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.

Coronavirus Tests Banks’ Emergency Succession Planning

When it comes to emergency succession planning, banks prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

The coronavirus crisis has reminded us of the importance of emergency succession planning at banks, as well as related disclosure considerations. Boards must create emergency succession plans in the event a key executive become incapacitated. Some institutions may need to activate these plans during the pandemic and may wish they had spent more time detailing them in calmer, more predictable times.

“When you think of disasters, a lot of people think of natural disasters and don’t really think about pandemics. That’s where that succession planning comes in: Not that we wouldn’t have this for a natural disaster, but the chances of somebody dying is pretty small,” says Laura Hay, a managing director at executive compensation firm Pearl Meyer. “Here, there’s a much higher likelihood of, at least temporarily, needing some additional support.”

The coronavirus pandemic may last for months, if not over a year, in the United States. There were about 800,000 confirmed cases and about 40,000 deaths as of April 22, according to economic data firm YCharts; 4.16 million tests have been administered. Some groups are at higher risk for a severe illness from Covid-19 than others, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including adults over than 65 and individuals who have underlying medical conditions.

Executives and directors at many banks are particularly vulnerable, based off this. Seventy-two percent of CEOs at institutions participating in Bank Director’s 2019 Compensation Survey were 55 or older; 2% were older than 74. Board members were in the same demographic, with a median director age of 64.

At least one financial firm has disclosed a death of an executive due to Covid-19: Jefferies Group CFO Peg Broadbent died of complications related to the coronavirus in late March, according to Jefferies Financial Group.

Spirit of Texas Bancshares Chairman and CEO Dean Bass took medical leave after contracting the coronavirus, according to an April 7 regulatory filing from the Conroe, Texas-based bank. The board appointed Chief Lending Officer David McGuire to serve as interim CEO and director Steven Morris to serve as acting chairman in his absence. Bass resumed his duties at the $2.4 billion bank on April 13, according to a subsequent filing.

Emergency succession plans differ from long-term succession plans in key ways, Hay says. It is prudent for boards to inform the individual who will be appointed interim or successor in an emergency to prepare them for the role, while directors may want to keep their thoughts on long-term succession plans under wraps. More than one-third of respondents to Bank Director’s 2019 Compensation Survey had not designated or identified successors for the CEO.

“People need to get more detail in their plans, and they should not just focus on the CEO,” Hay says. “You need to identify and communicate who that person is, and probably allow them to talk about how a succession would work, with a certain level of detail.

In times like these, banks may want to extend contingency planning to the board as well. This will not be a theoretical exercise for some companies, Hay says; a director at one of her clients recently died from Covid-19. Other directors may be available to step in, though banks should have conversations about appointing an acting committee head who could fill the potential vacancy.

Another major consideration for banks during the pandemic will be the decision to disclose a diagnosis or illness of an executive. Securities rules gives “substantial discretion” to boards weighing the material nature of such disclosures, according to a January article by Fenwick & West attorneys. A disclosure is only necessary when there is “‘a present duty to disclose’ and the information is considered ‘material,’” they wrote.

The wide range of Covid-19 symptoms and outcomes means the disclosures will probably be on a “case by case” basis, factoring in the materiality of the individual or affected operations, says John Spidi, a partner in the corporate practice group at Jones Walker.

“In those cases where it is not completely clear disclosure is required under SEC regulations, it’s probably a good idea to make the disclosure if the individual involved has a material impact on the company or its results of operations,” he says.

Boards may even opt to not disclose if the executive can continue performing their key duties, which seems to be what Morgan Stanley did after Chairman and CEO James Gorman tested positive for Covid-19 in mid-March. Gorman led regular calls with the bank’s operating committee and board of directors in self-isolation. He shared the news in early April via a video message to employees, saying that he did not experience severe symptoms and has fully recovered, Reuters reported.

Hopefully very few banks will need to activate their emergency succession plans, but Hay says creating detailed strategies protects shareholders and keeps operations stable during an otherwise chaotic time.

“If you don’t have a plan, or your plan is super high level where you have to think about how you’re actually going to deploy it, you’re behind the eight ball,” she says.

How the Covid-19 Crisis Turned One CEO Into Counselor in Chief

Since taking over as CEO of Amalgamated Bank in 2014, Keith Mestrich has demonstrated his management chops by reengineering the $5.3 billion institution’s balance sheet and improving its profitability.

