How Community Banks Can Drive Revenue Growth During the Pandemic

Community banks are the beating heart of the American banking system — and they’ve received a major jolt to their system.

While community banks represent only 17% of the US banking system, they are responsible for around 53% of small business loans. Lending to small businesses calls for relationship skills: Unlike lending to large firms, there is seldom detailed credit information available. Lending decisions are often based on intangible qualities of borrowers.

While community banking is relationship lending at its very best, the pandemic is forcing change. Community bankers have been caught in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, providing lifesaving financial services to small businesses. They helped fuel the success of the Paycheck Protection Program, administering around 60% of total first wave loans, according to Forbes. This was no small feat: Community banks administered more loans in four weeks than the grup had in the previous 12 months.

However, as with many businesses, they have been forced to close their doors for extended periods and move many employees to remote arrangements. Customers have been forced to move to online channels, forming new banking habits. Community banks have risen to all these challenges.

But the pandemic has also shown how technology can augment relationship banking, increase customer engagement and drive revenue growth. Many community banks are doing things differently, acknowledging the need to do things in new ways to drive new revenues.

Even before Covid-19, disruptive forces were reshaping the global banking landscape. Customers have high expectations, and have become accustomed to engaging online and through mobile services. Technology innovators have redefined what’s possible; customers now expect recommendations based on their personal data and previous behavior. Many believe that engaging with their bank should be as easy as buying a book or travel ticket.

Turn Data into Insights, Rewards
While a nimble, human approach and personal service may offset a technical shortcoming in the short run, it cannot offset a growing technology debt and lack of innovation. Data is becoming  the universal driver of banking success. Community banks need to use data and analytics to find new opportunities.

Customer data, like spending habits, can be turned into business insights that empower banks to deliver services where and when they are most needed. Banks can also harness the power of data to anticipate customer life moments, such as a student loan, wedding or a home purchase.

Data can also drive a relevant reward program that improves the customer experience and increases the bank’s brand. Rewards reinforce desired customer behavior, boost loyalty and ultimately improve margins. For example, encouraging and rewarding additional debit transaction activity can drive fee income, while increasing core deposits improves lending margins.

The pandemic also highlights the primacy of digital transformation. With branches closed, banks need to find new ways to interact with customers. Digital services and digitalization allow customers to self-serve but also create opportunities to engage further, adding value with financial wellness products through upselling and cross-selling. In recent months, some community banks launched “video tellers” to offset closed branches. Although these features required investment, they are essential to drive new business and customers will expect these services to endure.

With the right digital infrastructure, possibilities are limited only by the imagination. But it’s useful to remember that today’s competitive advantage quickly becomes tomorrow’s banking baseline. Pre-pandemic, there was limited interest in online account opening; now it’s a crucial building block of an engaging digital experience. Banking has become a technology business — but technology works best with people. Community banks must invest in technologies to augment, deepen and expand profitable relationships.

Leverage Transformative Partnership
Technology driven transformation is never easy — but it’s a lot easier with an expert partner. With their loyal customers, trusted brands and their reputation for responsiveness, community banks start from a strong position, but they need to invest in a digital future. The right partner can help community banks transform to stay relevant, agile and profitable. Modern technologies can make banking more competitive and democratic to ensure community banks continue to compete with greater customer insights, relevant rewards programs and strong digital offerings.

When combined, these build on the customer service foundation at the core of community banking.

Top Four Digital Trends for the Next Five Years

The sheer amount of disruptions the banking industry endured in 2020 has cast a new light on banking industry trends. But will these disruptions translate into major shifts or further acceleration — especially with regard to digital growth — over the next five years?

Last year, banks saw an unprecedented influx of deposits — $2.4 trillion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., with gains going primarily to the biggest banks. Looking ahead, we predict further ascendance of the moneycenter banks, but still see opportunities for smaller, nimbler banks to remain competitive when it comes to digital banking innovation. 

Disruptions and Opportunities
The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated compelling reasons for community banks to step up their digital banking efforts. In-person interactions are limited, and even in places where banks are open, many customers may not feel safe. The preference for remote banking is likely to continue into the future: Qualtrics XM Institute found that 80% of people who start banking online are at least somewhat likely to continue.

