Whipsawed by Interest Rates

One of the things that bankers hate most is uncertainty and abrupt changes in the underlying economics of their business, and the emerging global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is confronting them with the perfect storm.

You can blame it all on the Federal Reserve.

Indeed, the higher rates that the Fed gave in 2018, it is now taken away — and that is creating a big challenge for banks as they scramble to adapt to a very different interest rate scenario from what they were dealing with just 15 months ago.

On March 3, as the economic impact of the coronavirus both globally and in the United States was becoming more apparent and fears about a possible recession were mounting, the Fed made an emergency 50 basis-point cut in interest rates, to a range of 1% to 1.25%. The Fed’s action was dramatic not only because of the size of the reduction, but also because this action was taken “off cycle” — which is to say two weeks prior to the next scheduled meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, which is the Fed’s rate-setting body.

And as this article was being posted, many market observers were expecting that the Fed would follow with another rate cut at its March 17-18 meeting, which would drive down rates to their lowest levels since the financial crisis 12 years ago. Needless to say, banks have been whipsawed by these abrupt shifts in monetary policy. The Fed increased rates four times in 2018, to a range of 2.25% to 2.50%, then lowered rates three times in 2019 when the U.S. economy seemed to be softening, to a range of 1.50% to 1.75%.    

Now, it appears that interest rates might go even lower.

What should bank management teams do to deal with this unexpected shift in interest rates? To gain some insight into that question, I reached out to Matt Pieniazek, president of the Darling Consulting Group in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I’ve known Pieniazek for several years and interviewed him on numerous occasions, and consider him to be one of the industry’s leading experts on asset/liability management. Pieniazek says he has been swamped by community banks looking for advice about how to navigate this new rate environment.

One of Pieniazek’s first comments was to lament that many banks didn’t act sooner when the Fed cut rates last year. “It’s just disappointing that too many banks let their own biases get in the way, rather than listen to their balance sheets,” he says. “There are a lot of things that could’ve been done. Now everyone’s in a panic, and they’re willing to talk about doing things today when the dynamics of it are not very encouraging. Risk return or the cost benefit are just nowhere near the same as what they were just six months ago, let alone a year, year and a half ago.”

So, what’s to be done?

Pieniazek’s first suggestion is to dramatically lower funding costs. “No matter how low their funding costs are, very few banks are going to be able to outrun this on the asset side,” he says. “They’ve got to be able to [be] diligent and disciplined and formalized in their approach to driving down deposit costs.”

“In doing so, they have to acknowledge that there could be some risk of loss of balances,” Pieniazek continues. “As a result, they need to really revisit their contingency liquidity planning. They have to also revisit with management and the board the extent to which they truly are willing to utilize wholesale funding. The more you’re willing to do that, the more you would be willing to test the water on lowering deposits. I think there is a correlation to comfort level and challenging yourself to lower deposits and well thought out contingency planning that incorporates the willingness and ability to prudently use the wholesale market. Aggressively attacking deposit costs has to be accompanied by a real hard, fresh look at contingency liquidity planning and the bank’s philosophy toward wholesale markets.”

This strategy of driving down funding costs might be a hard sell in a market where competitors are still paying relatively high rates on deposits. “Well, you know what?” Pieniazek says. “You’ve got two choices. You either let village idiots drive your business, or you do what makes sense for your organization.”

Most banks will also feel pressure on the asset side of their balance sheets as rates decline. Banks that have a large percentage of floating rate loans may not have enough funding to offset them. As those loans reprice in a falling rate environment, banks will feel pressure to correspondingly lower their funding costs to protect their net interest margins as much as possible. And while community banks typically don’t have a lot of floating rate loans, they do have high percentages of commercial real estate loans, which Pieniazek estimates have an average life span of two and a half years. The only alternative to lowering deposit costs to protect the margin would be to dramatically grow the loan portfolio during a time of great economic uncertainty. But as Pieniazek puts it, “There’s not enough growth out there at [attractive] yield levels to allow people to head off that margin compression.”

Pieniazek’s second suggestion is to review your loan documents. “While I’m not suggesting [interest] rates are going to go negative, most banks do not have loan docs which prevent rates from going negative,” he says. “They need to revisit their loan docs and make sure that there’s lifetime floors on all of their loans that will not enable the actual note rate to go zero. They could always negotiate lower if they want. They can’t negotiate up.”

His final suggestion is that community banks need to strongly consider the use of derivatives to hedge their interest rate exposure. “If you think in an environment like this that your customers are going to allow you to dictate the structure of your balance sheet, you better think again,” he says. “Everyone’s going to want to shorten up … What you’re going to find is retail customers are going to keep their money short. In times of uncertainty, what do people want to do? They want to keep their cash close to them, don’t they?”

