Why Two Community Banks Raised Debt to Repurchase Shares

The coronavirus pandemic has motivated some banks to raise capital and others to repurchase shares.

Two banks opted to do both.

These institutions recently paired subordinated debt raises to buy back discounted shares in immediately accretive transactions. Leadership of both banks attribute the pair of opportunities — and the pricing they were able to obtain — to the pandemic, and other community banks could make a similar trade.

What had happened was a perfect storm of an opportunity to buy back at a pretty good discount because of the Covid-19 impact on financial stocks, and the popularity or the market that had developed for subordinated debt,” says Paul Brunkhorst, CEO of Crazy Woman Creek Bancorp in Buffalo, Wyoming.

The bank constructed a twofer trade that would leverage investors’ demand for yield while capitalizing on the persistent discount in its shares. Brunkhorst reached out to a larger in-state financial institution about a $2 million private placement of its subordinated debt at a 5% rate; he says the direct placement kept pricing low for the $138 million bank. Crazy Woman Creek then repurchased 15% of its outstanding common stock. The transactions were included in the same Aug. 18 release.

“It wasn’t taken lightly. We are affecting shareholder value in a positive manner. We’re also incurring this debt, so we better be darn sure of the capital position, the asset quality and the regional economy,” he says. “We were comfortable going after the subordinated debt with the primary reason of repurchasing those shares.”

Executives at Easton, Maryland-based Shore Bancshares decided to pad robust capital levels with an additional $25 million in subordinated debt as “safety capital” at the end of August.

So far, the safety capital hasn’t been needed. Second loan modification requests declined to about 10%, and the $1.7 billion bank has yet to experience defaults. Management decided to deploy $5.5 million of those newly raised funds toward restarting its halted share repurchase program at the beginning of September.

The repurchase, which required sign off from the Federal Reserve, was immediately accretive to tangible book value. If fully exercised, the buyback would reduce share count by 4.5%.

When you can buy stock back at 60% or 70% of tangible book, that’s probably the best thing you could ever do for your shareholders,” says CEO Lloyd “Scott” Beatty Jr. “In terms of rewarding them, I can’t think of a better way to do it.”

Both executives say shareholders have been pleased with the buyback announcements. They also found the capital raise to be straightforward and relatively quick, with healthy demand and pricing. Brunkhorst says he’s surprised more banks haven’t cut out the middleman to solicit demand and conduct their own private placements. It was Shore’s first time raising sub debt; its offering carried a rating from Kroll Bond Rating Agency and a price of 5.38%.

“I would say probably if you’re thinking about [raising capital], I’d get out there as soon as possible. There’s a lot of activity in this,” Beatty says. “I’d be inclined to pick your investment banker and get out and enter the market as quickly as you can.”

Coronavirus Makes Community Count in Banking

In the face of an economic shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, small banks stepped up in a big way to ensure local businesses received government aid.

Over the past 50 years, the American community bank has become a threatened species. Yet these institutions rose to the occasion amid the coronavirus-induced economic shutdown. The Small Business Administration reported that 20% of loans made in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, were funded by banks with less than $1 billion in assets, and 60% were funded by banks with less than $10 billion in assets. In total, the first round of lending delivered $300 billion to 1.7 million businesses.

There were just 5,177 bank or savings institutions insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp at the end of 2019 —a fraction of the 24,000 commercial banks in the U.S. in 1966. The majority of these institutions were local, community banks, some with only a single branch serving their market. But over the past 25 years, the banking industry has increasingly become the domain of large conglomerates that combine commercial banking, retail banking, investment banking, insurance, and securities trading under one roof.

Technology has accelerated this consolidation further as consumers select the institutions they can most easily access through their smartphone. Deposit market share tells this story most starkly: in 2019, over 40% of total assets were held by the four largest banks alone. From 2013 to 2017, total deposits at banks with assets of less than $1 billion fell by 7.5%.

Despite that erosion, small banks were willing and able to help hurting businesses. After the dust settled from the initial round of PPP loans, many of the nation’s largest banks faced lawsuits alleging they prioritized larger, more lucrative loans over those to small businesses with acute need.

Community banks filled in the gaps. USA Today reported that a food truck business with a long relationship with Wells Fargo & Co., but couldn’t get a banker on the phone during the second round of PPP. Instead, Bank of Colorado, a community bank in Fort Collins, Colorado, with about $5 billion in assets, funded their loan.

Another one of those banks, Evolve Bank & Trust, an institution with about $600 million in assets based in Memphis, Tennessee, answered the calls of customers and non-customers alike. Architecture firm Breland-Harper secured a loan through Evolve; firm principal Michael Breland the called the funds “crucial in meeting payroll.” Special education program The Center for Learning Unlimited was turned away at 15 banks for a PPP loan. Evolve funded their loan within days.

