The Covid-19 Shift

For many companies, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated rapid change. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella noted in late April, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” due to the speedy adoption and implementation of new technology by the U.S. business sector to better serve customers and keep employees working safely during the crisis. 

Navigating the short-term impacts of these shifts has bankers working round-the-clock to keep pace, but the long-term effects could differentiate the companies that take advantage of this extraordinary moment to pivot their operations. This transformation makes up the core of the discussions taking place at Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services. As part of that event, Bank Director CEO Al Dominick virtually sat down with Luke Thomas, Microsoft’s managing director, U.S. banking and financial providers, to discuss how financial institutions can use this opportunity to modernize their operations.

They address:

  • Accelerated Adoption of Technology
  • Legacy vs. New Core Providers
  • Ensuring Continued Improvement

Texas Strong: Banks Contend With Dual Threats

“Texas has four seasons: drought, flood, blizzard and twister.” – Anonymous

To that list of afflictions you can add two more — the Covid-19 pandemic and a catastrophic collapse in global oil prices, creating double trouble for the Lone Star State.

There were over 50,500 coronavirus cases in Texas through May 20, an average of 174 per 100,000 people, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. There were nearly 1,400 coronavirus-related deaths in the state.

In mid-March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott imposed restrictions that limited social gatherings to 10 people or less, and effectively closed close-proximity businesses like restaurants and bars, health clubs and tattoo parlors. Even as Abbott reopens the state’s economy, many of its small businesses have already been hurt, along with many lodging and entertainment concerns.

Shutting down the economy was probably a good health decision,” says F. Scott Dueser, chairman and CEO at $9.7 billion First Financial Bankshares in Abilene, Texas. “It wasn’t a good economic decision.”

And then there’s oil situation. An oil price war between two major producers — Russia and Saudi Arabia — helped drive down the price of West Texas Intermediate crude from over $60 per barrel in January to less than $12 in late April, before rebounding to approximately $32 currently.

Texas still runs on oil; while it is less dependent on the energy sector than in past cycles, its importance “permeates” the state’s economy, according to Dueser. “It is a major industry and is of great concern for all of us,” he says.

The 65-year-old Dueser has been First Financial’s CEO since 2008, and guided the bank successfully through the Great Recession. “I thought I’d be retired by the next recession but unfortunately, we weren’t planning on a pandemic and it has come faster than I thought,” Dueser says.

This downturn could be as bad or worse as the last one. But so far, damage to First Financial’s profitability from the combined effects of the pandemic and cheap oil has been minor. The bank’s first quarter earnings were off just 2.6% year over year, to $37 million. Like most banks, First Financial has negotiated loan modifications with many of its commercial borrowers that defer repayment of principal and/or interest for 90 days.

Dueser won’t know until the expiration of those agreements how many borrowers can begin making payments, and for how much — clouding the bank’s risk exposure for now. But with a Tier 1 capital ratio over 19%, Dueser has the comfort of a fortress balance sheet.

“We unfortunately have been down this road before … and capital is king because it’s what gets you through these times,” he says.

Dueser made a decision early in the pandemic that as much as possible, the bank would remain open for business. It encouraged customers to use branch drive-thru lanes, but lobbies have remained open as well.

“So far we have been very successful here at the bank in staying open, not locking our doors, not limiting hours, keeping our people safe and at the same time serving more customers than we ever have in the history of the bank,” Dueser says.     

The bank has followed Covid-19 safety requirements from the Center for Disease Control. “The most important things are don’t let your people come to work sick and social distancing,” Dueser says. “We split every department, such as technology, phone center, treasury management and so on with having half the department work from home or from another one of our locations. That way we had only half the people here, which allowed us to put people in every other desk or cubicle.”

To date, the bank has had only four Covid-19 cases among its employees. “Thankfully, all four of those individuals are healthy and back at work,” Dueser says. “With each situation we learn more on how to protect our employees and customers.”

