Opportunity Emerges from Coronavirus Crisis

The banking industry has experienced shocks and recessions before, but this one is different.

Never has the economy been shut so quickly, has unemployment risen so fast or the recovery been so uncertain. The individual health risks that consumers are willing to take to create demand for goods and services will drive the recovery. As we weigh personal health and economic health, banking communities and their customers hang in the balance.

Ongoing economic distress will vary by market but the impact will be felt nationwide. Credit quality will vary by industry; certain industries will recover more quickly, while others like hotels, restaurants, airlines and anything involving the gathering of large crowds will likely need the release of a coronavirus vaccine to fully recover. As more employees work from home, commercial office property may never be the same. While this pandemic is different from other crises, some principles from prior experience are worth consideration as bankers manage through this environment.

Balance sheet over income statement. In a crisis, returns, margins and operating efficiency — which often indicate performance and compensation in a strong economy — should take a back seat to balance sheet strength and stability. A strong allowance, good credit quality, ample liquidity and prudent asset-liability management must take priority.

Quality over quantity. Growth can wait until the storm has passed. Focus on the quality of new business. In a flat yield curve and shrinking margin environment, resist the thinking that more volume can compensate for tighter spread. Great loans to great customers are being made at lower and lower rates; if the pie’s not growing, banks will need to steal business from each other via price in a race to the bottom. Value strong relationships and ask for pricing that compensates for risk. Resist marginal business on suspect terms and keep dry powder for core investments in the community.

Capital is king. It’s a simple concept, but important in a crisis. Allocate capital to the most productive assets, hold more capital rather than less and build capital early. A mistake banks made in prior crises was underestimating their capital need and waiting too long to build or raise capital. Repurchasing shares seems tempting at current valuations, but the capital may be more valuable internally. Some banks may consider cutting or suspend common stock dividends, but are fearful of condemnation in the market. The cost of carrying too much capital right now is modest compared to the cost of not having enough — for credit losses but equally for growth opportunity during the recovery.

The market here serves as the eye of the storm. The front edge of the storm saw the closure of the economy, concern for family, friends and staff and community outreach with the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), not once but twice. Now settles in the calm. Banks have deployed capital, the infection rate is slowing and small businesses are trying to open up. But don’t mistake this period for the storm being over. There is a back edge of the storm that may occur in the fall: the end of enhanced unemployment insurance benefits, the exhaustion (and hopefully forgiveness) of PPP funds and the expiration of forbearance. Industries that require a strong summer travel and vacation season will either recover or struggle further. And any new government stimulus will prolong the inevitable as a bandage on a larger wound. Banks may see credit losses that rival the highest levels recorded during the Great Recession. Unemployment that hits Great Depression-era levels will take years to fully recover.

But from crisis comes opportunity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that business may shift back to community banks. When markets are strong, pricing power, broad distribution and leading edge technology attract consumers to larger institutions. In periods of distress, however, customers are reminded of the strength of human relationships. Some small businesses found it difficult to access the PPP because they were a number in a queue at a larger bank or were unbanked without a relationship at all. Consumers that may have found it easy to originate their mortgage online had difficulty figuring out who was looking out for them when they couldn’t make their payment. In contrast, those that had a banking relationship and someone specific to call for help generally had a positive experience.

This devastating crisis will be a defining moment for community banks, as businesses and consumers have new appreciation for the value of the personal banking relationship. Having the strength, capital, brand and momentum to take advantage of the opportunity will depend on the prudence and risk management that these same banks navigate the pandemic-driven downturn today.

The Keystone Trait of Prudent and Profitable Banking

The more you study banking, the more you realize that succeeding in the industry boils down to a handful of factors, the most important of which is efficiency.

This seems obvious, but it’s worth exploring exactly why efficiency is so critical.

A bank, at its core, is a highly leveraged fund, with the typical bank borrowing $10 for every $1 worth of capital. This makes banks profitable. However, it also means that banks, by design, are incredibly fragile institutions, using three times as much debt as the typical company.