The coronavirus pandemic has proven two things for small financial institutions. First, community still counts — and it may expand beyond a bank’s local community. A bank’s willingness to work with small businesses and organizations proved to be the most important factor for many businesses seeking loans. Small banks were willing and able to serve these groups even as the nation’s biggest bank by assets, JPMorgan Chase & Co., reportedly advised many PPP loan applicants to look elsewhere at some points.

As big banks grow bigger, their interest in and ability to serve small businesses may fade further. The yoga studio, the restaurant and the small business accounting firm, may be best served by a community bank.

Second, community banks were empowered by technology. Technology is a lever with which big banks pried away small bank customers, but it was also crucial to small banks’ success amid the PPP program. Because of the pandemic many small banks accelerated innovation and digital solutions. During the crisis, Midwest BankCentre, a community bank in St. Louis with $2.3 billion in assets, fast-tracked the implementation of digital account openings for businesses, something they did not have in place previously.

By tapping tools created by fintech companies, small banks can use technology to support their efforts to assist the nation’s small businesses during and beyond these uncertain times.

Community Banks Are Buying Back Stock. Should You?

Banks are making lemonade out of investors’ lemons — in the form of buybacks.

Fears about how the coronavirus will impact financial institutions has depressed bank valuations. A number of community banks have responded by announcing that they’ll buy back stock.

Bank Director reached out to Eric Corrigan, senior managing director at Commerce Street Capital, to talk about why this is happening.

The Community Bank Bidder
Much of the current buyback activity is driven by community banks with small market capitalizations. The median market cap of banks announcing new buybacks now is $64 million, compared to a median of $377 million for 2019, according to an Aug. 27 report from Janney Montgomery Scott.

One reason community banks might be buying back stock now is that their illiquid shares lack a natural bidder — a situation exacerbated by widespread selling pressure, Corrigan says. By stepping in to buy its own stock, a bank can help offset the absence of demand.

“You can help support it or at least mitigate some of the downward pressure, and it doesn’t take a lot of dollars to do that,” he says.

Buybacks Are Accretive to Tangible Book Value
Many bank stocks are still trading below tangible book value. That makes share buybacks immediately accretive in terms of both earnings per share and tangible book value.

“If you can buy your stock below book value, it’s a really attractive financial trade. You are doing the right thing for shareholders, you’re supporting the price of the stock, and financially it’s a good move,” Corrigan says.

Buying Flexibility
Share buyback announcements are a statement of intention, not a promise chiseled in stone. Compared to dividends, buybacks offer executives the flexibility to stop repurchasing stock without raising concerns in the market.

“If you announce a buyback, you can end up two years later with exactly zero shares bought,” Corrigan says. “But you signaled that you’re willing, at a certain price under certain circumstances, to go out there and support the stock.”

Buybacks Follow Balance Sheet Bulk-Up
Many of the nation’s largest banks are under buyback moratoriums intended to preserve capital, following the results of a special stress test run by the Federal Reserve. Banks considering buybacks should first ensure their balance sheets are resilient and loan loss provisions are robust before committing their capital.

“I think a rule around dividends or buybacks that’s tied to some trailing four-quarter performance is not the worst thing in the world,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is buy stock at $40 and have to issue it at $20 because you’re in a pinch and need the equity back.”

Many of the banks announcing repurchase authorizations tend to have higher capital levels than the rest of the industry, Janney found. The median total common equity ratio for banks initiating buybacks in 2020 is about 9.5%, compared to 9.1% for all banks.

Why a Buyback at All?
A stock price that’s below the tangible book value can have wide-ranging implications for a bank, impacting everything from a bank’s ability to participate in mergers and acquisitions to attracting and retaining talent, Corrigan says.

Depressed share prices can make acquisitions more expensive and dilutive, and make potential acquirers less attractive to sellers. A low price can demoralize employees receiving stock compensation who use price as a performance benchmark, and it can make share issuances to fund compensation plans more expensive. It can even result in a bank taking a goodwill impairment charge, which can result in an earnings loss.

