The Issue Plaguing Banks These Days

Net interest margin lies at the very core of banking and is under substantial and unusual pressures that threaten to erode profitability and interest income for quarters to come. Community banks that can’t grow loans or defend their margins will face a number of complicated and difficult choices as they decide how to respond.

I chatted recently with Curtis Carpenter, senior managing director at the investment bank Hovde Group, ahead of his main stage session at Bank Director’s in-person Bank Board Training Forum today at the JW Marriott Nashville. He struck a concerned tone for the industry in our call. He says he has numerous questions about the long-term outlook of the industry, but most of them boil down to one fundamental one: How can banks defend their margins in this low rate, low loan growth environment?

Defending the margin will dominate boardroom and C-suite discussions for at least eight quarters, he predicts, and may drive a number of banks to consider deals to offset the decline. That fundamental challenge to bank profitability joins a number of persistent challenges that boards face, including attracting and retaining talent, finding the right fintech partners, defending customers from competitors and increasing shareholder value.

The trend of compressing margins has been a concern for banks even before the Federal Open Market Committee dropped rates to near zero in March 2020 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, but it has become an increasingly urgent issue, Carpenter says. That’s because for more than a year, bank profitability was buffeted by mitigating factors like the rapid build-up in loan loss provisions and the subsequent drawdowns, noise from the Paycheck Protection Program, high demand for mortgages and refinancing, stimulus funds and enhanced unemployment benefits. Those have slowly ebbed away, leaving banks to face the reality: interest rates are at historic lows, their balance sheets are swollen with deposits and loan demand is tepid at best.

Complicating that further is that the Covid-19 pandemic, aided by the delta variant, stubbornly persists and could make a future economic rebound considerably lumpier. The Sept. 8 Beige Book from the Federal Reserve Board found that economic growth “downshifted slightly to a moderate pace” between early July and August. Growth slowed because of supply chain disruption, labor shortages and consumers pulling back on “dining out, travel, and tourism…  reflecting safety concerns due to the rise of the Delta variant.”

“It’s true that the net interest margin is always a focus, but this is an unusual interest rate environment,” Carpenter says. “For banks that are in rural areas that have lower loan demand, it’s an especially big threat. They have fewer options compared to banks in a more robust growth area.”

The cracks are already starting to form, according to the Quarterly Banking Profile of the second quarter from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The average net interest margin for the nearly 5,000 insured banks shrank to 2.5% — the lowest level on record, according to the regulator, and down 31 basis points from a year ago. At community banks, as defined by the FDIC, net interest margin fell 26 basis points, to 3.25%. Net interest income fell by 1.7%, which totaled $2.2 billion in the second quarter, driven by the largest banks; three-fifths of all banks reported higher net interest income compared to a year ago. Carpenter believes that when it comes to net interest margin compression, the worst is yet to come.

“The full effect of the net interest margin squeeze is going to be seen in coming quarters,” he says, calling the pressure “profound.”

On the asset side, intense competition for scarce loan demand is driving down yields. Total loans grew only 0.3% from the first quarter, due to an increase in credit card balances and auto loans. Community banks saw a 0.5% decrease in loan balances from the first quarter, driven by PPP loan forgiveness and payoffs in commercial and industrial loans.

On the funding side, banks are hitting the floors on their cost of funds, no longer able to keep pace with the decline on earning assets. The continued pace of earning asset yield declines means that net interest margin compression may actually accelerate, Carpenter says.

Directors know that margin compression will define strategic planning and bank profitability over the next eight quarters, he says. They also know that without a rate increase, they have only a few options to combat those pressures outside of finding and growing loans organically.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Carpenter, a long-time investment banker, sees mergers and acquisitions as an answer to the fundamental question of how to handle net interest margin compression. Of course, the choice to engage in M&A or decide to sell an institution is a major decision for boards, but some may find it the only way to meaningfully combat the forces facing their bank.

