“The Best Strategic Thinker in Financial Services”


strategy-7-19-19.pngThe country’s most advanced bank is run by the industry’s smartest CEO.

Co-founder Richard Fairbank is a relentless strategist who has guided Capital One Financial Corp. on an amazing, 25-year journey that began as a novel approach to designing and marketing credit cards.

Today, Capital One—the 8th largest U.S. commercial bank with $373.2 billion in assets—has transformed itself into a highly advanced fintech company with national aspirations.

The driving force behind this protean evolution has been the 68-year-old Fairbank, an intensely private man who rarely gives interviews to the press. One investor who has known him for years—Tom Brown, CEO of the hedge fund Second Curve Capital—says that Fairbank “has become reclusive, even with me.”

Brown has invested in Capital One on and off over the years, including now. He has tremendous respect for Fairbank’s acumen and considers him to be “by far, the best strategic thinker in financial services.”

I interviewed Fairbank once, in 2006, for Bank Director magazine. It was clear even then that he approaches strategy like Sun Tzu approaches war. “A strategy must begin by identifying where the market is going,” Fairbank said. “What’s the endgame and how is the company going to win?”

Fairbank said most companies are too timid in their strategic planning, and think that “it’s a bold move to change 10 percent from where they are.” Instead, he said companies should focus on how their markets are changing, how fast they’re changing, and when that transformation will be complete.

The goal is to anticipate disruptive change, rather than chase it.

“It creates a much greater sense of urgency and allows the company to make bold moves from a position of strength,” he said.

This aggressive approach to strategy can be seen throughout the company’s history, beginning in 1988 when Fairbank and a former colleague, Nigel Morris, convinced Richmond, Virginia-based Signet Financial Corp. to start a credit card division using a new, data-driven methodology. The unit grew so big so fast that it dwarfed Signet itself and was spun off in 1994 as Capital One.

The company’s evolution since then has been driven by a series of strategic acquisitions, beginning in 2005 when it bought Hibernia Corp., a regional bank headquartered in New Orleans. Back then, Capital One relied on Wall Street for its funding, and Fairbank worried that a major economic event could abruptly turn off the spigot. He sought the safety of insured deposits, which led not only to the Hibernia deal but additional regional bank acquisitions in 2006 and 2008.

Brown says those strategic moves probably insured the company’s survival when the capital markets froze up during the financial crisis. “If they hadn’t bought those banks, there are some people like myself who don’t think Capital One would be around today,” he says.

As Capital One’s credit card business continued to grow, Fairbank wanted to apply its successful data-driven strategy to other consumer loan products that were beginning to consolidate nationally. Over the last 20 years, it has become one of the largest auto lenders in the country. It has also developed a significant commercial lending business with specialties like multifamily real estate and health care.

Capital One is in the midst of another transformation, to a national digital consumer bank. The company acquired the digital banking platform ING Direct in 2011 for $9 billion and rebranded it Capital One 360. Office locations have fallen from 1,000 in 2010 to around 500, according to Sandler O’Neill, as the company refocuses its consumer banking strategy on digital.

When Fairbank assembled his regional banking franchise in the early 2000s, the U.S. deposit market was highly fragmented. In recent years, the deposit market has begun to consolidate and Capital One is well positioned to take advantage of that with its digital platform.

Today, technology is the big driver behind Capital One’s transformation. The company has moved much of its data and software development to the cloud and rebuilt its core technology platform. Indeed, it could be described as a technology company that offers financial services, including insured deposit products.

“We’ve seen enormous change in our culture and our society, but the change that took place at Capital One’s first 25 years will pale in comparison to the quarter-century that’s about to unfold,” Fairbank wrote in his 2018 shareholders letter. “And we are well positioned to thrive as technology changes everything.”

At Capital One, driving change is Fairbank’s primary job.

Three Ways Directors Can Solve the 3,000-Year-Old Credit Problem


credit-7-9-19.pngHistory has shown that knowledge is power. One place that could use the benefit of that knowledge is commercial credit.

Banks have been lending to businesses for 3,000 years and has yet to figure out the commercial credit process. But executives and directors have an opportunity to fix this problem using data and digital capabilities to make the process more efficient and faster, and become the lending legends of their institutions.

In 1300 B.C. Egypt, the credit process looked something like this: A seafaring trader would trade bronze bowls with a local bronze merchant for cloth and garments. But to make this transaction, the bronze merchant would need to borrow from multiple merchant lenders. This process required lenders to understand the business plans of the borrower, go “door to door,” have community knowledge and know the value of all those goods. There were a lot of moving pieces—and a great deal of time—involved for that one transaction.

