Eliminate Customer Friction to Unlock Your Bank’s Growth

Why don’t your target customers want to join your bank? Because they’re not impressed.

Banks often sabotage their own attempts at success through their siloed, disjointed, out-of-touch and unimpressive approaches to doing business that leave small-to-medium businesses, private wealth clients, upwardly mobile millennials and even commercial customers underwhelmed by their service delivery.

Eliminating customer friction must be your guiding policy
For 10 years, the rallying cry of the C-Suite has been “invest in technology to stay relevant.” The next 10 years must be defined by a singular, focused, and undeviating devotion to eliminating the friction of doing business with your institution.

Fixing customer friction will be challenging and expensive, but it will also offer the best return for your shareholders. Your bank must organize teams around this mission. Executives need to evaluate resource and budget requests against a simple criterion: How much friction will this reduce, compared to the cost of funding it? Every budget request should be accompanied by a detailed user story, a list of friction points, and a proposed solution that describes the customer experience. Every touchpoint is an opportunity to reinforce your brand as customer-friendly or customer-hostile. Your bank should move quickly through these three steps:

  1. Get aligned. Your bank needs support from your board, your C-suite and even your investors to pivot to this focus. Once you have the buy-in and mission statements crafted, it’s time to designate the priority projects.
  2. “Shovel-ready” projects come first. Rescore projects that were previously denied funding or resources because they were too difficult to execute or didn’t cross a financial hurdle on a simple 2×2 matrix that evaluates improvement in customer experience and reduced friction vs. cost and complexity to implement. The projects in the top-right corner should be your initial list of funded initiatives.
  3. Deliver quick wins and results that measurably drive customer engagement. This will define success for the next 10 years. Re-engineer how you extend customer offers and execute pricing for standard and relationship clients. Your investment in tech will pay off if you accelerate this function.

For a fast return on investment, examine how your bank prices on base versus relationship status and rewards customer behaviors. Segmenting customers into single-service households, small to medium-size businesses, commercial, or mass-market and tying rewards or pricing adjustments to their categories can mean the difference between retaining or losing target customers. One-size-fits-all pricing, or even pricing by geography, will leave customers feeling like they do today: you don’t understand them or price according to their life stage or needs.

Aim for high-frequency iterations so you can test and learn everything before you scale it. Imagine being able to execute 100 or more micro-campaigns and evergreen trigger-based offers annually, with multivariant testing. Drill down to specific customer personas, identify specific trigger events, and act on intelligence that demonstrates to your customers that your bank understands them.

Get in the habit of defining a user story, designing a process and executing an offer or pricing schema in a sprint. I was astounded how quickly banks moved on preparing their infrastructure to administer Paycheck Protection Program loans. Imagine being able to consistently move at that speed — without the associated late nights and headaches.

Lastly, installing an agile middleware layer will unshackle your bank from the months-long cycles required to code and test customer offers and fulfillment. High-speed, cloud-based offer management that crosses business lines and delivers omni-channel offer redemption will be a game changer for your institution.

Installing a high-speed offer and pricing engine may seem like science fiction for your bank, but it’s not. It will require investments of time and money, coordinated efforts and lots of caffeine. But the results will allow your financial institution to prove success, build a model and inspire your teams to get serious about bulldozing customer friction.

The financial rewards of executing better offers, engaging more customers and delivering relevant, optimized pricing will give your bank the financial resources to remain independent while your competitors shop for merger partners.

Level 5 Banking

Over the past six months, nCino has partnered with the team at Bank Director on a unique and immersive study of banking. It was originally intended to peer into the future of the industry, but the more we looked ahead, the more we realized that the future of banking is not a revolution, but an evolution. 

Banking is undergoing a vast and vital transformation. The distribution channels of today may soon be obsolete, and technology and innovation are moving ever faster. But this doesn’t mean that the traditional tenets of prudent and profitable banking are outdated. If anything, we found that technology accentuates their importance.