Banks in growth markets or that have built niche lending or fee business lines enjoy “real premiums” when it comes to potential partners, he adds. And conversations around mergers-of-equals, or MOEs, at larger banks are especially fluid and active — even more so than traditional buyer-seller discussions. So far, there have been 132 deals announced year-to-date through August, compared to 103 for all of 2020, according to a new analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

For the time being, Carpenter recommends directors keep abreast of trends that could impact bank profitability and watch the value of their bank, especially if their prospects are dimmed over the next eight quarters.

“It seems like everybody’s talking to everybody these days,” he says.

The Evolving, Post-Pandemic Role of Management and Directors

Many community bankers and their boards are entering the post-pandemic world blindfolded. The pandemic had an uneven impact on industries within their geographic footprints, and there is no historical precedent for how recovery will take shape. Government intervention propped up many small businesses, disguising their paths forward.

Federal Reserve monetary policies have hindered the pro forma clarity that bank management and boards require to create and evaluate strategic plans. Yet these plans are more vital than ever, especially as M&A activity increases.

“The pandemic and challenging economic conditions could contribute to renewed consolidation and merger activity in the near term, particularly for banks already facing significant earnings pressure from low interest rates and a potential increase in credit losses,” the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned in its 2021 risk review.

Bank management and boards must be able to understand shareholder value in the expected bearish economy, along with the financial markets that will accompany increased M&A activity. They need to understand how much their bank is worth at any time, and what market trends and economic scenarios will affect that valuation.

As the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency noted in its November 2020 Director’s Book, “information requirements should evolve as the bank grows in size and complexity and as the bank’s environment or strategic goals change.”

Clearly, the economic environment has changed. Legacy financial statements that rely on loan categories instead of industries will not serve bank management or boards of directors well in assessing risks and opportunities. Forecasting loan growth and credit quality will depend on industry behavior.

This is an extraordinary opportunity for bank management to exploit the knowledge of their directors and get them truly involved in the strategic direction of their banks. Most community bank directors are not bankers, but local industry leaders. Their expertise can be vital to directly and accurately link historical and pro forma information to industry segments.

Innovation is essential when it comes to providing boards with the critical information they need to fulfill their fiduciary duties. Bank CEOs must reinvent their strategic planning processes, finding ways to give their boards an ever-changing snapshot of the bank, its earnings potential, its risks and its opportunities. If bank management teams do not change how they view strategic planning, and what kind of data to provide the board, directors will remain in the dark and miss unique opportunities for growth that the bank’s competitors will seize.

The OCC recommends that boards consider these types of questions as part of their oversight of strategic planning:

  • Where are we now? Where do we want to be, and how do we get there? And how do we measure our progress along the way?
  • Is our plan consistent with the bank’s risk appetite, capital plan and liquidity requirements? The OCC advises banks to use stress testing to “adjust strategies, and appropriately plan for and maintain adequate capital levels.” Done right, stress testing can show banks the real-word risk as certain industries contract due to pandemic shifts and Fed actions.
  • Has management performed a “retrospective review” of M&A deals to see if they actually performed as predicted? A recent McKinsey & Co. review found that 70% of recentbank acquisitions failed to create value for the buyer.

Linking loan-level data to industry performance within a bank’s footprint allows banks to increase their forecasting capability, especially if they incorporate national and regional growth scenarios. This can provide a blueprint of how, when and where to grow — answering the key questions that regulators expect in a strategic plan. Such information is also vital to ensure that any merger or acquisition is successful.

2021 Technology Survey Results: Tracking Spending and Strategy at America’s Banks

JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon recognizes the enormous competitive pressures facing the banking industry, particularly from big technology companies and emerging startups.

“The landscape is changing dramatically,” Dimon said at a June 2021 conference, where he described the bank’s growth strategy as “three yards and a cloud of dust” —  a phrase that described football coach Woody Hayes’ penchant for calling running plays that gain just a few yards at a time. Adding technology, along with bankers and branches, will drive revenues at Chase — and also costs. The megabank spends around $11 billion a year on technology. Products recently launched include a digital investing app in 2019, and a buy now, pay later installment loan called “My Chase Plan” in November 2020. It’s also invested in more than 100 fintech companies.