Of course, while depositors are going to keep their money on a short leash, borrowers “are going to want to know what the 100-year loan rate is,” Pieniazek says. And this scenario creates the potential for disaster that has been seen time and again in banking — funding long-term assets with short-term deposits.

The only thing you can do is augment customer behavior through the use of derivatives,” Pieniazek says. “Interest rate caps are hugely invaluable here for banks to hedge against rising rates while allowing their funding costs to remain or cycle lower if rates go lower. In a world of pressure for long-term fixed rate assets, being able to do derivatives … allows banks to convert fixed-rate loans in their portfolio to floating for whatever time period they want, starting whenever they want.”

During times of uncertainty and volatility, Pieniazek says it’s crucial that bank management teams make sound judgments based on a clear understanding of their ramifications. “Don’t let panic and fear result in you changing your operating strategy,” he says. “The worst thing to do is make material changes because of fear and panic. Let common sense and a clear understanding of your balance sheet, your risk profile, drive your thought process. And don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.”

AI: The Slingshot for Small Banks

Regional and community banks are struggling with growth and profitability in the face of competitive pressure from large national banks and fintech startups. Executives at these institutions are instructed to invest in technology, and to leverage data and artificial intelligence to compete more effectively.

While that sounds good, smaller banks are often constrained by a dependence on legacy core vendors that limits their IT potential, encounter difficulties in accessing their own data, lack skilled data scientists, and have no clear vision on where to start.

This conundrum came up during Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference in Phoenix. I rubbed shoulders with fellow conference attendees over the course of three days, sharing ideas about the state of the banking sector and how community banks could leverage data and AI to drive business results. The talent gap was a frequent topic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only a miniscule number of community banks have hired data scientists. The majority of banks have not prioritized data science capabilities; the few who are actively recruiting data scientists are struggling to attract the right talent.

But even if community banks could arm up with data scientists, what volume of data will they be working on to derive insights to fuel their business strategy? A $1 billion asset bank may have 50,000 to 75,000 customers — not a lot of data to start with. Furthermore, a number of bankers point to the difficulties they encounter in accessing their data in their legacy core systems.

As we were having these discussions, conversations were raging about the need for smaller banks to prepare for an existential threat. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, attendees were assessing comments from Bank of America Corp. Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan that the bank could double its U.S. consumer market share. Back-of-envelope calculations indicate that if Bank of America manages to accomplish that growth, more than 1,000 community banks could be out of business. Can technology enable these banks to retain their core customer base, grow and avoid this fate? I think so.

One promising area of AI application for community banks is loan and deposit pricing. Community banks have little or no analytic tools beyond competitive rate surveys; most rely on anecdotal feedback from customers and front-line bankers. But price setting and execution on both assets and liabilities is one of the most important levers a bank can use to drive both growth and improve its net interest margin. Community banks should take advantage of new tools and data to level the playing field with the big banks, which are already well ahead of them in adopting price optimization technology.   

Small banks can gain the upper hand in this “David versus Goliath” scenario because accessible cloud-based technology works in their favor. True, big banks have worked with price optimization technology and leveraged large amounts of customer behavioral data for years. But community banks tend to have stronger customer relationships and often better pricing power than their larger competitors. Now is the time for community banks to take control of their destiny by adopting new technology and tools so they can better compete on price.

There are three reasons why cloud computing and the power of AI will be the slingshot of these ‘David’ banks:

  1. Scalable computing power, instantly on tap. Cloud-based computing and pre-configured pricing solutions are affordable and can be implemented in days, not months.
  2. Big data — as a service. Community banks can quickly leverage AI-based pricing models that have been trained on hundreds of millions of transactions. There is no need to build their own analytic models from a small customer footprint.
  3. Plug-and-play IT. It’s much easier today to integrate cloud-based platforms with a bank’s core system providers, which makes accessing their own data and implementing smarter pricing feasible.

Five years ago, it would have seemed crazy to think that in 2020, community banks would be applying AI to compete against the nation’s top banks. But the first wave of early adopters are already deploying AI for pricing. I predict we’ll see more institutions embracing AI and machine learning to improve their NIM and increase growth over the coming years.

How One Bank Puts Agile Management Techniques Into Action

When David Mansfield took the reins as CEO of Provident Bancorp six years ago, he could see that a change was needed, and that required new thinking.

“We were a typical community bank trying to be everything to everybody,” says Mansfield. He transformed the $1.1 billion bank based in Amesbury, Massachusetts, into a “true commercial bank” to the small and mid-sized companies that form the “backbone” of the community.