But the coronavirus is just another tick in the column in favor of greater investments in digital banking. Many community banks have already rolled out online service options in the past few years. Their efforts and investments to make digital banking more user-friendly and efficient is paying dividends.

For instance, Cross River Bank, a community bank with $11.5 billion in assets in Fort Lee, New Jersey, emerged as one of the top Paycheck Protection Program lenders while simultaneously gathering $250 million in deposits in just 15 days. As innovative banking technology becomes more readily available, community banks will have convenient alternatives to legacy vendors that don’t require a massive budget.

What’s Next in Digital Banking?
Banking will continue to evolve rapidly over the next five years. In particular, community institutions should take heed of four trends.

1. Hyper-localized products will help community banks compete with larger institutions.
Community institutions should focus on overall product offerings, not just rates. Digital solutions can offer better tools to connect with the local community, as well as expand a bank’s customer base nationwide.

A major trend for banks to consider is verticalized banking. The big banks aren’t capable of delivering hyper-localized or targeted offerings to the same extent. While these services already exist for certain demographics, such as military personnel and students, we’re seeing this expand to female entrepreneurs, minority-owned businesses and tech developers.

2. Banks are leveraging technology to deepen community relationships.
Covid-19 relief efforts created an opening for tech-savvy community banks to win market share and goodwill among small businesses and communities at-large. These relief efforts will likely continue to be a major area for investment and innovation over the next few years.

A prime example of this is Quontic Bank’s #BetheDrawbridge campaign. The Astoria, New York-based bank’s Drawbridge Savings account matches a portion of interest paid to account holders into a fund providing financial relief to New York City families and businesses. Not only is the bank leveraging digital account opening to broaden its footprint, but also building goodwill within its home-base. 

3. Real-time transaction monitoring becomes table stakes to compete online.
While the U.S. has been slow to adopt real-time payments (RTP), the time is near. The Federal Reserve is working to release its RTP network, FedNow, by 2024; The Clearing House’s RTP Network is quickly expanding.

Community banks should prepare for real-time banking — not only through the implementation of real-time digital servicing, but also through real-time transaction monitoring. Money moves today; if banks don’t receive a report until the next morning, it’s too late. As real-time payments become more accessible, real-time transaction monitoring will be table stakes in order to prevent fraud, mitigate costs and stay competitive.

4. The business banking experience will see major growth and user-friendly improvements.
Commercial banking has so far lagged behind consumer services, remaining manual and paper-based. Fortunately, the innovations that have emerged in personal banking are migrating to the commercial space. This will likely become a major area of focus for technology firms and financial institutions alike.

Looking Ahead
In the next five years, smaller banks will need to double down on digital banking trends and investments, taking advantage of their nimble capabilities. The right tools can make all the difference — the best way for banks to fast-track digital offerings in the next stage of their evolution is to find the right partners and products for their needs.

How Banks Kept Customers During the Pandemic, Even Commercial Ones

Digital transformation and strategy are examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired. Click here to access the content on BankDirector.com.

Despite closed branches and masked interactions, the coronavirus pandemic may have actually improved customers’ relationships with their banks. They have digital channels to thank.

That’s a shift from the mentality pervading the industry before the pandemic. Business lines like commercial lending seemed firmly set in the physical world: a relationship-driven process with high-touch customer service. The Paycheck Protection Program from the U.S. Small Business Administration completely uprooted that approach. Banks needed to deliver loans “as fast as possible” to their small commercial customers, says Dan O’Malley, CEO of data and loan origination platform Numerated during Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired. More than 100 banks are currently using the platform either for PPP applications or forgiveness.

The need for rapid adoption forced a number of community banks to aggressively dedicate enough resources to stand up online commercial loan applications. Sixty-five percent of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey said their bank implemented or upgraded technology due to the coronavirus. Of those, 70% say their bank adopted technology to issue PPP loans. This experiment produced an important result: Business customers were all too happy to self-service their loan applications online, especially if it came from their bank of choice.

“Self-service changes in business banking will be driven by customer demand and efficiency,” O’Malley says, later adding: “Customers are willing to do the work themselves if banks provide them the tools.”