“We think we have [a] huge competitive advantage,” Dimon said, “and huge competition … way beyond anything the banks have seen in the last 50 [to] 75 years.”

Community banks’ spending on technology won’t get within field-goal distance of JPMorgan Chase’s technology spend, but budgets are rising. More than three-quarters of the executives and board members responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, say their technology budget for fiscal year 2021 increased from 2020, at a median of 10%. The survey, conducted in June and July, explores how banks with less than $100 billion in assets leverage their technology investment to respond to competitive threats, along with the adoption of specific technologies.

Those surveyed budgeted an overall median of almost $1.7 million in FY 2021 for technology, which works out to 1% of assets, according to respondents. A median 40% of that budget goes to core systems.

However, smaller banks with less than $500 million in assets are spending more, at a median of 3% of assets. Further, larger banks with more than $1 billion in assets spend more on expertise, in the form of internal staffing and managed services — indicating a widening expertise gap for community banks.

Key Findings

Competitive Concerns
Despite rising competition outside the traditional banking sphere — including digital payment providers such as Square, which launched a small business banking suite shortly after the survey closed in July — respondents say they consider local banks and credit unions (54%), and/or large and superregional banks (45%), to be the greatest competitive threats to their bank.

Digital Evolution Continues
Fifty-four percent of respondents believe their customers prefer to interact through digital channels, compared to 41% who believe their clients prefer face-to-face interactions. Banks continued to ramp up their digital capabilities in the third and fourth quarters of last year and into the first half of 2021, with 41% upgrading or implementing digital deposit account opening, and 30% already offering this capability. More than a third upgraded or implemented digital loan applications, and 27% already had this option in place.

Data Dilemma
One-third upgraded or implemented data analytics capabilities at their bank over the past four quarters, and another third say these capabilities were already in place. However, when asked about their bank’s internal technology expertise, more than half say they’re concerned the bank isn’t effectively using and/or aggregating its data. Less than 20% have a chief data officer on staff, and just 13% employ data scientists.

Cryptocurrency
More than 40% say their bank’s leadership team has discussed cryptocurrency and are weighing the potential opportunities and risks. A quarter don’t expect cryptocurrency to affect their bank; a third haven’t discussed it.

Behind the Times
Thirty-six percent of respondents worry that bank leaders have an inadequate understanding of how emerging technologies could impact their institution. Further, 31% express concern about their reliance on outdated technology.

Serving Digital Natives
Are banks ready to serve younger generations? Just 43% believe their bank effectively serves millennial customers, who are between 25 and 40 years old. But most (57%) believe their banks are taking the right steps with the next generation — Gen Z, the oldest of whom are 24 years old. It’s important that financial institutions start getting this right: More than half of Americans are millennials or younger.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Meeting Customer Demand for Bitcoin

NYDIG-Report.pngCommunity banks across the country play a critical role in advancing the American dream, helping everyday Americans purchase assets and pursue financial freedom.

Today, that role includes helping consumers safely purchase and custody bitcoin. An estimated 46 million Americans over the age of 18 have acquired bitcoin since it was first created more than a decade ago, according to research from New York Digital Investment Group (NYDIG). But as ownership rates have risen, banks have struggled to provide bitcoin services to their customers. Concerns about safety, along with regulatory and institutional unfamiliarity, have created a gap now occupied by third-party digital asset exchanges and financial applications.

Fintech competitors are increasingly luring deposits away from traditional banks, with customers moving their money from traditional bank accounts to digital wallets on third-party sites. The experience is cumbersome because users can’t manage and view their holdings alongside other investments and credit accounts, says Patrick Sells, head of bank and fintech solutions at NYDIG. A customer’s primary financial institution can still become be the natural nexus for bitcoin solutions — if bank leaders are willing to take advantage of this opportunity.