We’re trying to offer products and services that are not commodities, where we can differentiate ourselves, add value and get paid for it,” says Mansfield. “The customer’s appreciative, because they’re getting a product or service that really isn’t available to [small and mid-sized companies]” — like specialty services usually offered by large regional and money-center banks to their corporate clients.

To accomplish that, he needed employees who weren’t afraid to shake things up. He also needed to develop a culture and tools that facilitated collaboration within the organization. To do this, he borrowed managerial techniques from the technology sector by adopting Lean and Agile techniques.

Teams within the bank using these methods identify how to improve processes and workflows. “We have had some really amazing success stories,” says Mansfield.

Lean management aims for continual, incremental improvement. Quick “daily huddles” in the bank help staff focus on the day. In these 15-minute standup meetings, employees provide a quick update about progress on key projects and share any obstacles they’re facing so these issues can be addressed.

Mansfield credits Lean methods for improving interdepartmental dynamics. “One of the major premises of Lean [is that] it’s all about the customer experience, and we truly believe within this organization that everybody has a customer,” he says. Loan officers and branch staff directly interact with the customer, but support staff have a customer, too: their colleagues serving the customer. “What I love about our IT group is, they believe that wouldn’t happen unless they serve their customer, which is that group of people.”

Provident Bancorp still incorporates Lean thinking, but started shifting to Agile techniques late last year, upon hiring Joy Curth as senior information officer. Curth’s experience includes a stint in application development at Intuit, and she understands Agile methods. The principles of Lean and Agile are similar; both seek to create workflow efficiencies and promote iterative development.

Curth doesn’t have a banking background, which appealed to Mansfield. “We’re trying to do some different things, really leverage technology, and the traditional bank chief information officer just is not what I was looking for,” he says. As the bank weighs partnerships with technology companies, “she’s not only able to speak their language, but she’s able to recruit people to join her team [and] really professionalized our project management team” due to her Agile background.

Adoption of Agile has been project based, and the bank’s first project under the methodology was integrating ResX Warehouse Lending, a warehousing lending division that it acquired in January from $58.6 billion People’s United Financial, based in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“Dave came to us and announced we were going to do an acquisition, and we were able to complete that project in [roughly] 8 weeks,” says Curth. “A whole acquisition of staff, technology, contracts — that was pretty expedited and showed that we were able to do that without a hitch.” The project’s success encouraged bank leaders to roll out the approach for most key projects.

“Even the bank we were doing the acquisition from [was] really impressed with our team,” says Mansfield. “We really drove it; it was an everyday meeting, what’s the status, how to keep things going.”

Agile is an ongoing journey that Mansfield believes represents the “next evolution” for project management at Provident. He’s a big reader, and one of his favorites is “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t,” by Jim Collins.

“There’s a concept he uses: Shoot bullets first,” says Mansfield. Shooting bullets means pursuing attempts that represent a low risk and require minimal resources. If it works, you recalibrate and then “shoot the cannonball when you’re ready,” he says — using your company’s resources to make a big move based on those earlier, iterative attempts.

Another one that he calls a “gut check” on Lean techniques is “Jumpstart Your Service Revolution: Transform Your Company’s DNA and Thrive in an Age of Disruption,” by Thomas Schlick.

By adopting Lean and Agile techniques, Mansfield is creating a bank that differentiates itself in the market. Curth adds that employees enjoy working there. It’s what drew her to the bank. “When you implement this type of culture, your morale is high, and there really is an energy that is compelling and exciting,” says Curth.

Recommended Reading from David Mansfield, Provident Bancorp

Radius Bank CEO Talks LendingClub Acquisition

Last week, a $1.4 billion asset community bank sent shockwaves through the financial industry when it agreed to be acquired by national fintech, LendingClub Corp.

What most people are talking about is what LendingClub will gain — access to a cheaper and more secure funding, freedom from loan sponsorship fees it pays to its current partner, Salt Lake City-based WebBank, and the ability to wade into other traditional banking activities. But what does the deal mean for the acquisition target, Boston-based Radius Bank? And what does it say about the future of banking?

I caught up with Mike Butler, president and CEO of Radius Bancorp, to find out. The following excerpts from our conversation are edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: What does this deal mean for Radius Bank’s business model?
MB: We think we’re a fintech company with a bank charter. And LendingClub is obviously a fintech that’s thinking about banking. When you bring them together, it’s a nice combination of two companies looking to do the same thing.

Radius will have an opportunity to plug itself into the infrastructure of LendingClub and leverage a lot more of what we’ve built to provide both of our clients with better products and services. We will be operating out of our Boston location here in the Innovation District, not only driving our direct-to-consumer business, but also our commitment to fintechs on the strategic partnership side. As part of our early discussions with LendingClub,there was a lot of interest in our banking-as-a-service model, and we think that’s a great opportunity for us to expand further.

