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.

The Big Picture of Banking in Three Simple Charts


banking-3-22-19.pngOne thing that separates great bankers from their peers is a deep appreciation for the highly cyclical nature of the banking industry.

Every industry is cyclical, of course, thanks to the cyclical nature of the economy. Good times are followed by bad times, which are followed by good times. It’s always been that way, and there’s no reason to think it will change anytime soon.

Yet, banking is different.

The typical bank borrows $10 for every $1 in equity. On one hand, this leverage accelerates the economic growth of the communities a bank serves. But on the other, it makes banks uniquely sensitive to fluctuations in employment and asset prices.

Even a modest correction in the business cycle or a major asset class can send dozens of banks into receivership.

“It is in the nature of an industry whose structure is competitive and whose conduct is driven by supply to have cycles that only end badly,” wrote Barbara Stewart in “How Will This Underwriting Cycle End?,” a widely cited paper published in 1980 on the history of underwriting cycles.

Stewart was referring to the insurance industry, but her point is equally true in banking.

This is why bankers with a big-picture perspective have an advantage over bankers without a similarly deep and broad appreciation for the history of banking, combined with knowledge about the strengths and infirmities innate in a bank’s business model.

How does one go about gaining a big-picture perspective?

You can do it the hard way, by amassing personal experience. If you’ve seen enough cycles, then you know, as Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., has said: “You don’t run a business hoping you don’t have a recession.”

Or you can do it the easy way, by accruing experience by proxy—that is, by learning how things unfolded in the past. If you know that nine out of the last nine recessions were all precipitated by rising interest rates, for instance, then you’re likely to be more cautious with your loan portfolio in a rising rate environment.

You can see this in the chart below, sourced from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ popular FRED database. The graph traces the effective federal funds rate since 1954, with the vertical shaded portions representing recessions.

Fed-Funds-Rate.png

A second chart offering additional perspective on the cyclical nature of banking traces bank failures since the Civil War, when the modern American banking industry first took shape.

This might seem macabre—who wants to obsess over bank failures?—but this is an inseparable aspect of banking that is ignored at one’s peril. Good bankers respect and appreciate this, which is one reason their institutions avoid failure.

Failures.png

Not surprisingly, the incidence of bank failures closely tracks the business cycle. The big spike in the 1930s corresponds to the Great Depression. The spike in the 1980s and 1990s marks the savings and loan crisis. And the smaller recent surge corresponds to the financial crisis.

All told, a total of 17,365 banks have failed since 1865. A useful analog through which to think about banking, in other words, is that it’s a war of attrition, much like the conflict that spawned the modern American banking industry.

A third chart offering insight into how the banking industry has evolved in recent decades illustrates historical acquisition activity.

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Approximately 4 percent of banks consolidate on an annual basis, equating to about 200 a year nowadays. But this is an average. The actual number has fluctuated widely over time. Twitter_Logo_Blue.png

From 1940 through the mid-1970s, when interstate and branch banking were prohibited in most states, there were closer to 100 bank acquisitions a year. But then, as these regulatory barriers came down in the 1980s and 1990s, deal activity surged.

The point being, while banking is a rapidly consolidating industry, the most recent pace of consolidation has decelerated. This is relevant to anyone who may be thinking of buying or selling a bank. It’s also relevant to banks that aren’t in the market to do a deal, as customer attrition in the wake of a competitors’ sale has often been a source of organic growth.

In short, it’s easy to dismiss history as a topic of interest only to professors and armchair historians. But the experience one gains by proxy from looking to the past can help bankers better position their institutions for the present and the future.

Take it from investor Charlie Munger: “There’s no better teacher than history in determining the future.”

Enhancing Shareholder Value



Bank stocks have taken a dive in late 2018, and bank boards play a key role in the strategic decisions driving shareholder value. Scott Sommer and Steve Williams of Cornerstone Advisors explain the issues impacting shareholder value in 2019, including technology.

  • Bank stock trends
  • Focus on fintech
  • Board decisions

Aligning Risk With Strategic Growth



The banking industry is experiencing change like it never has before. Digital delivery channels will have a profound effect on the typical bank’s business model, and further change is coming through regulatory relief. Both can offer new opportunities and new risks. KPMG’s David Reavy details what you need to know about these changes and how boards should focus on today’s risks.