Banks interested in adding bitcoin products will have to answer the same crucial questions that arise when evaluating any new offering or technology: How difficult will this be to implement, and how much will it cost? What will the bank need to do from a risk assessment perspective?

Partnering with companies that have the requisite expertise and investments in this space can help banks quickly address those gaps — and potentially generate new sources of revenues.

For a downloadable version of this report, click here.

Community Banks and the Adoption of Real-Time Payments

The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically reshaped how community banks approach digital transformation.

This is largely in response to the shift in fundamental consumer behaviors and new technology, as Americans adapted to the realities of the pandemic. According to a report from Mojo, 44% of consumers who wait to adopt new technology have shifted to an “early adopter” stance. Additionally, 41% of “later adopters” stated they were likely to adopt new technology at a faster pace, even after the pandemic subsides.

Digital innovation is no longer an option for banks. Financial institutions must evaluate their digital products against consumer expectations. Leading the list of customer demands is access to more convenient and immediate payments. The pandemic’s remoteness made receiving and making immediate payments a necessity, accelerating the movement to real-time payments (RTP).

RTP are not a new concept; many countries have transitioned from paper-based payments and directly to real time. The U.S. has successfully worked with electronic payments, but is now behind in the global shift to real time. The Clearing House launched RTP in 2017; it experienced slow but steady growth initially but has been propelled by the pandemic more recently.

Addressing the growing need for immediate payments, the Federal Reserve announced plans for FedNow to streamline the clearing and settlement process. FedNow will enable customers to move funds instantly between accounts, pay bills and transfer between family and friends. Though FedNow garnered strong support from banks, it is not expected to launch until 2023 at the earliest.

No Time to Wait
Financial institutions are finding it difficult to wait for FedNow. Although vaccinations have blunted most of the impacts from the pandemic, the changes in consumer habits engendered by the pandemic persist — including demand for innovation in real-time payments. Consumers looked to technology for shopping, entertainment, paying bills and banking in general. A recent PYMNTS survey found that 24% of consumers would switch to financial institutions that offered RTP capabilities. It’s critical that banks recognize and react to this paradigm shift in payment by prioritizing RTP solutions.

Popular P2P payments apps like Venmo, PayPal Holdings, and other solutions from big tech companies underline that consumers are willing to adopt new technologies to meet a need. Now, these firms are offering credit cards, loans and even demand deposit accounts. (I even received an invitation to open a checking account from my cell phone company!) This should be a wake-up call to banks. In the same PYMNTS survey, researchers found 35% of consumers consider access to real-time payments as “extremely” important. These survey results reflect a growing trend and reality that financial institutions must recognize and address.

The race is now on to compete with non-traditional providers and megabanks to attract and retain tech-interested customers. Real-time payments are where consumers and businesses are headed. Financial institutions need to be fully engaged to connect to RTP or FedNow.

This is not an easy path for financial institutions that are used to making project decisions based on calculating the return on investment of the project alone. Strategic technology initiatives should be evaluated broadly, including the cost of doing business in banking. Large financial institutions have already moved forward to deliver top-notch digital services and experiences. To level the playing field, smaller institutions should look to technology savvy leaders and fintech partners to help deliver innovative solutions. Unheralded sources for fintech solutions are the bankers’ banks, which play a vital role for technology and as funding agents in RTP/FedNow and are offering innovative solutions to help community banks connect to real-time payments.

Changes in customer behavior and heightened demand for immediate payments driven by Covid-19 are here to stay; adoption of RTP will only continue to grow. In just the last year, real-time payments in the United States grew 69% year-over-year, according to Deloitte.

To act now, financial institutions should consider fintech partnerships to remain relevant in a dynamic financial and regulatory landscape. Financial institutions that tap into technology companies’ speed to market and access to a broader audience can approach RTP as a competitive advantage that distinguishes them in their local markets and attract new customers. Those taking a “wait and see approach” are already behind.