But that experience pales in comparison to the challenge of running a company headquartered in New York City, which is ground zero for the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of Amalgamated’s 400 employees have been working from home since mid-March, including Mestrich. “I never thought that I’d be in the sixth week of running a bank from the basement of my house, by myself,” he says.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the U.S. economy; the likelihood of a severe recession requires management teams to carefully monitor their banks’ vital signs, including loan losses, liquidity and regulatory capital levels. But most bankers are experienced at this, most recently during the Great Recession in 2008. They know how to manage balance sheets through an economic downturn.

Managing employees through a crisis of this magnitude is another matter entirely.

One obvious way in which the current situation is starkly different from the last recession is the incredible personal stress the pandemic has placed on employees. Social distancing and sheltering orders have forced most employees to work remotely, either isolating them or requiring them to juggle work and parenting if young children are in the home.

These stresses are layered on top of the fear of infection. In New York City, where most of Amalgamated’s employees work, there were more than 138,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with nearly 10,000 confirmed deaths and more than 5,000 probable deaths through April 22, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. And of course, the news has been full of stories about the city’s overcrowded hospital emergency rooms and the desperate, daily search for ventilators and protective gear.

People are frightened, including many Amalgamated employees. One of Mestrich’s jobs now is to be counselor in chief.

“I spend a huge amount of my time just checking in with people at all levels of the bank,” Mestrich says. “People who have to come in and work have different levels of fear and … and that is calibrated by their own family situation. I talked to one woman who works in one of our branches, who has three kids, and she’s a single mom, and knows that if anything were to happen to her, [it] could be really devastating, so her fear level is very different than somebody who’s a single person and relatively young and healthy.”

He has also heard positive stories from his employees. “I got a great message from one guy – the only member of our staff who I know was actually hospitalized – [that] he was going back to work,” Mestrich says. “He’s recovered and doing well.”

The fear that some Amalgamated employees experience could magnify when they’re asked to return to their old work environment. “I think coming back is going to be really challenging, especially for organizations that are in hot spots,” he says.

Will companies be required to test their employees and verify the results, and will social distancing requirements remain in place in the office? Amalgamated will rely on guidance from the government in repatriating employees, although Mestrich notes that “guidance right now, as of today … is very all over the place.”

No matter how this normalization process is executed, Mestrich says it will have to be done with great sensitivity. “I think we’re going to have to be unbelievably empathetic to people who have any number of situations, whether they’re a little bit older worker or they have underlying medical conditions or they still have kids at home and don’t have any other childcare arrangements or they’re just fearful,” he says.

Amalgamated has its roots in the U.S. labor movement. The bank was founded in 1923 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America to provide banking services to its members and is still 40% owned by the union’s modern day successor, Workers United. Mestrich says many of the private sector unions that bank with Amalgamated have “seen significant layoffs and a lot of stress, both in terms of trying to figure out how to service their members, but also concerned about revenue dropping from dues income.”

And of course, many union members lave been laid off as well. In early April, Amalgamated launched the Frontline Workers Fund to provide financial support to workers impacted by the pandemic, including health care, grocery, cleaning service, food service, domestic and retail workers. It contributed $50,000 to stand up the fund and will donate 10 cents whenever a customer opens a new account or spends over $10 using the bank’s debit card. Amalgamated will donate proceeds from the fund to other union organizations for distribution.

The Amalgamated Foundation has also joined several other large foundations to establish the Families and Workers Fund. This fund will also focus on workers, families and communities that have been impacted by the pandemic. It has an initial commitment of $7.1 million, with a goal of raising $20 million. Amalgamated will also manage the fund’s operations.

In one sense, these two initiatives are just larger examples of the empathy that Mestrich has for his own employees. After all, what is philanthropy but empathy in action.

How Leaders Meet Followers’ Critical Needs During COVID-19

Humans experience the worldabout 30% rationally and 70% emotionally. Effective bank executives and directors would be well served by remembering that during this time.

Right now, many of those emotions tend toward fear and uncertainty. While what you as a leader communicate is important, how you do it and how it makes your people feel is crucial for effective leadership. Gallup has found that most critical emotional needs of followers — be it employees or customers — are trust, compassion, stability and hope. Yet, many banks are starting with deficits in these areas

Trust: Predictability In Unpredictable Times
Right now, employees are not only looking for honesty and clarity — they’re also watching intently for behavioral predictability. Leaders can’t predict the future, but they must be predictable. It’s hard to trust an erratic leader.