Selected Recent Share Repurchase Announcements

Bank Name Location, Size Date, Program Type Allocation Details
Crazy Woman Creek Bancorp Buffalo, Wyoming
$138 million
Aug. 18, 2020
Authorization
3,000 outstanding shares,
or ~15% of common stock
PCSB Financial Corp. Yorktown Heights, New York
$1.8 billion
Aug. 20, 2020
Authorization
Up to 844,907 shares, or
5% of outstanding common stock
First Interstate BancSystem Billings, Montana
$16.5 billion
Aug. 21, 2020
Lifted suspended program
Purchase up to the remaining
~1.45 million shares
Red River Bancshares Alexandria, Louisiana
$2.4 billion
Aug. 27, 2020
Authorization
Up to $3 million of outstanding shares
Investar Holding Corp. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
$2.6 billion
Aug. 27, 2020
Additional allocation
An additional 300,000 shares,
or ~3% of outstanding stock
Eagle Bancorp Montana Helena, Montana
$9.8 billion
Aug. 28, 2020
Authorization
100,000 shares,
~1.47% of outstanding stock
Home Bancorp Lafayette, Louisiana
$2.6 billion
Aug. 31, 2020
Authorization
Up to 444,000 shares,
or ~5% of outstanding stock
Mid-Southern Bancorp Salem, Indiana
$217 million
Aug. 31, 2020
Additional allocation
Additional 162,000 shares,
~5% of the outstanding stock
Shore Bancshares Eston, Maryland
$1.7 billion
Sept. 1, 2020
Restatement of program
Has ~$5.5 million remaining
of original authorization
HarborOne Bancorp Brockton, Massachusetts
$4.5 billion
Sept. 3, 2020
Authorization
Up to 2.9 million  shares,
~5% of outstanding shares

Source: Company releases

Banks Tap Capital Markets to Raise Pandemic Capital

Capital markets are open — for now — and community banks have taken note.

The coronavirus pandemic and recession have created an attractive environment for banks to raise certain types of capital. Executives bracing for a potentially years-long recession are asking themselves how much capital their bank will need to guard against low earnings prospects, higher credit costs and unforeseen strategic opportunities. For a number of banks, their response has been to raise capital.

A number of banks are taking advantage of interested investors and relatively low pricing to pad existing capital levels with new funds. Other banks may want to consider striking the markets with their own offerings while the iron is hot. Most of the raises to-date have been subordinated debt or preferred equity, as executives try to avoid diluting shareholders and tangible book value with common equity raises while they can.

“I think a lot of this capital raising is done because they can: The markets are open, the pricing is attractive and investors are open to the concept, so do it,” says Christopher Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott. “Banks are in survival mode right now. Having more capital is preferred over less. Hoarding capital is most likely going to be the norm — even if it’s not stated expressly — that’s de facto what they’re doing.”

Shore Bancshares’ CEO Lloyd “Scott” Beatty, Jr. said the bank is “cautiously optimistic” that credit issues will not be as dire as predicted. But because no one knows how the recession will play out, the bank decided to raise “safety capital” — $25 million in subordinated debt. The raise will grow the bank’s Tier 2 capital and boost overall risk-based capital from 14.1% to about 16%, according to analysts.

If credit issues do not develop, we will be in a position to use this capital offensively in a number of ways to improve shareholder value,” Beatty said in the Aug. 8 release.

That mindset resonates with Rick Weiss, managing director at PNC’s Financial Institutions Group, who started his career as a regulator at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“I’ve never seen capital I haven’t liked,” he says. “I feel safer [when banks have higher] capital — in addition to avoiding any regulatory problems, especially in a bad economy, it gives you more flexibility with M&A, expanding your business, developing new lines, paying dividends, doing buybacks. It allows you to keep the door open.”

Raising capital is especially important for banks with thinner cushions. Republic First Bancorp raised $50 million in convertible preferred equity on Aug. 27 — a move that Frank Schiraldi, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co., called a “positive, and necessary, development.” The bank had capital levels that were “well below peers” and was on a significant growth trajectory prior to the pandemic. This raise boosts tangible common equity and Tier 1 capital by 100 basis points, assuming the conversion.

Banks are also taking advantage of current investor interest to raise capital at attractive interest rates. At least three banks were able to raise $100 million or more in subordinated offers in August at rates under 5%.

Lower pricing can also mean refinancing opportunities for banks carrying higher-cost debt; effortlessly shaving off basis points of interest can translate into crucial cost savings at a time when all institutions are trying to control costs. Atlantic Capital Bancshares stands to recoup an extra $25 million after refinancing existing debt that was about to reset to a more-expensive rate, according to a note from Stephen Scouten, a managing director at Piper Sandler. The bank raised $75 million of sub debt that carried a fixed-to-floating rate of 5.5% on Aug. 20.

Selected Capital Raises in August

Name Location, size Date, Type Amount, Rate
WesBanco Wheeling, West Virginia $16.8 billion Aug. 4, 2020
Preferred equity
$150 million 6.75%
Crazy Woman Creek  Bancorp Buffalo, Wyoming
$138 million
Aug. 18, 2020 Subordinated debt $2 million 5% fixed to floating
Republic First Bancorp Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
$4.4 billion
Aug. 19, 2020 Preferred equity $50 million 7% convertible
Atlantic Capital Bancshares Atlanta, Georgia
$2.9 billion
Aug. 20, 2020 Subordinated debt $75 million 5.5% fixed to floating
CNB Financial Clearfield, Pennsylvania
$4.5 billion
Aug. 20, 2020 Preferred equity $60.4 million* 7.125%
Park National Co.       Newark, Ohio
$9.7 billion
Aug. 20, 2020 Subordinated debt $175 million 4.5% fixed to floating
Southern National Bancorp of Virginia McLean, Virginia
$3.1 billion 
Aug. 25, 2020** Subordinated debt $60 million 5.4% fixed to floating
Shore Bancshares Easton, Maryland
$1.7 billion
Aug. 25, 2020 Subordinated debt $25 million 5.375% fixed to floating
Citizens Community Bancorp Eau Claire, Wisconsin $1.6 billion Aug. 27, 2020 Subordinated debt $15 million 6% fixed to floating
FB Financial Nashville, Tennessee $7.3 billion Aug. 31, 2020 Subordinated debt $100 million 4.5% fixed to floating
Renasant Corp. Tupelo, Mississippi
$14.9 billion
Aug. 31, 2020 Subordinated debt $100 million 4.5% fixed to floating