Leadership. Leadership is the most important tenet in banking, but what is leadership? Interviews with dozens of bankers across the country suggest that one keystone character trait is more important than any other: an insatiable curiosity and indomitable will to never stop learning. Best-selling business author Jim Collins refers to this in his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” as Level 5 leadership.

One industry leader who displays this trait is Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America Corp. “Brian has a deep knowledge because he wants to learn about different things, not just about banking,” says Dean Athanasia, president of consumer and small business at Bank of America. “He looks across every single industry. He’s looking at Amazon, Walmart, the brokerage firms. He’s looking at all these companies and breaking them down.”

Growth. The second tenet we examined is growth. Mergers and acquisitions have been the principal vehicle for growth in the banking industry since the mid-1980s. But as the consolidation cycle has seasoned and digital distribution channels offer alternative ways to acquire new customers and enter new markets organically, we must accept that there are many avenues to growth. 

We’ve seen this firsthand at nCino, as institutions of all sizes successfully leverage our technology in the pursuit of growth and efficiency. But the day has not yet arrived that technology alone can help a bank grow. This is why the majority of banks view it as a way to supplement, not replace, their existing growth strategies.

Risk management. Another tenet we examined is risk management, a core pillar of prudent and profitable banking. Robust risk management is necessary for banks to avoid insolvency, but an equally important byproduct is consistent performance. The banks that have created the most value through the years haven’t made the most money in good times; their real strength has been avoiding losses in tough times.

Technology can help by improving credit decisions and making it easier to proactively pinpoint credit problems. But it must be paired with a culture that balances risk management and revenue generation.

“There are always going to be cycles in banking, and we think the down cycles give us an opportunity to propel ourselves forward,” says Joe Turner, CEO of Great Southern Bancorp, a Springfield, Missouri-based bank that ranks near the top of the industry in terms of total shareholder return over the past 40 years.

Culture. Culture and communication go hand-in-hand, and those financial institutions that are most successful are the ones that empower their employees with information, technology and autonomy. We learned this lesson the hard way during the financial crisis, when the banks that got into the most trouble were the ones that stifled the flow of information about unsavory business practices and questionable credit quality.

Since then, we’ve also seen a clear connection between a bank’s culture and its performance. “We’ve actually done a correlation analysis between employee engagement and client satisfaction scores in different departments,” says Kevin Riley, CEO of Billings, Montana-based First Interstate BancSystem. “It’s amazing the correlation between engaged employees and happy clients.”

Capital allocation. In an industry as competitive as banking, there aren’t many ways to produce extraordinary results. Running a prudent and efficient operation is table stakes. True differentiation comes from capital allocation — distributing an organization’s resources in a way that catalyzes operating earnings. The best capital allocators don’t view it as a mechanical process. They see it instead as a mindset that informs every decision they make, including how many employees they hire, how much capital they return or which third-party technology they choose to implement, among others.

Ultimately, navigating a bank through such a dynamic time is no easy feat. Leaders must embrace change and technology. That isn’t an option. But this doesn’t mean that the timeless tenets of banking should be discarded. The institutions that thrive in the future will be those that blend the best of the old with the new.

Five Reasons to Consider Banking Cannabis

Like nearly every industry, the banking sector is facing major economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Operational strategies designed to capitalize on a booming economy have been rendered obsolete. With the Federal Open Markets Committee slashing interest rates to near zero, financial institutions have needed to redirect their focus from growth to protecting existing customers, defending or increasing earnings and minimizing losses.

While this will likely be the status quo for the time being, bank executives and their boards have a responsibility to plan ahead. What will financial markets look like after absorbing this shock? And, when rates begin to rise again — as they will, eventually — how will you position your financial institution to take advantage of future growth?

The booming legal cannabis industry is one sector banks have been eyeballing as a source for low-cost deposits and non-interest income. While ongoing conflict between state and federal law has kept many financial institutions on the sidelines, others have made serving this industry part of their growth strategy. According to new market research, the U.S. legal cannabis market will be worth $34 billion by 2025. While we don’t claim that sales will be immune to the financial shock caused by the pandemic, they have remained somewhat steady — due in large part to being deemed essential in most states with legal medical cannabis programs. With much of this revenue unbanked, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this industry can be part of your bank’s long-term strategy. Here are five reasons why.

