Three Retail Strategies for the Post-Coronavirus Branch

Technology is key to providing a near touch-free experience in the branch and digitally, but many banks are not ready. Less than 50% of organizations believe they are prepared for competitive threats, customer expectations or technological advancements, according to the 2019 “State of Digital Banking Transformation” report.

It’s a daunting task to take on digital transformation. Financial institution didn’t need a crisis to learn that banking from anywhere is a priority for customers, but it has highlighted the slow rate of mobile adoption. Only 17% of financial institutions believe they have deployed digital transformation at scale, with larger organizations being the most advanced, according to the Digital Banking Report. Even after the coronavirus pandemic has settled down, consumers will value banks that make the investment to provide services digitally.

Onboard Customers to Digital Resources
Transacting from anywhere is important, but that’s not the entire branch experience — banks need to provide highly personal financial education and advisory services from anywhere. Focus marketing and communications on educating customers with resources like blogs, social media posts, financial healthcheck tools or webinars on relevant topics like financial planning in an emergency. Content explaining the details and next steps on payment deferrals, personal loans, and programs like the Paycheck Protection Program are especially helpful during this time. Ensure your compliance officer looks over everything before it’s posted.

Offering tools and resources now will position you as an advising partner rather than a product-focused institution. And video banking gives your customers more access to experts. These platforms put face-to-face interactions in the palm of your customers’ hands by allowing them to connect with a banker right from their phone, securely sign and share documents such as photo IDs, documents for new accounts, loans, and other urgent needs.

Give Customers Access to Experts
Banks also need to invest in technology that allows their experts to work from anywhere — including the corporate campus or headquarters too. These investments allow them to work from anywhere makes transitioning to remote easy; they can also improve productivity when they are in the office.

Adding flex spaces in your headquarters allows you to reduce the number of desks provided to full-time employees while improving productivity, the flex space allows your employees to have a space to focus when they need to, collaborate, and it can be used by others when that employee is remote or off-campus.

Your experts will need to have a well-thought-out space where they can perform their remote expert duties. A clean backdrop, technology, and quiet location are all necessary to make sure your experts can handle any question and transaction. However, the space doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. Take an Instagram-versus-reality approach to creating the perfect remote expert set-up. Meaning, focus design dollars on what is on camera instead of spending on the entire space. Offer your experts best practices for video conferencing so your exceptional customer service standards are not altered when your associates are working remotely.

Prepare Your Branch for the Post-Coronavirus Consumer
This is truly the time to prepare your branches for the future and provide an even-better experience than before. Consumers post-coronavirus will be more aware of being in confined spaces, such as private offices. A “service spot” offers a unique workspace for associates that is visibly less “confining” but still private, potentially increasing the appeal of getting advisory services in the branches. Ideally, the spots would be set at counter or bar height.

Teller towers are a retail-friendly twist on the old-school teller line. They remove queue lines and create more distance between customers, while providing a better interaction experience with staff.

Easy-to-clean surfaces for furniture, flooring and more will be the way of the future. Brian Silvester, Head of Design at DBSI, offers several examples of easy to clean and green finish options:

  • Stain-resistant surfaces and PFOA-free upholstery are easy to clean and reduce health concerns linked to PFOA.
  • Easy-to-clean laminate instead of wood veneer offers a realistic natural wood-look without having to worry about scratches and special cleaning procedures.
  • Groutless flooring like luxury vinyl tile reduces maintenance over time. There are even options that are carbon neutral.

The post-coronavirus consumer may be hyperaware of germs on everything they touch, and may not be interested in communal brochure racks to gather information. Digital and interactive signage with hand sanitizer nearby in an option that is easy to clean and update. Interactive digital signage allows customers to still obtain the information they want while collecting emails and data for customer insights. Touch-free screens are a great way to showcase your products and services with virtually no risk of community spread.

To create the perfectly prepared retail strategy that can attract and retain customers in any situation, banks need to fuse design, technology and process. Branch transformation, at any level, is both an art and a science.

Pandemic Upends Annual Meetings, Forcing Virtual Plan Bs

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in a yearly tradition for publicly traded banks: the annual shareholder meeting.