*Company specified this figure is gross and includes the full allotment exercised by the underwriters.
**Date offering closed
Source: company press releases

How Nonbank Lenders’ Small Business Encroachment Threatens Community Banks

A new trend has emerged as small businesses across the U.S. seek capital to ensure their survival through the Covid-19 pandemic: a significantly more crowded and competitive market for small business lending. 

Community banks are best-equipped to meet the capital needs of small businesses due to existing relationships and the ability to offer lower interest rates. However, many banks lack the ability to deliver that capital efficiently, meaning:

  • Application approval rates are low; 
  • Customer satisfaction suffers;  
  • Both the bank and small business waste time and resources; 
  • Small businesses seek capital elsewhere — often at higher rates. 

When community banks do approve small credit requests, they almost always lose money due to the high cost of underwriting and servicing them. But the real risk to community banks is that large players like Amazon.com and Goldman Sachs Group are threatening to edge them out of the market for small business lending. At stake is nothing less than their entire small business relationships.

Over the past few years, nonbank fintechs have infiltrated both consumer and business banking, bringing convenience and digital delivery to the forefront. Owners of small businesses can easily apply for capital online and manage their finances digitally.

Yet in 2018, only 11% of small banks had a digital origination channel for small business lending. In an age of smartphones, community banks still heavily rely on manual, paper-based processes for originating, underwriting and servicing small business loans. 

It was no surprise, then, when Amazon and Goldman Sachs announced a lending partnership geared toward third-party merchants using the retail giant’s platform. Soon, invited businesses can apply for a revolving line of credit with a fixed APR. Other major companies like Apple and Alphabet’s Google have also debuted innovative fintech products for consumers —it’s only a matter of time before they make headway into the small business space.

A 2016 Well Fargo survey found that small business owners are willing to pay more for products and services that make their lives easier. It makes sense that an independent retailer that already sells on Amazon would be more inclined to work with a lender that integrates directly into the platform. If your small business lending program isn’t fully online, customers will take the path of least resistance and work with institutions that make the process easier and more seamless.

Serving small business borrowers better
The issue isn’t that small businesses lack creditworthiness as prospective customers. Rather, it’s that the process is stacked against them. Small businesses aren’t large corporations, but many banks apply the same process and requirements for small credit requests as they do for commercial loans, including collecting and reviewing sophisticated financials. This eliminates any chance of profit on small credit requests. The problem is with the bank’s process — not its borrowers.

The solution is clear cut:

  • Digitize the lending process so customers don’t have to take time out of their busy day to visit a branch or speak with a loan officer. Note that this includes more than just an online application. The ability to collect/manage documents, present loans offers, provide e-contracts and manage payments are all part of a digitally-enabled lending process.
  • Incorporate SMB-specific credit criteria that accurately assess creditworthiness more effectively, like real-time cash flow and consumer sentiment.
  • Take advantage of automation without giving up control or increasing risk. For example, client notifications, scoring and application workflow management are all easy ways to save time and cut costs.
  • Free up lending officers to spend more time with your most-profitable commercial customers.

These changes can help turn small business customers into an important, profitable part of your bank. After all, 99% of all U.S. businesses are considered “small” — so the ability to turn a profit on small business lending represents significant upside for your bank. 

With better technology and data, along with a more flexible process, community banks can sufficiently reduce the cost of extending capital to small businesses and turn a profit on every loan funded. Next, banks can market their small business loan products to existing business customers in the form of pre-approved loan offers, and even gain new business customers from competitors that push small business borrowers away. 

Think about it: small business customers already have a deposit relationship at your bank. Community banks have this advantage over the likes of Amazon, Goldman Sachs, Apple and others. But when time is limited, small businesses won’t see it that way. By rethinking your small business lending process, it’s a win for your bank’s bottom line as well as a win in customer loyalty.

Why This 17-Year-Old Investor Prefers Community Banks

Maya Peterson graduates from high school at the end of summer. She’s also the author of two books: “Early Bird: The Power of Investing Young” — which she wrote when she was just 13 years old — and “Lighthouse: Women Leading the Way in Finance,” which published in April.