Dueser is one of 39 people on a task force appointed by Abbott to advise him on reopening the state’s economy. “I am very supportive of what he is doing, in the fact that we are getting the state back open,” he says. “The virus is not winning the war, which is good. We have a lot to learn so that we can live with the virus without having to go home and hide in a closet.”

One of Dueser’s biggest priorities through the economic hardship was to make sure retail and commercial customers knew that it would stand by them, come what may. That led to a recent marketing campaign designed around the phrase “Texas Strong,” a slogan used throughout the state that traces back to Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Houston in 2017.

“We want our customers to know that we’re safe, sound and strong,” says Will Christoferson, the bank’s senior vice president for advertising and marketing. “What’s stronger than Texas? We couldn’t think of anything.”

Coronavirus Ushers Banks Into New Digital Banking Era

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced dramatic changes in the U.S. economy at a breakneck speed that seemed impossible only a few short months ago.

The banking industry has risen to the challenge, managing more than a million applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, modifying countless loan terms, deferring payments and redesigning the customer experience to minimize in-branch foot traffic — all while shifting a significant portion of operations to employees’ home offices.   

We are in uncharted territory. The business decisions your bank is making now impact your institution’s ability to meet customers where they are today, but also where they expect you to be in the future. The digital bridge you build for online account opening can help take you there.

Even before most of us learned the term “coronavirus,” few banks would have disagreed with the need to automate digital account opening and invest in systems to support the online customer experience. Your institution may have already identified this as a strategic objective for 2020. And even if you already offer the service, shutdowns and closures stemming from Covid-19 may have highlighted friction in the account opening experience that either previously lacked visibility or was considered acceptable for the limited number of customers who took advantage of it. With customers now primarily directed toward a digital channel, you should reconsider the metrics used to define a satisfactory user experience.

The right channel. Online account opening may have been one of several customer channels your bank offered, but it may not have been marketed as the primary or best channel — especially when compared to the high-touch experience of in-person banking. It’s become clear, though, that a digital model that complements, and works cohesively with, a branch model is necessary to meet customers where they are. The steps you take to cultivate online account opening as the right channel for your bank should also establish the hallmarks of a preferred user experience.

An end-to-end strategy. Do your customers need to visit a branch or make a phone call to complete application paperwork? Does your solution provide for safe digital identity verification? Does it support electronic signing? Are your account opening documents optimized for viewing on mobile devices? An online account opening strategy that does not consider these questions will likely reduce efficiency, resulting in a poor user experience that may cause customers to abandon the account opening process before completing it.

Continuing the relationship. Online service must be full service and seamlessly dovetail with your in-person customer model. Offering an online account opening experience that then requires a phone call or a branch trip to manage name or address changes is the sort of partial digital transformation that unnecessarily complicates customer service. Online account maintenance must have the option to be fully driven by customers as an embedded component of your online account experience. Fully embracing a well-conceived online strategy will include opportunities for marketing and cross-selling as part of the digital maintenance experience. If your bank cannot fully service customer needs remotely, they may seek institutions that better address their banking usability preferences.

Continuing the investment. Investment priorities for your organization have undoubtedly been revisited two, potentially three, times in the last few months. Use these opportunities to reevaluate your digital delivery model and the technology that supports it. Technology that speeds up identity verification processes and solutions that support the digital signing of mobile-optimized documents are critical components of your digital architecture that will reduce friction for your customers as they move through the online process.

You have already made vast changes to your operating model to meet the needs of your customers during very trying times. Now is the time to maximize your return on those changes and continue developing your digital strategy.

How Peoples Bancorp Prevailed Through PPP

“You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out,” wrote Warren Buffett in his 2004 annual letter.

He was referring to operations that trade derivatives. You don’t really know the value of what you hold in opaque markets, he explained, until it’s tested in hard times.

The same can be said about banking.

Rarely has the industry faced an environment as acute as today.

The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell earlier this week. It’s “significantly worse than any recession since World War II.”

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that bankers bear much of the burden of saving the economy from oblivion. “If doctors and nurses are first responders to those who are sick,” says Robyn Stevens, chief credit officer at Peoples Bancorp, “bankers are the first responders for businesses, communities and economies.”