Fast-forward to today. A lot has changed in 3,000 years, but the commercial credit process has actually gone backwards. It can take a lender 60 to 90 days and more than $10,000 per lead to identify potential leads—and that’s before they review the application. After a borrower applies, the lender must look up credit reports, collect and spread financial statements and decide on the terms and conditions. Finally, the application goes through the credit department, which can take another 30 to 45 days and cost $5,000 per application.

Lenders will have spent all that time and effort to process the loan—but may not end up with a new customer to show for it. Meanwhile, borrowers will have spent time and effort to apply and wait—and may not have a loan to show for it.

While this problem has persisted for 3,000 years, the good news is that executives and directors have an opportunity to fix the problem by turning their manual-lending process into a digital-lending one. This evolution entails three steps that transform the current process from weeks of work into days.

First, a bank would use a digital-lending portal to gather applicable demographics to identify prospective borrowers. In researching prospects, they see critical borrower information such as name, address, years in business, legal structure, taxpayer identification number, history, business description and management team. Rather than having to wait until later in the process to uncover this critical information, they can immediately identify whether to pursue this lead and quickly move on.

Second, a bank uses a credit-decision engine to gather and analyze the applicable borrower data. Not only can the engine pull in consumer and credit bureau information, but it can also include automated financial collection, credit score and industry data for comparison. The bank can use data from this tool to determine terms and conditions, credit structure, purpose of credit facility, pricing, relationship models and cross-sell strategies.

Third and finally, the bank’s credit policy and process integrate with its credit-decision engine to enable an automated review of a loan application. This would include compliance checks, terms and conditions and credit structure. Since the data gathering and analysis has already taken place and automatically factored into the decision, there is no need to review all those pieces, as would be required with a manual process.

These three steps of this digital lending process have distilled a weeks-long process into about five days. Executives and directors can not only grow their institution in a shortened time period; they can do so without adding any risk. A bank I worked with that had $250 million in assets was able to add $20 million in loan volume without taking on any additional risk.

By using knowledge to their advantage and implementing a digital lending solution, bankers can save not just time and costs, but their institutions as well as their communities. They can now spend their limited time and resources where they matter most: growing relationships along with their banks. Having fixed the 3,000-year-old credit problem, they can place those challenges firmly in the past and focus on their future.

How To Make Construction Lending Less Risky


lending-8-14-18.pngWhen compared to the world economy as a whole, the construction industry lacks luster, at least in terms of its embrace (or lack thereof) of digital innovation. According to a 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), the construction sector has grown by just one percent over the past two decades, while global economic growth has increased at nearly three times that rate. Construction was also the second-least digitized economic sector on MGI’s Digital Index, indicating a serious need for digitization, which could help boost the industry’s growth rate.

Another MGI report found a significant performance gap between industry members that leveraged digitization compared to those who don’t, “with the U.S. economy reaching only 18 percent of its digital potential.” The current lack of technology in the construction industry presents a clear opportunity for industry players establish industry leadership.

A Perfect Storm: Industry Growth Meets Digitization in a Burgeoning Economy
Despite political agitation and a series of natural disasters, 2017 proved to be a strong year for the housing market. Housing showed steady growth in spite of these external factors and a 10.5-percent decline between November 2015 and November 2016. Experts at Zillow believe the housing shortage will continue to drive housing market trends throughout 2018, swelling consumer demand for remodels and new construction.

Fueled by stable interest rates, a strong economy, and inventory shortages, the construction industry stands to enter a period of significant growth in 2018. As predicted by Dodge Data & Analytics, the industry could see a three percent increase with new construction starts in 2018 reaching an estimated $765 billion.

If the industry fails to digitize, it will likely struggle to keep pace with market demands. Currently, large construction projects take 20 percent longer than expected to reach completion and are up to 80 percent over budget. Not only do significant delays and expense oversights like these inhibit those working directly in the industry, such as contractors, sub-contractors, builders, and developers, but also those financing the projects. Missing project completion targets and budget goals makes improperly monitored construction lending a risky business. MGI lists improved “digital collaboration and mobility” as essential to the construction industry’s ability to meet its potential future growth.

Relieve Strain on Lender Resources with Digitization
Oldcastle Business Intelligence estimated in their 2018 Construction Forecast Report that construction, as a whole, would grow by 6 percent in 2018. This year is projected to see significant growth in single-family housing starts, estimated to increase 9 percent, with a predominant focus on Southern and Western regions. As housing and construction demands continue to climb, financial institutions stand to corner a substantial chunk of the growing market and increase revenue.

