How to Prepare for an Unprecedented Year

Could anyone have prepared for a year like 2020?

Better-performing community banks, over the long run, generally anchor their balance sheet management in a set of principles — not divination. They organize their principles into a coherent decision-making methodology, which requires them to constantly study the relative risk-reward profiles of various options, across multiple rate scenarios and industry conditions over time.

But far too many community bankers look through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope. Rather than anchoring themselves with principles, they drift among the currents of economic and interest rate forecasts. Where that drift takes them at any given moment dictates their narrowly focused reactions and strategies. If they are in a reward mindset, they’ll focus on near-term accounting income; if the mood of the day is risk-centered, their framework will be liquidity. At Performance Trust, we have long argued that following this approach accumulates less reward, and more risk, than its practitioners ever expect.

Against this backdrop, we offer five decision-making principles that have helped many banks prepare for the hectic year that just closed, and can ensure that they are prepared for any hectic or challenging ones ahead.

  • Know where you are before deciding where to go. Net Interest Income and Economic Value of Equity simulations, when viewed in isolation, can present incomplete and often conflicting portrayals of a bank’s financial risk and reward profile. To know where you are, hold yourself accountable to all cash flows across multiple rate scenarios over time, incorporating both net income to a horizon and overall economic value at that horizon. Multiple-scenario total return analysis isn’t about predicting the future. Rather, it allows you to see how your institution would perform in multiple possible futures.
  • Don’t decide based on interest rate expectations — in fact, don’t even have expectations. Plenty of wealth has been lost by reacting to predictions. Running an asset-sensitive balance sheet is nothing more than making a levered bet on rising rates. So, too, is sitting on excess liquidity waiting for higher rates. The massive erosion in net interest margin in 2020 supports our view that most community banks have been, intentionally or not, speculatively asset sensitive. Banks that take a principle-based approach currently hold sufficient call-protected, long-duration earning assets — not because they knew rates would fall, but because they knew they would need them if rates did fall. As a result, they are in a potentially better position to withstand a “low and flat” rate environment.
  • Maintaining sufficient liquidity is job No. 1. Job No. 2 is profitably deploying the very next penny after that. In this environment, cash is a nonaccrual asset. Banks with a principle-oriented approach have not treated every bit of unexpected “excess liquidity” inflow as a new “floor” to their idea of “required liquidity.” One approach is to “goal post” liquidity needs by running sensitivity cases on both net loan growth and deposit outflows, and tailoring deployment to non-cash assets with this in mind — for instance by tracking FHLB pledgeability and haircutting — and allowing for a mark-to-market collateral devaluation cushion. Liquidity is by no means limited to near-zero returns.
  • Don’t sell underpriced options. Banks sell options all day long, seldom considering their compensation. Far too often, banks offer loans without prepayment penalties because “everyone is doing it.” Less forgivably, they sell options too cheaply in their securities portfolio, in taking on putable advances or when pricing their servicing rates. The last two years were an era of very low option compensation, even by historical measures. Principle-based decision-makers are always mindful of the economics of selling an option; those who passed on underpriced opportunities leading into 2021 find their NIMs generally have more staying power as a result.
  • Evaluate all capital allocation decisions on a level playing field. Community banks, like all competitive enterprises, can allocate capital in just four ways: organic growth, acquisitions, dividends or share repurchases. Management teams strike the optimal balance between risk and reward of any capital allocation opportunity by examining each strategy alongside the others across multiple rate scenarios and over time. This approach also allows managers to harness the power of combinations — say, simultaneously executing a growth strategy and repurchasing stock — to seek to enhance the institution’s overall risk/return profile.

So what about 2021 and beyond? This same discipline, these same principles, are timeless. Those who have woven them into their organizational fabric will continue to benefit whatever comes their way. Those encountering them for the first time and commit to them in earnest can enjoy the same.