Are we entering a new era of morality in banking?
Heavily regulated at the state and federal level, banks have always been subjected to greater scrutiny than most other companies and are expected to pursue fair and ethical business practices — mandates that have been codified in laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act and various fair lending statutes.
The industry has always had a more expansive stakeholder perspective where shareholders are just one member of a broad constituency that also includes customers and communities.
Now a growing number of banks are taking ethical behavior one step further through voluntary adoption of formal environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs that target objectives well beyond simply making money for their owners. Issues that typically fall within an ESG framework include climate change, waste and pollution, employee relations, racial equity, executive compensation and board diversity.
“It’s a holistic approach that asks, ‘What is it that our stakeholders are looking for and how can we – through the values of our organization – deliver on that,” says Brandon Koeser, a financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM.
Koeser spoke to Bank Director Editor-at-Large Jack Milligan in advance of a Sunday breakout session at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference. The conference runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2022, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix.
The pressure to focus more intently on various ESG issues is coming from various quarters. Some institutional investors have already put pressure on very large banks to adopt formal programs and to document their activities. Koeser says many younger employees “want to see a lot more alignment with their beliefs and interests.” And consumers and even borrowers are “beginning to ask questions … of their banking partners [about] what they’re doing to promote social responsibility or healthy environmental practices,” he says.
Koeser recalls having a conversation last year with the senior executives of a $1 billion privately held bank who said one of their large borrowers “came to them and asked what they were doing to promote sustainable business practices. This organization was all about sustainability and being environmentally conscious and it wanted to make sure that its key partners shared those same values.”
Although the federal banking regulators have yet to weigh in with a specific set of ESG requirements, that could change under the more socially progressive administration of President Joe Biden. “One thing the regulators are trying to figure out is when a [bank] takes an ESG strategy and publicizes it, how do they ensure that there’s comparability so that investors and other stakeholders are able to make the appropriate decision based on what they’re reading,” he says.
There are currently several key vacancies at the bank regulatory agencies. Biden has the opportunity to appoint a new Comptroller of the Currency, a new chairman at Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a new vice chair for supervision at the Federal Reserve Board. “There’s a unique opportunity for some new [ESG] policy to be set,” says Koeser. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see in the next two to three years, some formality around that.”
Koeser says he does sometimes encounter resistance to an ESG agenda from some banks that don’t see the value, particularly the environmental piece. “A lot of banks will just kind of say, ‘Well, I’m not a consumer products company. I don’t have a manufacturing division. I’m not in the transportation business. What is the environmental component to me?’” he says. But in his discussions with senior executive and directors, Koeser tries to focus on the broad theme of ESG and not just one letter in the acronym. “That brings down the level of skepticism and allows the opportunity to engage in discussions around the totality of this shift to an ESG focus,” he says. “I haven’t been run out of a boardroom talking about ESG.”
Koeser believes there is a systemic process that banks can use to get started on an ESG program. The first step is to identify a champion who will lead the effort. Next, it’s important to research what is happening in the banking industry and with your banking peers and competitors. Public company filings, media organizations such as Bank Director magazine and company websites are all good places to look. “There’s a wealth of information out there to start researching and understanding what’s happening around us,” Koeser says.
A third step in the formation process is education. “The [program] champion should start presenting to the board on what they’re finding,” Koeser says. Then comes a self-assessment where the leadership team and board compare the bank’s current state in regards to ESG to the industry and other institutions it competes with. The final step is to begin formulating an ESG strategy and building out a program.
Koeser believes that many banks are probably closer to having the building blocks of an effective ESG program than they think. “It’s really just a matter of time before ESG will become something that you’ll need to focus on,” he says. “And if you’re already promoting a lot of really good things on your website, like donating to local charities, volunteering and supporting your communities, there’s a way to formalize that and begin this process sooner rather than later.”