What a lot of people haven’t been paying as much attention to are our commercial lines of business and the opportunity for us to provide LendingClub with the diversification on the loan side that everybody’s looking for.

BD: You mentioned that Radius will be plugging into LendingClub’s infrastructure. What are your thoughts on how the companies will meld their teams?
MB: We’re going to help accelerate what is a fairly strong knowledge base inside LendingClub about regulatory and traditional banking. So we get a chance to leapfrog based on our work and our relationship with our regulator.

This is nothing like a traditional bank merger where cost saves are part of it. Things like overlapping technology and elimination of headquarters or branches are all distractions inside a traditional merger that keep you away from leveraging the beauty of a combination.We’ve got an acute focus on our objective of delivering superior products and services into the marketplace, and we won’t be distracted by those other issues, which will allow us to be more successful.

BD: I know Radius is run a lot like a tech company. Did that play a part in the relationship with LendingClub?
MB: It’s a big part of it. There is a cultural connection in any good merger. We’ve hired a lot of people from outside the banking industry and are teaching them banking. LendingClub has a whole group of technology people that they are teaching banking to as well. So, there’s a lot of cultural connections with what we’re trying to accomplish.

Beyond the cultural connection of people and mission, our national deposit gathering with industry-leading online banking and the awards we win for our product, make us a perfect match for a company like LendingClub, who also does business nationally.

As fintechs have evolved, they’ve done a great job in proving that they can take some banking products and produce them in a much more consumer-friendly way. But I think what we always thought is there would be a rebundling, in which companies would recognize that operating within a bank charter allows them more flexibility and profitability to deliver their products and services to clients. This deal reflects that; it’s the first step in the rebundling of financial services.

BD: How have regulators responded to the deal?
MB: LendingClub has been in the de novo application process for over a year, predominantly with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. And I think it’s safe to say that the regulators were positioned to issue a de novo charter to LendingClub, but LendingClub felt — and did feel all along — that an acquisition was a faster path. We were lucky enough to find each other over six months ago to start talking about this. And so a lot of work has been done behind the scenes.

In our discussions about the opportunity for a fintech to buy a bank, we’re extremely confident that the Federal Reserve and the OCC — and both of their offices of innovation — recognize the inevitability of this type of event and want to participate in helping the future and being a part of it, rather than not being part of it. So, we’re excited and optimistic about how the process will go.

BD: Do you think your model might be a clearer path to getting fintechs involved in traditional banking activities?
MB: I obviously do; we’re a fintech company with a bank charter. I always said, “Why wouldn’t a fintech company want to acquire a bank that had forward-looking people and technology as a path to create what we see as the future of the industry?”

You’ve got to be careful about the number of banks that may be out there that are really prepared to help accelerate a fintech to get to the next level. That will be the challenge with  people pursuing this avenue, and that’s why we’re excited to be the first one. But I do think the combination of fintechs and banks will become more and more prevalent.

BD: Is this the start of a new trend?
MB: I think it is, and I think you’ll see a couple of things happen. I can’t tell the future, but I think there will be several more banks that have considered developing more digital technology accept and move forward on doing that. And I think you will see more fintechs taking a look at banks as a way to rebundle and provide themselves with a path to profitability.

I do think there will be many that wait to see how the approval process takes place. I don’t think there’ll be a rush to it. Matter of fact, we like our competitive advantage. Another year with a competitive advantage would be good for us. So that’s OK by us.

BD: What does this deal say about the future of banking?
MB: It signals that technology has to become the number one component and driver to acquiring and servicing clients at the level that today’s consumer demands.

If banks haven’t been believing that technology is going to be a big player, then they need to start developing something quicker, rather than later, as it relates to their own business — to think about how they will participate in the future.

What I tell bankers is that transforming a bank into a digital platform is not an insurmountable task. I hope that I’ve proven to people that it can be done, and it can be done very successfully.

Staying Relevant In The Payments Revolution

A tremendous level of disruption is occurring in the payments space today — and few banks have a strategy to combat this threat, according to Michael Carter, executive vice president at Strategic Resource Management. In this video, he explains how smart home technology like Alexa and Google Home is changing how consumers interact with their financial institutions. He also outlines three tactics for banks seeking to achieve top of wallet status.

  • Today’s Payments Landscape
  • Technologies to Watch
  • How to Keep Wallet Share
  • Threats to Community Banks

 

Generational Shift Complicates Shareholder Succession

A challenge facing many community banks this new decade has nothing to do with public policy, the yield curve, regulation or technology.

A growing number of banks face an aging shareholder base, concentrated ownership and limited liquidity. This can lead to shareholder succession impositions when large shareholders want to exit their ownership position or an estate settlement creates a liquidity need.