Embracing Fraud Protection as a Differentiator

Community banks are under pressure from the latest apps or start-ups that attempt to lure customers away with features that they may lack: cutting edge technology, international capabilities and a digital-first approach.

However, much less attention is focused on where established banks thrive: compliance. It might not be as flashy as the latest app, but being able to offer customers a sense of protection is more valuable than many would believe. Main Street banks have long been integral parts of their communities, serving both local businesses and families through their people-first approach. These institutions are well known for reinvesting back into their communities, making them intertwined with their neighborhood. This approach is unique and solidified the reputation of these institutions as personable — a sentiment that remains today, even as tech giants grow within the financial sector. Established institutions have an edge as their long histories and reputations are deemed by consumers as more trustworthy than fintechs.

Public trust is a valuable asset, especially after high-profile data breaches in recent years and coronavirus scams. Payment scams suffered by banks and companies are typically front-page news and can cause significant damage to the business with costly fines and reputation harm. More than 75% of customers say security is a top consideration when choosing a financial institution. Interestingly, even if the organization is not directly at fault, consumers still consider them culpable. In fact, 63% say a company is always responsible for their data — even if the scam resulted from their direct actions, including falling for an email scheme.

$1 Billion Threat
The realization that banking customers hold their banks accountable for all types of fraud and scams may be surprising to some financial leaders. It underscores the importance of banks taking an active role in educating users, as well as protecting their own security behind the scenes.

One of the most common schemes is business email compromise: a cyber crime where a payee sends fraudulent banking information to a business or individual, who unknowingly sends funds to the wrong account. The fraud grew during the coronavirus pandemic as many businesses worked remotely for the first time and relied on email in place of phone calls or in-person interactions. The FBI reported $26 billion in losses in just a three-year period.

Such numbers should concern financial institutions, especially since these funds can be difficult to recover. These incidents are likely underreported, meaning the real figures are likely much larger.

Three Immediate Actions
Today’s challenging environment for financial institutions means that little focus is placed on non-revenue generating activities, especially with the emergence of new fintechs and start-ups. However, helping to ensure that customer funds are protected and providing them with preventative advice could become a huge value-add for banks.

  1. Though some banks do make information available on their websites or in-branches, this is often an afterthought. Showcasing your institution as an authority on these matters will emphasize your desire to put customers first — and they will take notice.
  2. Many customers ignore the threat of fraud because they do not see themselves or their business as a potential victim. Taking the time to explain how a scam targets each customer segment will demonstrate your institution’s ability to identify and mitigate risks to each person.
  3. Monitoring fraud is particularly difficult for many institutions because threats are constantly evolving. Working with larger partners can be an asset, as bigger organizations are more likely to invest both funds and personnel in monitoring and combatting scams.

Many misconceptions regarding fraud still exist, and customers may not realize they are at risk before it’s too late. Transforming your institution into their financial protector could be a low-cost — yet valuable — way to stand out.

Building a Digital Masterpiece on Top of the Core

Digital banking has become a must-have feature. The coronavirus pandemic forced consumers to accelerate their adoption of digital banking tools; now they love the convenience and flexibility these products provide.

But what is troubling for banks is that many consumers do not care if these services are met by a traditional financial institution or a fintech challenger bank. U.S. consumers are increasingly comfortable transacting with an increasing number of financial service providers to get the specific products and features that are most important to them.

According to a recent survey conducted by Cornerstone Advisors, 35% of consumers now have more than one checking account, led by the 42% of millennials who have two or more accounts. The report found that challenger banks hold a growing number of these accounts by offering specific features that consumers can’t get from their existing financial institution.

This pressure is particularly high on community and regional banks, which lack the budgets and IT resources of the global banks. However, the technology powering challenger banks has also created an emerging option that enables banks to accelerate product innovation and effectively compete with larger financial institutions and challenger banks: modular banking.

