Fifth Third’s Transformation

A few years ago, walls of black granite lined the entrance to Fifth Third Bancorp’s headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. Today, the entrance is an open atrium lined with artwork, a café and a small stage for the public to enjoy performances. Pithy reminders for employees dot the walls and elevator: “Be the bank people most value & trust,” and “Strengthen communities.”

As if to imply that the dark days at Fifth Third are behind it, a wall of windows lets light stream in. Fifth Third not only went through a physical renovation, but a financial one as well. The $205 billion bank’s performance was in the bottom half of peers eight and nine years ago. It’s now in the top quartile. It’s rebuilt its balance sheet and its reputation after the financial crisis, when its stock plummeted to about $1 per share and its ability to survive as an independent entity was in question.

Today’s Fifth Third has accomplished a vast financial comeback as well as a digital transformation executed in part by former CEO Greg Carmichael and Tim Spence, who in July became the youngest CEO among the 20 largest commercial banks in the country.

“That was the major task of the last five, six years: Return the bank to a place where it had the right to flex its muscle a little bit and go achieve great outcomes,” says Fifth Third’s Chief Strategy Officer Ben Hoffman. “Now the question for Tim is, ‘What do you do with that?’”

As if to emphasize the changes, Spence decided our interview would not take place in a conference room. He moved us to the open-office innovation studio that shares the same floor as the executive suite inside Fifth Third’s headquarters tower on Fountain Square. “Those of us who are here today get to operate on a platform that’s going to allow us to think about growth,” Spence says in hushed tones, so as not to disturb the employees working on computers around us. “How do we grow the business organically?”

To understand what happened at Fifth Third, you have to go back in time. Although the bank traces its roots back to The Bank of the Ohio Valley in 1858, it really began growing considerably in the 1980s. Its formidable former CEO, George Schaefer Jr., a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran, ran the bank starting in the 1990s until 2007. He created a hard-driving sales culture and had a reputation for frugality.

One reporter described his office furniture as not so much antique as shopworn. He was religious about making sure every employee wore the iconic 5/3 pin on their lapels. One former employee told me the bank was so conservative that women weren’t allowed to wear pantsuits. But it was also one of the top performing banks in the country.

Boosted by a high stock price multiple, Schaefer went on a buying spree that enlarged the bank’s footprint. In the 1990s alone, Fifth Third bought 21 other banks. By 1999, the bank had 384 banking centers in Florida, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, according to the company.

“Back in the 1990s, Cincinnati had two of the most highly regarded banks in the country,” says R. Scott Siefers, managing director and equity analyst at Piper Sandler & Co. “It was Fifth Third and Star Bank, which is now part of U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis … they both had high multiples. Fifth Third might trade at 20 or 25 times earnings and would buy these companies at say, 10 or 12 times earnings. The math just worked fabulously because of the disparity. These deals were so accretive to earnings.”

But some of the deals didn’t work out so well, and investors became more cautious on the company, Siefers says. The financial crisis of 2007-08 came along, and Fifth Third was hit hard. Although the bank didn’t get into subprime lending, management was caught off guard by the sheer loss of value in the real estate industry and the collapse of the mortgage market.

Also, what regulators and the public demanded of banks changed dramatically, remembers Kevin Kabat, who was CEO from 2007 to 2015. Becoming CEO in 2007 was less than ideal. Kabat recalls that he had one good quarter before the crisis hit.

“It was stressful, to say the least,” he says. “We were probably the second most picked-on company after [National City Corp.], which went out of business.”

Congress passed the largest financial law in decades, the Dodd-Frank Act, in 2010.

“[The crisis] broadened in a much bigger way the definition of success,” Kabat says. “In [earlier] days, there was only one thing that mattered; it was earnings per share, period. There was not a lot of conversation about much else … I think what really changed from that perspective was the definition of success. The regulators had a stronger opinion about success. Your customers had a strong opinion of success. Your politicians and community leaders had a much different perspective of what success meant. It created a three-dimensional viewpoint of success, where we were pretty one-dimensional before that.”

Kabat recapitalized the business, with then-Chief Operating Officer Carmichael, and focused on changing the culture and de-risking the balance sheet. “When I joined the company, it was clear that the sales orientation, the sales focus was the No. 1 focus,” Kabat says. “We changed it from a sales focus to a customer focus. It’s not just what the next product is; it’s how the customer feels. How do they judge us? What’s their loyalty? And we began to measure all those things.”

There’s at least one entity that doesn’t believe Fifth Third totally changed: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As of press time, the bureau continues to litigate its 2020 lawsuit against Fifth Third that accuses the bank of imposing sales goals on employees that resulted in unauthorized account openings for several years following the financial crisis, similar to practices at Wells Fargo & Co. that gained attention in 2016. The CFPB accuses Fifth Third of failing to take adequate steps to detect and stop the practices, or remediate harmed consumers.

Fifth Third countered in public statements that those accounts involved less than $30,000 in improper charges that were waived or reimbursed years ago. The company currently does not have sales quotas or product-specific targets for retail employees, nor does it reward them for opening unauthorized accounts. “Starting in 2011 and 2012 and 2013, the measures we took since that point in time ensured we had a culture that put the customer at the center,” Spence says, adding that the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

It wasn’t just Fifth Third’s sales culture that was under the microscope. When Greg Carmichael arrived in 2015, the bank was in better shape, but it was trading at book value. Profitability was stoked by ownership of a payments business called Vantiv, but lots of investors discounted that value. Carmichael asked investors what they liked about Fifth Third and what they thought its issues or challenges were. Then, he and his management team studied banks that performed well through economic cycles, looking for their similarities. “Listen, it wasn’t rocket science,” says the matter-of-fact Carmichael, who is now executive chairman of the board. “You need a balance sheet that’s going to perform well when the credit cycle turns. You need a balance sheet that’s going to throw off strong returns, so you need to make sure you’re banking the right clients, and you have the full relationship. You need your fee businesses to be a larger portion of your business to offset low-rate environments.”