Digital capabilities like self-service platforms are one way for banks to meaningfully deepen existing relationships with commercial borrowers. Numerated found that borrowers, rather than bankers, completed 84% of PPP loan applications that were done using the company’s platform, and 94% of forgiveness applications. That is no small feat, given the complexity of the application and required calculations.

Those capabilities can carve out efficiencies by saving on data entry and input, requesting and receiving documentation, the occasional phone call and the elimination of other time-consuming processes. One regional bank that is “well known for being very relationship driven” was able to process 3,000 “self-service” PPP loan applications in a morning, O’Malley says. Standing up these systems helped community banks avoid customer attrition, or better yet, attract new customers, a topic that Bank Director magazine explored last year. Already, banks like St. Louis-based Midwest BankCentre are reaping the gains from digital investments. The $2.3 billion bank launched Rising Bank, an online-only bank, in February 2019, using fintech MANTL to open accounts online.

The impetus and inception for the online brand dates back more than three years, says President and CFO Dale Oberkfell during an Inspired By session. Midwest didn’t have a way to open accounts online, and it wanted to expand its customer base and grow deposits. It also didn’t want to replicate the branch experience of opening an account — Midwest wanted to compress the total time to three minutes or less, he says.

Creating the brand was quite an investment and undertaking. Still, Rising Bank has raised $160 million in deposits — as many deposits as 10 branches could — with only two additional employees.

“We didn’t spend the dollars we anticipated spending because of that efficiency,” Oberkfell says.

Midwest BankCentre is exploring other fintech partnerships to build out Rising Bank’s functionality and product lines. The bank is slated to add online loan portals for mortgages and home equity lines of credit — creating the potential for further growth and efficiencies while strengthening customer relationships. He adds that the bank is looking to improve efficiencies and add more tools and functionality for both customers and employees. And how are they going to fund all those technology investments?

Why, with the fees generated from PPP loans.

How to Prepare for an Unprecedented Year

Could anyone have prepared for a year like 2020?

Better-performing community banks, over the long run, generally anchor their balance sheet management in a set of principles — not divination. They organize their principles into a coherent decision-making methodology, which requires them to constantly study the relative risk-reward profiles of various options, across multiple rate scenarios and industry conditions over time.

But far too many community bankers look through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope. Rather than anchoring themselves with principles, they drift among the currents of economic and interest rate forecasts. Where that drift takes them at any given moment dictates their narrowly focused reactions and strategies. If they are in a reward mindset, they’ll focus on near-term accounting income; if the mood of the day is risk-centered, their framework will be liquidity. At Performance Trust, we have long argued that following this approach accumulates less reward, and more risk, than its practitioners ever expect.

Against this backdrop, we offer five decision-making principles that have helped many banks prepare for the hectic year that just closed, and can ensure that they are prepared for any hectic or challenging ones ahead.