Stevens would know.

Within its three-state footprint spanning Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Peoples was the top-performing bank in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program measured by dollars of PPP loans approved per assets.

“A culture is tested when times get tough,” says Ryan Kirkham, general counsel at the $4.5 billion bank based in Marietta, Ohio. “You find out whether it is real or just lip service. We passed the test.”

The success of Peoples in the first round of PPP reveals a flaw in one of the principal narratives that has emerged from the unfolding crisis — that banks with the most advanced technology were the ones best positioned to manage the onslaught of loan applications.

It’s not that Peoples Bank hasn’t invested in technology in recent years, because it has. But the secret to its success in the first round of PPP was simple elbow grease.

Personnel from the top of the bank to the bottom volunteered to enter data into the Small Business Administration portal to process customer loan applications.

“Banks had to decide whether they were going to do it automated or whether they were going to do it manually,” says CEO Chuck Sulerzyski. “Peoples tried an automated approach but then opted for manual.”

“Many of our most senior executives have done data entry until 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 at night,” he adds. “We did over 100 of these loans on Easter Sunday. And when they shut banks over $1 billion out from 6 p.m. to midnight one evening, we had a couple dozen people volunteer to work midnight to 4 a.m. putting in the entries.”

This success reflects a culmination of a decade’s worth of effort, spearheaded by Sulerzyski, who joined the bank from KeyCorp in 2011.

The 62-year-old CEO spent the previous four decades working up the corporate ladder at multiple prominent banks. He worked at Citibank during the Walter Wriston era. He was at Chemical Bank when Walter Shipley was CEO. And he spent eight years at Bank One, working closely with President Don McWhorter and CEO John B. McCoy.

Sulerzyski has been there and done that, in other words. One lesson he’s learned along the way has been the importance of culture and customer relationships. It’s a lesson that has paid off in spades over the past three months.

“From a competitive standpoint, a lot of the large banks struggled with PPP,” Sulerzyski says. “One of the large regionals couldn’t do any loans the first few days. Another one started, but then had to shut down. Each of the bigger banks we compete against had their own degree of difficulties with this. Because our customers were well taken care of, CPAs and attorneys started referring business to us and it kind of snowballed on itself.”

Sulerzyski’s team speaks in single voice on this.

Our commitment to our communities and the importance that plays resonates with our employees,” says Thomas Frawley, senior vice president, consumer lending. “They start the call as a banker and end the call as a counselor, listening to the fears of our customers while assuring them that we are going to do our best to help them.”

“We have several associates who are working day and night,” says Ann Helmick, director of enterprise risk management. “They are doing this for the good of the client. For most, there will not be a personal gain.”

“It is easy to come up with a mission, vision and values. And when times are good, it can be easy to live by those values,” says Jason Phipps, regional president. “It is when a company or person faces adversity that you find out who a person or who an organization really is.”

One can argue all day long about the importance of scale and technology, and how it could soon be a principle competitive differentiator in banking. But technology is only a tool to help bankers ply their trade. The soul of any organization, and the true source of performance, lies instead in the people who run it.

“Bankers may have got a bad rap during the last crisis,” says Stevens, “but ours have been heroes during this one!”

Coronavirus Considerations for Goodwill Impairment

Given the recent impact of Covid-19 on the economy, unemployment and operations, discussions around potential goodwill impairment — and the related testing — is a hot topic for many financial institutions as the March 31 quarter ended.

Goodwill is defined as an asset representing the future economic benefits arising from other assets acquired in a business combination. Financial institutions record goodwill as a result of a merger or an acquisition. Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) 350, Intangibles – Goodwill and Other, states that entities must evaluate their goodwill for impairment at least annually. However, during interim periods, a goodwill impairment analysis could be necessary if the entity has an indication that the fair value of a reporting unit has fallen below carrying value, defined by the guidance as a triggering event. Determining whether a triggering event has occurred is challenging for many financial institutions.