The management team committed to becoming a bank that would perform well through various interest rate environments and through the inevitable downturns. Carmichael and his team began to build larger fee income businesses, such as mortgages, capital markets and private banking. He committed the bank to quantifiable financial goals, such as return on tangible common equity and return on assets. “We communicated that strategy with financial targets, and we told our investors to hold us accountable, told our board to hold us accountable. And we also asked our employees to hold us accountable, hold themselves accountable for executing to this strategy. That was critical,” he says.

Still, investors weren’t always pleased. After Fifth Third announced the acquisition in 2018 of one of the larger banks in Chicago, MB Financial, for 2.8 times tangible book value, the stock price fell and didn’t recover fully until the end of 2019. “What they didn’t like is we paid a lot for it,” Carmichael says, “We proved them wrong … I would do that deal in a heartbeat at the same price again, and I wouldn’t bat an eye.”

The other thing Carmichael did was start building the bank’s portfolio of high-quality commercial and industrial loans in Texas and California, even in regions that didn’t have Fifth Third retail branches, says Christopher Marinac, director of research for Janney Montgomery Scott, who follows the company. The management team has been focused particularly on expanding the bank and its branches into growth markets in the Southeast.

The focus has paid off so far. Fifth Third placed No. 5 among the 33 commercial banks above $50 billion in assets in Bank Director’s RankingBanking study last year, based on return on average assets, return on average equity, capital adequacy, asset quality and one-year total shareholder return in 2021. For calendar year 2020, it was building reserves for the pandemic and ranked No. 21 on a similar Bank Director ranking called the Bank Performance Scorecard. For calendar year 2019, it ranked sixth.

After Carmichael transformed the bank, he handed the reins to Spence last summer. But before that, he had executed a two-year succession plan that involved rotating Spence through different roles to see if he could lead major businesses for the bank, bringing him to investor meetings and signifying to the world that Spence was his likely successor. “So, when I actually made the announcement [that] I was stepping down in a handful of months, there was no surprise who the person was, there was no issue with confidence that Tim couldn’t step right in, because he’s been part of [the] strategy,” Carmichael says. The choice was unusual. Instead of picking someone as a potential successor who had 20 or 30 years of service in banking, Carmichael picked someone he had hired from the consulting firm Oliver Wyman as his chief strategy officer in 2015, when Spence was still in his 30s. “He was much younger than I thought he was,” Carmichael says. “But he is well beyond his years in both maturity and leadership, and knowledge base of the banking sector. So, I never thought of Tim as a young man. I always thought of him as a seasoned leader.”

Spence was an unusual pick for another reason. He had a background in the tech sector. Spence learned how to code at the same time he learned how to write, in the first grade, although he never worked as a programmer.

The son of a financial advisor and a flight attendant who divorced, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and got a bachelor’s degree in economics and English literature from Colgate University, a private school in New York. While in school, he asked his dad to send him a copy of an Oregon business journal and wrote letters to the paper’s list of the 50 fastest growing tech companies, offering to work for free if there was a possibility of long-term employment. He started out at a small startup as a finance intern, working his way up in corporate development and management before moving to a bigger tech company. But after years at tech firms, he reached a point where he would “sit and listen to our customers, and hear them describe big opportunities and challenges. We were this little component solution. I wanted to have the opportunity to help work on the big things, not just the pieces.”

He got a job at Oliver Wyman and worked there for about a decade, becoming a senior partner of its financial services practice and doing work for its client Fifth Third before Carmichael offered him a job. Given the costs of hiring a consulting firm, Carmichael joked at the time that the hire was a money-saving measure. “He’s very thoughtful in his approach,” Carmichael says. “He [is] very detail oriented when he gets into a subject matter, and he can go very deep, which I was really, really impressed with. And then his listening skills, he listens and that’s also not a trait many consultants have.”

Carmichael says that when he decided to develop Spence as the potential next CEO, he was looking for someone who really understood technology’s impact on financial services. “He really had appreciation for the technology space and a passion for leveraging technology for the success of our business,” Carmichael says. “And I just thought that was also an extremely important attribute and skill set to have, when you think about the future of a bank CEO.”

Spence has a round, boyish face, but he’s tall enough to be a basketball player. Moving through the open offices, employees stopped what they were doing to watch him walk past. “Tim’s mind is all over the place, and I don’t mean in a sloppy, disorganized way,” says Steve D’Amico, who worked for Spence as chief innovation officer for a year and a half, starting in 2016. “He’s a very diverse thinker, bringing lots of unusual ideas to bear.”

Ben Hoffman, Fifth Third’s chief strategy officer, says that Spence has the ability to identify what matters and what doesn’t. “My belief is that Tim’s superpower is focus,” Hoffman says. He’s not a micromanager, but he’s deeply interested in the details. “There have been multiple times where he’s asked me a question about footnote seven on page 87, in the appendix of a presentation.”

One of the details Spence is intensely interested in is the particulars of digital transformation. Spence wants to learn from the best examples of technology and customer service across all industries, not necessarily in banking. “If we need engineers, what does the best employer for an engineer look like?” Hoffman says. “We spend a lot more time thinking about JPMorgan [Chase & Co.] and Goldman Sachs [Group] and LendingClub [Corp.], and the credit funds, candidly, then we do about the traditional regional bank peers.” A few years ago, the bank designed a new consumer deposit account. The walls were filled with sticky notes as staffers wrote down the best brands for customer experiences, among them, Delta Air Lines, Hertz, Domino’s Pizza and Zappos.com.

Then, they came up with ideas about what the app should do, Hoffman says.