Historically, lenders have shied away from construction lending, viewing construction loan portfolios as administratively taxing and risky from both regulatory and credit decision perspectives. By bringing the construction loan administration process online through collaborative, cloud-based software, financial institutions can become industry leaders while relieving the burden on their lenders, mitigating risk, and improving the experience for everyone involved.

Reduce Risk with Construction Lending Software
The digitization of construction lending translates to less risk all around. Construction lending software streamlines the facilitation of compliance and regulatory timelines, reducing potential fines and penalties for non-compliance or loan file exceptions. In addition to the risks imposed on the industry by staunch government regulations, lenders also understand the high credit risk involved with traditional construction loans (and their many moving parts) due to their multifaceted, unpredictable nature.

Overseeing construction portfolios requires constant vigilance in tracking and monitoring cost estimates, advances, material purchases, labor costs, construction plans, and timelines, all while ensuring proper paperwork is filed and maintained for every transaction and correspondence.

Bringing the construction loan management process online gives lenders the ability to monitor their entire construction portfolio from one location. Real-time monitoring and alerts automatically highlight areas of concern, excessive advances, stale loans, maturities and overfunded projects. Digital oversight also allows lenders to foresee and correct potential problems with budget and timelines.

Increase Efficiencies Through Digitization
Financial institutions that implement a digital solution for construction loan administration drastically improve efficiencies, eliminating former portfolio limitations. By increasing efficiency, lenders can invest more time in bringing in additional business, approving more loans, and better serving existing clients.

Improve User Experience with Digital Lending
In addition to risk mitigation and efficiency gains, construction lending software also drastically improves the overall user experience in the construction loan administration process by providing a singular platform for communication throughout the life of each loan. Bringing the process online allows lenders, borrowers, builders, inspectors, and appraisers to collaborate and communicate in one place, preventing missed phone calls and the inevitable tangle of email correspondence.

How U.S. Bank Helps Distressed Borrowers


mortgage-7-4-18.pngLike many lenders during the Great Recession, U.S. Bank found itself with a large number of mortgage loan borrowers who couldn’t keep up with their payments, and it had little help to offer. This was bad for the bank and borrowers alike because mortgage loans that went into default often ended up in foreclosure, which drove up the bank’s costs while putting the borrower at risk of losing their home.

Scott Rodeman, a senior vice president for consumer loan servicing who joined the Minneapolis-based bank in 2014, knew there were resources available to distressed borrowers from his experience at a previous bank employer, and he reached out to SpringFour, a 13-year-old company headquartered in Chicago. SpringFour acts as a conduit to agencies and organizations that work directly with borrowers having trouble making their loan payments because of other financial issues, like the loss of a job or mounting medical bills from a serious illness.

“Coming out of the mortgage crisis, mortgage servicers were somewhat limited in how they could help their homeowners…stay in their homes,” says Rodeman, who is responsible or U.S. Bank’s mortgage, auto and consumer loan collections, repossession, recovery and loss mitigation operations. The bank could offer solutions to homeowners who still had some cash flow, but it had little advice for those who couldn’t even make a partial payment. “Really, our loan counselors had very few options to help them improve their financial cash flow to pay for home-related expenses, housing and things like that,” Rodeman says.

That’s where SpringFour comes in. The company provides a cloud-based technology solution called the S4 Desktop that allows lenders like U.S. Bank to refer distressed borrowers to nonprofit organizations and government agencies that can help them get their financial affairs in order. “When people get behind and can’t pay their bills, it’s really because of something that’s happening in their financial lives,” says SpringFour CEO and co-founder Rochelle Nawrocki Gorey. “There’s a lot of shame attached to financial challenges, so they don’t reach out and get help. We believe that when people are living paycheck to paycheck, they need and deserve to be connected to local resources that can help.”

U.S. Bank and SpringFour were co-finalists in Bank Director’s 2018 Best of FinXTech Innovative Solution of the Year award.

The S4 Desktop solution can be accessed by U.S. Bank service representatives by logging into the service via the web. From there, they can direct the borrower to agencies and organizations that can help that individual work through their financial crisis. A link to SpringFour can also be found on the U.S. Bank website. The SpringFour database contains over 10,000 resources in all 50 states, and Gorey says her firm is constantly vetting and curating the data to keep it up to date. “We have a professional data team that is assessing the nonprofits for track record, reputation, funding and capacity to assist,” she says. “We’ve built a strong track record of trust with our financial institution clients. They know when they make a referral through SpringFour, it’s going to be accurate.”