Challenger Bank Tech, One Block at a Time

Community and regional banks in pursuit of innovation are often left to choose between two equally unappealing options: wait on a core that may not innovate at the speed they want or take on the risk of a massive core conversion.

Modular banking, on the other hand, applies the challenger bank approach of building hyper-focused services to the realities of a bank’s existing core and IT landscape. Modular banking platforms typically offer the same functionality as a modern core banking system. However, instead of building the entire platform at once, modular banking approaches service much like a set of building blocks. Banks only need to select the products and services that complement their existing systems’ functionality or build new digital products on top of it.

Put simply, modular banking looks at each piece of a bank’s functionality — such as Know Your Customer, card issuance, P2P or rewards — as a collection of loosely coupled microservices and application programming interfaces (APIs) that can be combined and deployed in a cloud environment to facilitate specific use cases.

Modular banking enables institutions to build specific products to meet the specific needs of their customers and quickly adjust as market conditions change. For example, a regional bank could solve an immediate need for banking products to offer contract workers with a pre-built module, before shifting to bring innovative features for families that make up most of the service area with teen and children accounts. A modular approach to digital transformation benefits small and mid-size community banks in two keys ways.

Quickly Develop New Products
By decoupling critical infrastructure, like the systems and processes that need to work reliably but don’t confer competitive differentiation, from the people, processes and technology focused on product innovation, modular banking provides a potential solution to execution challenges that banks face.

Productive Fintech Partnerships
Creating productive, long-term partnerships requires financial institutions to build mutually beneficial relationships with fintech companies. Innovating through fintech partnerships also requires banks to move fast, which is where modular banking comes in.

The open architecture of a modular banking platform can facilitate the rapid integration of third-party partners, by giving potential partners a modern API to connect to and build on top of. Bank leaders can take a much more proactive approach to pursuing and operationalizing new partnerships.

By building these strategic partnerships, they can create a competitive differentiator to fuel growth for the coming years.

Three Steps to Building a Commercial Card Business In-House

As the economy recovers from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, community banks will need to evaluate how to best serve their small and medium business (SMB) customers.

These companies will be seeking to ramp up hiring, restart operations or return to pre-pandemic levels of service. Many SMBs will turn to credit cards to help fund necessary changes — but too many community banks may miss out on this spending because they do not have a strong in-house commercial card business.

According to call reports from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., community banks make up half of all term loans to small businesses, yet four out of five have no credit card loans. At the same time, Accenture reports that commercial payments made via credit card are expected to grow 12% each year from 2019 to 2024. This is a significant strategic opportunity for community bankers to capitalize on the increased growth of cards and payments. Community bankers can use commercial cards to quickly capitalize on this growth and strengthen the relationships with existing SMB customers while boosting their local communities. Commercial credit cards can also be a sticky product banks can use to retain new Paycheck Protection Program loan customers.

Comparing Credit Card Program
Many community banks offer a branded business credit card program through the increasingly-outdated agent bank model. The agent bank model divorces the bank from their customer relationship, as well as any ability to provide local decisioning and servicing to their customers. Additionally, the community banks carry the risk of the credit lines they have guaranteed. In comparison, banks can launch an in-house credit card program within 90 days with modern technology and a partnership with the right provider. These programs require little to no upfront investment and don’t need additional human resources on the bank’s payroll.

Community banks can leverage new technology platforms that are substantially cheaper than previous programs, enabling issuers to launch products faster. The technology allows bank leaders to effortlessly update and modify products that cater to their customer’s changing needs. Technology can also lower customer acquisition and service costs through digital channels, especially when it comes to onboarding and self-service resources.

More importantly in agent bank models, the community bank does not underwrite, fund or keep the credit card balances on its books. It has little or no say in the issuing bank’s decisions to cancel a card; if it guarantees the loan, it takes all the risk but receives no incremental reward or revenue. The bank earns a small referral fee, but that is a fraction of the total return on assets it can earn by owning the loans and capturing the lucrative issuer interchange.