To call her precocious may be an understatement: Peterson started investing when she was just 9 years old. At 10, most kids just want to play video games; instead, Peterson attended Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders’ meeting to hear Warren Buffett speak and meet personal heroes like Lauren Templeton, the founder and president of Templeton & Phillips Capital Management. Templeton is one of the 20 women featured in “Lighthouse.”

Peterson researches every investment she makes, from the company’s financials to its competitive position in the marketplace and the state of its industry. “Investing is simple to understand: You put in your work, try to understand the business, and do your best to pick stocks; however, the world is unpredictable, and things do not always go as planned,” she writes in “Lighthouse.”

“Over the past seven years, I have developed an investing mindset of patience, frugality, nerdiness, humility and discipline.”  

In August, I interviewed Peterson about why she’s fascinated by women in finance and what she values in an investment. The transcript that follows has been edited for brevity and flow.

BD: As an investor, how do you view the banking sector?
MP: I stick to investing in what I know, so I started out buying [The] Procter & Gamble [Co.] and Johnson & Johnson. The big banks are complicated for outside investors, and I try to keep it simple. For smaller banks, I think new investors have a better chance to be able to analyze them, but there is still a lot of banking jargon to wade through. Overall, seeing how banks adapt to accommodate their customers over the long haul, the quality of their loans and how they serve their community is something that I look for. I find this much easier to see in smaller banks.

BD: You spent time with Robert and Patrick Gaughen of Hingham Institution for Savings, who explained to you how they built their bank. You own shares in Hingham. What did you learn from them?
MP: The biggest key to Hingham’s success has been its culture. They are really customer focused, and they do not overcomplicate their business model with growth for growth’s sake. Their loan quality over many years shows a clear focus on risk quality. There was a quote in [their] 2014 Annual Report, where Robert Gaughen summed it up as, “Balance sheet growth at Hingham must be safe and it must be profitable, in that order.”

[Editor’s Note: Bank Director also spoke with the Gaughens for our report on the Six Tenets of Extraordinary Banks.]

BD: You’re an experienced investor, particularly given your age. What do you value when you look at a company?
MP: I value social responsibility. I invest for the long haul, so the companies I am a shareholder of are ones I think will be around and successful in 20 years. These businesses realize that it is their future too. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that capitalism is a short-term game, but most great businesses are built by long-term thinkers. Our thinking has to grow beyond thoughts of, “What is cheapest now?”

[Investor] Jeremy Grantham said [at a 2018 MorningStar conference] that, “Capitalism also has a severe problem with the very long term … anything that happens to a corporation over 25 years out doesn’t [exist for] them. Therefore, grandchildren, I like to say, have no value. … We deforest the land, we degrade our soils, we pollute and overuse our water, and treat air like an open sewer. [We do it] all off balance sheet and off the income statement.”

Investing works over the long run, whether that is competitive advantage, fair prices or good management, and social responsibility is a long-term mindset as well. It focuses on how the business benefits society through diversity within the workplace, their environmental impact and so on.

[Socially responsible investing] brings these two long-term perspectives together.

BD: I decorated my room as a teenager with rock band posters, but you write in the introduction to “Lighthouse” that you wallpapered your room with the photos of 58 female CFOs to inspire you. As a young woman, why does finance appeal to you? Based on what you’ve learned, what are your thoughts now about possibly entering a male-dominated field?
MP: Hearing stories about Lauren Templeton’s childhood full of investing, I was excited to become a young shareholder, too. Those stories launched me into researching and discovering other women in investing and in finance, which was where I began seeking out stories of female CFOs. I think similar to other kids’ posters, these women were larger-than-life figures that taught me the importance of drive. They became my daily reminders to keep learning and asking questions. Once I ventured into investing, I saw the limitless potential to learn, and that is what made finance [appealing] to me. If I ran out of questions, then I couldn’t be thinking hard enough.

 

As a young woman, investing gave me the opportunity to make adult decisions at a young age without being judged by my age or gender. I had control over something in a way I had not yet had at such a young age. Investing felt like my window into the real, adult world.

 

BD: Finally, you’re in school now, but you’re obviously thinking ahead about your career. You come from a unique perspective compared to your peers, in that you really dug into companies and what makes them tick. And a lot of companies struggle to attract younger, skilled talent. With that in mind, what do you hope to see from a future employer?
MP: Emphasis on community. Right now, it is so critical that those who can give are giving to others in many ways. To me, this means having coworkers and employees that represent the customers they are serving, incentivizing and encouraging donating and volunteer work, companies allocating money to give to a good cause and being socially responsible from the inside out.

I think employers who want to attract the younger generation should have a longer-term outlook and ideas on how to make a positive impact on the future. There is no one size fits all — it is different for different types of businesses — but working to make a difference definitely matters in attracting younger employees.