But bank leaders may be starting from a trust deficit. Most bank employees didn’t trust their leadership before the COVID-19 pandemic. Gallup research shows that just three in 10 financial services employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization, and just two in 10 say leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

Most banks are prioritizing employee and customer safety, which is necessary for trust. But employees are wondering how a health and economic crisis will affect their jobs and how leadership is making decisions for the future: the principles they’re using, how they conform to the organization’s purpose, the outcomes they’re aiming for.

Don’t shy away from difficult topics like layoffs or pay. Clearly lay out the scenarios and the decision criteria. Make firm commitments in critical areas wherever possible. Just as weather sirens indicate when people should be on high alert, companies should do the same. Otherwise, employees will live and work in constant anxiety.

Compassion: Loud and Reinforced
This is the time to show care. Your employees are juggling new responsibilities, fears and problems. They need to hear their managers and leaders say, out loud, that they understand, that the company is behind them and that everyone at the firm will get through this new situation together. They need to feel genuine compassion.

However, bank leaders may face a deficiency here as well: only three in 10 financial services employees strongly agreed in pre-pandemic times that their company cared about their well-being.

Compassion should also be boldly practiced through a bank’s policy decisions. The commitments, support and sacrifices executives make to keep employees, customers and communities whole are a reflection and demonstration of their priorities. Put bluntly: verbal compassion without policy compassion is insulting. Real compassion changes things — when the pandemic has passed, how you treated employees and companies will be remembered most.

Stability: Psychological Safety Without Tunnel Vision
There are two elements to stability, the practical and the psychological. Providing practical stability means making sure employees have the materials, equipment and technology they need to work under rapidly changing circumstances.

But the core of stability is psychological security — the need to know where a company is headed and that one’s job is secure. This is why executives must clearly define, communicate and act on their decision principles, especially when it comes to employment and pay.

Leaders need to provide a sense of normalcy to prevent tunnel vision. Not every conversation needs to be about COVID-19. Regularly communicate progress and accomplishments during this difficult time so that it doesn’t feel like the world has completely stopped.

Hope: The Most Precious Asset During Turmoil
Hope sits on the foundation of trust and stability. It pulls people forward and invites them to participate in creating a future that’s better than the present.

Leaders should view hope as precious capital. Hopeful workers are more resilient, innovative and agile, better able to plan ahead and navigate obstacles — valuable assets in good times and bad. Tell people what you want to achieve this week, this month, this quarter — and why you’re confident those goals can be reached.

Change The Lens
Amid the chaos and uncertainty, when employees are looking to you, know one thing for sure: You don’t have to have all the answers. But you do need to know how to meet your followers’ four basic needs in every plan, action and communication.

Remember, the employees most vulnerable to the ripple effects of COVID-19 are often the ones closest to your customers. Your people are looking to you for trust, compassion, stability and hope. Their eyes are on you — will you rise to the challenge?

Preparing to Be There for Your Community

The fallout from COVID-19 will likely take some time to stabilize. The personal and social costs are already significant, and neither is independent of economic and business disruptions.

Especially impacted are the businesses on Main Streets everywhere that are served by community banks. Community banks will be essential to any recovery, so it is important that they take steps now to ensure they’re positioned to make a difference.

The Challenge Of A “New Normal”
Financial markets were in “price discovery” mode this spring, but that phase is unlikely to last for long. If Treasury rates rise from their current levels, banks are likely to do well with their traditional models. But if they remain low, and spreads eventually stabilize to 2019 levels, nearly every institution will encounter pressure that could undermine their efforts to be a catalyst for Main Street’s recovery.

Bank Director’s recent piece “Uncharted Territory” warned that the experience of past financial crises could mislead bankers into complacency. Last time, dramatic reductions in funding costs boosted net interest margins, which helped banks offset dramatically higher loan losses. The difference today is that funding costs are already very low — leaving little room for similar reductions.

Consider asset yields. Even without significant credit charge-offs, community bank profitability could face headwinds. Community banks entered 2020 with plenty of fuel to support their thriving Main Streets. Their balance sheets had been established for a Treasury rate environment that was 100 basis points higher than today’s. If rates settle here for the next couple of years and existing assets get replaced at “new normal” levels, yields will fall and net interest margins, or NIMs, could take a hit.

Banks could have trouble “being there” for their communities.

