A Report Shows Amazon Is, Piece By Piece, Assembling a Bank


amazon-7-12-18.pngIt gets clearer every day that banks have work to do if they’re going to remain at the center of their customers’ financial lives, as more and more companies, be it upstart fintech companies or well-established technology firms, seek to disrupt the traditional banking relationship.

The examples are numerous, and attract glitzy headlines, led by Amazon, which seems intent on trying its hand at banking.

A recent report from CB Insights walks through the myriad ways the ecommerce giant is positioning itself to be, what some are calling, the Bank of Amazon. It’s not there yet, and may never be, according to some analysts, but it’s certainly making a run at it.

For bankers, this is nothing new. Amazon has long been viewed as a potential threat, but it hasn’t brought widespread disruption just yet. This could soon change, however. Amazon has purportedly been in talks with JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Capital One Financial Corp. about offering a checking account-like product, the core of any banking operation. This would be on top of Amazon Cash and Prime Reload, which allow customers to move funds from a traditional bank-managed account into a digital wallet. It’s also had co-branded credit cards with JPMorgan for years.

It was announced earlier this year, moreover, that Amazon has joined JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company, in an effort to establish a health insurance company for their employees, collectively totaling some 1.2 million people. It’s the latest grab by the companies at creating an unbreakable relationship with American consumers.

Amazon has gotten into lending, too, backed by Bank of America. All told, Amazon has already made $3 billion in loans to more than 20,000 independent retailers on its Marketplace platform. The borrowers are invited to borrow and half of them take a second loan.

And it’s not just Amazon. SoFi now plans to offer multiple depository products as well, products which it struggled to get off the ground after former cofounder Mike Cagney was ousted in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. With a combined checking-savings account product that pays up to 1.1 percent interest, it’s only a matter of time before the creep of non-banks like SoFi threaten the core deposit products offered by banks, regardless of FDIC insurance.

Some banks, though, have been able to spot and partner with companies that offer these alternative banking options. Ally Financial, Live Oak Bank, SunTrust Banks, NBKC Bank and, yes, Amazon all invested earlier this year in Greenlight, an alternative debit card for kids that’s backed by Community Federal Savings Bank, based in Jamaica, New York, and MasterCard.

The CB Insights report suggests there’s time for banks to adjust, but community banks with limited technology budgets will be left to watch and learn, or focus their attention on depositors they know they can keep.

In a digital age, bankers should understand that no matter the size or scope of the disruptor, they still have an advantage—the financial data they have on their customers—which will continue to grow in value as technology and analytics become more sophisticated, Jim Sinegal, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar, wrote in March.

That data may be the key that allows banks to maintain a healthy bottom line, according to Deloitte’s Banking Industry Outlook for 2018: “Banks that successfully target customers through sophisticated data analytics, make compelling product offers, and deliver strong digital experiences, could gain funding advantages and see slower increases in deposit costs.”

BOLI Market to Remain Steady in 2018


BOLI-12-6-17.pngAs 2017 comes to a close, bank-owned life insurance (BOLI) continues to be an attractive investment alternative for banks, based on the increasing percentage of banks holding BOLI assets and the high retention rate of existing BOLI plans. Through the first half of 2017, BOLI carriers reported receiving almost $1.4 billion in new BOLI premiums, according to the market research firm IBIS Associates. Assuming an annualized production level of $2.8 billion, this is only slightly behind the actual full-year new premium results of $3.2 billion received in 2016.

In 2016, 91 percent of new premiums were invested in general account products, and through mid-year 2017, the results were very similar, with 84 percent of new BOLI premiums going to that product type. Cash surrender value of BOLI policies held by banks stood at $164.5 billion as of June 30, 2017, reflecting a 3.5 percent increase from $159 billion as of June 30, 2016, according to the Equias Alliance/Michael White Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) Holdings Report™. Further, the percentage of banks holding BOLI assets increased in that time period, from 61.3 percent to 62.8 percent. With that in mind, what can we expect of the BOLI market in 2018, given today’s economic and legislative landscape?

Impact of the Economy on BOLI in 2018
Overall, the economy generated some very positive results in 2017. Unemployment declined to just over 4 percent, the stock market hit several new highs, and wage growth increased, albeit slightly. However, banks and other financial institutions continue to operate in a low interest rate environment with no significant market change expected in 2018, based on a November 2017 informal survey that Equias conducted of major BOLI carriers.

