One word seems to encapsulate concerns about banker attitudes’ toward risk in 2022: complacency.
As the economy slowly — and haltingly — normalizes from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bankers must ensure they hew to risk management fundamentals as they navigate the next part of the business cycle. Boards and executives must remain vigilant against embedded and emerging credit risks, and carefully consider how they will respond to slow loan growth, according to prepared remarks from presenters at Bank Director’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference, which opens this week at the Swissotel Chicago. Regulators, too, want executives and directors to shift out of crisis mode back to the essentials of risk management. In other words, complacency might be the biggest danger facing bank boards and executives going into 2022.
The combination of government stimulus and bailouts, coupled with the regulatory respite during the worst of the pandemic, is “a formula for complacency” as the industry enters the next phase of the business cycle, says David Ruffin, principal at IntelliCredit, a division of QwickRate that helps financial institutions with credit risk management and loan review. Credit losses remained stable throughout the pandemic, but bankers must stay vigilant, as that could change.
“There is an inevitability that more shakeouts occur,” Ruffin says. A number of service and hospitality industries are still struggling with labor shortages and inconsistent demand. The retail sector is grappling with the accelerated shift to online purchasing and it is too soon to say how office and commercial real estate will perform long term. It’s paramount that bankers use rigorous assessments of loan performance and borrower viability to stay abreast of any changes.
Bankers that remain complacent may encounter heightened scrutiny from regulators. Guarding against complacency was the first bullet point and a new item on the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s supervisory operating plan for fiscal year 2022, which was released in mid-October. Examiners are instructed to focus on “strategic and operational planning” for bank safety and soundness, especially as it concerns capital, the allowance, net interest margins and earnings.
“Examiners should ensure banks remain vigilant when considering growth and new profit opportunities and will assess management’s and the board’s understanding of the impact of new activities on the bank’s financial performance, strategic planning process, and risk profile,” the OCC wrote.
“Frankly, I’m delighted that the regulators are using the term ‘complacency,’” Ruffin says. “That’s exactly where I think some of the traps are being set: Being too complacent.”
Gary Bronstein, a partner at the law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, also connected the risk of banker complacency to credit — but in underwriting new loans. Banks are under immense pressure to grow loans, as the Paycheck Protection Program winds down and margins suffer under a mountain of deposits. Tepid demand has led to competition, which could lead bankers to lower credit underwriting standards or take other risks, he says.
“It may not be apparent today — it may be later that it becomes more apparent — but those kinds of risks ought to be carefully looked at by the board, as part of their oversight process,” he says.
For their part, OCC examiners will be evaluating how banks are managing credit risk in light of “changes in market condition, termination of pandemic-related forbearance, uncertainties in the economy, and the lasting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic,” along with underwriting for signs of easing structure or terms.
The good news for banks is that loan loss allowances remain high compared to historical levels and that could mitigate the impact of increasing charge-offs, points out David Heneke, principal at the audit, tax and consulting firm CliftonLarsonAllen. Banks could even grow into their allowances if they find quality borrowers. And just because they didn’t book massive losses during the earliest days of the pandemic doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons for banks to learn, he adds. Financial institutions will want to carefully consider their ongoing concentration risk in certain industries, explore data analytics capabilities to glean greater insights about customer profitability and bank performance and continue investing in digital capabilities to reflect customers’ changed transaction habits.