Where do the current assets on banks’ balance sheets come from? They were added in 2018, 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. If we assume a fixed rate loan portfolio yields somewhere around 300 basis points over the 5-year swap rate at closing (which averaged about 1.75% over 2019), and floating rates loans yield somewhere around 50 basis points over prime day to day, we can estimate banks’ first quarter loan yields at perhaps 4.75% fixed-rate and 5.25% prime-based.

Prime-based yields have already dropped for the second quarter and beyond: They are now earning 3.75%. Fixed-rate loans continue to earn something like 4.75%, for now.

Banks that can quickly reduce funding costs might, in fact, see a short-term bump in net interest margins. If they can stave off provision expenses, this might even translate into a bump in profitability. But it will not last.

If Treasury rates remain at these historic lows and spreads normalize to 2019 levels, current balance sheets will decay. Adjustments today, before this happens, are the only real defense.

Banks’ fixed rate loans will mature or refinance at much lower rates — around 3.50%, according to our assumptions. Eventually, banks that enjoyed a 3.50% NIM in 2019 will be looking at sustained NIMs closer to 2.50%, even after accounting for reduced funding costs, if they take no corrective steps today. It will be difficult for these banks to “be there” for Main Street, especially if provision expenses begin to emerge.

Every community bank should immediately assess its NIM decay path. How long will it take to get to the bottom? This knowledge will help scale and motivate immediate corrective actions.

For most banks, this is probably a downslope of 18 to 30 months. For some, it will happen much more rapidly. The data required may be in asset and liability management reports. Note that if your bank is using year-end reports, the intervening rate moves mean that the data in the “100 basis points shock” scenario from that report would represent the current rates unchanged “baseline.” Reports that do not run income simulations for four or more years will also likely miss the full NIM contraction, which must be analyzed to incorporate full asset turnover and beyond.

Times are hectic for community banks, but in many cases commissioning a stand-alone analysis, above and beyond standard asset-liability compliance requirements, is warranted.

Then What?
The purpose of analyzing a bank’s NIM timeline is not to determine when to start taking action, but to correctly size and scope the immediate action.  All the levers on the balance sheet— assets, liabilities, maybe even derivatives — must be coordinated to defend long-term NIM and the bank’s ability to assist in Main Street’s recovery.

The Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program lending is fully aligned with the community bank mission, but it is short term. Banks must also plan for sustainable net interest income for three, four and five years into the future, and that planning and execution should take place now. The devised NIM defense strategy should be subjected to the same NIM decay analysis applied to the current balance sheet; if it’s insufficient, executives should consider even more significant adjustments for immediate action.

The economic environment is out of bankers’ control. Their responses are not, but these require action in advance. Banks can — and should — conduct a disciplined, diagnostic analysis of their NIM decay path and then correct it. This interest rate environment could be with us for some time to come.

Viewing the COVID-19 Crisis From a New Vantage Point

Fintech companies have a unique vantage point from which to view the COVID-19 crisis.

Technology leaders are working long hours to help banks go remote, fill in customer service gaps and meet unprecedented loan demand. They’re providing millions of dollars in free services, and rapidly releasing new products. They’re talking to bankers all day, every day, and many of them are former bankers themselves.

Bank Director crowdsourced insights about banks’ pandemic-fueled tech initiatives from 30 fintech companies and distilled their viewpoints into five observations that can help banks sort through the digital demands they face today.

“Nice to Have” Technology Is Now “Must Have”
Online account opening, digital banking, financial wellness and customer service are garnering fresh attention as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Before the pandemic, these areas were thought of as “nice to have,” but they weren’t at the top of any bank’s tech expenditure list. COVID changed that.

Account opening and digital banking are essential when branch lobbies are closed, and customers are looking to their banks for advice in ways they never have before in times of widespread uncertainty.

These new demands have created a unique opportunity to push technology initiatives forward. Ben Morales, who had a 24-year tenure in banking before founding personal loan fintech QCash, observed that bank leaders shouldn’t “waste an emergency. Now is the time to push bank boards to invest.”

Bank boards are already talking about COVID as a potential inflection point for tech adoption, says Jon Rigsby, a former banker who co-founded and now is the CEO of Hawthorn River Lending. He notes that this moment is different from past crises. “In my 27-year banking career, I’ve never seen bankers change so fast. It was quite phenomenal.”

Customer Service, Financial Wellness Are Taking Center Stage
Consumers are increasingly seeking guidance from their banks, inundating call centers. As a result, communication and financial wellness tools are getting their moment in the sun.