Because the S4 solution is cloud-based, there were no implementation issues to speak of, according to Rodeman. “There was no technical work or development work really,” he says. “It was all customer-facing edits to our existing processes. Then, of course, training our employees to offer the service and manage that just like any other call center function.”

U.S. Bank has been working with SpringFour for about two years, and Rodeman says the program has shown tangible results. “Consumers that receive these referrals are twice as likely to engage in some kind of loan workout strategy with us rather than just allow the house to go into foreclosure,” he says. “That’s a significant number.” Mortgage borrowers that receive referrals are also 10 percent more likely to remain current with their mortgage. An equally important if less tangible benefit is that the program has enabled the bank to build a deeper relationship with its customers. “Coming out of the crisis, consumers were afraid of their mortgage servicers,” says Rodeman. “For us to see that kind of engagement rate increase shows that we’re building rapport and trust with our customers.”

If U.S. Bank had access to the SpringFour program during the mortgage crisis, Rodeman believes it would have helped reduce the number of foreclosures. The economy is much healthier today, of course. But even now there are borrowers who need help making their loan payments, “Based on our numbers in an improving economy, I don’t see why it wouldn’t have [helped] back then.”

How Pinnacle Improved the Efficiency of Construction Loan Management


partnership-6-27-18.pngWhen banks make a construction loan on a new office building or housing development, the funds usually are not provided to the borrower in a lump sum, but instead are dispersed as various project milestones are achieved. The administration of these credits are often handled on a simple spreadsheet—one for every loan. That might work for a small community bank that only makes a handful of construction loans a year, but not for Pinnacle Financial Partners, a $23 billion asset regional bank headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee that considers construction lending to be an important business it wants to scale in the future.

Pinnacle wanted a more efficient way of administering its construction loan portfolio, particularly after a series of acquisitions of other banks that also did construction lending. “We’re always looking for ways to improve efficiency,” says Pinnacle Senior Vice President Dale Floyd. “Coming out of the recession, we were growing fairly fast, had merged a couple of banks into us and everyone was doing construction lending differently. We needed some consistency throughout the organization, and to try to be more efficient at the same time.”

And that led Pinnacle to another Nashville-based company, Built Technologies, which has developed an automated construction lending platform that not only centralizes the administrative process, but promises to be an effective risk management tool as well. “Construction loans require coordination between the bank, the borrower, the contractor, the title company and third-party inspectors to review the progress of the project,” says Built CEO Chase Gilbert. Now all of these parties are connected in real time and everyone is looking at the same information instead of information silos, and the draw process can be managed more proactively. “We bring that process online to the benefit of everyone involved.”

Pinnacle and Built were co-finalists in Bank Director’s 2018 Best of FinXTech Startup Innovation award.

The benefits to Pinnacle begin with greater speed and efficiency. “It cuts down on phone calls and emails and paper,” says Floyd. “It reduces the chances for errors … because the [loan] doesn’t have to go through so many hands.” When banks are using simple spreadsheets to administer their construction loans and a builder wants to make a draw against their loan, an inspector will have to drive to the project site and assess whether the required work has been completed, drive back and write up a report authorizing a dispersal. With the Built platform, all this happens much faster. “[All the information] is there and it’s immediate,” says Floyd.

The platform also provides the bank with an enhanced risk management capability. “We do a lot of large loans,” Floyd explains. “I can pull a report at any time of every loan I have over $1 million, by location and by builder. I can track loans that have been fully funded, or I can track loans that we’ve closed but no disbursements have been made for three months. If we see that we want to know why. What has caused this project to stall?”

And when state and federal examiners come into the bank, Floyd can “pull up any loan that they want to see and look at the inspection reports, look at the pictures and see all the numbers,” he says. “That information is there for as long as we want to store it.”

Gilbert says Built spent nine months getting to know Pinnacle and understanding the bank’s goals for construction lending before work commenced on the project. “Pinnacle is a high growth bank and it was looking for something that would allow it to scale [that business],” he says. “The bank is also fanatical about customer experience and it wanted to find a way of giving its borrowers and builders a best-in-class experience.”

Floyd says Built also made some changes to the platform at the bank’s request—for example, building in a feature allowing a borrower to overdraw their loan with the bank’s approval if the situation warrants it. “They’re constantly looking for input,” he says. “They want to make the system better all the time.” And the new platform was easy to implement, according to Floyd. “That’s one of the things I was surprised about,” he says. “The training time is very short, and it’s very user friendly.”