Bringing credit card business in-house allows for an enhanced user experience and improved customer retention. Community banks can use their unique insight to their SMB customers to craft personalized and tailored products, such as fleet cards, physical cards, ghost cards for preferred vendors or virtual cards for AP invoices. An in-house corporate credit card program gives banks complete access to customer data and total control over the user experience. They can also set their own update and product development timelines to better serve the changing needs of their customers.

Three Steps to Start an In-House Program
The first step to starting an in-house credit card program to build out the program’s strategy, including goals and parameters for credit underwriting. The underwriting strategy will establish score cutoffs, debt-to-income ratios, relationship values and other criteria so automated decisions reflect the policies and priorities of the bank. It is important to consider the relationship value of a customer, as it provides an edge in decision making for improved risk, better engagement and higher return. If a bank selects a seasoned technology partner, that partner may be able to provide a champion strategy and best practices from their experience.

Next, community banks should establish a long-term financial plan designed to meet its strategic objectives while addressing risk management criteria, including credit, collection and fraud exposures. It is important that bank leaders evaluate potential partners to ensure proper fraud protections and security. Some card platform providers will even share in the responsibility for fraud-related financial losses to help mitigate the risk for the bank.

The third step is to understand and establish support needs. These days, a strong account issuer program limits the bank’s need for dedicated personnel to operate or manage the portfolio. Many providers also offer resources to handle accounting and settlement, risk management, technology infrastructure, product development, compliance and customer service functions. The bank can work with partners to build the right mix of in-house and provided support, and align its compensation systems to provide the best balance of profitability and support.

Building an in-house corporate credit card program is an important strategic priority for every community bank, increasing its franchise value and ensuring its business is ready for the future.

Tailor Innovation With Fintech, Bank Collaborations

The Covid-19 pandemic reshaped the way that community banks think about their digital products and the expectations that consumers have for them. Digital transformation is no longer an option – it is a necessity.

In fact, 52% of consumers have used their financial institution’s digital banking services more since the start of the pandemic, according to BAI Banking Outlook. However, the research also found that only 61% of consumers feel their community bank understands their digital needs, compared to that 89% of direct bank consumers and 77% of large bank consumers.

As customers’ ever-growing expectations are not being met, banking teams are also concerned that their digital tools may be missing the mark. For many, the investments into digital solutions and tools are not having as wide as an impact as expected; on occasion, they do not hold any true benefit to their current and prospective account holders.

In addition, many community banks find themselves innovating for the sake of innovating, rather than solving real problems that exist within their target market. The communities that these banks serve are distinctive and can present unique challenges and opportunities, unlike those as little as a state away. Community banks must consider practical, powerful digital tools that benefit their one-of-a-kind customer base.

Rather than a product-driven approach to development, community banks must look to the niche needs within the market to discover areas to innovate. Identifying obstacles in the financial lives of existing customers and prospects ensures that community banks are working to solve a problem that will alleviate pain points for accountholders. But, with limited time and resources, how can this be accomplished?

Fintech-Bank Partnerships
Community banks can attract new customers, expand existing relationships and improve customer experience within the specific communities that they serve by implementing fintech solutions that are  specialized to the individual market or demographic.

It makes sense. Fintech-bank partnerships can pair a bank’s distinct market opportunities with technology that can effectively unlock niche verticals. We collaborated with five community banks who were searching for a responsive web app for digital commercial escrow and subaccounting that would eliminate the manual processes that limited their ability to handle commercial escrow and subaccounting accounts. Engaging with a fintech and leveraging extensive resources that are dedicated to developing and improving upon innovative technology gave these institutions a solution built with their companies in mind.

These partnerships between fintechs and banks are also more financially feasible — many community banks are unable to develop similar solutions in-house due to understaffing or lack of resources. With the help of a fintech, the institution can implement solutions faster and reach profitable clients sooner.