Community banks have always been owned by local centers of influence, passed down through generations and thought of as both a financial investment and philanthropic participation in the community. But the societal aspect of bank ownership is not the same as the current ownership cedes to the younger generation, many of whom have moved away from home and see banking as an increasingly more digital experience.

Banking and securities regulations do not make the situation easier. There are parameters around a bank’s ability to issue stock in the local community to attract new shareholders. Banks are cautious of giving unknown investors a seat at the table, particularly institutional or activist owners, as they may only hold the stock for a defined, shorter period before seeking liquidity themselves. The bank itself can sometimes be a source of liquidity to repurchase stock from shareholders, but regulatory capital ratios may limit that capacity. Some advice for banks struggling with these issues includes the following:

Treat shareholder succession as a business initiative: Identifying issues before they occur, or a capital need before it becomes urgent, increases a bank’s flexibility. Boards should discuss shareholder liquidity issues, as some large owners may be sitting around the board table.

Investor relations is not just for large and liquid banks: Local banks are often owned by members of the local community. The legacy of family ownership is emotional, and large owners often do not want to “upset the apple cart” and force the bank to sell. Many may not realize that how they treat their position could impact the bank’s future. Some may not be open to discussing the issue, but others might appreciate the opportunity.

Address long-term liquidity in strategic planning: Under what conditions would the bank consider listing on a more liquid exchange, commencing a traditional public offering, or raising subordinated debt as a way to address shareholder succession? The owners of many closely held banks are wary of incurring dilution to their ownership stake but want to remain independent, which limits their options. For smaller banks, even upgrading to a slightly more liquid trading medium such as OTC Market Group’s OTCQX Banks market, may open the doors to investors that understand smaller, less-liquid situations and have capital to put to work.

Plan for shareholder liquidity as you would for balance sheet liquidity: It is helpful that directors and executives understand the bank’s capacity to repurchase shares, as the bank itself is often the first line of defense for an immediate liquidity need. Small bank holding company regulation gives community banks flexibility to leverage their capital structure by issuing debt at the holding company, which can be injected into the bank subsidiary as common equity. Creating an employee stock ownership plan or dividend reinvestment plan may help to manage and retain capital and dividend policy can also be critical.

The right answer is usually a combination of all of the above: There is no silver bullet for addressing shareholder liquidity in a smaller, more closely held bank; all of the discussed initiatives will play a part. Many banks get caught flat-footed after the fact, either faced with an estate settlement or a family with a large position seeking liquidity. Dealing with an urgent liquidity need, often in tight timing, limits the bank’s flexibility and options.

If a merger or sale is the right alternative, control that dialog: Some shareholders looking to exit may find the premium in a sale attractive relative to the desire of others for independence. It’s a worthwhile exercise for boards and executives to understand the bank’s value in a sale, as well as likely partners, even if a sale is only a remote possibility. This allows your bank to identify preferred partners and ascertain their ability to pay a competitive valuation independent of any urging from shareholders. Highlight those strategic alternatives to the board on a regular basis. If an urgent shareholder need forces the bank to seek a partner, your bank has already begun addressing these issues and building those relationships.

Shareholder succession issues can drive change and create uncertainty, risk and opportunity at community banks. Careful analysis and planning can help lead to a desired outcome for all involved.

How Innovative Banks Make Mortgages Work

“Push button. Get mortgage.”

That’s the simple value proposition touted by Rocket Mortgage — and it’s a message that was heard by over 100 million people this month in a star-studded Super Bowl 54 ad that may have cost upwards of $15 million. How can community banks compete with such bold promises and big budgets? The secret could lie in working with the same technology titans that have shaped current customer expectations around financing home purchases.

Mortgages are a notoriously volatile product for financial institutions to offer — both from an economic standpoint and a regulatory one — and many banks struggle to break even on them. While a spike in refinancing and a healthy purchase market led to increased profits in the last half of 2019, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) warned that an anticipated dip in refinancing during the second half of 2020 could once again increase margin pressures. Those pressures may result in numbers reminiscent of 2018, when mortgage banking production profits fell to just $367 per loan, according to data from the MBA.

The challenges posed by heightened competition and pricing pressure are accompanied by rules and requirements that are constantly shifting. For banks, it’s not as simple as “Push button. Get mortgage” to make these loans safely, soundly and profitably.

Yet mortgages are a touchstone product that customers expect their bank to provide. This is the rock and the hard place that Brett Fulk, president and CEO of Riverview Financial Corp., found his institution between after his team worked for over a year to set up an FHA loan product.

“We no sooner got ourselves approved, with all of the vendors we needed lined up, [when] the market shifted from FHA to USDA,” he says. “We were now ready to go with a product that wasn’t necessarily the lead product anymore in our market, and I thought there has to be a better way to do this.”