Chief Digital Officer Melissa Stevens was deeply involved in launching the bank’s Momentum Banking consumer deposit account product in 2021, all of it built in-house. Notably, it’s not called a checking account. It has an automatic savings tool and free access to wages up to two days in advance with direct deposit, even for gig workers. The account also gives customers additional time to make a deposit to avoid overdrafts and the ability to get an advance of funds against future pay. It has no minimum deposit opening amount, and it costs $0 per month.

Although none of those features are hugely unique in the world of fintechs, what is unique is Fifth Third’s approach to fintech partnerships. Fifth Third is a superregional bank with a tech budget of more than $700 million last year, growing at a compound annual rate of 10%. “They’re not going to have the technology budget of a Chase or a Bank of America [Corp.],” says Alex Johnson, creator of the Fintech Takes newsletter. “And they can’t keep up with those banks if they insist on building everything themselves. But if they can focus their own development resources just on the things that they can’t get by partnering or buying, they can have a much more efficient technology budget where they get more per dollar out of their tech budget because it’s more focused on the highest priorities.” That’s not easy to do, because it’s hard to tell a chief technology officer not to build what that person wants to build, Johnson adds. “I think Fifth Third, for the most part, has managed to sidestep that problem from of an internal politics perspective and just be really aligned from the top down on what their strategy is,” he says.

Fifth Third works with fintech partners for years before it decides, in some cases, to buy them. Hoffman’s team is responsible for venture capital funding and partnerships with fintechs. The bank was an early investor in 2018, for example, in Provide, a digital lending platform for medical practices, according to a 2022 article by Bonnie McGeer for Bank Director’s FinXTech.com division. The bank announced a deal to buy Provide in 2021 and purchased another fintech that finances solar panels in 2022. “I think the other competency you have to have if you’re going to do this well is you have to be really good at partnering and acquiring technology,” Johnson says. “Some of the best technology out there is coming from fintech companies, and most banks have no idea how to work with fintech companies.”

Spence’s job is to get the company’s managers and employees to think differently, and he sees working with fintechs as part of that strategy. “The single best way to do that,’’ he says, was to partner with and invest in fintechs who could help the bank’s employees grow. “One of the big mental model changes that has to still trickle into our industry is this idea of product life cycle management … [Instead of] build it and launch it and leave it, we have to move much more into a software-oriented mindset, where you develop a product and then every six to 12 months, you make it better.”

Spence acknowledges that he’s in an enviable position compared to his predecessors. He was handed a banking franchise in good shape and now needs to sustain it. “What Greg did was remarkable,” Spence says. “We need to continue the focus on profitability and operational excellence and resilience through cycles. We need to maintain those disciplines. We need to grow organically and take advantage of opportunities, particularly in terms of technology that allows us to inhabit a different position in people’s lives.”

Despite the focus on innovation, analysts such as Siefers get the impression that Spence is equally focused on careful, strategic thinking when it comes to the bank’s balance sheet. He doesn’t get the impression that Fifth Third is interested in big gambles, and the bank seems well positioned even heading into a potential downturn.

“Kevin [Kabat] and then Greg Carmichael, they’ve been in reputation rebuild mode for the better part of the last decade,” Siefers says. “And they’ve done so quite successfully, particularly during Greg’s tenure. And ideally, that continuity will continue with Tim.”

Marinac also thinks the bank is well positioned given rising rates. “I think their ability to reset loan yields is better than other banks,” he says. “The industry is craving new ideas, new approaches, whether it’s taking out costs or building these new lending channels, or kind of rethinking the business. That’s where Tim comes in … 85% of banks follow and 15% lead. I think Fifth Third is demonstrating that they’re a leader.”

This article has been updated to reflect that Tim Spence was a senior partner in the financial services practice at Oliver Wyman.

The following feature appeared in the first quarter 2023 edition of Bank Director magazine. It and other stories are available to magazine subscribers and members of Bank Director’s Bank Services Membership Program. Learn more about subscribing here.

What Does Today’s Community Banker Look Like?

After more than a year of great uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the biggest driver of change for community banks now will likely come from customer behavior.

The shift towards digital banking that took off during the pandemic is expected to become permanent to some degree. Customers are most likely to use online or mobile channels to transact and they are becoming more involved in fraud prevention, with measures such as two-step verification. They are also performing an increasing number of routine administrative tasks remotely, like activating cards or managing limits. Branches are likely to endure but will need to rethink how to humanize digital delivery: The Financial Brand reports that 81% of bankers believe that banks will seek to differentiate on customer experience rather than products and location.

Digitalization is good news for community banks. It reduces pressure on the branch network and increases opportunities to develop the brand digitally to reach new customers. But it also creates an obligation to deliver a good digital experience that reduces customer effort and friction. In the digital age, customers face less costs of switching banks.

Banks that assume they will be the sole supplier of a customer’s financial services or that a relationship will endure for a lifetime do so at their own risk. President Joseph Biden’s administration is promoting greater competition in the bank space through an executive order asking the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to issue rules that give consumers full control of their financial data, making it easier for customers to switch banks. Several countries have already implemented account switching services that guarantee a safe transfer. How should community banks respond so they are winners, not losers, with these changes?

With their familiar brands, community banks are well positioned for success, but there are things they must do to increase customer engagement and build loyalty. Continuing to invest in digital remains crucial to delivering a digital brand experience that’s aligns with the branch. Such investment will be well rewarded — not only in retaining customers but also attracting new ones, particularly the younger generation of “digital natives” who expect a digital-first approach to banking. The challenge will be migrating the trust that customers have in the branch to the app, offering customers choice while maintaining a similar look and feel.

The branch will continue being a mainstay of community banking. Customers are returning to their branches, but its use is changing and transactions are declining. Customers tend to visit a branch to receive financial advice or to discuss specific financial products, such as loans, mortgages or retirement products. Some banks already acknowledge this shift and are repurposing branches as advice centers, with coffee shops where customers can meet bankers in a relaxed atmosphere. In turn, bankers can go paperless and use tablets to guide the conversation and demonstrate financial tools, using technology augmented by a personal touch.

