worse, as well as classified assets, which are rated “substandard” or worse. The classified assets show the same pattern as total NPAs and C&I problem loans: low levels with very few signs of deterioration.

The median substandard/classified loan ratio at over 300 public banks was 1.14% through August 2019. That compared to 1.6% in fall 2016 and 3.4% in early 2013. We prefer looking at substandard credit data as a way to get a deeper cut at banks’ credit risk — and it too flashes positive signals at present.

The challenge we envision is that investors, bankers and reporters have been spoiled by good credit news. Reversions to the mean are a mathematical truth in statistics. We ultimately expect today’s good credit data to revert back to higher, but normalized, levels of NPAs and classified loans. A doubling of problem credit ratios would actually just be returning to the historical mean. Can investors accept that 2019’s credit quality is unsustainably low?

We believe higher credit problems will eventually emerge from an extremely low base. The key is handling the truth: An increase in NPAs and classified loans is healthy, and not a signal of pending danger and doom.

As the saying goes: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”