Citizens Bank and Fundation Mobilize Credit Delivery


partnership-5-16-18.pngWhile Citizens Bank and Fundation are certainly not the first bank and fintech company to work collaboratively together, theirs is unlike any other, both parties say, because of the relationship that exists between the two organizations.

Providence, Rhode Island-based Citizens, a top-20 U.S. bank at $152 billion in assets, partnered with Fundation, a fintech firm in Reston, Virginia that focuses on credit delivery to improve the efficiency and turnaround time for small business loans under $150,000.

Fundation’s technology serves as the entire front end, essentially a white-labeled online application, for Citizens’ commercial lending line of products, providing a technology platform that includes underwriting, closing and engagement tools, and features a decision engine that, based on certain criteria, determines “up front” which loan goes to Citizens and which to Fundation, according to Jack Murphy, president of the business banking division at Citizens.

“What makes the partnership unique is there’s a fair amount of folks in this space who outsource this type of lending to the partner,” Murphy said. Instead, the application process is integrated into Citizens’ own digital platform, a top priority for the bank, Murphy said.

“We wanted to integrate (it) into our technology.”

Citizens and Fundation won Bank Director’s Best of FinXTech Partnership award, presented May 10 at the FinXTech Annual Summit, held at The Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The platform allows for an entirely electronic application process, and enables Citizens’ lending team to physically go to and visit its small business customers to start or complete that application. Customers can also begin the application process in a branch, and finish at home, “or in their car,” Murphy joked, though he doesn’t advocate driving and applying for a commercial loan at the same time.

“It’s really become the front-end to our core underwriting system,” Murphy said.

Fundation has multiple bank clients, but its credit delivery platform uses data and a decision engine to automate much of the decision-making framework that many banks have and still use when reviewing applications. It also simplifies the compliance assessment, including the Customer Due Diligence (CDD) final rule that was developed just two years ago and became effective in May 2018.

There is automated scoring in approving small loans, allowing Citizens to focus its human capital on other strategies, like bigger, more intensive applications and projects that need more careful review while also reducing paperwork that can be cumbersome. It also has in some ways upended the entire underwriting process—they use bank statements instead of financial statements as part of the application process, and the technology determines which loan goes to the bank and which goes to the partner automatically up front.

The technology has only been available to all customers since the end of March 2018, but getting to that point involved months of due diligence, whittling down a list of nearly two dozen other firms before ultimately selecting Fundation.
“We took about a year to research who might be the best partner for us,” Murphy said, noting that it all began with the goal of improving the customer experience through a digital platform.

The board considered whether to buy, build or partner with a fintech, but ultimately there was only one choice.
“The fintechs have not had the balance sheets or cost of funds or the customer bases that the banks have, so partnership is really the best way for the two companies to business,” Murphy said.

Culture and cohesion between the two companies was half the driving force behind the decision to choose Fundation, Murphy said, in a crowded and competitive fintech market. Murphy said they wanted to partner with somebody who was “not just a tech company,” but a “partner that has a similar vision.”

Like other banks, Citizens has several relationships with fintech companies which provide other services, like SigFig, for instance, a tech-based personal investment platform. But Fundation offered something that was new to the bank, and has in just a short time already proven its worth.

It’s shortened the time from application to credit delivery to as little as three days, which in previous generations could have taken weeks, and generated “many multiples” of increased demand since a series of pilots with the software last fall.

The transformation of this credit delivery, he said, is far more than what some banks have done, which Murphy described rudimentarily as simply taking a paper-based loan application and converting it to an online webform.
“That’s not digital,” Murphy said. “Digital is literally the entire experience being electronic.”

Citizens wanted to make its application process fully digital, Murphy said, which has reduced costs and improved efficiency for the bank. And that result has not only transformed the bank’s commercial lending process, but how it strategizes its future.

“This is for us, I would say step one in a journey of multiple products and multiple ways of making it easier to do business with the bank, not vice versa,” Murphy said.

Ten Reasons for Banks to Focus on SBA Lending


lending-12-15-17.pngLending teams are often unable to underwrite loans that don’t fit within the bank’s commercial lending policy, but many of these loans could be done as Small Business Administration loans. For example, 10-year equipment financing is an option with the SBA program, but most banks only provide terms of up to 5 years. Providing low risk alternative financing structures for borrowers can increase profits for the bank.