Five Ways to Challenge Digital Banks

Over the past several years, financial institutions have experimented with and implemented new technologies to improve efficiency, security and customer experience. Although online banking is currently challenging traditional banking practices in several aspects, there are ways that traditional banks can fight back. Here are a few key offerings of digital banking, along with ways traditional banks can beat them at their own game.

1. Improved service
Digital banks offer customers 24-hour service and the ability to conduct a variety of transactions in their own time. AI-powered chatbots allows customers to ask questions, perform transactions and create accounts through one platform, at any time. This on-demand service appeals to customers as saving time and effort in their banking experience.

However, one of the key missing components of an online banking platform is human interaction, which can be easier and more rewarding than filling out a checklist on a website. Customers can easily convey any special requests or needs. By providing excellent customer service with genuine and knowledgeable human interaction, traditional banks can offer a more complete service than online banks.

2. Heightened security
To keep up with innovative offerings like video chat and digital account operations, online banks can utilize SD-WAN solutions to maintain reliable connectivity and efficiency for their security needs. Solutions such as antivirus and anti-malware programming, firewalls and biometric and/or facial recognition technology provide additional levels of security to protect customer information.

Traditional banks may less susceptible to cybersecurity threats. Despite online banks’ level of security, their fully-digital presence makes them more vulnerable to cyberattacks compared to traditional banks. It may also be much more difficult to regain what has been lost in the event of a data breach, due to the ways cybercriminals can hide.

3. Streamlined services
Digital transformation is all about streamlining and improving operations; the concept of a digital banking solution is no different. Digital bank users can achieve their banking needs through a single platform. In one “visit,” customers can view their balance and recent transactions, transfer money between accounts and pay bills. Some digital banks also have the option to sync accounts with budgeting apps to further manage budgets and spending.

This streamlining allows digital banks to significantly reduce the number of different products and services they offer. By comparison, traditional banks can provide many more services and options to better fit the individual needs of their customers, and make sure they feel important and well looked after.

Moreover, traditional banks should not feel the need to provide all these services in-house. There are plenty of fintech partners they can lean on, with very specialized capabilities in these services, to help diversify their products and services.

4. Cost-effectiveness
There are often various costs associated with banking, both for the institution and the customer. The low overhead of digital banking allows for a significant reduction in cost and fees and may offer lower-cost options for individuals interested in opening multiple accounts.

Reducing costs may also mean reducing services and, at times, customer experiences. There’s no such thing as a free lunch; the less a customer pays, the less they may get. Many community banks offer more products and services, as well as helpful staff and peace of mind for small financial cost.

5. Environmental consciousness
Working to become more environmentally friendly is becoming an important step for all institutions. Digital banks are succeeding in reducing their carbon footprint and overall waste.

Many traditional banks are making great headway in becoming more environmentally friendly, and have the added benefit of making these changes optional. Many of the customer-facing changes can be approved or rejected by the customer, such as electing paperless statements, giving them more control over their banking experience. Digital banks are challenging traditional community banks in many ways. But community banks can leverage the substantial competitive advantages they already possess to continue providing a greater and more comprehensive experience than digital banks.

Five Considerations for Stronger Digital Communications Adoption

Digital banking services and capabilities are increasingly one of the most important areas of investment for community banks.

Community bank customers appreciate the personal service they receive from their local bank but desire the technology capabilities offered at national banks. Community banks are challenged to deliver seamless, robust digital banking services in a cost-effective manner. These challenges create some compromised digital banking experiences, particularly around digital communications.

Community banks consistently have much lower adoption rates of digital statement compared to large national banks. Bank leaders often cite demographics as the leading factor in the lack of migration to digital communication, with many banks assuming that only younger, wealthier customers adopt digital banking solutions. In reality, adoption rates are fairly consistent across age, income and location. 

Instead, many regional and community bank customers do not adopt digital solutions because they do not trust their bank’s offerings. The network of third-party vendors a bank uses creates a patchwork of solutions that may not communicate effectively, resulting in a negative user experience. This friction results in abandonment, as customers decide to just continue accepting the traditional printed communications.

The good news is that this area can be fixed — but it requires community bankers to fully understand what is needed to create a well-designed digital communications experience.

Crafting A User Interface, Appearance
A customer’s experiences must be consistent across the bank. Banks thrive at managing a customer’s in-person interactions; its digital presence, online and mobile offerings should offer the same experience. When electronic statements on the digital platform look unsophisticated and lack consistency in design, it leaves a bad impression with the customer. The online site must be responsive and mobile-friendly, enabling the customer to bank on-the-go.

Fully Functional Entitlement Management
Passwords, authorizations and verifications can easily become one of the frustrating components of digital adoption for customers. Most often, customers are unaware that numerous third-party vendors are involved in making their digital experience a reality. When they change or update their settings, they expect these changes to occur across their account in real-time. Any delay or latency results in an inconsistent experience for the customer.