To understand the impact of continued low interest rates on BOLI carriers offering fixed-income products, it is important to understand the carriers’ investment philosophies and portfolio compositions. The investment objective of most carriers is to build a diversified portfolio of securities with a long-term orientation that optimizes yield within a defined set of risk parameters. The portfolio strategy often targets investment-grade securities. Corporate bonds are usually the largest holding in the portfolio, along with commercial mortgages and mortgage backed securities, private placements, government and municipal bonds, a small percentage of junk bonds, and other holdings. Some of the carriers in our informal survey stressed they will be allocating more of the portfolio to higher quality bonds in 2018 to guard against any potential downturn in the economy in 2019 or 2020.

Continued low market interest rates will somewhat affect the credited interest rates offered by carriers on both new BOLI sales as well as existing BOLI policies. Credited interest rates and net yields (defined as the credited interest rate less the cost of insurance charges) on new BOLI purchases are currently expected to remain stable in 2018. As a result, new BOLI purchases are, once again, expected to be in the $3 billion to $3.5 billion range in 2018. We also anticipate that approximately 80 to 90 percent of new premiums will be directed to general accounts with higher interest rates.

For existing general account and hybrid separate account BOLI policies, credited interest rates are likely to remain level or decrease slightly, unless market interest rates begin to rise at a faster clip than we have seen in recent years.

Impact of Federal Legislation on BOLI in 2018
One of the key proposals under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, passed recently by both houses of Congress, is to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 to 20 percent. If this were to occur, the taxable equivalent yields on BOLI policies would be slightly lower. For instance, if the net yield on a new BOLI policy was 3.5 percent, then the taxable equivalent yield on that policy would be 5.38 percent at the current federal tax rate of 35 percent, due to the favorable tax treatment that life insurance policies receive.

With the lower federal corporate tax rate under the proposed legislation, the tax equivalent yield for a 3.5 percent net yield BOLI policy would be reduced to a still attractive 4.38 percent. If the corporate tax rate ends up at 25 percent, as some predict, the tax equivalent yield would be 4.67 percent.

Looking ahead to 2018, the continuation of low interest rates and a possible reduction in the corporate tax rate may have some minor impact on BOLI sales and existing BOLI policies, but neither should result in any material impact on the BOLI market.

Offline Versus Real-Time Analytics: Where Is the Industry Heading?


analytics-11-22-17.pngFinancial institutions are demanding real-time analytics at their point of customer interactions. Why? Sophisticated analytics applied in real time and at the point of customer contact can deliver better customer experience as well as increase the financial results of the institution. For example:

  • An insurance company can match different combinations of coverages and add-ons that can fit within a customer’s given constraints on price.
  • A banker receiving a phone call can see on screen the updated Life Time Value (LTV) of the customer and hold the discussion accordingly.

For years, we have been advising our clients to connect their front-end, customer- facing systems with real-time pricing analytical capabilities, or at least lay the foundations to enable this capability in the near future.

According to a September 2016 report from the research firm Gartner, “Between 2016 and 2019, spending on real-time analytics will grow three times faster than spending on non-real-time analytics.” Getting the right real-time analytics at the right time can deliver great value. Yet, from my company’s standpoint, most of the questions we get about real-time pricing engines are from vendors of front-end systems and other stakeholders. They are approaching us to enable the integration of their systems with their client’s back-end pricing structures. These are providers of insurance rating engines and underwriting solutions, as well as providers of core systems, revenue management and onboarding systems.

It seems that the driver for this vendor interest is explicit demand from the banks and insurance companies themselves. These institutions are increasingly investing in off-line pricing analytics to improve performance, software that can be used to optimize pricing and decision making.

Why Is This Happening Now?
The rush to utilize real-time analytics in customer-facing processes and decisions is not unique to pricing nor to the financial services industries. It has been growing for several years as part of the broader big data and advanced analytics trends.

Banks and insurers are now raising real-time pricing analytics as a requirement from suppliers of pricing systems, and have been defining such capabilities, or connectivity to such systems, as must have “add-ons” in requests for proposals for core and front-end systems. For example, banks and insurers are demanding real-time analytics for systems that offer customer relationship management, underwriting, onboarding, rating and pricing. Of course, the level of demand for such pre-integration differs between countries and sub-industries, and it is highly influenced by regulatory requirements, however, in most segments we have noticed the pull in this direction.