Community banks can play a crucial role in promoting financial literacy and wellness among the unbanked. As many as 6% of Americans are unbanked and rely on alternative financial services, such as payday loans, pawnshops or check cashing services to take care of their finances. According to a 2019 report by the Federal Reserve, being unbanked costs an individual an average of $3,000 annually. By increasing financial inclusion, community banks can cultivate the customers of tomorrow and benefit the wider community.

Cryptocurrencies are the next stage of the digital revolution and are becoming more mainstream. Although community banks are unlikely to lose many customers in the short term over cryptocurrency functionality, these digital assets appeal to younger customers and may become more widely accepted as a payment type in a decade. Every bank needs a strategy for digital assets.

The shift to digital banking means bank customers expect the same experience they get from non-financial services. Application program interfaces (APIs) have ushered in a new era of collaboration and integration for banks, their partners and customers. APIs empower banks to do more with data to help customers reduce effort, from automating onboarding to access to funds and loans immediately. At a time when community banks and their customers are getting more involved with technology, every bank needs an API strategy that is clearly communicated to all stakeholders, including partners and customers. Although APIs cannot mitigate uncertainty, they do empower a bank to embrace change and harness the power of data. Banks without an APIs strategy should speak to their technology partners and discover how to find out how APIs can boost innovation and increase customer engagement.

New Rule Settles a Vexing Problem for Bank Exams

One of the most contentious aspects of post-financial crisis bank examinations under the administration of President Barack Obama just got resolved.

A new set of rules implemented this year confirm a rather simple and straightforward idea: Supervisory guidance and bank regulations are different. It attempts to address concerns from banking trade groups that the regulators sometimes used supervisory guidance in place of a formal rule in examination feedback — in short, that supervisory guidance effectively substituted as a rule — and has implications for how supervisory guidance should be used going forward.

“I think there was a growing concern that [regulators] were using the soft guidance as a means of enforcing hard requirements,” says Charles Horn, a regulatory and transaction attorney at Morgan Lewis. He cites the supervisory guidance around leveraged lending as one example of guidance that created concern and confusion for the banking industry.

The Rule
The rules, which build on a 2018 interagency statement, were passed by the individual bank regulatory agencies — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Federal Reserve — at different times but feature similar language. They specify that supervisory guidance does not establish rules that have the force and effect of law, in contrast to rules that undergo the rulemaking process that includes notice and comment periods, according to notice from the law firm Covington. A regulator’s examination staff cannot use supervisory guidance as the basis for issuing the dreaded report known as a “Matter Requiring Attention” or for any other enforcement action or report of noncompliance.

Both the Fed’s and OCC’s rules state that its examiners will not base supervisory criticisms or enforcement actions on a “violation” of or “non-compliance with” supervisory guidance, and will limit the use of thresholds or other “bright-lines” included in supervisory guidance expectations.

Unlike a law or regulation, supervisory guidance does not have the force and effect of law,” stated the OCC in January 2021 and the Federal Reserve in March of the same year. “Rather, guidance outlines expectations and priorities, or articulates views regarding appropriate practices for a specific subject.”

There are several reasons why regulators issue supervisory guidance. Guidance can educate and inform the agency’s examiners, and could be shared with banks so that both groups are on the same page. Regulators may also issue guidance on issues that are too timely or trivial to merit rulemaking. Sometimes, banks ask regulators to provide guidance or insights on an issue. It can come in many shapes and forms: bank bulletins, frequently asked questions and circulars, among others. Most pieces of supervisory guidance are not issued with a notice and comment period.

“It’s remarkable how much guidance the agencies have issued over the years,” says Greg Baer, president and CEO of the Bank Policy Institute, a research organization whose membership includes some of the biggest banks in the country. The BPI was one of the groups that formally petitioned the agencies to turn the 2018 interagency statement into a rule.

Unlike rules, supervisory guidance wasn’t supposed to be binding. But if a bank examiner treated it as binding, it could pressure bank executives to adopt the same approach. Bank trade groups became concerned that examiners could cite situations where the bank was not following supervisory guidance as the reason for issuing an MRA. MRAs fall below the seriousness of enforcement actions like consent orders, but examiners still expect banks to respond to and address them. Failure to address an MRA can generate subsequent MRAs or contribute to more formal administrative actions.

Of course, a rule on the paper could be different than a rule that is applied and enforced during an exam. It may be too soon to know if the rule has made an impact on exams. The impetus for the new rules began under the administration of President Donald Trump, although many of the rules were finalized at the start of President Joe Biden’s administration. The change in administrations and continued regulatory adjustments made in response to the coronavirus pandemic means that the agencies could still be in an adjustment period. It may take some time for the edict to trickle down from the agency heads to the front-line examiners. Bank executives and boards may also need time to learn about the rule and how it might apply to feedback they’ve received from examiners.

Bank examinations are famously secret. And while bankers and directors may have more leeway to ask for clarification on examination feedbacks or even appeal the findings of the report, especially if feedback cites supervisory guidance, they may not feel comfortable doing so to maintain good relationships with their regulators and examiners. Horn, for his part, expects banks to be cautious about challenging examination actions even with this new rule.

“Banks do value good relationships with the regulators, and there are a number of banks that don’t want to take the risk of pushing back against regulatory criticism unless they think it’s important,” he says. “Personally I think [the rule] can be helpful, but we don’t know how helpful it will be until we can see how this plays out over the coming months and, frankly, the coming years.”

Focus On Two Key Areas to Capitalize on Overdrafts


overdraft-10-16-18.pngBy all accounts, the outlook for overdraft programs is encouraging for community banks.

Increasingly more consumers are choosing to access the service as a short-term funding solution, while regulatory burdens are easing. Banks that manage their customers’ overdrafts with outdated programs—those that do not put their account holders’ best interests at the forefront or utilize outdated technology and procedures—cannot capitalize on this real opportunity to improve service and compliance, as well as fee income.