  1. Cannabis banking can provide reliable non-interest income. As net interest margins compress, financial institutions should look to non-interest income business lines to support overall profitability. Cannabis companies are in dire need of quality banking solutions and are willing to pay upwards of 10 times the amount of traditional business service charges. Assessing substantially higher base account charges, often without the benefit of an earnings credit to offset those charges, means there are untapped cash management fee opportunities. Together, these fees can fully offset the operational cost of providing a cannabis banking program.
  2. New compliance technologies can reduce costs and support remote banking. Many banks serving cannabis customers are using valuable human capital to manage their compliance. However, new technologies make it possible to automate these processes, significantly reducing the labor and expense required to conduct the systematic due diligence this industry requires. New cannabis banking technologies can also enable contactless payments, and handle client applications, account underwriting and risk assessment — all via remote, online processes.
  3. Longer-term, cannabis banking can provide a source of low-cost deposits. The pressure to grow and attract low-cost deposits may wane momentarily but will continue to be a driver of bank profitability long-term. Increasing those deposits today will protect future profitability as the economy improves.
  4. Comprehensive federal legalization is on the back burner — for now. While your bank may want to wait for federal legalization before providing financial services to this industry, there’s a significant first-mover advantage for institutions that elect to serve this industry today. The ability to build new customer relationships, earn enhanced fee income and gain access to new sources of low-cost deposits early on could be a game-changer when legalization eventually occurs.
  5. You don’t need to be a pioneer. Having spent most of my career leading retail operations at a community bank, I know financial institutions don’t want to be the first to take on something new. Although it is still a nascent industry, there are financial institutions that have served cannabis businesses for several years and are passing compliance exams. Banks entering the industry now won’t have to write the playbook from scratch.

The coronavirus pandemic requires banks to make many difficult decisions, both around managing the financial impact and the operational changes needed to protect the health of customers and employees. While adapting operating procedures to the current environment, banks should also begin planning for a future recovery and identifying new potential sources of growth. Cannabis banking can provide a lucrative new revenue stream and the opportunity for financial institutions to grow deposits with minimal competition — at least for now.

The Biggest Priorities for Banks in Normal Times

Banks are caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States.

As they care for hurting customers in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, they cannot forget the fundamentals needed to steer any successful bank: maintaining discipline in a competitive lending market, attracting and retaining high-quality talent and improving their digital distribution channels.

Uncovering bankers’ biggest long-term priorities was one of the purposes of a roundtable conversation between executives and officers from a half dozen banks with between $10 billion and $30 billion in assets. The roundtable was sponsored by Deloitte LLP and took place at Bank Director’s annual Acquire or Be Acquired conference at the end of January, before the brunt of the new coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Kevin Riley, CEO of First Interstate BancSystem, noted that customers throughout the $14.6 billion bank’s western footprint were generally optimistic prior to the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Washington, Oregon and Idaho at the time were doing best. With trade tensions and fear of an inverted yield curve easing, and with interest rates reversing course, businesses entered 2020 with more confidence than they entered 2019.

The growth efforts reflect a broader trend. “In our 2020 M&A Trends survey, corporate respondents cited ‘efficiency and effectiveness in change management’ and ‘aligning cultures’ as the top concerns for new acquisitions,” says Liz Fennessey, M&A principal at Deloitte Consulting.

A major benefit that flows from an acquisition is talent. “More and more, we’re seeing M&A used as a lever to access talent, which presents a new set of cultural challenges,” Fennessey continues. “In the very early stages of the deal, the acquirer should consider the aspects core to the culture that will help drive long-term retention in order to preserve deal value.”

One benefit of the benign credit environment that banks enjoyed at the end of last year is that it enabled them to focus on core issues like talent and culture. Tacoma, Washington-based Columbia Banking System has been particularly aggressive in this regard, said CEO Clint Stein.