  • The Future Bank Business Model
  • Regulation and Industry Change
  • Expectations for Boards

Competitive to Collaborative: How Fintech Works With Banks and Not Against Them


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Over the past two decades alone, the advent of new technologies has undeniably changed the way we communicate, work, travel, invest, shop and more. This has forced traditional financial institutions to adopt more efficient and modern business models. It comes as little surprise, then, that the banking industry—long renowned for its staid, traditionalist approach to business—is ripe for disruption, operates under significant financial pressure and is subject to renewed scrutiny as a result of the liquidity spiral of 2008. Enter fintech.

Fintech has come a long way since Peter Knight, a business editor at the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times, first coined the term back in the 1980s, and since early entrant PayPal first revolutionized electronic payments. In its most current iteration (circa 2007, give or take), fintech emerged as a knight in shining armor: a disruptive force ready to save us all from those —evil’ financial institutions deemed responsible for the Great Recession.

Much has changed since 2007 and it seems that, as many predicted, banks, alternative lenders and fintech companies have come full circle in how they view each other relative to the ecosystem they occupy—from perceived partners, to “frenemies” (companies that cooperate for the mutual benefit despite competing in the same industry niche) and enemies (companies that compete in the same industry niche), then back to perceived partners. An increasing number of these actors have been adopting a more collaborative rather than adversarial approach, recognizing the overlap in business objectives in everyone’s self-interest. This can be seen as an extremely positive thing; partnerships with fintech companies can provide financial institutions with the ability to serve new segments, engage new customers and expand business with efficient technological solutions.

Bottom line, when banks and fintech companies work together, they are able to bring products to market quickly and seamlessly, all while providing a significantly enhanced client experience.

But what is behind this paradigm shift? There are three main factors driving this new wave of collaboration:

The Competitive Landscape
Beholden to prohibitively complex and cumbersome financial regulations, banks have seen significant consolidation and increasing competition over the past 40 years. They responded in large part by rebalancing their business models from a strict asset transformation approach, to blended fee-based models. Now, however, when fintech and banks collaborate, they’re able to not only leverage the resources of banks, but also leverage fintech’s nimbleness in order to effectively and expediently bring products to market. Data has exposed many previously underserved market opportunities, long overlooked due to bloated cost structures riddled with antiquated IT infrastructures and heavily layered processes, impeded further by the highly siloed nature of financial institutions’ operational structures.

Traditional Customer Service Role Has Changed
Traditional banks, be they large too-big-to-fail banks or regional and community banks and credit unions, have a strong position not only from a capital perspective, but also from a customer vantage point—they have records of all of their customers’ information. This is an important distinction between traditional and well-established institutions versus new alternative finance companies—banks would have a much lower cost of customer acquisition when compared to alternative lenders that face massive marketing expenditures.

The traditional role of the bank is to take in and manage deposits, allocate that capital and service a traditional portfolio with traditional loan parameters. Banks lend, borrow and ultimately help keep money in circulation. However, unless there is commitment by senior management at these financial institutions to adapt modern technologies, success is unlikely for traditional financial institutions.

Innovation Overdue
Lastly, driven by the competitive landscape, banks seem to have recognized that they are not viewed as bastions of innovation. Many are responding accordingly by teaming up with fintech companies that are well-positioned to steer them forward into the digital age. Deals between traditional financial institutions and alternative lenders and fintech players (like JP Morgan and OnDeck or Kabbage and Santander) are illustrative of the complementary and mutually beneficial qualities that players in banking and fintech bring to the table.

These factors, in combination, will likely result in an ecosystem of fintech companies assuming 25-30 percent, if not more, of the current banking system’s value chain. Catering to both traditional and alternative financial institutions, fintech companies enable banks to focus on their individual core competencies by offering expanding toolkits of services from origination (customer acquisition and digital onboarding) to underwriting and portfolio management (know your customer, otherwise known as KYC, anti-money laundering compliance, predictive data analytics and loan management).

The financial ecosystem is changing regardless of how market participants feel. Change is the only certainty, after all. Survivors will adapt by leveraging technological innovation through fintech partnerships, creating significant value for customers and the company itself. Those that don’t will quickly be left behind and ultimately perish.