The Overdraft Landscape
According to Moebs Services Inc., an economic-research firm, overdraft revenue increased 3 percent industry wide from 2016 to 2017, the largest increase since 2009, and is on pace to an all-time high above $37 billion by 2020.

One reason for this increase in overdraft fee income is more consumers are making the decision to access the service when funds fall short. Moebs Services reported there were approximately 1.12 billion overdraft transactions in 2016, up from nearly 1.09 billion in 2015. According to a 2017 Wall Street Journal article, these numbers suggest many consumers consider overdraft a safety net—a convenience—for which they are willing to pay a price. Analysts said in the WSJ article that the increase in overdraft revenue should be expected, since rules and regulations have been in place for some time now.

In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau withdrew overdraft rulemaking from the agency’s spring rulemaking agenda in May after having been on the agenda for years, signaling that no new overdraft regulations will be forthcoming.

With this landscape set, how should your bank capitalize on it?

A Data-Driven, Automated Solution
The first place to start is to review your current overdraft procedures and software capabilities to ensure you are using a modern, data-driven solution—one that automatically manages risk and strives to meet customer expectations. Although there are several essential components of such a system, two are listed below.

Intelligent Limit-Setting
Updated automated overdraft programs should enable your bank to set individual overdraft limits that align with an account holder’s ability to repay the overdrawn balance. The software analyzes the key risk variables of your accounts, identifies the accounts that have the highest probability of charge off and calculates individual “intelligent” limits. It then reassesses that ability to repay daily.

Providing these dynamic limits helps to serve customers better than employing fixed overdraft limits (where the same overdraft limit is assigned to every customer of a certain account type) by granting higher overdraft limits to those customers whose ability to repay warrants it, while pulling back on those who have more limited repayment capacity.

Just as important, using intelligent limits addresses the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) 2005 Joint Guidance on Overdraft Protection Programs, which states, “Institutions also should monitor these accounts on an ongoing basis and be able to identify consumers who may represent an undue credit risk to the institution. Overdraft protection programs should be administered and adjusted, as needed, to ensure that credit risk remains in line with expectations.”

Reg. E Outreach
Eight years have passed since most banks conducted a formal outreach program in response to the 2010 Amendment to Regulation E, or Reg. E, which requires affirmative consent from customers for banks to charge an overdraft fee on ATM and one-time debit card transactions. Does your board know the number of customers who did not provide a decision back in 2010 or at a subsequent account opening?

Without consent, banks do not extend overdraft privilege through these channels, which can result in multiple unexplained debit card declines. Customers may not recall making a Reg. E decision or are unaware it is even an option, which leads to confusion and irritation for the customer.

Data-driven overdraft software allows your bank to identify these denied transactions and sort them by a customer’s Reg. E decision. With this knowledge, you can reach out to those customers who have not provided a decision and explain the reason for the denial, offer overdraft alternatives and obtain a Reg. E preference. Customers appreciate this level of communication, which provides assurance your debit card will consistently help them meet their liquidity needs.

Capturing just a few percentage points more Reg. E opt-ins can result in a tangible increase in both interchange and fee income as well. A qualified third-party overdraft provider will offer employee training, best practices and scripts to ensure your Reg. E outreach program is successful and compliant.

Is your bank positioned to capitalize on the opportunity for better service and income that a well-run overdraft program represents? With the right technology and procedures, you can.

AI is Groundbreaking Technology—But What Will the Regulators Say?


FinXTech-4-19-18.pngIn one sense, regtech—a recent word invention that stands for regulatory technology—is just a rebranding of an evolutionary process that has been going on for decades. Ever since the first IBM mainframe computers rolled off the assembly line in the 1960s, banks have been deploying technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations and lower their costs. Of course, technology has come a long way since the dawn of the IBM mainframe—or “Big Iron” as they were sometimes called. Consider for a moment that anyone walking around today with an Apple iPhone 8 has more computer power in the palm of their hand than the Apollo 11 astronauts used on their 238,900-mile journey to the moon.

Another example—one with the potential to revolutionize the task of regulatory compliance—is artificial intelligence, or AI. “People see it as something that can solve all of your problems,” Harshad Pitkar, a partner at the consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said during a presentation at Bank Director’s The Reality of Regtech event, which took place April 18 at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York.

While it holds great promise, Pitkar said deployment of AI in the regulatory compliance space needs time to mature, with more focus on building on “practical applications” that address specific compliance challenges within the bank. Pitkar also cautioned that like many complex technology solutions, AI projects take time and patience to get off the ground. “[They’re] not so easy to implement,” he said. “It’s not as easy as turning on a switch.”

It is still unclear however, how regulators will embrace technology-driven compliance solutions. Concepts and emerging technologies like AI in oversight of the compliance process are taken very seriously.

Regulators are by nature conservative, so it shouldn’t be surprising they may be slow to warm up to an innovative new technology solution proposed to replace a more manual, people-driven process they are very familiar with. At the same time, financial regulators are well aware of the many innovations emerging in regtech and financial technology generally—and the need for them to keep pace with this innovation. A number of regulatory agencies around the world, including a few in the United States, are establishing “reglabs” or “regulatory sandboxes” to test new ideas.

James Kim, an attorney with Ballard Spahr and a former regulator at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said during a later panel discussion that banks should make a concerted effort to educate their supervisory agencies about regtech projects they have undertaken. “Educate your regulators,” Kim said. “They need to feel comfortable that your new technological systems are effective.” Speaking from experience, Kim said regulators will always be playing catch with the banking and fintech communities as the innovation tide rolls on. “They probably will always be dead last in having the expert knowledge in this area,” he said. “They need to be led.”