Under the guidance of ASC 350, impairment testing for goodwill is required annually and upon a triggering event. Private entities electing the accounting alternative are only required to test upon a triggering event. Here are some examples of goodwill triggering events, according to ASC 350-20-35:

Macroeconomic conditions: deterioration in general economic conditions, limitations on accessing capital, fluctuations in foreign exchange rates or other developments in equity and credit markets. 

Industry and market considerations: deterioration in the environment in which an entity operates, an increased competitive environment, a decline in market-dependent multiples or metrics (consider in both absolute terms and relative to peers), a change in the market for an entity’s products or services, or a regulatory or political development. 

Overall financial performance: negative or declining cash flows, or a decline in actual or planned revenue or earnings compared with actual and projected results of relevant prior periods.

Other entity-specific events: changes in management, key personnel, strategy or customers; contemplation of bankruptcy or litigation.

Events affecting a reporting unit: a change in the composition or carrying amount of its net assets, a highly probable expectation of selling or disposing of all, or a portion, of a reporting unit, the testing for recoverability of a significant asset group within a reporting unit, or recognition of a goodwill impairment loss in the financial statements of a subsidiary that is a component of a reporting unit.

A sustained decrease in share price: to be considered in both absolute terms and relative to peers.

It is clear that Covid-19 has global impacts on some macroeconomic conditions. Financial institutions may want to assess whether they have experienced a triggering event; if they conclude there has been such an event, they will need to proceed to a goodwill impairment test. Assessing whether there has been a triggering event, as defined by ASC 350, involves judgment.

When it comes to a decline in stock price, the guidance in ASC 350 does not define what “sustained” means. In isolation, a decrease in share price is not an automatic indicator of a triggering event. The guidance suggests comparing the relative decrease to peers — if it is consistent among the industry, one may conclude that the decrease is related to general economic events and not specific to the institution individually. Banks may determine that an overall decline in the market could be indicative of macroeconomic conditions that impact the value of the company. Entities should consider forecasts and projections to determine whether the situation is expected to be temporary, and the reduction in stock price is reflective of short-term market volatility rather than a long-term, sustained decline in fair value.

The guidance does not suggest that the existence of one negative factor results in a triggering event. Rather, the guidance requires companies to assess various factors to determine whether it is probable that the company’s fair value is less than its carrying value. One way to consider the factors mentioned in the guidance is to weight them by their impact on the entity’s fair value. If the company concludes that a triggering event has occurred, then an impairment analysis should be performed to determine if in fact goodwill is impaired.

The determination of a triggering event, or lack thereof, involves judgment; management’s analysis and conclusion should be thoroughly documented. As the economic environment and resulting impacts of Covid-19 continue to shift and evolve, companies should revisit goodwill impairment triggers on a regular basis.

Guarding Against Virtual Viruses in a Pandemic

As healthcare experts work to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic, the banking industry is faced with fighting other viruses.

Cyber attackers are known to be opportunistic, pouncing during times of anxiety and uncertainty. Rest assured, they won’t let up once the coronavirus has run its course. While information technology directors are focusing their attention on processing huge volumes of Small Business Administration loans and assisting bankers working remotely for the first time, computer virus and malware threats continue to rise. If not handled effectively, this could threaten the security of the financial system.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cautions that Americans need to prepare for the possibility that Covid-19 could return — or even become a seasonal disease. With such prospects, savvy bank directors should familiarize themselves with their institutions’ data security and technology infrastructure. Here are six points to consider when assessing the future of their bank’s information security system:

Look again at business continuity plans. While your bank may have one, it likely did not consider the immediate worldwide demands for laptops and network hardware needed to configure remote work capabilities. Nor did these plans likely consider supply chain interruptions when factories shut down in Asia, where the virus was first detected. The lesson: If you wait until the next global emergency occurs, you might be too late. Plan now.

Consider the increased risk with more employees working remotely. The larger the inventory — coupled with less control of who uses the computer — the tougher it is to protect. An even more concerning practice is allowing bank employees to use personal computers to access bank networks. Firewalls, spam filters, anti-virus software and other security measures should not be determined by individual employees.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has issued guidance related to remote work and defending against Covid-19 scams. One of their tips is to ensure virtual private networks, or VPNs, have the latest software package and configurations, and that current anti-virus software is installed and up-to-date. Multi-factor authentication is another must-have for protecting your bank’s network.