Warren Buffett wrote about this in his 1990 letter to shareholders:

The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity — a common ratio in this industry — mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks.

The primary source of mistakes in banking, Buffett noted, is what he refers to as the institutional imperative, “the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.”

Buffett was writing about a commercial real estate crisis in the early 1990s that was laying waste to the banking industry. As competition for commercial loans heated up, banks cut rates and eased terms in order to win business. When real estate prices crashed, banks paid the price for doing so.

It was during that time, for instance, that Security Pacific Corp., one of the great California banking dynasties, sold itself to BankAmerica Corp. to stave off insolvency.

These pressures — the fear of missing out, if you will — have not gone away. They factored into the financial crisis, causing lenders to move down the credit ladder in order to make subprime loans. And the word on the street is that these same pressures are causing some banks to cut rates and ease lending terms today.

The key is to insulate yourself from these pressures.

Part of this is psychological — understanding how emotions, particularly fear and greed, play into decision making. And part of it is practical — operating so efficiently that it eliminates the temptation to boost profitability by easing credit standards.

The direct role of efficiency in a bank’s operations is obvious: The less revenue a bank spends on expenses, the more that’s left over to fall to the bottom line.

But the indirect role of efficiency is even more important: A bank that operates efficiently can relinquish some of its margin to attract the highest-quality credits. It also eliminates the need to stretch on credit quality in order to earn one’s cost of capital — a return on equity of between 10% and 12%.

“Being a low-cost provider gives one a tremendous strategic advantage,” Jerry Grundhofer, the former chairman and CEO of U.S. Bancorp, once told Bank Director’s Jack Milligan. “It allows you to deal with challenges, be competitive on the asset and liability sides of the balance sheet and take care of customers.”

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the most efficient banks when it comes to operations also tend to be the most prudent when it comes to risk management.

But not all efficiency is created equal. In banking, efficiency is expressed as a ratio of expenses to revenue. The key is to have the right mix of the two.

The temptation is to drive efficiency through cost control. The problem with doing so, however, is that a bank can only lower its costs so far before it begins to cannibalize its business.

The same isn’t true of revenue, which tends to be twice as large as expenses. Consequently, the most efficient banks through time generally are those with the highest revenue to assets, not the highest expenses to assets.

The archetype for a high-performing bank isn’t just one that operates efficiently, but one that drives its efficiency through revenue, the denominator in the efficiency ratio.

How Umpqua Bank Is Navigating the Digital Transformation

Writers look for interesting paradoxes to explore. That’s what creates tension in a story, which engages readers.

These qualities can be hard to find in banking, a homogenous industry where individuality is often viewed skeptically by regulators.

But there are exceptions. One of them is Umpqua Holdings Co., the biggest bank based in the Pacific Northwest.

What’s unique about Umpqua is the ubiquity of its reputation. Ask just about anyone who has been around banking for a while and they’re likely to have heard of the $29 billion bank based in Portland, Oregon.

This isn’t because of Umpqua’s size or historic performance. It’s a product, instead, of its branch and marketing strategies under former CEO Ray Davis, who grew it over 23 years from a small community bank into a leading regional institution.

Umpqua’s branches were particularly unique. The company viewed them not exclusively as places to conduct banking business, but instead as places for people to congregate more generally.

That strategy may seem naïve nowadays, given the popularity of digital banking. But it’s worth observing that other banks continue to follow its lead.

Here’s how Capital One Financial Corp. describes its cafes: “Our Cafés are inviting places where you can bank, plan your financial journey, engage with your community, and enjoy Peet’s Coffee. You don’t have to be a customer.”

Nevertheless, as digital banking replaces branch visits, Umpqua has had to shift its strategy — you could even say its identity — under Davis’ successor, Cort O’Haver.

The biggest asset at O’Haver’s disposal is Umpqua’s culture, which it has long prioritized. And the key to its culture is the way it balances stakeholders.