  • Know where you are before deciding where to go. Net Interest Income and Economic Value of Equity simulations, when viewed in isolation, can present incomplete and often conflicting portrayals of a bank’s financial risk and reward profile. To know where you are, hold yourself accountable to all cash flows across multiple rate scenarios over time, incorporating both net income to a horizon and overall economic value at that horizon. Multiple-scenario total return analysis isn’t about predicting the future. Rather, it allows you to see how your institution would perform in multiple possible futures.
  • Don’t decide based on interest rate expectations — in fact, don’t even have expectations. Plenty of wealth has been lost by reacting to predictions. Running an asset-sensitive balance sheet is nothing more than making a levered bet on rising rates. So, too, is sitting on excess liquidity waiting for higher rates. The massive erosion in net interest margin in 2020 supports our view that most community banks have been, intentionally or not, speculatively asset sensitive. Banks that take a principle-based approach currently hold sufficient call-protected, long-duration earning assets — not because they knew rates would fall, but because they knew they would need them if rates did fall. As a result, they are in a potentially better position to withstand a “low and flat” rate environment.
  • Maintaining sufficient liquidity is job No. 1. Job No. 2 is profitably deploying the very next penny after that. In this environment, cash is a nonaccrual asset. Banks with a principle-oriented approach have not treated every bit of unexpected “excess liquidity” inflow as a new “floor” to their idea of “required liquidity.” One approach is to “goal post” liquidity needs by running sensitivity cases on both net loan growth and deposit outflows, and tailoring deployment to non-cash assets with this in mind — for instance by tracking FHLB pledgeability and haircutting — and allowing for a mark-to-market collateral devaluation cushion. Liquidity is by no means limited to near-zero returns.
  • Don’t sell underpriced options. Banks sell options all day long, seldom considering their compensation. Far too often, banks offer loans without prepayment penalties because “everyone is doing it.” Less forgivably, they sell options too cheaply in their securities portfolio, in taking on putable advances or when pricing their servicing rates. The last two years were an era of very low option compensation, even by historical measures. Principle-based decision-makers are always mindful of the economics of selling an option; those who passed on underpriced opportunities leading into 2021 find their NIMs generally have more staying power as a result.
  • Evaluate all capital allocation decisions on a level playing field. Community banks, like all competitive enterprises, can allocate capital in just four ways: organic growth, acquisitions, dividends or share repurchases. Management teams strike the optimal balance between risk and reward of any capital allocation opportunity by examining each strategy alongside the others across multiple rate scenarios and over time. This approach also allows managers to harness the power of combinations — say, simultaneously executing a growth strategy and repurchasing stock — to seek to enhance the institution’s overall risk/return profile.

So what about 2021 and beyond? This same discipline, these same principles, are timeless. Those who have woven them into their organizational fabric will continue to benefit whatever comes their way. Those encountering them for the first time and commit to them in earnest can enjoy the same.

The Secret to Increasing Wallet Share

Quick, name a bank.

Did you name your bank, or another local or national bank? It is often easier for people to think of a national bank than a local one, thanks to name recognition through advertising and branches.

But as important as top of mind awareness is, staying top of wallet is even more important. When your organization comes to both customers and prospective customer’s minds, you increase the chances at becoming their primary financial institution (PFI).

At Wallit, we define PFI as a customer having an active checking account, a debit card and direct deposit with a financial institution. There are five ways banks can accomplish this objective, increase deposit growth and boost non-interest income in a way that maintains healthy, growing customer relationships.

1. Elevate the debit card. The debit card isn’t just a payment card, method or option. It is a powerful and valuable lifestyle tool that many community banks underutilize.

At the point of sale, consumers decide whether to use a credit or debit card, based on their own needs. They make this decision multiple times each day.

I’m sure that most community bank customers that have a checking account also have that bank’s debit card in their wallet. But do they use it? Do they use a competitor’s card? Do they reach for a credit card?

2. Be Visible. Consumers have more options than ever when choosing financial services providers. So many, in fact, that consumers actively avoid marketing and advertising. Community banks have to be more visible, but not pushy.

Look for opportunities to connect your brand to things your customers value by linking it to places that your customers already think deliver value. Connect your brand to local businesses in the communities you serve, building and growing relationships with these businesses.

Promoting local businesses and providing information people need extends your bank’s reach and gets your name out there. This also borrows the brand halo of those businesses and makes your brand top of mind and top of wallet in the process.

3. Capitalize on Connections. The best businesses succeed through collaboration. Leveraging current relationships and connecting local merchants to local consumers unlocks the trapped value of your bank in the digital age.

Your bank can create a sense of belonging for members of your community, with your institution at the center. Think about it this way – Connecting buyers and sellers is far more valuable than merely connecting the bank accounts of buyers and sellers.

4. Generate Word of Mouth. Consumers will always share what they think of brands, products and services with others in their network across a wide range of communication channels. These recommendations are highly credible and relevant; they’re generally more effective than the marketing and advertising your bank currently pays for.

The best tactic to generate word of mouth is to impress current customers with a card-linked, cash back offer when they visit one of your local businesses. Your customers already have your bank’s debit card with them, making it a tool for spreading positive word of mouth, building your brand and driving revenue by offering and rewarding unique, highly personal, share-worthy experiences.

5. Experiment. Create a culture of experimentation. Start small and learn fast. Having the courage to apply new technologies and reinvent existing ways of working can improve financial performance.