How to Reduce Bank Risk and Improve Overall Returns with SBICs


bank-risk-8-19-16.pngMany banks operate under the false pretense that because they are deemed a “conservative bank,” there isn’t a lot of risk in their business model. I often remind boards of directors that they sit on a highly leveraged, regulated hedge fund. Would they lend money to a finance company leveraged 10 times or more, while trying to manage a 3.5 percent spread? That’s your average bank. So it might be a good idea to consider an opportunity to reduce risk, even by an incremental amount.

The first thing to do is identify the area with the greatest risk. Most banks view it as credit risk, and vigorously address this with underwriting, loan committee, loan reviews, regulatory exams, reserves, limits and diversification. Banks do a great job of this. However, in our experience, the greatest area of risk, receiving the least amount of attention, is a bank’s “bond-like risk,” which shows up in the structure of securities, loans and deposits.

This risk is basically interest rate risk, and the devil is in such details as yield curves, repricing risk and maturities. While asset/liability management strategies may help, they don’t reduce the problem banks have with their dependence on duration (which is the measurement of the sensitivity of a bond to interest rate fluctuations) in exchange for a decent return. Over 80 percent of risk factor contribution to the price volatility on a bank’s balance sheet is caused by nominal duration. What this means is loans, securities and deposits all have the same structured risk which is caused by maturities and cash flows. In light of this enormous risk concentration, pension funds, endowments, foundations and other institutions diversify this risk via stock and private equity allocations. For example, private equity allocations can reduce risk and increase returns through:

  • Lower volatility of returns over time compared to duration-based assets like loans and bonds. Yes, private equity has a lower volatility risk than a two-year Treasury note.
  • Higher Sharpe Ratios than bonds or loans, which means higher returns per unit of risk. (William F. Sharpe first introduced returns-based style analysis in the late 1980s, hence the name “Sharpe Ratio.”)
  • Very low correlation coefficients to bonds and loans, meaning the returns don’t track those of bonds or loans which will help your bank diversify its earnings stream. Banks currently try to do this through non-interest income.
  • Economic cycle diversification benefits for banks that can only lend money even when pressed by market forces on pricing and structure. Private equity mitigates this by investing in different parts of the capital structure than loans, and by less stringent investing periods than banks. Banks need to lend or invest their depositors’ funds immediately. Private equity funds can be more patient because they typically have a three- to five-year window in which to put their investors’ money to work.

Banks aren’t allowed to invest in private equity funds, so why am I telling you this? While banks are prohibited from investing in private equity funds, there is an exception in the Dodd-Frank Act’s Volcker Rule for Small Business Investment Companies (SBICs), which are funds that invest in small businesses and private companies. Hundreds of banks have taken advantage of this program since 1958. There are several benefits to these investment vehicles. Banks can:

  • Help create jobs and expand the economy.
  • Get Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credit.
  • Get CRA service credit by serving on an advisory board.
  • Create opportunities for senior C&I loans.
  • Create opportunities for commercial deposits.
  • Offer solutions to customers who need a liquidity event, more equity in their business or support for a senior loan.
  • Earn a nice return.

SBICs, like private equity, also help reduce the aforementioned risks of volatility, duration, correlations, Sharpe Ratios, economic cycle timing and diversification, which theoretically should increase portfolio returns. SBICs can make a bank safer and more profitable. Top quartile returns (returns in the top 25 percent) for SBICs from 1998 to 2010 were higher than 15 percent, while even the bottom quartile was 6.3 percent. So even a poor performing SBIC has produced higher returns than most any other asset opportunity available to a bank during this time frame. To reduce the risk of investing in a poor performing SBIC, a bank can do the following:

  1. Develop underwriting practices, like a bank does on loans, tailored to SBICs, targeting top quartile returns.
  2. Create a portfolio of multiple SBICs based on the 5 percent capital limit for bank investments to diversify company and fund manager exposure.
  3. Seek the advice of financial advisory firm.

Being conservative doesn’t mean not doing anything new, it means constantly trying to find ways to decrease risk. Any time one can reduce risk and increase profitability, it should be strongly evaluated.