For decades, corporations adhered to the doctrine of shareholder primacy — the idea that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders. The doctrine was even formally endorsed in 1997 as a principle of corporate governance by the Business Roundtable, an organization made up of CEOs of major U.S. companies.

Umpqua, on the other hand, has focused over the years on optimizing rewards to all its stakeholders — employees, customers, community and shareholders — as opposed to maximizing the rewards to just one group of them.

“We’re not the most profitable or highest total shareholder return bank in the country,” O’Haver says. “We have to give some of that up because of the things we do. If we’re going to innovate, if we’re going to have programs that give back to our employees and our communities, it costs money to do that. But we think that’s the right thing to do. It attracts customers and great quality associates who bring passion to what they do.”

The downside to this approach, as O’Haver points out, are lower shareholder returns. But the upside, particularly now, is that this philosophy seeded a collaborative culture that can be leveraged to help navigate the digital transformation.

Offering digital distribution channels isn’t hard. Any bank can pay third-party partners to build a mobile application. What’s hard is seamlessly blending these channels into a legacy ecosystem once dominated by branches and in-person service.

“How are you going to get your people to actually embrace new technology and use it? How are they going to sell it if they don’t feel like it’s valuable for them?” O’Haver says. “Yeah, it’s valuable for your shareholders because it’s cheaper. But if you’re not counterbalancing that, how are you going to get your associates to embrace it and sell it to customers? That’s more important than the product itself, even in financial terms. If they don’t embrace it, you will fail.”

This, again, may seem like a trite way to approach business. Yet, Umpqua’s more balanced philosophy towards stakeholders has proven to be prescient.

Last year, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation. No longer is it merely to maximize shareholder value; its purpose now is to fulfill a fundamental commitment to all its stakeholders.

Leading institutional investors are following suit. The CEOs of BlackRock and State Street Global Capital Advisors, the two biggest institutional investors in the country, are mandating that companies jettison shareholder primacy in favor of so-called stakeholder capitalism.

In short, while Umpqua’s decades-long emphasis on branches may seem like a liability in the modern age of banking, the culture underlying that emphasis may prove to be its greatest asset if leveraged, as opposed to lost, in the process of bridging the digital divide.

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.”

Best Practices for Onboarding New Directors


governance-9-12-19.pngJoining a bank board can be a bewildering experience for some new directors. There’s a lot to learn, including new, confusing abbreviations and financial metrics specific to the banking industry. But with the right approach, bank boards and nominating/governance committees can make the experience easier.

Onboarding new directors and more quickly acclimating them to the world of depository institutions is essential to ensuring banks have a functioning board that is prepared to navigate an increasingly changing and complex environment. It can also reduce potential liability for the bank by ensuring its members are educated and knowledgeable, and that no one personality or viewpoint dominates the boardroom.

Banking differs from other industries because of its business model, funding base, regulatory oversights and jargon. Directors without existing knowledge of the industry may need one to two years before becoming fully contributing members who can understand the most important issues facing the bank, as well as the common parlance.

Proactive boards leverage the chairperson to create an onboarding process that is comprehensive without being overwhelming, and tailor it to suit their institution’s particular needs, as well as the skill sets of newly recruited board members. The chair can work with members of the nominating/governance committee and executives like the chief financial officer to create a specific onboarding program and identify what pertinent information will best serve their new colleague.

Bank Director has compiled the following checklist to help strengthen your bank’s onboarding program.

1. Help new directors understand their role on the board.
New directors often come in with a background in business or accounting, skills that are useful in a bank boardroom. But business success in one industry may not readily translate to banking, given the unique aspects of its business model, regulations and even vocabulary associated with financial institutions. New directors can access insights on “The Role of the Board” through Bank Director’s Online Training Series.

Banks are uniquely regulated and insured. Directors should be able to appreciate the role they serve in their oversight of the bank, as well as the role regulators have in keeping the bank safe and sound, and ensuring prudent access to credit.