Make sure you have enough IT support. Even before Covid-19, there were not enough qualified technical staff to fill available positions. The increased demand for remote connectivity has further stretched IT departments. Make sure your technology departments are fully staffed, or have access qualified outside help.

Be sure employees are hyper-vigilant. Attackers hope that more distance between coworkers will equate to guards being lowered. Ensure that employees are regularly reminded of social engineering, email and other current threats to increase top-of-mind awareness of cyber security.

Be aware that some attacks are physical. We typically think of cyberattacks occurring “invisibly,” through system networks and software. But at least one entity is now mass-mailing infected “free” USB drives to financial institutions. Remind employees to discard any hardware that comes from unknown sources.

Consider the benefits of cloud technology. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal described how remote-work capabilities could become more common as money tightens and daily operations need more flexibility. Cloud computing is both more efficient and flexible, and is easily scalable. Bank regulators have taken notice, saying that outsourcing such technologies gives banks more options.

Time will tell, but this may be a turning point for American business. As more workers have established a routine for working from home — and have found surprising levels of efficiency and productivity — it’s expected that this could become more of the norm, at least in the near term.

Some in the financial services industry have been slow to change; they may now be forced to out of necessity. It’s incumbent upon directors to champion for this flexibility and resiliency by ensuring their data security and information infrastructure is ready to handle it.

How One Bank CEO is Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic

Like most of his peers throughout the banking industry, Dennis Shaffer, the CEO at Sandusky, Ohio-based Civista Bancshares, is confronting challenges unlike anything he has faced in his long career.

The Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the U.S. economy, leading to the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression and a likely recession of unknown depth and duration. That is forcing CEOs like Shaffer to make decisions about sustainability and workforce deployment that were unimaginable six months ago.

The $2.5 billion bank serves a three-state area that spans big chunks of Ohio as well as southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Civista’s profitability has already been impacted by the pandemic: Net income in the first quarter was down nearly 18%, to $7.8 million year over year.

But Shaffer says the bank’s mortgage loan originations are at record levels and several construction projects that it financed prior to the pandemic are still going forward. The bank processed 2,141 loans under the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, totaling $262 million. Shaffer estimates that over 300 of those loans were to new and very grateful customers that could lead to expanded business relationships in the future.

Civista has also reached out to borrowers that have been hard hit by the downturn and offered them 90-day loan modifications. In the first quarter, the bank modified 66 loans totaling $39.9 million, according to its first quarter earnings report. These were primarily deferral of principal and/or interest payments. Since March 31, it has received requests to modify an additional 727 loans totaling $410 million.

“The bank’s doing fine,” he says. “Our main emphasis has been keeping our customers and employees healthy and also continue to do business as normal as possible for our customers.”

The biggest challenge that Shaffer and other bank CEOs face today is economic uncertainty. If he knew how deep and long the recession will be, Shaffer could better estimate the impact that will have on Civista’s balance sheet.

This is my 35th year in banking and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “We’ve gone through recessions where a business goes from making $1 to maybe 70 cents. Well here, they’ve gone from $1 to some of these businesses making nothing.”

Shaffer faced up to that challenge by taking a hard look at the bank’s capital structure and factoring in nightmarish projections.

He started with evaluating whether Civista had enough capital to sustain losses that could be at “historical levels.” During the last recession, the bank sustained $54 million in losses over a four-year period. In his analysis, Shaffer decided to double that — and compress four years to two. He also assumed the bank would continue paying its dividend and wouldn’t lay off employees.

After they factored in all those assumptions, “we were still above 8% on a Tier 1 [capital] basis, so we feel pretty good about that,” he says. The mandated regulatory minimum is 6%, which would give the bank the capacity to absorb even more losses, although Shaffer hopes to avoid falling that low. That analysis gave Shaffer confidence that Civista could take a hard punch in the recession and still carry on. It also answered the question of whether the bank need to raise additional capital.