The United States was struck by the coronavirus crisis in the spring and it may drag into the early summer. In addition to halting the economy and throwing bank operations into overdrive, stay-at-home orders and prohibitions on large gatherings have wreaked havoc on the tradition of the annual shareholder meeting. In response, banks are considering virtual options.

Under normal conditions, shareholders of First Bancorp in Damariscotta, Maine, would assemble at the Samoset Resort for an hourlong annual shareholder meeting followed by lobster rolls for lunch, says CFO Richard Elder. But like many states, Maine Governor Janet Mills issued executive orders in March closing nonessential businesses and implementing other social distancing practices. The $2 billion bank lost its venue at the same time as large gatherings were deemed unsafe.

John Spidi, a partner in the corporate practice group at Jones Walker, had bank clients that faced similar predicaments. One bank planned to hold their meeting at a restaurant that’s now closed, another at a hotel and a third in one of its own branches.

“We’ve had to scramble and figure out what our options were,” he says. “That became a little tricky because every state has different rules on these things.”

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued guidance permitting virtual meetings and allowing companies that had mailed out proxies to update them with a proxy amendment and a press release accessible on the website. But some states initially only permitted hybrid meetings that included an in-person component. Spidi says some of his clients weighed complying with the law against taking their chances and moving to a virtual meeting.

“That was not an approach that I was comfortable with at all,” he says. “I couldn’t recommend it. I was telling the client what the options were, and the clients were basically saying, ‘We’re going to take that risk. We’re not going to get people together.’”

Fortunately, governors have waived these in-person meeting requirements during public health emergencies, sparing his clients. And in Maine, First Bancorp discussed postponing the annual meeting, but encountered bylaw considerations. So they decided to move online.

Banks that have already distributed proxy materials calling their meetings may be in similar situations, Spidi says. Most states require an annual meeting to elect directors, which a bank could feasibly do up until the last day of the year. But most include their proxies with their annual reports from the year prior, which are typically mailed in the first quarter. An option for banks that haven’t sent out their proxy materials is to hold off on calling the meeting until after stay-at-home orders are lifted, he says.

To hold a virtual meeting, First Bancorp’s board needed to sign off on the shift and its basic procedures, though it did not need to update its bylaws. Spidi says other banks may need to call a board meeting to update their bylaws and permit a virtual meeting, and then file a notification with the SEC that the bylaws have been updated.

Elder says First Bancorp briefly considered hosting its own virtual meeting before running into issues around shareholder authentication and voting. They ultimately reached out to Broadridge Financial Solutions, which they use for transfer and proxy services, to organize the event.

Broadridge has offered virtual shareholder meetings for a decade and has seen slow but steady pickup in companies electing the approach, says Cathy Conlon, Broadridge’s head of corporate issuer strategy and product management. Unsurprisingly, demand for virtual meetings has skyrocketed this year, from 326 companies last year 1,500 this year (and counting).

Beyond pandemics, virtual or hybrid meetings make it easier for shareholders to participate, especially if disability, availability or geography is a constraint. The meetings are similar to an earnings call for executives, which shareholders can access through a web address with no required installation or downloads.

“The technology is fairly straightforward,” Conlon says. “This whole situation will allow more and more companies to feel really confident [about virtual meetings], because they’re getting used to this being a virtual world.”

First Bancorp will conduct its first, and potentially only, virtual annual meeting on April 29. Elder says executives have joked about not returning to the resort after the pandemic ends, but adds they might consider a hybrid approach in the future that marries the virtual approach with the lobster roll lunch.

“I think you’ve got to think outside of the box, be open to new ideas and be willing to implement them,” he says. “This just shows when forced to make a change, you can do it.”

The CARES Act: What Banks Need to Know

Banks will play a critical role in providing capital and liquidity to American businesses and consumers, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) includes several provisions that benefit depository institutions. The implications for bank directors and officers are significant; they may need to make major decisions quickly.

Expanded SBA Lending
The CARES Act appropriates $349 billion for “paycheck protection loans” to be made primarily by banks that will be 100% guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) through its 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program. The SBA issued an interim final rule on the program on April 2 and has issued additional formal and informal guidance since that date. Application submissions began on April 3. Banks and borrowers will want to move quickly, due to the limited funds available for the program.