Cautious Optimism for Bank M&A


industry-1-29-18.pngThere is a general sense of optimism about the state of deal-making in the banking industry at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Bankers and industry observers pointed repeatedly throughout the first day to the fact that bank stock valuations have soared in the 14 months since the 2016 presidential election, opening up new possibilities for interested buyers and sellers.

Bank stocks faced an uncertain if not bleak future two years ago, a point that Thomas Michaud, president and CEO of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, used to set the scene for the state of banking in 2018. Oil prices had dropped to below $30 a barrel, economic growth in China seemed to be tempering and the United Kingdom was lurching towards a nationwide referendum on quitting the European Union. This trifecta of bad news led bank stocks to drop, producing a dour outlook for prospective sellers.

Yet, you only had to flash forward to the end of 2016 to find a dramatically altered landscape. Stocks soared following the presidential election. And no industry benefited more than banks, where share prices rose by nearly a third over the next four months. Since the beginning of 2016, large-cap bank stocks have climbed 55 percent while regional bank stocks have gained 44 percent—both having bettered the S&P 500’s 36 percent advance over the same stretch.

This has resulted in meaningfully higher valuations, a core driver of deal activity. Prior to the presidential election, banks were valued below their 15-year median of 15.2 times forward earnings per share estimates. After peaking at 18.8 times forward earnings in the immediate wake of the election, they have settled at 15.4. But even though bank valuations are up, which makes deals more attractive to buyers and sellers with higher multiples, they are nowhere near euphoric levels, given the mere 20 basis point premium over the long-run average.

Virtually everyone you talk to at this year’s gathering of more than 1,000 bankers from across the country believes there is still room for these valuations to climb even higher. This was a point made in a session on the drivers of a bank’s value by Curtis Carpenter, principal and head of investment banking at Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking. In just the last five weeks of 2017, six deals priced for more than two times tangible book value were announced, creating strong momentum for 2018.

Underlying all of this is an improved outlook for bank profitability, the primary determinate of valuation. In the immediate wake of the financial crisis, it was common to hear people say that banks would be lucky to return 1 percent on their assets. Now, a combination of factors is leading people like Michaud to forecast that the average bank will generate a 1.2 percent return on assets.

Multiple factors are playing into this, beginning with the pristine state of the industry’s asset quality. You have to go back to the 1970s to find the last time the current credit outlook for banks was this good, says Michaud. This has some industry observers watching closely. One of them is Tim Johnson, who leads KPMG LLP’s deal advisory financial services sector. Johnson commented in a panel discussion on deal-making that he believes the consumer credit cycle could take a turn for the worse this year. But there are others, like Tom Brown, founder and chief executive officer of the hedge fund Second Curve Capital, who doesn’t see any reason to be worried about consumer credit trends in light of the low unemployment rate and high consumer confidence.

The expected changing of the guard atop the regulatory agencies is a second factor fueling optimism that profitability will improve this year. Former banker Joseph Otting is the new comptroller of the currency, while Jerome Powell has been confirmed as the new chair of the Federal Reserve Board. Jelena McWilliams awaits confirmation by the U.S. Senate as the new chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and President Donald Trump is expected to nominate a new director to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While there are few signs of tangible benefits in terms of a lower compliance burden from the new administration, this should eventually change once new leaders are in place at the top of all of the agencies.

Last but not least, the biggest boost to profitability in the industry will come from the recently enacted corporate tax cuts, which lower the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent down to 21 percent. The drop is so significant that it caused KBW to raise its earnings estimates for banks by 14 percent in 2018 and 12 percent in 2019. And when you factor in the likelihood that many banks will use the savings to buy back stock, KBW projects that earnings per share in the industry will climb this year by 25.6 percent over 2017.

The atmosphere on the first day of the conference was thus upbeat, with presenters and attendees projecting a sense of cautious optimism over the improved outlook for the industry. At the same time, there is recognition that the longer-term macro consolidation cycle that shifted into high gear following the elimination of laws against interstate banking in the mid-1990s could soon reach critical mass. If that were to happen, banks that don’t capitalize on today’s improved outlook by seeking a partner could be left standing alone at the merger alter.

Privacy Concerns Remain as HMDA Implementation Date Arrives


CFPB-12-27-17.pngAfter more than three years, the implementation date for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s amendment to Regulation C of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) has finally arrived. While much has been written about the increased data points to be collected and reported under the rule, and the regulatory risks this presents to covered entities, the data privacy issues have been largely overlooked and are still being debated at this late stage.

HMDA data is not only public, but the CFPB provides tools that allow anyone to explore this data. The CFPB also allows the raw data to be exported with ease to spreadsheets and other data analysis programs. The fact that the data is so easily analyzed, combined with the increase in data points collected under the new rule, drove the financial industry to repeatedly raise privacy concerns to the CFPB. As early as 2015, covered entities questioned why the rule failed to establish a method to mask certain data fields that would protect an applicant’s identity. The CFPB didn’t directly address these concerns, stating only that the bureau will use a balancing test—a subjective test to explore a legal or regulatory issue—to “determine whether HMDA data should be modified prior to its disclosure in order to protect applicant and borrower privacy while also fulfilling HMDA’s disclosure purposes.”

The results of this balancing test were finally announced in September 2017, when the CFPB published guidance in the Federal Register. Not surprisingly, the guidance was met with criticism and further concern from the industry, as evidenced by a recent comment letter submitted by several industry trade groups. The CFPB’s guidance proposes to modify the public loan-level HMDA data to only exclude:

  • the universal loan identifier,
  • the date of the application,
  • the date action was taken by the financial institution,
  • the address of the property securing the loan,
  • the credit score or scores relied on in making the credit decision,
  • the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry Identifier (NMLS ID),
  • the result generated by the underwriting system, and
  • free-form text fields used to report applicant or borrower race and ethnicity, name and version of the credit scoring model used, principal reason for denial (if applicable), and the name of the automated underwriting system.