2. Provide an overview of the banking industry.
Directors often aren’t bankers and will need to be acquainted with the business of banking broadly.

With this overview will come the distinctive terms and acronyms that a new director may hear tossed around a boardroom. Boards should either create or provide a glossary with definitions and acronyms of terms, including the principal regulators and common financial metrics.

Click HERE to access Bank Director’s Banking Terms Glossary.

3. Provide an overview of your bank’s business model and strategy.
Directors will need to understand the bank’s products, including how it funds itself, what sort of loans it makes and to whom, as well as other services the bank provides for a fee. They will also need to learn about the bank’s credit culture, capital regime and its approach to risk management, including loan loss reserving.

4. Create a reading list.
There are a number of internal and external resources that new board members can access as they become acclimated to the ins and outs of bank governance. Internally, they should have access to recent examination reports, call reports, and quarterly and annual filings, if they exist. They should also access external resources, like Bank Director’s Online Training Series, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s 2016 publication, “Basics for Bank Directors,” and “The Director’s Book,” published by the Officer of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Additionally, they should keep up-to-date with the industry through bank-specific publications, such as Bank Director’s newsletter and magazine.

5. Schedule one-on-one meetings with the management team.
A new board member will need to understand who they are working with and the important roles those individuals play in running a successful bank. Their onboarding should include meetings with the management team, especially the CFO for a discussion about the financial metrics, risk measurement and health of the bank. It may also be prudent to schedule a meeting with other executives who oversee risk management at the bank.

6. Schedule one-on-one meetings with members of the board and key consultants.
New directors should sit down with the heads of board committees to understand the various oversight functions the board fulfills. The bank may also want to reach out to the firms it works with, including its accounting, law and consulting firms, to chat about their roles and relationship with the company.

7. Emphasize continuing education.
Boards should convey to new members that they expect continued education and growth in the role. One way to achieve this is through conference attendance, which can provide intensive and specialized education, as well as a community of directors from banks in other geographic areas that new members can learn from. Direct new board members to events hosted by your state banking association, if available, or sign them up for annual conferences like Bank Director’s Bank Board Training Forum.

Look for conferences that offer information calibrated to a director’s understanding, starting with basic or introductory instruction suited for new directors. The conferences should also facilitate discussion among directors, so that they can learn from each other. As a director grows in the role, the board can seek out more specialized training.

Successful onboarding should help new directors acclimate to the world of banking and become a productive member of the board. Boards should expect their directors to become comfortable enough that they go beyond thoughtful listening and ask intelligent questions that reinforce the bank’s strategy and its risk management.

Three Things You Missed at Experience FinXTech


technology-9-11-19.pngThe rapid and ongoing digital evolution of banking has made partnerships between banks and fintech companies more important than ever. But cultivating fruitful, not frustrating, relationships is a central challenge faced by companies on both sides of the relationship.

The 2019 Experience FinXTech event, hosted by Bank Director and its FinXTech division this week at the JW Marriott in Chicago, was designed to help address this challenge and award solutions that work for today’s banks. Over the course of two days, I observed three key emerging trends.

Deposit displacement
The competition for deposits has been a central, ongoing theme for the banking industry, and it was a hot topic of conversation at this year’s Experience FinXTech event.

In a presentation on Monday, Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors, talked about a phenomenon he calls “deposit displacement.” Consumers keep billions of dollars in health savings accounts. They also keep billions of dollars in balances on Starbucks gift cards and within Venmo accounts. These aren’t technically considered deposits, but they do act as an alternative to them.

Shevlin’s point is that the competition for funding in the banking industry doesn’t come exclusively from traditional financial institutions — and particularly, the biggest institutions with multibillion-dollar technology budgets. It also comes from the cumulative impact of these products offered by nondepository institutions.