Moving From Off-Line Analytics to Real-Time Analytics
Today, it is even easier for financial organizations to get their budgets to include expenses of adopting real-time analytics. Replacement of core systems is accelerating as more resources are available to buy and implement these systems. This is enabling companies to re-evaluate all related processes, including pricing. Coupled with the surge in analytical know-how and advances in analytics technologies, including real-time capabilities and faster optimization, real-time analytics is becoming more widely feasible.

But the underlying benefits of real-time analytics is what is really driving the demand. Financial institutions realize that connecting their offline analytics to the customer facing process brings uplift not only in numbers but in the customer experience itself. According to a December 2016 report from the research firm Gartner, real-time analytics at firms is facilitating faster, more accurate decisions, especially for complex digital business initiatives such as online and mobile banking. Below are some of the benefits we have seen customers enjoying after migrating to real-time analytics:

  1. The ability to react quickly to aggressive competition, especially given the rise of direct channels and players.
  2. Improvement in the efficiency of price execution processes as well as a reduction in time-to-market of new pricing strategies.
  3. Improvement in customer-facing decisions. Once a company has a system in place to analyze real-time data, their ability to understand the customer significantly increases, translating into improvement in key performance indicators such as annual increases in pricing, as well as being able to anticipate and meet customer expectations.

Is Real-Time Analytics on Your Roadmap for 2018 or Beyond?
Regardless of what the reasons might be, we have been receiving more and stronger indications that real-time analytics is catching on in the insurance and banking markets in which we operate. Offline advanced analytics are already mainstream investments in financial organizations, and the focus seems to be progressing very practically to the next logical extension of real-time application of these analytics. Implementing real- time analytics that is connected to customer-facing systems requires forethought and planning. Even if this is something you are considering doing three years from now, the planning should start today.

To discuss how these topics impact your business, feel free to contact us at info@earnix.com.

Report from Audit Conference: Banking Still Faces Headwinds


asset-quality-6-11-15.pngSure, banks have seen asset quality improve. Profitability is higher than it was during the recession. The SNL U.S. Bank and Thrift Index of publicly traded banks has risen 88 percent since the start of 2012. But all is not happy-go-lucky in bank land.

Speakers at Bank Director’s Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference discussed the slow economic recovery and the headwinds banks are facing as a result. The banking industry’s compound annual loan growth rate during the last few years of 3 percent is down from the average of 7 percent from 1993 to 2007, said Steve Hovde, president and CEO of the Chicago-based investment bank Hovde Group. Net interest margins are 50 basis points lower than they were at the start of the decade. Combined with low interest rates, weak loan demand is hurting growth and profitability. Banks are stretching for loans and pricing competition is difficult. The median return on average assets (ROAA) was .93 percent in the first quarter of 2015, even though half of the banking industry made an ROAA of 1 percent or better pre-recession, Hovde said.

“In this environment, net interest margins are the lowest point they’ve been in 25 years,’’ Hovde said. “Clearly, if we had a more vibrant economy, banks could go back to making more money.”

With the Federal Reserve keeping rates low for the foreseeable future, and all the pricing competition, bubbles could be forming in some sectors, Hovde said. He specifically mentioned multi-family housing and junk bonds as possibilities.

Even stock prices aren’t that great from a historical perspective. The SNL U.S. Bank and Thrift Index has only climbed 4.2 percent since the start of 2000, compared to 40.7 percent for the S&P 500 during that time.

And what about the economic forecast for housing, a significant economic driver and source of revenue for many banks? 

Doug Duncan, the chief economist for Fannie Mae, said the housing market is in no way back to pre-recession levels. Although he expects an increase in mortgage originations in 2015 and 2016, refinancing volume is down. 

Households are still deleveraging in the aftermath from the Great Recession, but that has stabilized somewhat. Consumer spending in this economic recovery has been “incredibly weak,’’ Duncan said. Only recently have consumers in surveys reported an expectation for future income gains. 

Household growth, or the rate at which people are forming new households, has been depressed, as young adults have not been leaving the nest and getting their own apartments or buying homes in large numbers. Large numbers of adult children live at home. Millennials, burdened by college debt and the aftermath of the recession, are forming households at a slower pace than previous generations, and their real incomes are lower than the same generation a decade ago. It’s not that they don’t want to own houses, Duncan said. He said 76 percent of them think owning a house is a good idea financially. It’s just that they can’t afford it. 

But household formation is expected to rebound in 2015 to 2020, as the economy continues to improve and employment grows, he said.