The $14.1 billion bank added three new people to its executive committee this year, with a heavy emphasis on technology. The first is the bank’s chief digital and technology officer, who focuses on innovation, information security and digital expansion. The second is the bank’s chief marketing and experience officer, who oversees marketing efforts and leads both a new employee experience team and a new client experience team. The third is the director of retail banking and digital integration, whose responsibilities include oversight of retail branches and digital services.

Riley at First Interstate has employed similar tactics, realigning the bank’s executive team at the beginning of 2020 to add a chief strategy officer. The position includes leading the digital and product teams, data and analytics, as well as overseeing marketing, communications and the client contact center.

The key challenge when it comes to growth, particularly through M&A, is making sure that it improves, as opposed to impairs, the combined institution’s culture. “It is important to be deliberate and thoughtful when aligning cultures,” says Matt Hutton, a partner at Deloitte. “It matters as soon as the deal is announced. Don’t miss the opportunity to build culture momentum by reinforcing the behaviors you expect before the deal is complete.”

Related to the focus on growth and talent is an increasingly sharp focus on environmental, social and governance issues. For decades, corporations were operated primarily for the benefit of their shareholders — a doctrine known as shareholder primacy. But this emphasis has begun to change and may accelerate alongside the unfolding health crisis. Over the past few years, large institutional investors have started promoting a more inclusive approach known as stakeholder capitalism, requiring companies to optimize returns across all their stakeholders, not just the owners of their stock.

The banks at the roundtable have embraced this call to action. First National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, publishes an annual community impact report, detailing metrics that capture the positive impact it has in the communities it serves. Columbia promotes the link between corporate social responsibility and performance. And First Interstate, in addition to issuing an annual environmental, social and governance report, has taken multiple steps in recent years to improve employee compensation and engagement.

Despite the diversity of business lines and geographies of different banks, these regional lenders shared multiple common priorities and fundamental focuses going into this year. The coronavirus crisis has certainly caused banks to change course, but there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when they and others are able to return to these core focuses.

Former Bank Disruptor, Turned Ally, Talks Innovation

A career that began with upending traditional banks has given Alexander Sion perspective on what they can do to accelerate growth and innovation.

Sion is the director and co-head of Citibank’s D10X, which is part of Citigroup’s global consumer bank. Prior to that, he oversaw mobile banking and mobile channel governance for the consumer and community banking group as general manager of mobile at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

But before he worked at banks, he attacked them.

Sion co-founded “neobank” Moven in 2011 to focus on the financial wellness of consumers. The mobile bank disruptor has since become a vendor; in March, the company announced it would close retail accounts and pivot completely to enterprise software.

Bank Director recently spoke with Sion about how banks can create new models that generate growth, even as they face disruption and challenges. Below is a transcript that has been edited for clarity and length.

BD: How should banks think about innovation as it relates to their products, services, culture and infrastructure?

AS: Citi Ventures focuses on growth within a dynamic environment of change. It’s very difficult to achieve, and it’s very different from core growth with existing customers. But all innovation, particularly at incumbent firms, has to stem from a desire to grow.

Banks that struggle with growth, or even getting excited about innovation, need to ask themselves two sets of questions. No. 1: Do you have a deep desire to grow? Do you have aggressive ambitions to grow? No. 2: Is that growth going to be coming from new spaces, or spaces that are being disrupted? Or are you considering growth from existing customers?

If a bank is focused on existing customers, retention and efficiencies, it’s going to be hard to get excited about innovation.

BD: What’s the difference for banks between investing in tech and merely consuming it?

AS: They’re very different. If your bank is focused on growing within its core business, then you would lean more towards consuming tech. You’re building off of something that already exists and trying to make it better. You’ve got existing customers on existing platforms and you’re looking for more efficient ways to serve them, retain them or grow share.

If you’re interested in new growth and exploration — new segments, new products, new distribution channels — you might be more inclined to partner in those spaces. You have less to build from, less to leverage, and you’re naturally trying to figure things out, versus trying to optimize things that already exist.

BD: What kind of a talent or skills does a bank need for these types of endeavors? Do people with these skills already work at the bank?