“We felt we didn’t need to,” he says. “We think we’re really strongly capitalized. I think our stress testing has proved that.”

Shaffer believes the loan modifications and Paycheck Protection loans have bought many of Civista’s customers valuable time, but he won’t know yet for a couple of months how many of those businesses will sustain themselves through the pandemic. “Sales [won’t be] 100%, but are they going to be 90% or are they going to be 50%?” he says.

Another challenge Shaffer has encountered is running the bank with a distributed workforce. Seventy percent of Civista’s employees are working from home, most of them since early March. (Shaffer comes to the office every day because he feels he needs to be visible to the employees working there.) While he had some apprehensions at first, he’s pleased with the bank’s productivity.

Still, Shaffer has to decide when to bring most of those people back into the office. Ohio has already begun to reopen its economy, but he intends to normalize the bank’s operations more gradually. Civista’s branch lobbies have been closed since March ­— just the drive-through lanes are readily accessible — and Shaffer plans to maintain the status quo through May and perhaps extend it through June.

He also doesn’t see an immediate need to repatriate the majority of Civista’s office employees. “We’ll phase that in and probably do that gradually,” Shaffer says. As other businesses with more pressing needs bring their people back, the bank can afford to wait.

“I just think it benefits the greater community because it eliminates more people coming back into the workforce,” he says. “We can do our part there.”

BOLI Carriers Prepare for COVID-19 Impact

Purchases of bank-owned life insurance were strong in 2019 as bankers capitalized on its attractive yields relative to other investments available to banks.

What 2020 holds remains to be seen, given trends in the market and broader economy. Total BOLI purchases likely could be lower this year, as carriers are generally not willing to accept large premiums from a single policyholder. However, BOLI activity in the $10 million and under purchase size may be similar to 2019 levels. At the close of the first quarter, it is too early to know the full impact of COVID-19, but we have a few observations based on discussions with several major BOLI carriers:

  1. The carriers have not priced in any risk premium for potentially higher mortality rates and do not expect to do so. In addition, the carriers do not expect to tighten the requirements to obtain guaranteed issue underwriting. In a guaranteed issue BOLI case, the insureds answer several questions, but no physicals are required. Guaranteed issue underwriting can be obtained with as few as 10 insureds.
  2. It is virtually impossible for carriers to find fixed income investments that produce yields that approximate the yield on the existing portfolio, given that short-term interest rates have dropped to near zero and the 10-year Treasury declined from 2.49% on April 1, 2019 to 62 basis points a year later.
  3. While carriers continue to accept new BOLI premium, some are reluctant to take a large premium from any one customer to avoid diluting the portfolio for existing policyholders. Movements in the yield of the portfolio tend to lag the market because carriers’ portfolios are very large (often $50 billion to $200 billion) and generally have a duration of five to 10 years. For this reason, current crediting rates for several carriers remain above 3%.
  4. Several carriers indicated that they started reducing credit exposure and increasing asset diversification several years ago. While they did not anticipate a pandemic, the market had been good for so long and they thought it would be wise to start reducing the risk in the portfolio ahead of a potential downturn. In addition, credit spreads had also narrowed, so there was less reward for additional risk.
  5. Carriers primarily invest in fixed-income investments; a decline in the stock market has minimal impact on most carrier investment portfolios.

BOLI Growth In 2019
BOLI purchases totaled $4.3 billion in 2019, an increase of 147% over the 2018 total, according to IBIS Associates, an independent market research firm. The total represents the third-highest amount of BOLI purchases in the past dozen years.

It’s even more impressive when considering that most banks continued to have strong loan demand and less liquidity than in most previous years. At year-end 2019, BOLI cash surrender value (CSV) held on the balance sheets of U.S. banks totaled $178 billion, according to the December 2019 NFP-Michael White report.