As the comment letter points out, this leaves all other data points available to the public, including the borrower’s income, age, sex, race and ethnicity; the census tract, county and state; and the interest rate, combined loan-to-value ratio (CLTV), loan purpose and term, as well as many other data points. This makes applicant identification by the public not only possible, but probable. The data being collected and reported can be used for criminal purposes such as identity theft, but will also be extremely valuable to third-party marketing services. In an age where the mining and aggregation of personal information creates valuable data sets, it is reasonable to believe that the reported HMDA data will be analyzed to exploit anyone applying for a mortgage in 2018 and beyond.

Those involved in mortgage lending should be concerned with their applicants’ data privacy, given the litigation and reputational risks that accompany any successful attempt to improperly utilize or re-identify an applicant through reported HMDA data. Consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to their privacy and the need to protect it. Once it is determined that HMDA data was used for an unauthorized or possibly criminal purpose, covered entities should expect a flurry of lawsuits filed and public backlash against whatever institutions were involved in the collection and reporting—not necessarily the CFPB that promulgated the rule and guidance. Given that it is a regulatory requirement to do so, HMDA covered entities will likely avoid liability for this disclosure, but at that point the reputational price and legal costs will already be incurred. Banks and other lenders must start collecting this data effective January 1, 2018, which will be scheduled for publication by the CFPB a year later. The risk presented to not only applicants and lenders through the public disclosure of this data is real, and it must be addressed by the CFPB. There is still more than a year before this data will be publicly reported. All mortgage lenders and industry groups should continue to push for a more conservative plan in regards to the publication of said data, with a greater focus on the data privacy risks to borrowers and the risk exposure to the lenders.

Does the U.S. Need Its Own Version of PSD2?


banking-12-22-17.pngIn January 2018, the Revised Payment Services Directive (PSD2) takes effect in the European Union, requiring banks there to open their payment infrastructure and data to third parties. The consumer-focused initiative is intended to give individuals control over their financial data while simplifying the payments ecosystem. Belgium, Germany and Italy have had a common protocol for providing third-party access to account information since the 1990s, and Australia is considering measures similar to the EU’s PSD2 initiative, according to a report from McKinsey & Co. With so much momentum behind the concept of open banking, should the United States explore a similar uniform data sharing policy?

Currently, the U.S. sees data sharing between banks and third parties take place through a patchwork of one-off deals. Often, agreements are struck between a financial institution and an intermediary that aggregates data from several institutions and provides that information to third parties, such as personal financial management apps, lending platforms or other consumer-facing service providers. These types of agreements do little to further a holistic national agenda of financial innovation and inclusion.

Many stakeholders—banks and technology companies alike—believe that these one-off data sharing agreements are not enough. For banks, current methods used by technology companies to gather data from their systems can result in security breaches, and carry the potential for brand or reputational risks. These issues illustrate the need for a uniform protocol that addresses both the technical aspects of connecting with third parties and the liability issues that can arise in cases of consumer financial loss.

What’s more, while the demands of secure API implementation are huge expenditures for a financial institution, the shift to open banking can also lead to new opportunities. (An application program interface, or API, controls interactions between software and systems.) As an example, PSD2 requires that banks provide access to data, but it does not prohibit an institution from monetizing its data in ways that go beyond the statute. Banks can capitalize on this mandate by providing more detailed data than is required by PSD2, or by providing insights to accompany the raw data for a fee. In addition, the development of API expertise will move institutions closer to offering many different financial services through a digital platform. Leveraging APIs can allow institutions to efficiently provide advice and services that customers demand today. (For more on this, read “The API Effect” in the May 2017 issue of Bank Director digital magazine.)

For technology companies that require access to bank data to operate, open APIs offer more reliable, accessible data. Without a direct line to bank data, technology companies must often resort to “screen scraping” to gather needed information. This technique requires a bank customer to provide log-in credentials to the third party. Those credentials are then used to collect account information. This method is much less secure for banks than controlling an API interface would be, and it’s a lot less smooth for bank customers that want to provide the technology company with access to their data.

Also, the process of entering into data-sharing agreements with multiple financial institutions is a daunting task for even the most sophisticated technology companies. Connectivity requirements vary from bank to bank, as do security protocols. Add to that a significant price tag for each deal, and the task of building a customer’s financial profile across multiple institutions is a significant barrier to entry that prevents the delivery of innovative financial services to consumers.

While the U.S. has been slow to act on open banking initiatives, there have been some signs of life. In October of 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its principles on data sharing and aggregation and confirmed its view that individuals, not the companies they work with, own their financial data. While this is only guidance coming from an embattled regulator, it hints at American interest in the open banking movement.

Innovation, enhanced security and the drive for greater competition are the golden triptychs at the heart of PSD2,” wrote Alisdair Faulkner of the digital identity company ThreatMetrix, based in San Jose, California, in August 2017. Those would seem to be values that every government should strive to uphold, and with benefits for both incumbents and new technologies, perhaps exploration of a PSD2-like initiative can take hold in the U.S.

Changing the Regulatory Landscape


regulation-12-8-17.pngThere is perhaps no other area of the federal government where personnel have a greater influence on policy than bank regulation. By picking the right regulators, the president can have a meaningful impact on the banking sector and the economy at large.

Banking has long been a bastion of static thinking on the regulatory front, and it needs a shot of dynamism. With recent confirmations at the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the nomination of a new chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the administration is on the cusp of an overhaul of regulators that will have potentially far-reaching consequences. A new director—and new thinking—at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would also have a positive impact on the regulatory culture under which banks are operating.

The president’s new team of regulators can make an impact without any changes in the law or regulation in three key areas.