Centralizing Preferences, Settings
Bank customers encounter digital experiences that consist of digital banking preference settings in one place on the website or mobile app and settings for digital communications in another area. This can create confusion among customers. Since they may not be aware that the digital communications may be held by one vendor, and other account functions are held by others, it seems to make little sense why all settings are not centralized in one place. It is worth exploring the options to unite these components in one place, further eliminating potential friction.

Longer Retention Period
Communications archival is one of the most beneficial — yet overlooked advantages — for digital adoption. Customers may or may not refer to previous communications such as notices and statements regularly, but when they need them, they will appreciate the capability. Community banks do not often like to pay for the server space needed to store these past communications, but it is an area executive should consider when trying to increase digital adoption. Customers cite short retention periods as a reason for electing to continue to receive paper statements.

Innovative Notification Options
Most legacy digital communication integrations use email as the primary method of notifying customers. Today’s bank customer is inundated with emails from work, personal matters and retailers. They are also cautious about opening emails due to hackers often masking themselves as financial institutions in phishing and other fraud-related schemes. The best way to get around this is through real-time integrations between digital banking and digital communication systems, offering the use of SMS or push notifications when possible.

Achieving greater digital adoption is possible. The status quo not only leaves most banks spending more per customer to deliver documents than their large, national bank competitors, but it gives customers the impression that they cannot manage their digital experience effectively.

The good news for regional and community banks is that it is possible to improve on the efforts already in place to build a strong digital presence by choose vendors that are truly committed to the open banking concept. Once the ecosystem of vendors works together, community banks will be in a much better position to market and grow their digital adoption efforts.

Turning Goals from Wishes to Outcomes

Community banks should measure their goals and objectives against four tests in order to craft sustainable approaches and outcomes.

Community banks set goals: growth targets for loans or deposits, an earnings target for the security portfolio, an return on equity target for the year. But aggressive loan growth may not be a prudent idea if loan-to-asset levels are already high entering a credit downturn. Earnings targets can be dangerous if they are pursued at any cost, regardless of risk. However, in the right context, each of these can lead to good outcomes.

The first test of any useful goal is answering whether it’s a good idea.

One personal example is that about a year ago I set a new goal to lose 100 pounds. I consulted with my doctor and we agreed that it was a good idea. So then we moved to the second test of a useful goal: Is it sustainable?

As “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” author James Clear puts it: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your process and systems.”

What good would my weight loss goal be if it wasn’t sustainable? If the approach I took did not change my habits and instead put me through a shock program, there would be little reason to doubt that the approaches and habits that led me to create this goal would bring me back there again. The only way to pursue my goal in a sustainable fashion would changing my habits — my personal processes and systems.

Banks often pursue goals in unstainable ways as well.

Consider a bank that set a goal in June 2018 of earning $3 million annually from its $100 million securities portfolio with no more than 5 years’ duration (sometimes called a “yield bogey”). Given a choice between a 5-year bullet agency at 2.86% and a 5-year, non-call 2-year agency at 3.10%, only the latter meets or beats the goal. A 3.10% yield earns $310,000 for this portfolio.

In June 2020, the callable bond got called and was replaced by a similar length bond yielding only 40 basis points, or $40,000, for the remaining three years. The sustainable plan would have earned us $286,000 for the past two years — but also $286,000 for the next three. To make earnings sustainable, banks always need to consider multiple scenarios, a longer timeframe and potentially relaxing their rigid “bogey” that may cost them future performance.

 The third test of a useful goal is specifying action.

The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “There are only two rules for being successful: One, figure out what exactly you want to do, and two, do it.”

In my case, I didn’t do anything unsustainable. In fact, I did not do anything at all to work toward my long-term goal. When I checked my weight six months later, it should not have surprised me to see I had lost zero pounds. A goal that you do not change your habits for is not an authentic goal; it is at best a wish.

My wish had gotten exactly what you would expect: nothing. Upon realizing this, I took two material steps. It was not a matter of degree, but of specific, detailed plans. I changed my diet, joined a gym and spent $100 to fix my bicycle.

The fourth test of a useful goal is if it is based on positive changes to habits.

Banks must often do something similar to transform their objectives from wishes to authentic goals. Habits — or as we call them organizationally, processes and systems — must be elevated. A process of setting an earnings or yield bogey for the bond portfolio relied on the hope that other considerations, such as call protection and rate changes, wouldn’t come into play.

An elevated process would plan for earnings needs in multiple scenarios over a reasonable time period. Like repairing my bike, it may have required “spending” a little bit in current yield to actually reach a worthy outcome, no matter which scenario actually played out.