Develop and improve your bank’s ability to be hyper-relevant and serve customers more effectively by sensing and addressing their changing needs. Consider starting a pilot with employees, then extending to scale with a portion of your customers.

Increasing share of wallet and becoming a primary financial institution requires intention, commitment and experimentation.

By leveraging your bank’s current strengths and investing in your debit card and merchant services programs, such as offering and marketing cash back rewards to local businesses and consumers, you can tip the scale in your favor.

The Overlooked Fee Opportunity for Community Banks

While many community banks offer some sort of foreign exchange or international payments capabilities to their customers, these experiences often leave a lot to be desired — and could be leaving business, and fee income, on the table.

A competitive and scalable payments program doesn’t have to be a giant undertaking for community banks. But in order to offer a competitive program, banks should ensure reasonable pricing, transparency and reliability. Bank Director chatted with Cara Hayward, director of strategic partnerships for North America at CurrencyCloud, to explore what banks are missing out on and how they can grow this business. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

BD: Where are community banks when it comes to foreign exchange and the digitization of payments? Is this an area they should bother competing against bigger banks or non-bank financial companies?

CH: Community banks usually have some sort of foreign exchange offering, but it’s usually an afterthought and they often rely on a large correspondent bank for their service offering. Correspondents do provide a good service, but offer uncompetitive rates that don’t leave a lot of margin for banks to be competitive.

That means, a lot of community banks may not realize what demand for international payment or foreign exchange actually exists among their customers. Missing out on this fee income really hurts in an environment like we’re in today, since it’s harder to make money through lending.

BD: What kind of opportunities exist for community banks when it comes to foreign exchange and what does a modern offering need to be competitive?

CH: If a community bank wants to invest in this space to drive income, they need to think about scalability, reliability and cost.

When it comes to cost, there’s both the cost of goods sold and costs around supporting the business. Banks make money by marking up the rate they receive from their provider by a certain amount of basis points. The second cost is around supporting the business line. International payments do require the ability to manage payments in an operationally efficient and compliant way, and it’s important that partners are able to create processes that can be scalable and repeatable.

Reliability and transparency are related. Banks should look for partners that have technology that allows for as much transparency as possible, so when something goes wrong, there’s a robust support network.

BD: What do customers want from their community bank when it comes to international payments and transfers? Can community banks offer this?

CH: Customers that aren’t doing a ton of international payments or foreign exchange may not be sensitive to price or experience, and might just suffer through it. But customers that want or demand a better experience are moving away from community banks to fintech apps or larger banks. They’re looking for reliability and repeatability, competitive costs and transparency. They want to know their money is going to get where it’s going, and they want that to happen consistently.

Foreign exchange can often feel like a black box to customers. There are a lot of fees, they’re in tiny little prints and customers don’t know if what they’re getting is competitive. They want honesty and transparency about what the process is, what they should expect and what that cost is going to be.

Because businesses are doing more of their business online and cash flow is more important than ever, they require more when it comes to cross border transactions. Especially in the e-commerce market, technology, and imports and exports, there’s a need for that digitization of payments.

As community banks grow and try to move up market, they may go after larger and more-profitable corporate or industrial customers. That’s where they’ll see the demand for volume when it comes to international payments, and where costs start to make a difference to customers.

BD: What prevents foreign exchange from being a bigger part of community bank offerings? How do they change this?

CH: Oftentimes, its other competing projects. I totally understand that foreign exchange and international payments is not the biggest part of these banks’ business, but I don’t think they realize what they’re actually missing or where this potential business could go.

There’s a perception that foreign exchange and international payments are complicated and scary, but there are partners out there that do this. Community bankers should spend some time educating themselves on what is out there, and what are the costs and benefits of investing in a project like this as far as potential revenue.

For those that don’t offer it, starting small is the way to go. Do a proof of concept. Talk to different providers in the network, including fintechs and correspondent banks. Make sure to do your due diligence. Start with a small project: a couple of your best small- or medium-sized business customers that need this. Pick a partner that is going to handhold you through the process, support you and help you grow.

It’s a similar process for those looking to expand. They should think about the evolution of their current business in chunks — where do they want to be in one year, five years, 10 years — and pick partners that will support you through that process.

