How America’s Newest Adults are Changing Banking

Believe it or not, Generation Z is already dipping their toes into the banking world. Are banks ready?

With the oldest Gen Z members reaching their mid-20s, America’s newest adults are starting to generate their own forms of income, graduate from college, budget for large financial decisions and even learn the basics of money management from their favorite TikTok creators. Banks must prepare for this mass generational shift in wealth and personal financing.

For years, financial institutions have adjusted their core offerings to accommodate millennials’ financial preferences and patterns in spending behavior. These 73-million-strong tech-savvy adults have become the most populous generation in U.S. history, surpassing baby boomers.

Entering the job market during the Great Recession, which forced millennials to make more risk-averse spending decisions. With the exception of outstanding student loans, many avoid debt and prioritize spending on life experiences over material possessions to avoid regretting financial decisions down the line.

Millennials are now the largest driver of net new loan demand, according to Morgan Stanley loan forecasts and historical household information. This lending “sweet spot” falls between the ages of 25 and 40, and could persist for to a decade. But seemingly unbeknownst to the majority of banks, Gen Z is nearing — and entering — their early 20s.

It is time for banks to update their reality: America’s youngest adults – Gen Z – are about to age into that lending sweet spot. Combined, millennials and Gen Z will reach the largest generational demographic in the country: 140 million adults whose loyalty to existing financial institutions is very much in flux. This wealth shift will undoubtedly be the impetus for an industry-wise reimaging of consumer banking and lending.

Reports from Morgan Stanley’s population forecasts suggest that Gen Z will comprise of the most populous American generation ever by 2034, with an estimated peak of 78 million. By that time, this generation of “kids” are expected to have increased their aggregated borrowing levels, eventually accounting for a third of all consumer debt in the U.S.

Still thinking of them as kids? It’s understandable, but they could set the tone for how the entire banking industry evolves in the coming years — including your company. When it comes to generational and demographic shifts, there is no recipe for success, especially in banking. However, the tools needed to survive are readily available for the banks that are willing to seize them.

At a bare minimum, banks will need to redesign their legacy systems and offerings by adding digital enhancements, similar to the industry-wide digitization brought on by millennials in recent years. Though the behavioral characteristics of millennials and Gen Z overlap, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they are the same teams playing the same game.

Some Gen Zers are given a smartphone before they are even the age of 10, according to The Harris Poll. Furthermore, those children are allowed to create their own social media accounts by the age of 13, oftentimes earlier. During these formative years, Gen Z kids begin to develop their own personalities, live their own lives and form digital relationships with people, communities and brands alike.

Why does this matter? Because banks have relegated themselves to the adult world, where you must be 18 or older to open your own account. They are losing out on the most influential years of America’s youngest adults — when they begin to associate with their favorite brands and subsequently spend money to engage with them.

The same digitized offerings that banks have spent years formulating for millennials are simply not going to cut it for Gen Z. Banks will need to redefine the concept of “traditional” banking and create a “neo-normal” standard if they have any hopes of engaging this massively influential generation of young Americans. Don’t simply market differently to them. It’s time to shift the strategy – design differently for them.

Gen Z isn’t just about TikTok dance challenges and viral memes. Most of them were seeking answers to their curiosities via search engines around the same age we were reading “Curious George.” This generation is the most diverse and well educated to date, and they are very keen on being treated like adults — especially when it comes to managing their personal finances. How does your bank plan to greet them?

Using Profitability to Drive Banker Behavior

There used to be a perception that bankers found it tough to innovate because they are largely left-brained, meaning they tend to be more analytical and orderly than creative right brainers. While this may have been true for the founding fathers of this industry, there’s no question that bankers have been forced into creativity to remain competitive.

It could have been happenstance, natural evolution, or the global financial crisis of 2008 — it doesn’t matter. Today’s bankers are both analytical and creative because they have had to find new, more convenient pathways to profitability and use those insights for continuous coaching.

The current economic landscape may require U.S. banks to provision for up to $318 billion in net loan losses from 2020 to 2022, the Deloitte Center for Financial Services estimates. These losses are expected to be booked in several lending categories, mainly driven by the pandemic’s domino effect on small businesses, income inequality and the astounding impact of women leaving the workforce pushing millions into extreme poverty. Additionally, net interest margins are at an all-time low. Deloitte forecasts that U.S. commercial banks won’t see revenues or net income reach pre-pandemic levels until 2022.

In the interim, bankers are still under pressure to perform and increase profitability. Strong performance is possible — economic “doom and gloom” isn’t the whole story. In fact, the second-largest bank in America is projecting loan growth in 2021, of all years, after six years of decline. These industry challenges won’t last forever. so preparation is key. One of the first steps in understanding profitability is establishing if your bank’s business model is transactional, relational or a mix of the two, then answering these questions:

  • How much does a loan pay for the use of funds? How much does a deposit receive for the use of funds?
  • How much does a loan pay for the current period and identified level of credit risk?
  • How much capital does the bank need to assign to the loan or deposit?
  • What are the appropriate fees for accounts and services used by our clients?
  • What expenses are allocated to a product to determine its profitability?

There should never be a question about why loans need to pay for funds. The cash a bank provides for a loan comes from one of three sources: capital investments, debt and borrowing or client deposits.

From there, bankers have shown incredible creativity and innovation in adopting simpler, faster ways to better understand their bank’s profitability, especially through sophisticated technologies that can break down silos by including all clients, products and transactions in a single database. By comparison, legacy databases can leave digital assets languishing in inaccessible and expensive silos. Bankers must view an entire client relationship to most accurately price the relationship.

This requires a mindset shift. Instead of thinking about credit structure — the common approach in the industry – to determine relationship pricing, think instead about the client relationship holistically and leave room to augment as necessary. Pricing models should reflect your bank’s profitability calculations, not adjusted industry average models. And clients will need a primary and secondary owner to break down silos and ensure they receive the best experience.

How does any of this drive optimal banker behavior? A cohesive, structurally sound system that allows bankers to better understand profitability via one source of the truth allows them to review deal performance every six months to improve performance. Further, a centralized database allows C-suite executives to literally see everything, forging connections between their initiatives to banker’s day-to-day actions. It creates an environment where bankers can realize opportunities through execution, accountability and coaching, when necessary.

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.”