Banks can quickly begin an SBA lending operation by outsourcing through a lender service provider. This ensures that the bank’s SBA loans are done correctly. Fees are only incurred when the loans close, and the bank is making money.

As chief executives and their management teams consider how to increase the bank’s profitability in the coming year, here are 10 reasons to include SBA lending as a tool for success.

  1. A small SBA lending department underwriting $8 million to $10 million in loans annually can expect to generate $600,000 to $750,000 per year in pretax income.
  2. The SBA guaranty can mitigate the bank’s risk on any loan, but especially on under-secured loans. The SBA will cover 75 percent of the loss if there is a default on the loan.
  3. For smaller banks, the SBA guaranty program expands the legal lending limit, since only the unguaranteed portion of an SBA loan is counted against a bank’s lending limit. Given the SBA’s 75 percent guaranty on loans, a bank with a $1 million legal limit could underwrite a $4 million SBA loan.v
  4. SBA loans can help a bank improve its activities under the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) by reducing risk, and providing small businesses with longer terms and enhanced cash flow.
  5. The SBA allows banks to refinance existing loans in their portfolios. This can help the institution to restructure its loans with longer terms, manage loan concentrations and reduce risk.v
  6. SBA loans typically have a variable rate and provide the bank with a higher yield than a conventional loan. Given this, creating an SBA portfolio can help improve a bank’s interest yield on its portfolio.
  7. Capital and loan loss reserve requirements are lower on SBA loans.
  8. A bank can grow its portfolio more rapidly through SBA lending.
  9. Guarantees on SBA loans increase liquidity for the bank.
  10. SBA loans produce more fee income.

To illustrate these benefits, let’s consider the following example. A $300 million asset bank earns $2.4 million in net income annually, a 0.8 percent return on assets (ROA). If the bank starts an SBA department the next year, funds $10 million in SBA loans and then sells the guarantees, the bank will likely earn an additional $600,000 in after-tax income. That additional income will push the bank to the 1 percent ROA level. If the same bank has 3 million shares of stock outstanding, the increased earnings will likely move the stock price from $8 to $10 a share, assuming a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 10. This improvement in financial performance will reflect positively on management, and the SBA loan portfolio only increases by $2.5 million, or one-quarter of SBA loans that are not guaranteed.

All bankers come across loans they would like to fund, but can’t, or loans they are confident are good loans but don’t quite fit into the bank’s commercial lending policy. We have seen many banks utilize SBA lending to provide better financing terms to their clients, mitigate risk and make these loans bankable. The result is more satisfied clients and higher profits.

The Long Drought in Small Business Lending


business-lending-8-4.png

Most Americans have moved on from the financial shocks that struck our economy almost a decade ago. Millions of new jobs have been created, wages are rising and companies have repaired their balance sheets. Yet one unfortunate legacy of the 2008 to 2010 meltdown remains: the tens of thousands of small businesses that still struggle to obtain a bank loan at reasonable cost, if at all.

A new studyby three Harvard Business School economists provides fresh insights into the pullback in small business lending, and its consequences. The researchers found that the nation’s four largest banks— Bank of America Corp., Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co.—not only cut back more sharply than other lenders during the recession, but also showed far less interest in regaining lost ground as the economy picked up again.

According to the Harvard study, the four banks’ advances to small businesses hovered at only half of pre-crisis levels until 2014, even as rivals pushed up their lending to almost 80 percent of pre-crisis levels. All in all, lending by the big four was 30 percent lower than other banks included in a Community Reinvestment Act database.

The lending drought has its origins in the big banks’ decision to focus on other, less risky sectors during the financial crisis. Among other drawbacks, small business loans carried higher capital requirements, and were hampered by inefficient automation of underwriting processes. Once the recession was over, the big four banks were constrained by stifling new regulations imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and by the Federal Reserve, notably a large uptick in risk weightings for small business loans.

The pros and cons of the banks’ actions will be debated for years to come. What is beyond dispute is their painful consequences. A county-by-county examination by the Harvard researchers shows that in areas where the big four pulled back, business expansion slowed and job growth suffered, especially in communities where small businesses played an outsized role. Wages also grew more slowly. All these impacts were felt most strongly in sectors most dependent on outside funding, such as manufacturing.

The Harvard study acknowledges that other lenders, including an array of shadow bank start-ups, including online lenders, have largely filled the gaps left by the Big Four. Nonetheless, the cost of credit remains unusually high in the worst-affected areas and, while jobs have returned, wages continue to lag. “Our findings suggest that a large credit supply shock from a subset of lenders can have surprisingly long-lived effects on real activity,” the study concludes. It adds that “the cumulative effect of these factors could explain some of the reason why this recovery has been so weak compared to others in the post-war period.”