Interestingly, not all banks struggle with funding. One banker from a smaller, rural community bank talked about how his institution has more funding than it knows what to do with. Another institution in a similar situation is offloading them using Promontory Interfinancial Network’s reciprocal deposit platform.

Capital allocation versus expenses
A lot of things that seem academic and inconsequential can have major implications for the short- and long-term prospects of financial institutions. One example is whether banks perceive investments in new technologies to be simply expenses with no residual long-term benefit, or whether they view these investments as capital allocation.

Fairly or unfairly, there’s a sense among technology providers that many banks see investments in digital banking enhancements merely as expenses. This mindset matters in a highly commoditized industry like banking, in which one of the primary sources of competitive advantage is to be a low-cost producer.

The industry’s justifiable focus on the efficiency ratio — the percent of a bank’s net revenue that’s spent on noninterest expenses — reflects this. A bank that views investments in new technologies as an expense, which may have a detrimental impact on efficiency, will be less inclined to stay atop of the digital wave washing over the industry.

But banks that adopt a more-philosophical approach to technology investments, and see them as an exercise in capital allocation, seem less inclined to fall into this trap. Their focus is on the long-term return on investment, not the short-term impact on efficiency.

Of course, in the real world, things are never this simple. Banks that approach this decision in a way that keeps the short-term implications on efficiency in mind, with an eye on the long-term implications of remaining competitive in an increasingly digitized world, are likely to be the ones that perform best over the long run.

Cultural impacts
One of the most challenging aspects of banking’s ongoing digital transformation also happens to be its least tangible: tailoring bank cultures to incorporate new ways of doing old things. At the event, conversations about cultural evolution proceeded along multiple lines.

In the first case, banks are almost uniformly focused on recruiting members of younger generations who are, by habit, more digitally inclined.

On the flipside, banks have to make hard decisions about the friction that stems from existing employees who have worked for them for years, sometimes decades, and are proving to be resistant to change. For instance, several bankers talked about implementing new technologies, like Salesforce.com’s customer relationship management solutions, yet their employees continue to use spreadsheets and word-processing documents to track customer engagements.

But there’s a legitimate question about how far this should go, and some banks take it to the logical extreme. They talk about transitioning their cultures from traditional banking cultures to something more akin to the culture of a technology company. Other banks are adopting a more-tempered approach, thinking about technology as less of an end in itself, and rather as a means to an end — the end being the enhanced delivery of traditional banking products.

Banks, Fintechs Share This Three-Letter Word


technology-9-6-19.png“Try.”

This one humble word reflects the mindset I encounter in nearly every high-performing executive today. And it might just be the theme at next week’s Experience FinXTech Conference at the JW Marriott Chicago.

Simple as it first appears, breaking away from the known and attempting to explore what’s possible requires leadership, conviction and a commitment to try something new.

While other fintech-oriented conferences highlight “funding paths” or “successful exits,” we built this event for bank leaders seeking growth and efficiencies through the application of financial technologies. Over two days, we’ll look closely at the implications of technology on the banking business, and explore how and where traditional brick-and-mortar institutions can generate top-line growth and bottom-line profits through new business relationships.

A word of encouragement to those joining us from community banks: Don’t let your asset size limit your aspirations.

Yes, technology companies continue to impact consumer expectations and challenge existing business models. And yes, this is changing the basis of competition in the industry. But it’s your mindset, not the size of your bank’s balance sheet, that will dictate its future. That’s why Experience FinXTech brings banking peers together from across the country to share how they pursue collaboration and creativity.

There’s something for all of us to learn.

For those attending from the technology sector, I urge you to tell us stories that demonstrate your resiliency, curiosity and resourcefulness. I continually hear that banks prize anecdotes that reflect a tenacity of purpose — a trait that many technology companies joining us can rightfully claim.