Boston-based fintech Micronotes has witnessed exponential growth in demand for their product that helps banks initiate conversations with their customers digitally. Micronotes introduced a new program that’s purpose built for pandemic in mid-March. The Goodwill Program helps banks proactively communicate with their customers around issues like relief assistance and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Inbound interest in the firm from banks was nearly eight-times higher two weeks after the program launched, compared to the two weeks prior to launch, Micronotes reports.

Banks already equipped with digital communication tools are seeing an uptick in usage. Kasisto, a New York-based fintech, reported that several clients have seen a 20% to 30% increase in the use of KAI, a virtual assistant that can converse with customers and lessen the burden on call centers.

Financial wellness initiatives are also seeing liftoff. Happy Money, a personal loan fintech that uses financial and psychometric data to predict a borrower’s willingness to repay a loan, launched a free financial stress relief product for its bank partners’ customers. And SavvyMoney, a fintech that provides credit information to borrowers alongside pre-qualified loan offers, is seeing an influx of inquiries from banks that “understand the need to provide their customers with tools so they can better manage their money during uncertain financial times,” says CEO JB Orecchia.

Due Diligence Can Move Faster, When It Has To
Several fintechs have noted that banks are speeding up their vendor due diligence processes immensely — but not by relaxing standards.

Vendor onboarding programs can sometimes stretch to fill an entire year, according to Rishi Khosla, CEO of London-based digital bank OakNorth, but they don’t have to. OakNorth developed its own credit underwriting and monitoring solution, and recently spun out a technology company by the same name to provide the tools to banks outside of the U.K.

Khosla has a unique perspective given his dual roles as both a banker and technologist. He says some banks have created “unbelievable processes” that, when cut down, actually only amount to 10 to 20 hours of work. In this environment, he says, a commercial bank partner can get 20 hours of work done within days. They’re in “war mode,” so they can take a dramatically different approach, but with no less rigor.

“It’s not like they’re taking shortcuts. They’re going through all the right processes,” he says. “It’s just they’re doing it in a very efficient, streamlined manner without the bureaucracy.”

Approach Existing Partners First
Banks now wanting to adopt new technology may find themselves at the end of a long waitlist as fintechs are inundated with new demand. Fintech providers are prioritizing implementations for existing customers first — just as most banks prioritize existing borrowers for PPP loans.

To get the technology they need fast, some banks are getting creative in rejiggering the tech they do have to meet immediate needs.

Matt Johnner, a bank board member and the president of construction lending fintech BankLabs, got a call from a bank client a few days after the rollout of PPP loans. The bank wanted to customize the BankLabs construction loan automation tool to process PPP loans. Johnner says the bank “called because they know our software is customizable … and that we go live in 1 hour.”

Because of the exponential rise in digital demand, a bank’s success with technology during the pandemic has been based largely on what they had in place before the outbreak, according to many fintechs.

“Some banks are innovating through this and are thinking near and long term, especially those that have made good investments in digital banking and have a solid foundation to build out from,” explains Derik Sutton, VP of product and experience for small business solution Autobooks. “The most common response we get [from banks] is ‘We wish we had done this sooner.’”

Resist the Urge to Slash-and-Burn
There are typically three ways that banks respond in crisis, according to Joe Zeibert, who started his banking career as an intern at Bank of America Corp. in summer 2008. He recently joined pricing and analytics platform Nomis as managing director of global lending solutions after an 11-year career in banking, and believes history can be a useful indicator here.

Similar to the financial crisis, we see some banks rushing to innovate who will be ahead of the curve when they get out of the downturn. Others are playing wait and see, and then others are slashing tech and innovation budgets to cut costs wherever they can,” says Zeibert. According to him, the more innovative banks came out of the last crisis better off than their peers that cut tech spending. “They came out of the downturn with a 5-year innovation lead over their competitors — a gap that is almost impossible to close,” he says. Banks now should resist the urge to slash and burn and, instead, focus on investing in technology that will help them emerge from the crisis stronger.

Most technology companies are reporting an influx of inbound interest from banks, and strong momentum on current projects. Fintechs appear to be rising to the occasion, and one sentiment they all seem to share is that it’s their time to give back; to help banks and, as a result, the nation, weather this crisis together.

*All of the companies mentioned in this article are offering new products, expedited implementations or free services to banks during COVID-19. To learn more about them, you can access their profiles in Bank Director’s FinXTech Connect platform.