Recommendations for Banks Prepping for LIBOR Transitions, Updated Timelines

While much of the focus this summer was on Covid-19, the decline in GDP and the fluctuating UE rates, some pockets of the market kept a different acronym in the mix of hot topics.

Regulators, advisors and trade groups have made significant movement and provided guidance to help banks prepare for the eventual exit of the London Interbank Offered Rate, commonly abbreviated to LIBOR, at the end of 2021. These new updates include best practice recommendations, updated fallback language for loans and key dates to no longer offer new originations in LIBOR.

Why does this matter to community banks? Syndicated loans make up only 1.7% of the nearly $200 trillion debt market that is tied to LIBOR — a figure that includes derivatives, loan, securities and mortgages. Many community banks hold syndicated loans on their balance sheets, which means they’re directly affected by efforts to replace LIBOR with a new reference rate.

A quick history refresher: In 2014, U.S. federal bank regulators convened the Alternative Rates Reference Committee (ARRC) in response to LIBOR manipulation by the reporting banks during the financial crisis. A wide range of firms, market participants and consumer advocacy groups — totaling about 1,500 individuals — participate in the ARRC’s working groups, according to the New York Federal Reserve. The ARRC designated the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) as a replacement rate to LIBOR and has been instrumental in providing workpapers and guidelines on SOFR’s implementation.

In April 2019, the ARRC released proposed fallback language that firms could incorporate into syndicated loan credit agreements during initial origination, or by way of amendment before the cessation of LIBOR occurs. The two methods they recommended were the “hardwired approach” and the “amendment approach.” After a year, the amendment approach was used almost exclusively by the market.

In June 2020, the ARRC released refreshed Hardwired Fallbacks language for syndicated loans. The updates include language that when LIBOR ceases or is declared unrepresentative, the-LIBOR based loan will “fall back” to a variation of SOFR plus a “spread adjustment” meant to minimize the difference between LIBOR and SOFR. This is what all other markets are doing and reduces the need for thousands of amendments shortly after LIBOR cessation.

In addition, the ARRC stated that as of Sept. 30, lenders should start using hardwired fallbacks in new loans and refinancings. As of June 30, 2021, lenders should not originate any more loans that use LIBOR as an index rate.

As the market continues to prepare for LIBOR’s eventual exit, BancAlliance recommends banks take several steps to prepare for this transition:

  • Follow the ARRC’s recommendations for identifying your bank’s LIBOR-based contracts and be aware of the fallback language that currently exists in each credit agreement. Most syndicated loans already have fallback language in existing credit agreements, but the key distinction is the extent of input the lenders have with respect to the new rate.
  • Keep up-to-date with new pronouncements and maintain a file of relevant updates, as a way to demonstrate your understanding of the evolving environment to auditors and regulators.
  • Have patience. The new SOFR-based credit agreements are not expected until summer 2021 at the earliest, and there is always a chance that the phase-out of LIBOR could be extended.

FinXTech Special Report: Mobile Banking

Mobile-Report.pngIn September 2017, Amazon.com’s patent for “1-Click” checkout lapsed. It was a foundational moment in e-commerce. Waves of digital retailers streamlined their purchasing processes. The moment reframed customer expectations. And meeting those expectations became a matter of survival.

Simplifying the checkout process, Amazon chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos believed, would reduce cart abandonment and increase conversion rates — the percentage of shoppers who complete the purchasing process. Cart abandonment is a huge problem in retail, where an estimated 69.5% of digital carts go unclaimed.

Online merchants of books and sweaters aren’t the only businesses that need to care about this; banks do too.

Customer expectations are fluid, flowing from one industry to the next. Amazon and other tech giants set the standard for the digital experience; banks and other companies must now follow it. Customers expect to acquire their new credit card as easily as they can download the latest Taylor Swift album.

Banks may not obsess about cart abandonment and conversion rates to the extent that other e-commerce companies do, but the same concepts apply to making loans and attracting deposits over digital channels. That’s why the principles of modern design are so important. Taking cues from companies like Amazon isn’t just a best practice; increasingly, it’s a matter of success and failure.