The Traditional Community Banking Model is Dead


retail-banking-2-12-16.pngConsumer banking needs have not changed all that much over the last decade. However, the way those needs are met are going through transformational change. As such, community banks must find ways to shed the traditional ways of delivering banking services and morph into the new reality. Those banks that embrace the change will win, big. Those that do not will be acquired by those that do.

So what is the transformational change? It basically boils down to two key thoughts. The industry is now all about customers, not products, and it’s all about relationships, not transactions. Although fundamental in concept, these are dramatic changes from the traditional community banking model.

Historically, banks have focused on products, not customers. This is reflected in the fact that banks organize themselves along a product orientation. This results in numerous employees chasing the same opportunity. Even worse, it results in banks spending resources chasing certain customers with a product basis they will never use or buy. For example, older baby boomers are saving for retirement. As such, they need savings, investment, trust and advisory services. Trying to sell them a 30-year mortgage has a slim chance of success. Trying to sell retirement services to a millennial also will be met with failure. Banks need to focus on customers. We need to learn from our retail brethren and listen to the customers’ needs and then bring forward our products and services that meet the customers’ needs. This greatly enhances the likelihood of success, as we are giving customers what they want and need as opposed to what we want to sell. Selling hot soup in the middle of the summer is not a sustainable business model. It may get some limited sales, but is the wrong product at the wrong time.

Banks have also focused on transactions as opposed to relationships. This made sense when we had a product orientation. However, customers breed relationships and so we need to build and maintain them. Banks need relationship managers to be the primary point of contact with customers. They will act as a traffic cop, directing customers to in-house expertise that meets the customers’ needs. Their job is simple: Know the customers, their needs, their business and their personal situations and then meet and exceed those needs.

To shed the traditional model, banks must embrace a different culture. This means we need to:

  1. Adopt customer segmentation across all silos within the organization
  2. Reorganize into a customer-centric model
  3. Hire relationship managers (call them whatever you want)
  4. Establish strong calling programs 
  5. Create affinity with various customer segments

Integrating these concepts into a bank’s culture requires a commitment from the board and CEO. They will need to accept change and be willing to change the business model accordingly. They will need to break down the traditional silos inside the bank and integrate all departments into a customer-centric mode.

The following list is proven to aid in this endeavor.

  1. Create relationship managers and have them report directly to the CEO. Banks will still have product managers, but they must coordinate through the relationship managers.
  2. Integrate customers into your budgeting and planning process. This means plan on getting customers and their relationships as opposed to various non-related products.
  3. Build product bundles that fit targeted customer segments.
  4. Target and track market share of customer segments.
  5. De-emphasize brick and mortar and emphasize targeted delivery by segment.
  6. Track family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances as sources of new business. Leverage off affinity.
  7. Proactively identify opportunities and chase them. Do not wait for customers to knock on your door or call you.

Banks can continue to whine about falling spreads, lack of core business, high expenses and low fee income, or they can change with the times and shift to a customer-friendly, relationship-oriented culture. Banks who do thrive and become acquirers. Banks who do not will wither and likely become acquired. We have numerous case studies of banks that are shedding the traditional models in favor of the new on and all of them are winning in their markets.

Stick to the Basics as Bank M&A Heats Up


Anyone paying close attention is seeing that the number of bank deals in the United States is increasing.

There was a 25 percent increase in bank deals in the U.S. in 2014, compared to 2013, and there is a good possibility that the number of deals in 2015 will exceed that of 2014.mergers-chart.PNG

While good news for the deal makers, investors and regulators are ratcheting up the pressure on buyers and sellers to get things right. But, if history has taught us anything in mergers and acquisitions (M&A), it is that they often are fickle undertakings, where many of them simply don’t work out as planned.

Costly and sometimes fatal mistakes are made in the planning, due diligence, and execution stages, just to name a few steps along the way. Those and other critical factors make it vital to issue a common reminder: Stick to the basics.

Fundamental Questions Can Help Form the Foundation
The top question management should ask themselves before the start of a M&A transaction is, “does this deal fit our current business model, both culturally and strategically?”

There must be a recognition that people sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get the best deal possible that they lose sight of whether the deal makes sense on its merits.