AS: Existing bank employees know the product, they know the customer. At Citi, what we do at D10X and Citi Ventures is to try to expose bank employees to a different way of thinking, expand their mindset to possibilities outside the constraints of what or where the core model leans towards and think from a customer-centric view versus a product-centric view of the world.

The dynamics of customer behaviors are changing so much. There’s so much redefinition of how customers think about money, payments and their financial lives. Creating a more customer-centric view in existing employees that already have the deep knowledge and expertise of not only the product, but how the bank’s customers have evolved — that’s a very powerful combination.

BD: Why should a bank think about new markets or new customers if they found great success with their core?

AS: If most banks in the United States were honest with themselves, I think many would admit that they’re struggling with growth. America is a very banked place. The banking environment hasn’t changed all that much, and most banks are established. Their focus has been on existing customers, efficiency of the model and maybe deepening within that customer base.

But now, fintechs coming in. These commerce, payments and technology players are doing two things. No. 1: They are legitimately opening up new markets of growth and segments that weren’t reachable, or the traditional model wasn’t really addressing. No. 2, and maybe more important, is they are widening and changing the perspective on customer behavior. I don’t think any bank is immune from those two trajectories; your bank can be defensive or offensive to those two angles, but you’ve got to be one or the other.

BD: What are some lessons you or Citi has learned from its testing, refining and launching new solutions?

AS: Venture incubation has to be about learning. There’s a saying that every startup is a product, service or idea in search of a business model. The challenge that every existing incumbent bank will have is that we have existing business models.

Banks need to be able to test ideas very rapidly. It’s easy to test an idea and rapidly iterate when you’re in search of a business model. It’s much more difficult to test new ideas in an already-operating business model. A typical idea is debated internally, watered down significantly and will go through the wringer before the first customer gets to click on anything. In this kind of world, that’s a difficult strategy to win on.

Making Strategic Decisions With The Help of Data Analytics

Banks capture a variety of data about their customers, loans and deposits that they can harness in visually effective ways to support strategic decision-making. But to do this successfully, they must have leadership commit to provide the funding and human resources to improve data collection and management.

Bad data or poor data quality costs U.S. businesses about $3 trillion annually, and breeds bad decisions made from having data that is just incorrect, unclean, and ungoverned,” said Ollie East, consulting director of advanced analytics and data engineering at Baker Tilly.

Companies generally have two types of data: structured and unstructured. Structured data is information that can be organized in tables or a database: customer names, age, loan balances and interest rates. Unstructured data is information that exists in written reports, online customer reviews or notes from sales people. It does not fit into a standard database and is not easily relatable to other data.

If data analytics is the engine, then data is the gasoline that powers it,” East said. “Everything starts with data management: getting and cleaning data and putting it into a format where it can be used, governed, controlled and treated as an asset.”

A maturity model for data analytics progresses from descriptive to prescriptive uses for the information. The descriptive level answers questions like, “What happened?” The diagnostic level answers, “Why did it happen?” The predictive level looks at “What will happen?” Finally, at the prescriptive level, a company can apply artificial intelligence, machine learning or robotics on large sets of structured and unstructured data to answer “How can I make it happen?”

Existing cloud-based computing technology is inexpensive. Companies can import basic data and overlay a Tableau or similar dashboard that creates a compelling visual representation of data easily understood by different management teams. Sean Statz, senior manager of financial services, noted that data visualization tools like Tableau allows banks to create practical visual insights into their loan and deposit portfolios, which in turn will support specific strategic initiatives.

To do a loan portfolio analysis, a simple extraction of a bank’s data at a point in time can generate a variety of visual displays that demonstrate the credit and concentration risks. Repetitive reporting allows the bank to analyze trends like the distribution of credit risk among different time periods and identify new pricing strategies that may be appropriate. Tableau can create a heat map of loans by balance, so bankers can quickly observe the interest rates on different loans. Another view could display loss rates by risk rating, which can help a bank determine the real return or actual yield it is earning on its loans.