If your management team does not intentionally pursue positive changes to processes and systems (habits), its goals may plod along as mere wishes. As for me, six months after making changes to my habits, I have lost 50 pounds with 50 more to go. Everything changed the day I finally took the action to turn a wish into a useful goal.

Capital, Digital Initiatives Set De Novos Up for Success

In 2018, Matt Pollock and a group of business leaders and experienced bankers organized a new bank to fill a gap they saw in the Oklahoma City market. And he believes their tech-forward approach sets them apart from competing financial institutions.

“A lot of [banks] fall into the same traps in how they approach client services and products and relationships, and they just don’t do a very good job,” says Pollock, the CEO of $110 million Watermark Bank, which opened its doors in January 2019. “So, we really focused on [building] the right team, with the right model that really drives the business community.”

Few de novo banks have formed since the 2008-09 financial crisis. Of the 1,042 community banks chartered in the eight years preceding that crisis, 13% failed and another 20% were acquired or liquidated, according to a 2016 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. study. Overall, de novo banks accounted for 27% of all failures from 2008 to 2015, and exited at double the rate of small, established banks.

De novo institutions are particularly fragile: They don’t tend to be profitable in their early years as they invest in building their business and reputation in their markets. In today’s environment, low rates pressure net interest margins, exacerbating these challenges.

With that in mind, Bank Director used FDIC data to analyze the 24 de novo banks formed from January 2017 through December 2019 to understand how they’re performing today and how they might weather the current economic downturn. We examined efficiency, through the overhead and efficiency ratios, and profitability, through return on assets and return on equity, as of Dec. 31, 2019. We also included equity capital to assets and net interest margin in the analysis. Watermark came in fifth in our ranking.  

Today’s batch of de novo banks features higher capital levels, a requirement that has dampened new bank formation. (The FDIC doesn’t set a minimum capital threshold for de novo banks; expectations vary based on the bank’s market, size, complexity, activities and business model.)

If the recession deepens, those high capital levels could come in handy as banks find it trickier to raise more capital, says Nicholas Graham, senior managing director at FinPro. “Many of the de novos that formed over the past several years, in a very general statement, have not fully leveraged their capital to date,” he says. “Therefore, they have more capital right now, all else being equal, to potentially weather this storm.”

Stringent capital requirements led some bank organizers to acquire rather than start a bank from scratch. Not so for Watermark Bank. Acquiring a charter was too expensive due to high bank valuations toward the end of the cycle, says Pollock, and an acquisition would have bogged the founders down with legacy cultural and technological issues.

So, they decided to start fresh. “Let’s build our systems and our workflows exactly how we want to do it; we’ll have to roll up our sleeves, it will take a little bit longer, probably a little bit more work but in the end, it would be a benefit,” says Pollock. “We ran a very lean operation, opened with 12 people, got up and running, and we quickly got to a break-even faster than many others.”

Prioritizing technology sets Watermark and many of its de novo peers apart from those chartered before the 2008-09 crisis. And it allowed Watermark to rise to the occasion in issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans, despite high demand and a spare staff.

“We did as many PPP loans in 10 days as we did loan transactions in our first year of operation,” says Pollock. “There was some stress, but at the end of the day we walked away and said, ‘We have good processes and procedures, we have extremely talented people, and we’re capable of leveraging our platform and our operational capabilities that we have today to a much higher level,’” he says.

Flexibility and nimbleness give de novo banks an advantage. “They’re more quickly able to adapt and add new products and services that may be more beneficial in this time of uncertainty,” says Graham.

Savvy de novos are investing in the digital infrastructure needed for modern banking, says Rick Childs, a partner at Crowe LLP. But there’s one more attribute he believes strengthens a de novo: extensive banking experience on the board and management team.

“You can skin the cat a lot of different ways in banking, but if you don’t have a lot of capital to help you weather the lean years, and if you don’t have strong management and [directors] to make sure you’re not taking unnecessary risk,” it will be hard to survive, he says. “[If] you know how to react when a difficult time comes around, then the rest will follow.”

Top Performing De Novo Banks

Rank Bank Name Asset Size (000s) NIM (3/31/2020) Overall Score
#1 The Bank of Austin $202,738 3.36% 5.8
#2 CommerceOneBank $258,590 3.34% 6.2
#3 Winter Park National Bank $418,816 2.89% 7.0
#4 Tennessee Bank & Trust $272,173 3.25% 7.7
#5 Watermark Bank $110,423 3.40% 8.0
#6 Infinity Bank $110,145 4.41% 8.6
#7 Ohio State Bank $130,519 2.22% 9.5
#8 Gulfside Bank $97,154 3.14% 10.6
#9 The Millyard Bank $23,524 1.41% 11.2
#10 Beacon Community Bank $161,029 3.05% 12.1

Source: Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Each bank was ranked based on profitability, efficiency, NIM and capital as of Dec. 31, 2019. The overall score reflects the average of these ranks.