A message we often deliver is that there will be times that participants might not get the best deal from a price perspective, but when deep considerations are made about the other matters that are involved—long-term strategic objectives, the people you will acquire, the level of technological sophistication, the seller’s culture of connecting with customers—the deal could be a very good one.

In short, it sometimes comes down to having to pay a bit of a premium on the price in order to get the best deal, given the circumstances and strategic plan.

We often counsel board members and top management—whether the buyer or the seller—to ask this question: Does the deal put me in a better place tomorrow than I am today? Beyond that baseline question, there always are considerations about fundamentals: Does this make sense as it relates to the strategy that is already laid out?

Four other key questions include:

  • What are the quality of earnings? Just a few years ago, many prospective buyers looking at the balance sheet of the target actually didn’t believe the financials. Now, in more than a few cases, we are seeing the main issue being some skepticism about earnings. Although we see fewer concerns about the balance sheet, it remains a prime area for deep review. When the issue of quality of earnings is raised, it is prudent to investigate whether there has been a flurry of reserve releases. Have costs been squeezed down so much that, from an operational perspective, there are some key processes that are untenable for a long-term period?  Has the bank gone too far out the rate curve in seeking yield on the bond portfolio so that when rates finally start going up, the bank is going to get whipsawed and take a bunch of mark-to-market hits on those bonds?
  • What is the current asset / liability management profile of the bank? It would be useful to discover whether the target bank has been focused too much on short-term products. Another question: After rates rise, will the customers who are happy to be in a transaction product today (because they are not making much on CDs or money markets) walk out the door if another bank has a better product?
  • Is the target bank up to date on their regulatory compliance efforts? Beyond the numbers, there should be ample evidence that the target’s regulatory profile is rock solid. Is there clear evidence that the bank has had professional assistance in determining any liability relating to anti-money-laundering or Bank Secrecy Act issues? If it has not engaged professional assistance, ask the bank board and senior management how it gained comfort that it has done the proper level of diligence regarding these critical challenges?
  • What are the data practices of the target bank? Where and how is data stored? What security protocols have been instituted and followed? How often are those protocols reviewed and updated? Does the board and top management believe the data it receives after it orders a report?

In a rapidly evolving M&A landscape, our message is simple: When the time comes to do a deal, rely on the basics.

Regulatory Scrutiny Focuses on Inadequate Strategic and Capital Planning


capital-planning-9-24-15.pngOnce again, regulators are zeroing in on inadequate strategic and capital planning processes at many community banks.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) listed “strategic planning and execution” as its first supervisory priority for the second half of 2015 in its mid-cycle status report released in June. That echoes concerns from the latest OCC semiannual risk perspective, which found that strategic planning was “a challenge for many community banks.”

FDIC Chairman Martin J. Gruenberg said in May that regulators expect banks “to have a strategic planning process to guide the direction and decisions of management and the board. I want to stress the word ‘process’ because we don’t just mean a piece of paper.”

He said that effective strategic planning “should be a dynamic process that is driven by the bank’s core mission, vision and values. It should be based on a solid understanding of your current business model and risks and should involve proper due diligence and the allocation of sufficient resources before expanding into a new business line. Further, there should be frequent, objective follow-up on actual versus planned results.”

In writing about strategic risk, the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s supervision and regulation division said that “a sound strategic planning process is important for institutions of all sizes, although the nature of the process will vary by size and complexity.” The article noted that the process “should not result in a rigid, never-changing plan but should be nimble, regularly updated (at least annually) and capable of responding to risks and changing market conditions.”

Given economic changes and increased market competition, community banks must understand how to conduct effective strategic planning. This is more important now than ever, says Invictus Consulting Group Chairman Kamal Mustafa.

The smartest banks are using new analytics to develop their strategic plans— not because of regulatory pressure, but because it gives them an edge in the marketplace and a view of their banks they cannot otherwise see, Mustafa said.

Strategic planning is useless without incorporating capital planning. The most effective capital planning is built from the results of stress testing. These critical functions—strategic planning, capital planning and stress testing—must be integrated if a bank truly wants to understand its future,” he said.

He advises banks to use the same fundamental methodology for both capital planning and strategic planning, or else they will run the risk of getting misleading results. This strategy is also crucial in analyzing mergers and acquisitions.