Robust BOLI activity has been driven by attractive tax-equivalent yields, strong credit quality and leverage ($1 invested in BOLI typically returns $3 to $4 of tax-free death benefits). Banks can use BOLI as a way to retain key employees by providing life insurance benefits or informally funding nonqualified benefit plans; BOLI earnings can also be used to offset and recover health care and 401(k) or other retirement plan expenses.

According to the IBIS report, 77% of 2019 BOLI purchases were for general account, 22% for variable separate account and just 1% was for hybrid separate account. In general account policies, the general assets of the insurance company issuing the policies support the CSV. In variable separate and hybrid separate products, the CSVs are legally segregated from the general assets of the carrier, which provides enhanced credit protection in the event of carrier insolvency. The credit risk and price risk of the underlying assets remain with the policyholder in a variable policy, whereas the carrier retains those risks in a general account or hybrid policy.

Purchases of variable separate accounts dominated the market in 2006-07; since that time, general account BOLI has typically led the way. This is due to the simplicity of general account products relative to variable separate products as well as the increased product options, generally higher yields, and the high comfort level bankers have with the creditworthiness of mainstream BOLI carriers.

According to the IBIS data, 2019 general account BOLI purchases were at their highest level in the last 16 years. According to the NFP-Michael White report, 3,346 banks — representing 64.6% of all US banks — now hold BOLI assets. This is an increase from the 64.1% of banks that held BOLI at the end of 2018. Seventy-one percent of banks with over $100 million in assets hold BOLI; 77.3% of banks with over $300 million in assets do.

Beyond PPP: Supporting Small Business Through the Covid Crisis

In the first wave of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Bank Iowa Corp. closed around 400 loans totaling $72 million, according to CEO Jim Plagge. When we spoke — just a few days before the SBA re-opened the portal for another $320 billion of PPP loans — the $1.4 billion bank was prepared to submit another 75 or so applications.

The bank’s branch teams — which are split to encourage social distancing and minimize the impact if someone were to get sick — have also taken to ordering takeout every day to support local restaurants that have been particularly hard hit. “[We’re] just trying to support them,” he says.

This desire to support the 23 communities it serves inspired Bank Iowa’s “Helping Hand” program, which is accepting nominations to assist local organizations, small businesses and nonprofits. The bank’s goal is to serve at least one need in each of its seven regions. “We’re only as strong as the communities we serve,” says Plagge. “So, we’re just trying to help where we possibly can.”

Banks play a vital role in supporting their communities, one we’re seeing played out across the country as bankers put in extra hours to help customers, especially small businesses that keep towns alive. Bank Iowa, like many financial institutions, recognizes that supporting small businesses can’t be limited to the SBA program — PPP loans have proved difficult to obtain, and they don’t make sense for some companies that still need help.

Bank Iowa reached out immediately to borrowers to understand the impact of the coronavirus crisis for each one, says Plagge. The bank has deferred loan payments, restructured debt and set up working capital lines. Bankers have also been a shoulder to cry on.

“[We’re] trying to be there to help our clients talk through the difficulties they’re facing,” says Plagge. “Hopefully we can offer some advice and encourage them along the way.”

Relationships matter. “We typically see that business banking account managers get good scores for being courteous, knowledgeable and responsive,” says Paul McAdam, a senior director, regional banking in the financial services practice at J.D. Power. Small business owners will be even more sensitive to their banker’s response in today’s desperate environment, asking: “‘Do I feel like I’m connecting with them? Do they understand my needs and what I’m going through right now?’”

In addition to building long-term relationships, supporting small businesses now could help banks reduce later damage to their loan portfolios. But unfortunately, tough decisions will be required in the coming months. Plagge says Bank Iowa has started stress testing various sectors. With agriculture comprising a significant portion of the loan portfolio, they’re examining the impact of a reduction in revenue for ag producers.

“Our goal will be to try to work with every borrower and see them through this,” Plagge says. “But we also know that may not be possible in every case.”

David K. Smith, a senior originations consultant at FICO, advises banks to segment their portfolio, so lenders understand which businesses they can help, and which pose too great a risk. Does the business have a future in a post-Covid economy? “You can only help so many without sinking your portfolio,” he says.