Nowhere is design more important than on mobile devices, which have emerged as the primary channel banks use to serve customers and is the purpose of this FinXTech Intelligence Report, Mobile Banking: How Leading Banks Make Modern Apps That Drive Sales.

The report unpacks mobile bank design: why an attractively designed experience will be critical to growing engagement, and the processes that have guided regional and community banks in creating their respective apps. It includes:

  • The rise of mobile banking
  • An overview of key features and functions
  • How modern design affects usability
  • Q&A with USAA’s chief design officer
  • A digital checklist to evaluate a bank’s offerings and approach

To learn more, download our FinXTech Intelligence Report, Mobile Banking: How Leading Banks Make Modern Apps That Drive Sales.

To access our earlier report on APIs, click here.

FinCEN Files: What Community Banks Should Know

Big banks processed transactions on the behalf of Ponzi schemes, businesses accused of money laundering and a family of an individual for whom Interpol had issued a notice for his arrest — all while diligently filing suspicious activity reports, or SARs.

That’s the findings from a cache of 2,000 leaked SARs filed by banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America Corp., Citibank and American Express Co. to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN. These files, which media outlets dubbed the “FinCEN Files,” encompassed more than $2 trillion in transactions between 1999 and 2017.

Community banks, which are also required to file SARs as part of Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering laws, may think they are exempt from the scrutiny and revelations applied to the biggest banks in the FinCEN Files. Not so. Bank Director spoke with two attorneys that work with banks on BSA/AML issues for what community banks should take away from the FinCEN Files.

Greater Curiosity
Community banks should exercise curiosity about transaction trends in their own SARs that may add up to a red flag — whether that’s transaction history, circumstances and similarities to other cases that proved nefarious. Banks should ask themselves if these SARs contain details that indicated the bank should’ve done something more, such as not complete the transaction.

“That is probably the biggest go-forward lesson for banks: Make sure that your policies and procedures are such that — when someone is looking at this in hindsight and evaluating whether you should have done something more — you can demonstrate that you had the proper policies and procedures in place to identify when something more needed to be done,” says James Stevens, a partner at Troutman Pepper.

Although it may be obvious, Stevens says banks should be “vigilantly evaluating” transactions not just for whether they merit a SAR, but whether they should be completed at all.

Size Doesn’t Matter
When it comes to BSA/AML risk profiles and capabilities, Stevens says size doesn’t matter. Technology has leveled the playing field for many banks, allowing smaller banks to license and access the capabilities that were once the domain of larger banks. It doesn’t make a difference in a bank’s risk profile; customers are its biggest determinant of a bank’s BSA/AML risk. Higher-risk customers, whether through business line or geography, will pose more risk for a bank, no matter its size.

But banks should know they may always be caught in between serving customers and regulatory activity. Carleton Goss, counsel at Hunton Andrews Kurth, points out that changing state laws mean some financial institutions can serve cannabis businesses that are legal in the state but still need to file SARs at the federal level. Banks may even find themselves being asked by law enforcement agencies to keep a suspicious account open to facilitate greater monitoring and reporting.

“There’s definitely a tension between serving customers and preventing criminal activity,” he says. “You don’t always know the extent of the activities that you’ve reported — the way the SAR reporting obligation is worded, you don’t even have to be definitively sure that a crime has occurred.”

“Front Page of the Newspaper” Test
Reporting in recent years continues to cast a spotlight on BSA/AML laws. Before the FinCEN Files, there was the 2016 Panama Papers. Stevens says that while banks have assumed that SARs would remain confidential and posed only legal or compliance risk, they should still be sensitive to the potential reputational risks of doing business with certain customers — even if the transactions they complete for them are technically compliant with existing law.

Like everything else we do, you have to be prepared for it to be on the front page of the newspaper,” he says.

Media reports mean that regulatory pressure and public outrage could continue to build, which could heighten regulatory expectations.

“Whenever you see a large event like the FinCEN files, there tends to be pressure on the regulators to ‘up their game’ to avoid giving people the perception that they were somehow asleep at the wheel or missed something,” Goss says. “It would be fair for the industry to expect a little bit more scrutiny than they otherwise would on their next BSA exam.”