The bank, which has $1.1 billion in assets and is headquartered in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, found an unlikely ally in Quicken Loans, the parent company of Rocket Mortgage. And Fulk built a partnership that gave the bank access to technology and new products, while insulating it from rivalry with Rocket.

Riverview is working with Quicken through its wholesale program. The bank uses Quicken’s technology platform, underwriting and servicing to make mortgages to its clients, who benefit from Quicken’s slick interface and fast turnaround. Riverview keeps the customer relationship through the application process, staying front and center to provide customer service and also exploring in-house loan options if the application doesn’t conform to Quicken’s protocols.  Quicken retains the servicing for the life of the loan so customers won’t see their loans being sold and resold.

The bank’s customer relationships are further insulated by some rules of engagement that Rocket Mortgage must follow. Riverview customers do not receive offers from Rocket and, if a current bank customer applies through Rocket for refinancing, that application is immediately kicked back over to the bank.

The partnership has translated into tangible benefits. It gives the bank access to Quicken’s full suite of products, while removing processing and underwriting pressures from the bank’s staff. Quicken has made it possible to increase the bank’s mortgage volume without increasing headcount, Fulk says.

And technology isn’t just helping in terms of efficiency. Riverview makes more on transactions when they sell loans because of the volume the bank has achieved through Quicken.

Banks that are examining their mortgage businesses closely need to consider a wide range of technology options at play. Word on the street is that Black Knight Empower is a popular choice for big banks looking to completely replace legacy loan origination systems, and it’s hard to miss the mega funding rounds that Blend, a San Francisco-based fintech firm, has raised for its mortgage-focused consumer lending platform.

Headliners aside, there are numerous other technology companies helping banks of all sizes make mortgages work from multiple angles. Some help banks take part in aspects of the customer’s home-buying journey that institutions don’t usually play a part in; others streamline back office requirements and closing processes. Whatever the application, mortgage tech solutions could be a critical component to helping banks stay in the game.

Fulk says the partnership with Quicken helped keep Riverview Bank in the mortgage business. It stands to reason that the right technology partners could help other institutions do the same.

Potential Technology Partners

Blend

Powering the mortgage experiences for Wells Fargo & Co., U.S. Bancorp and community banks alike, Blend’s “one-tap” pre-approval feature launched in 2019 to compete head-to-head with Rocket Mortgage.

Roostify

This digital mortgage solution boasts impressive loan officer adoption rates. The company has invested heavily in new integrations with pricing systems, document originators and other key vendors over the last few years.

NestReady

NestReady helps banks become hubs for the home-buying journey with a co-branded search tool that locates everything customers need from their real estate agent to their ideal neighborhood and mortgage loan officer.

LenderClose

This aggregation platform accelerates loan processing by delivering all of the reports and services required to close on a loan — from flood certification and valuation products to title reports and e-recording — in seconds.

SimpleNexus

SimpleNexus automates the information flow between loan officers, borrowers and referral partners. The digital mortgage platform allows banks to track loan officer activity and see when referral partners are sharing the app with potential clients.

Learn more about the technology providers in this piece by accessing their profiles in Bank Director’s FinXTech Connect platform.

Conversing with Chief Cultural Officers

Bankers talk about the importance of culture all the time, and a few have created a specific executive-level position to oversee it.

Chief culture officer is an unusual title, even in an industry that promotes culture as essential to performance and customer service. The title was included in a 2016 Bank Director piece by Susan O’Donnell, a partner with Meridian Compensation Partners, as an emerging new title, citing the fact that personnel remain a critical asset for banks.

“As more millennials enter the workforce, traditional banking environments may need to change,” she wrote. “Talent development, succession planning and even culture will be differentiators and expand the traditional role of human resources.”

Yet a recent unscientific internet search of banks with chief culture officers yielded less than a dozen executives who carry the title, concentrated mostly at community banks.

One bank with a chief culture officer is Adams Community Bank, which has $618 million in assets and is based in Adams, Massachusetts. Head of Retail Amy Giroux was awarded the title because of her work in shifting the retail branches and staff from transaction-based to relationship-oriented banking, which began in 2005. Before the shift, each branch tended to operate as its own bank, with the manager overseeing the workplace environment and culture. That contributed to stagnation in financial performance and growth.

“We decided that we wanted to grow but to do that, we really needed to invest in our workplace culture,” she says. “When you think of a bank’s assets and liabilities, which represents net worth and capital, cultural capital becomes equally important.”

The bank’s reinvention was led by senior leadership and leveraged a training program from transformation consultancy The Emmerich Group to retrain and reorient employees. The program incorporated Adams’ vision and core values, as well as accountability through measurable metrics. Branch staff moved away from acting as “order-takers” for customers and are now trained to build and foster relationships.