Fintech and bank collaborations are changing the way that community banks innovate. Together, they can expand the potential of a solution, both in its specialization and its capability, to better meet customer needs. Banking teams can provide the digital tools that their clients need and attract desirable clients that they hope to serve.

How Fintechs Can Help Advance Financial Inclusion

Last year, the coronavirus pandemic swiftly shut down the U.S. economy. Demand for manufactured goods stagnated while restaurant activity fell to zero. The number of unbanked and underbanked persons looked likely to increase, after years of decline. However, federal legislation has created incentives for community banks to help those struggling financially. Fintechs can also play an important role.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone — but not all equally. Although the number of American households with bank accounts grew to a record 95% in 2019 according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s “How America Banks” survey, the crisis is still likely to contribute to an increase in unbanked as unemployment remains high. Why should banks take action now?

Financial inclusion is critical — not just for those individuals involved, but for the wider economy. The Financial Health Network estimates that 167 million America adults are not “financially healthy,” while the FDIC reports that 85 million Americans are either unbanked or “underbanked” and aren’t able to access the traditional services of a financial institution.

It can be expensive to be outside of the financial services space: up to 10% of the income of the unbanked and underbanked is spent on interest and fees. This makes it difficult to set aside money for future spending or an unforeseen contingency. Having an emergency fund is a cornerstone of financial health, and a way for individuals to avoid high fees and interest rates of payday loans.

Promoting financial inclusion allows a bank to cultivate a market that might ultimately need more advanced financial products, enhance its Community Reinvestment Act standing and stimulate the community. Financial inclusion is a worthy goal for all banks, one that the government is also incentivizing.

Recent Government Action Creates Opportunity
Recent federal legislation has created opportunities for banks to help individuals and small businesses in economically challenged areas. The Consolidated Appropriations Act includes $3 billion in funding directed to Community Development Financial Institutions. CDFIs are financial institutions that share a common goal of expanding economic access to financial products and services for resident and businesses.

Approximately $200 million of this funding is available to all financial institutions — institutions do need not to be currently designated as a CDFI to obtain this portion of the funding. These funds offer a way to promoting financial inclusion, with government backing of your institution’s assistance efforts.

Charting a Path Toward Inclusion
The path to building a financially inclusive world involves a concerted effort to address many historic and systemic issues. There’s no simple guidebook, but having the right technology is a good first step.

Banks and fintechs should revisit their product roadmaps and reassess their innovation strategies to ensure they use technologies that can empower all Americans with access to financial services. For example, providing financial advice and education can extend a bank’s role as a trusted advisor, while helping the underbanked improve their banking aptitude and proficiency.

At FIS, we plan to continue supporting standards that advance financial inclusion, provide relevant inclusion research and help educate our partners on inclusion opportunities. FIS actively supports the Bank On effort to ensure Americans have access to safe, affordable bank or credit union accounts. The Bank On program, Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, certifies public-private partnership accounts that drive financial inclusion. Banks and fintechs should continue joining these efforts and help identify new features and capabilities that can provide affordable access to financial services.

Understanding the Needs of the Underbanked
Recent research we’ve conducted highlights the extent of the financial inclusion challenge. The key findings suggest that the underbanked population require a nuanced approach to address specific concerns:

  • Time: Customers would like to decrease time spent on, or increase efficiency of, engaging with their personal finances.
  • Trust: Consumers trust banks to secure their money, but are less inclined to trust them with their financial health.
  • Literacy: Respondents often use their institution’s digital tools and rarely use third-party finance apps, such as Intuit’s Mint and Acorns.
  • Guidance: The underbanked desire financial guidance to help them reach their goals.

Financial institutions must address both the transactional and emotional needs of the underbanked to accommodate the distinct characteristics of these consumers. Other potential banking product categories that can help to serve the underbanked include: financial services education programs, financial wellness services and apps and digital-only banking offerings.

FIS is committed to promoting financial inclusion. We will continue evaluating the role of technology in promoting financial inclusion and track government initiatives that drive financial inclusion to keep clients informed on any new developments.