Statz said sophisticated analytics of deposit characteristics will help banks understand customer demographics, and adjust their strategies to grow and retain different types of customers. Bank can use this information in their branch opening and closing decisions, or prepare for CD maturities with questions like, “When CDs roll over, what products will we offer? If we retain all or only half of CD customers, but at higher interest rates, how does that affect cost of funds and budget planning?”

Data analytics can help banks undergo more sophisticated key performance indicator comparisons with their peers, not just at an aggregate national or statewide level, but even a more narrow comparison into specific asset sizes.

Banks face many challenges in effective data analytics, including tracking the right data, storing and extracting it, validating it and assigning resources to it correctly. But the biggest challenge banks need to tackle is determining if they have the necessary data to tackle specific problems. For example, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new current expected credit loss (CECL) standards require banks to report lifetime credit losses. If banks do not already track the credit quality characteristics they will need for CECL, they need to start capturing that data now.

Banks often store data on different systems: residential real estate loans on one system, commercial loans on another. This makes extracting the data in a way that supports data visualization like Tableau difficult. They must also validate the data for accuracy and identify any gaps in either data collection or inputting through the system. They also need to ensure they have the human resources and tools to extract, scrub and manipulate essential data to build out a meaningful analytic based on each data type.

The key to any successful data analytics undertaking is a leadership team that is committed to developing this data maturity mindset, whether internally or with help from a third party.

The Choice Facing Every Bank

Has your executive team been approached by leaders of another bank interested in an acquisition? It likely means your bank is doing something right. But, now what?

Many CEOs’ visceral response to being asked to consider a deal is to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” and continue running the bank. While this may be the correct response, this overture is a chance for leadership to objectively revisit the bank’s strategic alternatives to determine the best option for its shareholders and other stakeholders.

Stay the Course
Boards must objectively identify where their bank is in its life cycle — be it turn-around, growth or stability — and what will be needed to successfully compete at the next stage. Ultimately, they must determine if the bank can drive more long-term shareholder value staying independent than it could with a partner. They must also weigh the risk of remaining independent against the potential reward.

Directors should prepare five-year projections, ideally with the help of a financial advisor, that assume the bank continues to operate independently. They should forecast growth and profitability that reasonably reflect current marketplace dynamics and company strategy, and are generally consistent with past performance. Consider opportunities to lower funding costs, consolidate or sell unprofitable branches, add lines of business, or achieve economies of scale through acquisitions or organic growth. However, be cognizant of market headwinds: low interest rate environment, slower projected loan growth, increasing cost of technology and cybersecurity, regulatory burden, competition, demographic trends, upcoming presidential election and so on. The board should also consider organizational issues such as succession planning — a major issue for many community banks. How do these factors impact the future performance of your institution? Will your bank be able to meet shareholder expectations?

Merge with Peer
Peer mergers have been a hot topic of late. The bank space has seen several high-profile transactions: the merger between BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks to form Truist Financial Corp.; Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon National Corp. and Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.; Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. and Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp.; and McKinney, Texas-based Independent Bank Group and Dallas-based Texas Capital Bancshares.

The opportunity to double assets while achieving economies of scale can drive significant shareholder value. But these transactions can be tough to nail down because both parties must be willing to compromise on key negotiation topics. Which side selects the chairman? The CEO? How will the board be split? Where will the company be headquartered? What will be the name of the future bank?

Peer mergers can be risky propositions for banks, as cultures don’t always match and integration can take several years. However, the transaction can be a windfall for shareholders in the long run.

Sell
A decision to sell almost always generates the greatest immediate value for shareholders. Boards must ascertain if now is the right time, or if the bank can do better on its own.

Whether or not selling creates the highest long-term value for shareholders depends on several factors. One factor is the consideration mix, if any, between stock and cash. Cash gives shareholders the flexibility to invest and diversify the net proceeds as they see fit, but capital gains will be taxed immediately. Stock consideration is generally a tax-free exchange, when structured correctly, but it is paramount to select the right partner. Look for a bank with a strong management team and board, a proven track record of building shareholder value and a plan to continue to do so. That partner may not offer you the highest price today, but will most likely deliver a better return to shareholders in the long run, compared to other potential acquirers. Furthermore, a partner that is likely to sell in the near-term could provide a double-dip — a potential homerun for your shareholders.