Ahead of Experience FinXTech, I’m inspired and intrigued by three companies making waves in the financial space:

  • Aspiration, which offers socially responsible banking and investment products and services, and has attracted 1.5 million customers as of June 2019.
  • Chime, which advertises itself as one of the fastest-growing bank accounts in America.
  • N26, a German direct bank that promises to provide real-time payments information and early access to paychecks to woo new U.S. consumers.

Executives should think about what these companies hope to accomplish, how they are building their presence and how it could impact community banks across the country.

At the conference, we’ll talk about companies like these, as well as the technology firms that have gained traction with banks. We look at the choices and challenges facing small and mid-size banks as they apply to payments, lending, data and analytics, security and digital banking. We’ll explore changing the basis of competition when it comes to earnings, efficiency and engagement.

Given that many community banks specialize in particular verticals or business lines to remain competitive, we’ll also talk about how they can cultivate a culture that prizes creativity and authenticity. We’ll look at tools and strategies to help them grow. Throughout the program, we’ll encourage conversations about inspiration and transformation.

The underlying theme is to encourage attendees to try something new in order to build something great.

For those joining us at the JW Marriott Chicago, you’re in for a treat. Can’t make it? Don’t despair: We intend to share updates from the conference via BankDirector.com and over social media platforms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, where we’ll be using the hashtag #FinXTech19.

A Dangerous Force in Banking


culture-8-23-19.pngThe more you learn about banking, the more you realize that just a few qualities separate top-performing bankers from the rest.

One of the most important of these qualities, I believe, is the ability of bankers to combat what famed investor Warren Buffett calls the “institutional imperative.”

Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, wrote about this in his 1990 shareholder letter:

“The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity — a common ratio in this industry — mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from a managerial failing that we described last year when discussing the ‘institutional imperative:’ the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.”

At the time, Buffett was referring to a credit-fueled bubble in the commercial real estate market. The bubble was in the process of popping; commercial real estate prices would decline 27% between 1989 and 1994.

The subprime mortgage and leveraged lending markets in the lead-up to the financial crisis offer more recent examples. No bank wanted to lose market share in either business line, even if doing so was prudent. This was the impetus for Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince III’s oft-repeated quote about having to dance until the music stops.

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated,” Prince told the Financial Times in 2007. “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

Here’s the problem: A bank that loses market share is vulnerable to criticism by analysts and commentators.

In 2006, for instance, JPMorgan Chase & Co. began offloading sub-prime mortgages and pulling back from the market for collateralized debt obligations. “Analysts responded by giving JPMorgan Chase what one insider calls ‘a world of [expletive] for our fixed-income revenues,’” writes Duff McDonald in “Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase.”

“One of the toughest jobs of the CEO is to look at all the stupid stuff other people are doing and to not do them,” a long-time former colleague of JPMorgan’s Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon told McDonald.

You would think that analysts and commentators would, at some point, realize that it’s ill-advised to pressure bankers into prioritizing short-term results over long-term solvency, but there’s no evidence of that.

Darren King, the chief financial officer of M&T Bank Corp., noted at a conference in late 2018 that, “The narrative around the industry is that M&T has forgotten how to lend.”

M&T Bank has been one of the top-performing banks in the country since the early 1980s. King was referring to analysts and commentators’ reaction to the fact that M&T’s loan growth over the past two years has lagged the broader industry.

But as King went on to explain: “Generally what you find is when economic times are strong, we’re growing but generally not as fast as the industry. And in times of more economic stress, we tend to grow faster.”

So, how does a bank combat the institutional imperative?

The simple answer is that banks need to cultivate a culture that insulates decision-makers from external pressures to chase short-term performance. This culture is a product of temperament and training, as well as institutional knowledge about the frequency and consequences of past credit cycles.

This culture should be buttressed by structural support, too. Skin in the game among executives is a good example; a supportive board focused on the long term is another. A low efficiency ratio also enables a bank to focus on making better long-term decisions while still generating satisfactory returns.

In short, while the institutional imperative may be one of the most dangerous forces in banking, there are ways to defeat it.

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.

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