OCC Deputy Comptroller for Supervision Risk Management Darrin Benhart also advises community banks to use stress testing to determine if the bank has enough capital. “Boards also need to make sure the institution has adequate capital relative to all of its risks, and stress testing can help,” he said in a February speech. “We also talk about the need to conduct stress testing to assess and inform those limits as bank management and the board make strategic decisions.”

Is Banking’s Business Model Broken?


5-28-13_Hovde.pngThe banking industry—by most measures—has improved markedly from the depths of the credit crisis. The industry’s return on average assets (ROAA) has increased through additional noninterest income and fewer charge-offs; credit quality is stronger; capital reserves are at all-time highs; and the number of banks on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s (FDIC) problem list has declined for the past seven quarters. Additionally, public bank stocks either have tracked or outperformed the S&P 500 in recent years.

Despite these positive trends, banking’s business model is significantly challenged in today’s interest rate environment. With deposit costs near zero and fierce competition for loans driving down yields, many banks are running on fumes.

As higher yielding loans mature, banks are replacing them with lower yielding assets, resulting in significant net interest margin (NIM) compression across the industry. Regardless of whether the Federal Reserve’s accommodative monetary policy has helped or hurt the economy, it is wreaking havoc on banks’ profit models. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to start a de novo bank today and make money through traditional means.

According to the FDIC, the industry’s NIM in Q4 2012 was 3.32 percent—the 3rd lowest quarterly NIM since 1990. Since Q1 2010, net interest margins have declined each quarter except one, with no sign of near-term relief. To combat the NIM squeeze, some banks are taking more interest rate and credit risk. By venturing further out on the yield curve and underwriting riskier assets, banks can generate more revenue; however, the risks may not justify the returns. In the short-term, the strategy could increase profits. In the long-term, it could create less stable institutions and the conditions for another credit crisis.

Yet loan growth will be critical to maintaining earnings over the next several years if the Fed continues its low interest rate policy. Unfortunately, most regions of the country have not recovered sufficiently to support such growth. Since 2009, the banking industry’s net loans have grown at a compounded annual rate of 2.2 percent compared to 7.0 percent between 1990 and 2007, and during this time, many banks have experienced loan declines. Furthermore, competition for the few available high quality loans is intense and driving yields even lower.

Even if a bank were able to grow its loan portfolio, it would take exceptional growth just to maintain current net income levels if NIMs continue to deteriorate. Consider the following example: if net interest margins were to decline by 15 basis points per year, a bank with $500 million in assets and a current NIM of 4.0 percent would need to grow loans by $50 million each year just to maintain the same level of net income (assuming all other profitability measures remained static). Under these circumstances, the bank’s ROA would decline each year, and the present value of the franchise would decrease. Furthermore, there are very few, if any, banks that can achieve 10 percent year-over-year loan growth today.

In addition to the sobering interest rate environment, regulatory changes—including BASEL III, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—are looming large over the decisions of bank management and boards. Compliance costs associated with the new regulations remain uncertain, but undoubtedly will increase.

The one-two punch of the interest rate environment and increased compliance costs could prove too painful for many banks—particularly smaller institutions with older management teams who may be frustrated and don’t want to slog out any more years of lackluster performance and regulatory scrutiny.

Industry observers have been awaiting a renewed wave of bank M&A activity, and growing frustration just might be the catalyst. With organic loan growth almost nonexistent, strategic M&A is the only other way to amass scale today. Banks hoping to enhance franchise value will need to grow through acquisition, and there could be a large supply of frustrated sellers coming to the market. Unfortunately, if this occurs there is likely to be a supply and demand imbalance between sellers and buyers, which will hurt smaller, community banks the most. Active buyers have moved upstream and are looking for acquisitions that “move the needle.” Many buyers simply won’t bother with sellers under a certain asset size. This attitude could prompt smaller banks to consider a “strategic merger” in which they join together in a stock exchange to increase scale and attractiveness to buyers down the road.

Other banks may be content to grind it out knowing earnings are likely to suffer in the near-term. If rates rise, those banks with deep core deposit franchises will once again become more valuable, but the wait could be painful.

Until then, banking’s operating model remains impaired, if not broken.