It is crucial to consider what impact a sale would have on other stakeholders, like employees and the community. Prepare your bank to sell, well in advance of any conversations with potential acquirers. Avoid signing new IT contracts with material termination costs; it is an opportune time to sell when core processing contracts are nearing expiration. In addition, review existing employment agreements and consider establishing a severance plan to protect employees ahead of time.

Being approached by a potential acquirer gives your bank an opportunity to objectively reflect on its strategy and potentially adjust it. Even if your bank hasn’t been contacted by a potential acquirer, the board should still review the bank’s strategic alternatives annually, at a minimum, and determine the best path forward.

The Powerful Force Driving Bank Consolidation


margins-8-16-19.pngA decades-old trend that has helped drive consolidation in the banking industry can be summarized in a single chart.

In 1995, the industry’s net interest margin, or NIM, was 4.25%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (NIM reflects the difference between a bank’s cost of funds and what it earns on its assets, primarily loans.) Twenty years later, the margin dropped to a historic low of 2.98%, before gradually recovering to 3.30% last year.

NIM-chart.png

The vast majority of banks in this county are spread lenders, making most of their money off the difference between what they pay for deposits and what they charge for loans. When this spread narrows, as it has since the mid-1990s, it pinches their profitability.

The decision by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points in August will likely exacerbate this by reducing the rates that banks can charge on loans.

“For most banks, net interest income [accounts for] the majority of their revenue,” says Allen Tischler, senior vice president at Moody’s Investor Service. “A reduction in [it] obviously undermines their ability to generate incremental earnings.”

There have been two recessions since the mid-1990s: a brief one in 2001 and the Great Recession in 2007 to 2009. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates in both instances. (Over time, lower rates depress margins, although banks may initially benefit if their deposit costs drop faster that their loan pricing.)

Inflation has also remained low since the mid-1990s — particularly since 2012, when it never rose above 2.4%. This is why the Fed has been able to keep rates so low.

Other factors contributing to the sustained decline in NIMs include intermittent periods of intense competition and rate cutting between banks, as well as the emergence of fintech lenders. Changes over time in a bank’s the mix of loans and securities, and among different loan categories, can impact NIMs, too.

The Dodd-Frank Act has exacerbated the downward trend in NIMs by requiring large banks to carry a higher share of low-yielding liquid assets on their balance sheets, which depresses their margins. This is why large banks have contributed disproportionally to the industry’s declining average margin – though, these institutions can more easily offset the compression because upwards of half their net revenue comes from fees.

Community banks haven’t experienced as much compression because they allocate a larger portion of their balance sheets to loans and do most of their lending in less-competitive markets. But smaller institutions are also less equipped to combat the compression, since fees make up only 11% of the net operating revenue at banks with less than $1 billion in assets, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The industry’s profitability has nevertheless held up, in part, because of improvements to operating efficiency, particularly at large banks. The corporate tax cut that went into effect in 2018 plays into this as well.

“If you recall how banking was done in 1995 versus today … there’s just [greater] efficiency across the board, when you think about what computer technology in particular has done in all service industries, not just banking,” says Norm Williams, deputy comptroller for economic and policy analysis at the OCC.

The Fed’s latest rate cut, combined with concerns about additional cuts if the escalating trade war with China weakens the U.S. economy, raises the specter that the industry’s margin could nosedive yet again.

Tischler at Moody’s believes that sustained margin pressure has been a factor in the industry’s consolidation since the mid-1990s. “That downward trend does undermine its profitability, and is part of the reason why the industry has consolidated as much as it has,” he says.

If the industry’s margin takes another plunge, it could drive further consolidation. “The industry has been consolidating for decades … and there’s no reason why that won’t continue,” says Tischler. “This just adds to the pressure.”