First, these regulators can approve new banks. Only six new banks have been chartered since 2010, and more than 2,000 have gone away. The attendant lack of dynamism and entrepreneurial disruption is palpable. Community banks are losing critical funding and payment market share to large banks and fintech companies. Traditional banks are crowding around discrete areas of the American wallet: middle-market commercial loans, owner-occupied commercial real estate and small business lending. Mortgage and consumer lending are increasingly offered by big companies that can afford to comply with costly rules. Customer contact and loan pricing is increasingly automated and regulated. New bank founders need the flexibility to build diversified portfolios, certainty around the capital required to implement a given business plan and certainty around the timeliness of the approval process. Greater transparency in these areas would contribute far more to stimulating new charter development than revising handbooks and holding conferences. Agency leaders can give that clarity right now, and they should.

Second, the burden of onsite bank exams is a continual concern. Most of these complaints are from banks so small that if any 200 of them were to fail tomorrow, it would hardly make a dent in the FDIC’s reserves. Banks divulge massive amounts of information to regulators on a quarterly basis. Couldn’t regulators perform remote exams of these small banks, with onsite spot checks as needed? Further, the rigid application of compliance regulations are eliminating small dollar lending programs at many community banks—to the detriment of the very customers these rules are supposed to be protecting. Wouldn’t community banks be better off if they could diversify their loan portfolios by offering products needed by their communities? Wouldn’t the industry be better served if examiners’ efforts were focused on large banks, where the customer experience needs improvement, and the consequences of failure are more severe?

A final element of dynamism relates to the ability to exit. Banking is one of the few industries where the government approves the sale of the company—and takes months, if not years, to do so. Even the smallest transactions are subject to geographic competition tests normally seen when titans merge and make no sense in this age of digital banking. The list of incentives for regulators to say “no” is long and getting longer. Third-party protest groups have no direct skin in the game, yet have great influence over the process. Meanwhile, stakeholders, customers, employees and communities are all in limbo. Regulators could address these concerns by setting deadlines, actively brokering conversations between all parties and holding public hearings in a matter of days, not months. Restoring a timely process could make a big difference in resolving these issues.

None of these efforts require changing a law or a regulation. All of them would improve the transparency and timeliness of regulation. Unfortunately, few of the beltway types that frequently occupy regulatory chairs have a business executive’s skill and experience in gathering information and making timely decisions. These skills are badly needed now in the regulatory arena. As the new administration gets its team in place, the president should know he can make a significant difference in banking just by choosing the right people to occupy the regulatory chairs—and then letting them do their work.

Trump’s Big Chance to Remake Banking’s Regulatory Leadership


regulation-7-28-17.pngWhile the prospects for Congressional passage of a financial deregulation bill in 2017 are uncertain, that doesn’t mean bankers can’t look forward to a possible future loosening of the regulatory restrictions they’ve operated under since passage seven years ago of the Dodd-Frank Act.

On June 8, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed on a near party-line vote the Financial Choice Act, sponsored by Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The measure would repeal several key components of Dodd-Frank including restrictions against proprietary trading (known as the Volcker Act), while also drastically altering the structure and authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPB).

But the Financial Choice Act faces much tougher sledding in the Senate, which the Republicans control by just two seats. There, any financial deregulation bill would need 60 votes to pass and many Senate Democrats have voiced strong opposition to any significant unwinding of Dodd-Frank, which was enacted by a Democratic-controlled Congress following the financial crisis. Brian Gardner, a managing director and Washington research analyst at Keefe Bruyette & Woods, expects any relief measure coming out of the Senate to be modest in comparison to the House measure. “I don’t think there will be a bill on the president’s desk this year,” he adds.

But does that mean bankers can’t expect any regulatory relief in Washington where Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House? Not necessarily, because the Trump Administration has the opportunity to appoint new—and perhaps friendlier—leadership at several key bank regulatory agencies.

The administration has already nominated former banker Joseph Otting to head up the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which supervises nationally chartered banks. Otting would replace former Comptroller Thomas Curry, an Obama Administration appointee whose five-year term expired earlier this year. Otting, who was chief executive officer at OneWest Bank from 2010 to 2015, might be expected to take a more sympathetic view of the regulatory burden that banks operate in—much of it related to Dodd-Frank. Curry, by contrast, was a career regulator who had never run a bank.

The Trump Administration also has the opportunity to appoint an entirely new slate of directors to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s five-member board over the next year and a half, including a replacement for Chairman Martin Gruenberg, whose five-year term as chairman expires in November. President Trump nominated former congressional staffer James Clinger to replace Gruenberg, but Clinger has since withdrawn his name from consideration, citing family concerns. Gruenberg was a Senate staffer and trade association president before coming to the FDIC.

The FDIC board consists of three independent directors appointed by the president, as well as the comptroller of the currency and director of the CFPB. Richard Cordray’s five-year term as CFPB director runs through July 2018. A piñata for Republican criticism in Washington almost from the day he took the job, Cordray most certainly will not be reappointed by Trump, and it has been reported that he may run for governor in his home state of Ohio next year.

There are also three open seats on the Fed’s seven-member board of governors, including someone to serve as the Fed’s point person on financial regulation. Former Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo had played that role during the Obama Administration, and was known for taking a tough regulatory stance on the country’s largest banks, stepped down from the board in April. His place would be taken by Randal Quarles, a former Treasury department official under George Bush who has been nominated to serve as vice chairman for supervision. Quarles said in his prepared remarks before the Senate Banking Committee this week that post-crisis bank rules need some “refinements.”

But the most important regulatory position of all belongs to Fed Chair Janet Yellen, whose term ends in February 2018. Not only is the Fed considered to be first among equals of the regulatory agencies, but Yellen also controls the agenda at the Fed—including what gets talked about at meetings, Gardner says. Yellen was an Obama appointee and has largely been supportive of the past administration’s regulatory philosophy. Gardner says that historically most Fed chairs get two terms, although Trump has been noncommittal about reappointing Yellen. While it would be unusual for Yellen not to be reappointed, Trump has shown that he’s not a slave to convention. Asked what he thinks the president will do, Gardner, laughing, says “I have absolutely no idea.”