These findings are confirmed by the recent performance of the Thomson Reuters-PayNet small business lending index, which measures the volume of new commercial loans and leases to small businesses. Apart from a brief uptick after last November’s election, lending has been stuck in the doldrums for several years. The index has fallen, year-over-year, for 12 of the past 13 months. With a shortage of credit compounded by economic and political uncertainties, many small business owners remain reluctant to invest in new plant and equipment.

We at PayNet estimate that the small business credit gap costs the U.S. economy $108 billion in lost output and over 400,000 jobs a year. Some firms are forced to put operations on hold for two or three months while they wait for a bank to process their credit application.

According to our count, a typical commercial and industrial loan requires 28 separate tasks by the lending bank. It involves three departments— relationship manager, credit analyst, and credit committee—and takes between two and eight weeks to complete. The cost of processing each credit application runs at $4,000 to $6,000. The result? Few banks are able to turn a profit on this business unless the loan size exceeds $500,000, which is far more than most small businesses borrow. The time, paperwork and cost involved are pushing more and more small businesses away from traditional financing sources. We cannot allow such a key sector of our economy to fight with one hand behind its back. Lenders need to be more accepting of new kinds of financial data and fresh approaches to credit standards. Regulators must open the door to more innovative underwriting techniques and assessment processes.

A good place to start would be to examine what has gone wrong over the past decade. As the Harvard study puts it: “Going forward, it will be useful to better disentangle the causes of this shock. If regulation played an important role…then understanding the specific rules that contributed the most would be helpful from a policy perspective.”

How PrecisionLender Helped Woodforest Bank Expand into Commercial Lending


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When Woodforest National Bank made the strategic decision to grow its commercial loan portfolio in 2015, it wanted to leverage the latest technology to take full advantage of that opportunity. Woodforest is a privately held bank based in Woodlands, Texas, with over 740 branches across 17 different states, and also in-store branches with WalMart and Kroger. At the time, Woodforest management realized that the bank’s lending portfolio was heavily weighted towards commercial real estate. The commercial lending operation was based out of—and primarily managed by—its Houston office. Rates and pricing were based strictly on what the market would bear, with no system in place to tailor rates to different markets, industries or clients. Woodforest then sought out a technology partner to help implement a more intelligent pricing model and methodology for the commercial side.

After establishing five different commercial lending business lines, Woodforest partnered with Charlotte-based PrecisionLender to help relationship managers (RMs) win better deals that aligned with the bank’s strategy, in terms of profit, risk and growth. The cornerstone of the PrecisionLender platform is “Andi,” an AI-powered virtual assistant. Andi works with relationship managers as they price each opportunity, showing them multiple ways to structure deals that will reach their targets, while also highlighting ways to expand the relationship.

Part of what made PrecisionLender an ideal partner was the ease and speed of which Woodforest could implement the platform across relationship managers in multiple states. The firm worked closely alongside the Woodforest business and IT teams during the implementation, and the platform was launched in March 2016. The commercial banking team now uses the system to input pricing for all opportunities that require approval. To help ensure the RMs price deals that work for both the borrower and the bank, Andi considers a multitude of factors, such as fixed versus adjustable rates, fee structures, duration and deposits the applicant already has with the bank. This flexible, data-powered approach empowered Woodforest’s RMs to better tailor deals by client, industry and region, helping the bank rebalance its portfolio and put a greater emphasis on middle market banking.

Woodforest and PrecisionLender conduct a quarterly return on equity (ROE) meeting to discuss performance trends of products, branches and even individual relationship managers. PrecisionLender also reviews ROE targets set for each region during these sessions. And at last year’s third quarter ROE analysis meeting, the firm surfaced several key issues from the system that Woodforest could not have found without this rich data set.

PrecisionLender continues to seek feedback from Woodforest to optimize and improve on its use of Andiand the overall platform. Currently, the firm is working to create a “Promise versus Delivery” dashboard, which will give management a snapshot of lending opportunities in progress in comparison to what’s been forecasted for each region, branch and relationship manager. This will create real-time visibility into each potential deal, and ensure that relationship managers are providing accurate forecasts.

There’s also a “performance scorecard” in the works to evaluate each relationship manager as if they were running their own mini business, taking into consideration not just new loan generation but also income generation and risk management.