There were 11,971 U.S. banks and thrifts in 1995. Today there are 5,362. Given the direction of NIMs, it seems like we may still have too many.

Exclusive: How This Growing Community Bank Focuses on Risk


risk-5-16-19.pngManaging risk and satisfying examiners can be difficult for any bank. It’s particularly hard for community banks that want to manage their limited resources wisely.

One bank that balances these challenges well is Bryn Mawr Bank Corp., a $4.6 billion asset based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick recently interviewed Chief Risk Officer Patrick Killeen about the bank’s approach to risk for a feature story in our second quarter 2019 issue. That story, titled “Banks Regain Sovereignty Over Risk Practices,” dives into the results of Bank Director’s 2019 Risk Survey. (You can read that story here.)

In the transcript of the interview—available exclusively to members of our Bank Services program—Killeen goes into detail about how his bank approaches stress testing, cybersecurity and credit risk, and explains how the executive team and board have strengthened the organization for future growth.

He discusses:

  • The top risks facing his community bank
  • Hiring the right talent to balance risk and growth
  • Balancing board and management responsibilities in lending
  • Conducting stress tests as a community bank
  • Managing cyber risk
  • Responding to Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering guidance

The interview has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

download.png Download transcript for the full exclusive interview

Avoid the Risk of Complacency


growth-5-10-19.pngBank directors have a golden opportunity to position their banks for future growth and prepare them for change—if they can resist the lull of complacency, according to speakers at the opening day of Bank Director’s 2019 Bank Board Training Forum on May 9.

The current economic environment remains benign, as regulators have paused interest rate increases and credit quality remains pristine, says Joseph Fenech, managing principal and head of research at Hovde Group. Further, he argues that banks today are better equipped to withstand a future economic downturn.

But speakers throughout the day say the risk is that board members may feel lulled by their banks’ current performance and miss their chance to position these institutions for future growth.

“We’re going through the good years in banking. I would argue your biggest competitor is complacency,” says Don MacDonald, chief marketing officer at MX Technologies. He adds that bank boards needs to be asking hard questions about the future despite today’s positive operating environment.

Banks are grappling with the rapid pace of change and technology, shifting customer demographics and skills gaps at the executive and board levels. Speakers during the conference provided a variety of ways that directors can address these concerns with an eye toward future growth.

One way is to redefine how community banks think about their products and their markets, according to Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors. Shevlin says many community banks face competition from firms outside of their geographic marketplace. In response, some community banks are moving away from a geographic community and toward affinity, or common bond, groups. These firms have identified products or loans they excel at and have expanded their reach to those affinity customers. He also advises banks to examine how their products stack up to competing products. He uses the example of checking accounts, pointing out that large banks and financial technology firms sometimes offer rewards or personal financial management advice for these accounts.

“Everyone talks about customer experience, but fixing the customer experience of an obsolete product is a complete waste of money,” he says.

Another challenge for boards is the makeup of the board itself. Directors need to have a skill set that is relevant to the challenges and opportunities a bank faces. Today, directors are concerned about how the bank will respond to technology, increase the diversity of their boards and remain relevant to the next generation of bank customers, says J. Scott Petty, managing partner of financial services at Chartwell Partners, an executive search firm.

He challenges directors to consider the skills and experiences they will need in a few years, as well as how confident they are that they have the right board and leadership to run the bank.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight. It has to be planned for,” he says. “Board composition should reflect the goals of the financial institution.”

Banks can resist complacency with their culture, according to Robert Hill, Jr., CEO of South State Corp. Hill says there is never a point in time when “you’ve got it made and your bank is cruising.” Various headwinds come and go, but the overarching theme behind the bank’s challenges is that pace of change, need for customer engagement and competition are all increasing.

In response, Hill says the bank is very selective about who they hire, and looks for passion, values and engagement as well as specific skills. South State prioritizes soundness, profitability and growth—in that order—and wraps its cultural fabric around and throughout the company. A large part of that is accomplished through leadership, and the accountability that goes with it.

“If the culture is not strong and foundation is not strong, it will be much harder for a company to evolve,” he says.