But banks should also look for ways to keep relationships alive. “As small businesses go out of business, there’s an entrepreneur there … that person who lost this company is going to be on the market creating another company soon,” says Smith.

After the crisis, this could lead to a wave of start-up businesses — which banks have typically hesitated to support. “They’re going to have to rethink policy, because [of] the sheer number of these that are going to pop up,” says Smith. Some businesses won’t fail due to poor leadership; they simply couldn’t do business in an abnormal environment, given shelter-in-place and similar orders issued by local governments. “Bankers will have to appreciate that to a certain degree and figure out a solution, because it will help bring the economy back faster,” he says.

How Innovative Banks Fight Covid Through Giving

Charitable initiatives are not new to banks.

Many have foundations, donation-matching programs or standing committees dedicated to giving back. What is new to banks, however, is how fast they’re being expected to contribute to vital causes while juggling other time-sensitive priorities created by the Covid-19 crisis.

Launching an impactful, Covid-specific relief program could be a non-starter for banks unless they leverage technology to make it happen quickly. Two Northeastern banks have proved that it’s possible to spin up new products and programs in days with the help of fintech partners.

As the extent of the Covid-19 crisis became clear, the Community Engagement Steering Committee at The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, a unit of Cape Cod Five Mutual Company, kicked its planning into high gear. The committee includes employees from different areas of the Massachusetts-based bank.

Before Covid-19 struck, it convened on a weekly basis to plan community initiatives and review applications for support. Now, the committee needed to move quickly to help local healthcare organizations battling the virus on the frontlines. That goal led to a partnership between the bank and Pinkaloo, a charitable-giving fintech the bank connected with at an industry event last year.

Pinkaloo had been presenting to the bank’s internal teams since January, but the arrival of Covid pushed Cape Cod 5, as the bank is called, to formalize the partnership. “Speed to market was important to us because of the emergent need,” says Stephanie Dennehy, chief marketing officer for the $3.6 billion bank.

In a week, the fintech and bank launched giving portals for seven different healthcare providers in the bank’s footprint.

To make it happen, Pinkaloo stayed in close contact with the bank’s team and everyone — from information security to legal to executive leadership — worked quickly to streamline the implementation process. The result was that a vendor management program that would normally take two to three weeks was completed in two to three days, says Adrian Sullivan, the bank’s chief digital officer.

Covid has showed banks that they can move fast in exigent circumstances, but will those lessons last beyond the current crisis?

Sullivan thinks they will. “The way we’ve done things remotely and in such an expedited fashion — I think that becomes new normal,” he says. “We realized how fast it really can be done, so I think we will shift for the better and start to work in a more agile fashion.”

To the southeast of Cape Cod 5 is a single-branch, digital-first bank that’s no stranger to iterating quickly. Quontic Bank, based in Astoria, New York, chose to support relief efforts with a new savings account.

The Drawbridge Savings account pays depositors an annual percentage yield of 0.50% on balances up to $250,000; the bank matches the interest paid on these accounts with a donation towards its #BeTheDrawbridge campaign. The savings account approach made sense to Quontic. They didn’t want to rely on a transaction-based account when people are changing their spending habits and stockpiling funds, says Patrick Sells, Quontic’s chief innovation officer.

To make the idea a reality, Sells put in a call to one of the bank’s existing technology partners, MANTL. MANTL’s account-opening solution automatically books new accounts to the bank’s core. MANTL engineers worked through the weekend and delivered the new savings product in three days. The bank’s team worked all weekend too, preparing disclosures, developing marketing plans and completing all the other steps required to bring the new financial product to market.

Although the stakes are higher in times of crisis, the $395 million bank is used to working in an agile manner. “One of the core values that applies here is progress, not perfection,” says Sells. “Striving for perfection so often gets in the way of progress, and especially quick progress.” Quontic can pivot if it makes a decision that doesn’t work, but the bank recognizes it can’t make any decisions when it’s frozen in the planning stage.

Covid-19 is changing the world quickly. Banks that want to help will need to lean on technology to put their plans in motion fast.