“PrecisionLender helped us grow from a Houston commercial banking organization into a national presence with five new locations from coast to coast while generating the return needed for the expansion, while also providing flexibility to our relationship managers and great relationship pricing for our clients,” says Derrick Ragland, president of commercial lending at WoodForest.

This is one of 10 case studies that focus on examples of successful innovation between banks and financial technology companies working in partnership. The participants featured in this article were finalists at the 2017 Best of FinXTech Awards.

Eating Soup with a Fork: Why Banks Struggle with Small Business Lending, and How to Fix It


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For most regional and community banks, the old-fashioned business of making loans remains their most important source of revenue. And for most of these banks, small businesses are a big part of their customer base. Yet they struggle to lend to small businesses profitably.

You’ve probably heard the statistics before: Small businesses represent about half of all U.S. employment and about 40 percent of private sector GDP, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, and yet they only get around 21 percent of commercial bank credit. Nearly half of all small businesses sought some kind of loan in 2015, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (the last year for which we have broad data from Fed surveys), so the demand is there. What’s going on here?

As anyone who is familiar with lending to small business can tell you, it has traditionally been extremely difficult to measure and manage small business credit risk in a cost-effective way. Current legacy methods either expose the bank to too much risk or incur so much cost that small business loans can’t be made profitably. Hence, banks are unwilling to deploy capital to small businesses on the same scale they do to consumers or large commercial entities.

The False Dichotomy of “Consumer” and “Commercial”
The difficulty that banks experience trying to make loans to small businesses is like trying to eat soup with a fork.

Let me explain.

When it comes to lending, most banks still see the world falling into one of two categories: “consumer” or “commercial.” Consumer lending is a highly-standardized process while commercial is a highly bespoke one.

The consumer process gains its efficiency by ignoring the positive attributes every small business has, such as cash flow, and primarily relies on the small business owner’s credit score to assess risk. This generally means that the lender is not getting an accurate read on capacity and risk, and therefore is very likely to either take too much risk or turn away a lot of potentially good business.

The commercial process, on the other hand, gains its reliability by taking a far more diligent approach. It requires a heavy dose of manual credit analysis done by highly trained (and well compensated) professionals. Lenders expend significant time and resources gathering information, spreading financials, reviewing collateral and analyzing many aspects of each business to a degree that a small request—say for $25,000—is treated much the same way as a larger $750,000 request.

The Right Tools for the Job
Small businesses are a different category of customer. Most have a mix of consumer and commercial attributes. To underwrite them effectively and profitably requires marrying some of the efficiency of the consumer process with some of the underwriting capabilities of the commercial process. Either one alone will fail.

If your only choice is a fork when eating soup, the experience is going to be so frustrating you’ll likely give up.

But what if you had a spoon?

Here’s what a small-business-lending spoon looks like:

First, it enables online originations to reduce the dependency on expensive bankers for small loan requests.

Second, it provides the flexibility to use better small business underwriting information such as real time operating cash flow versus dated tax statements or just the owner’s credit score. For example, reviewing the past 60-90 days of bank transactions is more indicative of the credit worthiness of a restaurant than the information in a dated document or a lagged credit bureau score.

Third, it supports automation to manage every step of the application process as well as the subsequent servicing and monitoring of the loan. As an example, bankers today will process loans sequentially without regard for incoming credit quality or loan size. How much more efficient would it be if loan requests where categorized into “likely approval,” “likely decline” and “needs review” before a banker received them? The power of a speedy decline would eliminate a significant amount of wasted time and effort.

As a former banker and experienced tech entrepreneur, I have been fortunate enough to witness and even play a role in forging some of the early “spoons” that have helped transform this market. So far, however, most of the pioneering work here has happened outside banks.

What Bank Can Do
Small business lending will not be solved by building more branches, or spending more money on training and marketing. Banks must expand their technology tool set, especially when originating small business loans.

So how does a bank introduce new technology without it costing millions of dollars and years of effort?

A bank must look to the new breed of bank-friendly technology companies for help. Many of these new fintech companies can make the process of testing and adopting new technologies remarkably easy and cost effective. Long gone are the days of long-term contracts, expensive integrations and multiyear implementations. The ability to quickly test technology and pay for rapid success is here. Banks just need to find the right partner and have the willingness to explore the possibilities.

If you are hungry for some soup and want to enjoy it, go get yourself a spoon. Stop the insanity. There are better ways to manage small business lending in a cost-effective manner, it is time to look beyond your legacy technology providers for a solution.