“It’s worked for us,” says CEO Charles O’Brien. “We’re the go-to community bank for our customers, and they rave about how different we are. We’ve grown significantly over the last five years.”

As CCO, Giroux works closely with the bank’s human relations team on fulfilling the bank’s strategic initiatives, aligning operations with its vision and goals, creating a framework of visibility and deliverability for goals and holding employees accountable for performance. She reports to O’Brien, but says her efforts are supported by the whole executive team.

“A lot of times, people think that culture is invisible. They’ll sometimes say, ‘Well, how do I do these things on top of my job?’” she says. “Culture isn’t something you’re doing on top of your job. It’s how you do your job.”

At Fargo, North Dakota-based Bell Bank, the chief culture position is held by Julie Peterson Klein and is nestled within the human resources group, where about 20 employees are split between HR and culture. She says she has a “people first, workload second” orientation and has focused on culture within HR throughout her career; like Giroux, the title came as recognition for work she was already doing.

She says her job is really about empowering employees at the State Bankshares’ unit to see themselves as chief culture officers. Bell’s culture team supports employees by engaging the $5.7 billion bank’s 200 leaders in engagement and training, and works with HR to handle onboarding, transfers, promotion and exits. The group also leads events celebrating employees or giving back to the community, using storytelling as a way to keep the bank’s culture in front of employees.

“We focus on creating culture first, and we hire for that on the HR side,” she says.

Culture is important for any organization, but Giroux sees special significance for banks because of the large role they play in customers’ financial wellness. Focusing on culture has helped demonstrate Adams’ commitment of giving customers “extraordinary service.”

“Prior to having the collaboration and the infrastructure for culture, everybody kind of did their own thing,” Giroux says. “This really solidifies the vision and the mission. And it really is, I believe, the glue that holds us together.”

Key Considerations with the Community Bank Leverage Ratio

Banking regulators have adopted a final rule offering community banks the ability to opt in to a new, simplified community bank leverage ratio. The CBLR is intended to eliminate the burden associated with risk-based capital ratios, and became effective on Jan. 1, 2020.

Congress amended provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act to provide community banks with regulatory relief from the complexities and burdens of the risk-based capital rules. Agencies including the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. were directed to promulgate rules providing for a CBLR between 8% and 10% for qualifying community banking organizations (QCBO). These banks may opt-in to the framework by completing a CBLR reporting schedule in their call reports or Form FR Y-9Cs.

In response to public comments, the final rule includes a few important changes from the proposed one, including:

  • The adoption of Tier 1 capital, instead of tangible equity, as the leverage ratio numerator.
  • A provision allowing a bank that elects the CBLR framework to continue to be considered “well capitalized” for prompt corrective action (PCA) purposes during a two-quarter grace period, if its leverage ratio is 9% or less but greater than 8%. At the end of the grace period, the bank must return to compliance with the QCBO criteria to qualify for the CBLR framework; otherwise, it must comply with and report under the generally applicable capital rules.

To be eligible, a QCBO cannot have elected to be treated as an advanced approaches banking organization. It must have: (1) a leverage ratio (equal to Tier 1 capital divided by average total consolidated assets) greater than 9%; (2) total consolidated assets of less than $10 billion; (3) total off-balance sheet exposures of 25% or less of total consolidated assets; and (4) a sum of total trading assets and trading liabilities 5% or less of total consolidated assets.

If a QCBO maintains a leverage ratio of greater than 9%, it will be considered to have satisfied the generally applicable risk-based and leverage capital requirements, the “well capitalized” ratio requirements for purposes of the PCA rules and any other capital or leverage requirements applicable to the institution.

QCBOs may subsequently opt-out of the CBLR framework by completing their call report or Form FR Y-9C and reporting the capital ratios required under the generally applicable capital rules. A QCBO that has opted out of the leverage ratio framework can opt back in by meeting the discussed qualifying criteria discussed above.

The leverage ratio provides significant regulatory relief to QCBOs that would otherwise report under the risk-based capital rules. Opting-in to the CBLR allows a qualifying bank to be considered “well capitalized” under the PCA rules through one simple calculation (assuming the organization is not also subject to any written agreement, order, capital directive or PCA directive). Additionally, calculating the community bank leverage ratio involves a measure already used by banks for calculating leverage: Tier 1 capital.

The cost of adoption is low as well. If qualified, a bank simply has to adopt the new leverage ratio in its call reports or Form FR Y-9C. And the two-quarter grace period offers further flexibility. For instance, if a QCBO engages in a major transaction or has an unexpected event that impacts the 9% leverage ratio, the bank will be able to reestablish compliance with the CBLR without having to revert to the generally applicable risk-based capital rules. Since the CBLR is voluntary, it is within each qualifying bank’s discretion whether the benefits are sufficient enough to adopt the new rule.

Qualifying banks should be aware that opting in to the community bank leverage ratio essentially raises its well-capitalized leverage ratio requirements under the PCA rules from 5% to 9%. These banks must ensure their leverage ratios are above 9% or find themselves attempting to comply with both the CBLR and the risk-based capital rules.

It has been suggested that the CBLR may create a de facto expectation from the agencies that a properly capitalized qualifying bank should have a leverage ratio greater than 9%. Though the agencies emphasized that the CBLR is voluntary, community banks eligible to adopt the rule should be thoughtful in their decision to use it. While qualifying banks can opt in and out of the new leverage ratio, the agencies noted that they expect such changes to be rare and typically driven by significant changes, such as an acquisition or divestiture of a business. The agencies further indicated that a bank electing to opt out of the CBLR framework may need to provide a rationale for opting out, if requested.

While the community bank leverage ratio will be useful in reducing regulatory burdens for qualifying community banking organizations, its adoption does not come without risk. 

Three Tech Questions Every Community Bank Needs to Ask

Community banks know they need to innovate, and that financial technology companies want to help. They also know that not all fintechs are the partners they claim to be.

Digitization and consolidation have reshaped the banking landscape. Smaller banks need to innovate: Over 70% of banking interactions are now digital, people of all ages are banking on their mobile devices and newer innovations like P2P payments are becoming commonplace. But not all innovations and technologies are perceived as valuable to a customer, and not all fintechs are great partners.

Community banks must be selective when investing their limited resources, distinguishing between truly transformative technologies and buzzy fads

As the executive vice president of digital and banking solutions for a company that’s been working closely with community banks for more than 50 years, I always implore bankers to start by asking three fundamental questions when it comes to investing in new innovations.

Does the innovation solve problems?
True innovation — innovation that changes people’s financial lives — happens when tech companies and banks work together to solve pain points experienced by banks and their customers every single day. It happens in places like the FIS Fintech Accelerator, where we put founders at the beginning of their startup’s journey in a room with community bank CTOs, so they can explain what they’re trying to solve and how they plan to do it.

Community banks don’t have the luxury of investing in innovations that aren’t proven and don’t address legitimate customer pain points. These institutions need partners who can road test new technologies to ensure that they’ll be easy to integrate and actually solve the problems they set out to address. These banks need partners who have made the investments to help them “fail fast” and allow them to introduce new ideas and paradigms in a safe, tested environment that negates risk.

Does the innovation help your bank differentiate itself in a crowded market?
In order to succeed, not every community or regional bank needs to be JPMorgan Chase & Co. or Bank of America Co. in order to succeed. But they need to identify and leverage ideas that bolster their value to their unique customer base. A bank with less than $1 billion in assets that primarily serves small, local businesses in a rural area doesn’t need the same technologies that one with $50 billion in assets and a consumer base in urban suburbs does. Community banks need to determine which innovations and technologies will differentiate their offerings and strengthen the value proposition to their key audiences.

For example, if a community bank has strong ties with local small to midsize business clients, it could look for differentiating innovations that make operations easier for small and medium businesses (SMBs), adding significant value for customers.

Banks shouldn’t think about innovation as a shiny new object and don’t need to invest in every new “disruption” brought to market. Instead, they should be hyper-focused on the services or products that will be meaningful for their customer base and prioritize only the tools that their customers want.

Does it complement your existing processes, people and practices?
When a bank evaluates a new type of technology, it needs to consider the larger framework that it will fit into. For example, if an institution’s main value proposition is delivering great customer service, a new highly automated process that depersonalizes the experience won’t be a fit.

That’s not to say that automation should be discarded and ignored by a large swath of banks that differentiate themselves by knowing their customers on a personal level; community banks just need to make sure the technology fits into their framework. Improving voice recognition technology so customers don’t have to repeat their account number or other personal information before connecting with a banker may be just the right solution for the bank’s culture and customers, compared to complete automation overhaul.

Choosing the right kinds of innovation investment starts with an outside-in perspective. Community banks already have the advantage of personal customer relationships — a critical element in choosing the right innovation investment. Ask customers what the bank could offer or adjust to make life easier. Take note of the questions customers frequently ask and consider the implications behind the top concerns or complaints your bank staff hear.

Can your bank apply its own brand of innovation to solve them? Community banks don’t need to reinvent the wheel to remain competitive, and can use innovation to their advantage. Think like your customers and give them what no one else will. And just as importantly, lean on a proven partner who understands the demands your bank faces and prioritizes your bank’s best interests.