Provisions Benefitting Depository Institutions Directly

Troubled Debt Restructuring Relief. A financial institution may elect to suspend the requirements under generally accepted accounting principles and federal banking regulations to treat loan modifications related to the COVID-19 pandemic as troubled debt restructurings. The relief runs through the earlier of Dec. 31 or 60 days after the termination date of the national emergency, and does not apply to any adverse impact on the credit of a borrower that is not related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CECL Delay. Financial institutions are not required to comply with the current expected credit losses methodology (CECL) until the earlier of the end of the national emergency or Dec. 31.

Reduction of the Community Bank Leverage Ratio. Currently, a qualifying community banking organization that opts into the community bank leverage ratio framework and maintains a leverage ratio of greater than 9% will be considered to have met all regulatory capital requirements. The CARES Act reduces the community bank leverage ratio from 9% to 8% until the earlier of the end of the national emergency or Dec. 31. In response to the CARES Act, federal banking regulators set the community bank leverage ratio at 8% for the remainder of 2020, 8.5% for 2021 and 9% thereafter.

Revival of Bank Debt Guarantee Program. The CARES Act provides the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. with the authority to guarantee bank-issued debt and noninterest-bearing transaction accounts that exceed the existing $250,000 limit through Dec. 31. The FDIC will determine whether and how to exercise this authority.

Removal of Limits on Lending to Nonbank Financial Firms. The Comptroller of the Currency is authorized to exempt transactions between a national bank or federal savings association and nonbank financial companies from limits on loans or other extensions of credit — commonly referred to as “loan-to-one borrower” limits — upon a finding by the Comptroller that such exemption is in the public interest.

Provisions Related to Mortgage Forbearance and Credit Reporting

The CARES Act codifies in part recent guidance from state and federal regulators and government-sponsored enterprises, including the 60-day suspension of foreclosures on federally-backed mortgages and requirements that servicers grant forbearance to borrowers affected by COVID-19.

Foreclosure and Forbearance on Residential Mortgages. Companies servicing loans insured or guaranteed by a federal government agency, or purchased or securitized by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, must grant up to 180 days of forbearance to borrowers who request and affirm financial hardship due to COVID-19 through the period ending on the later of July 25, or the end of the national emergency.

Servicers are not required to document the borrower’s hardship. The initial 180-day forbearance period must be extended up to an additional 180 days at the borrower’s request., Servicers of federally backed mortgage loans may not assess fees, penalties, or interest beyond the amounts scheduled or calculated during this forbearance period, as if the borrower made all contractual payments on time and in full under the terms of the mortgage contract. The law also imposes a foreclosure moratorium on federally backed mortgage loans of at least 60 days, beginning on March 18.

Forbearance on Multi-Family Mortgages. Multifamily borrowers with a federally backed multifamily mortgage loan that was current on its payments on Feb. 1, may request forbearance for a 30-day period with up to two 30-day extensions, during the covered period. Servicers are required to document borrower’s hardship. Borrowers must provide tenant protections, including prohibitions on evictions for non-payment and late payment fees, in order to qualify for the forbearance, and servicers are required to document the borrower’s hardship.

Moratorium on Negative Credit Reporting. Any furnisher of credit information that agrees to defer payments, forbear on any delinquent credit or account, or provide any other relief to consumers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic must report the credit obligation or account as current if the credit obligation or account was current before the accommodation.

Banking on the Fly at Atlantic Union

When the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus forced CEO John Asbury to send most of Atlantic Union Bankshare Corp.’s 2,000 employees to work from home, it gave him the chills.

After all, the Richmond, Virginia-based bank is hardly a digital-only enterprise. It has a branch-centric strategy that emphasizes face-to-face customer service. And like most traditional companies, it has lots of people working in big offices.

To Asbury’s immense relief, everyone has quickly adapted to the demands of running a $17.6 billion institution with a distributed workforce. “A month ago, it was quite candidly terrifying, the notion of moving the company to a virtual status,” he says. “But I have to tell you, at this point we’re actually pretty comfortable with it.”

Ninety percent of Atlantic Union’s employees are now working from home, including Asbury and the bank’s senior management team.

As it turned out, working remotely was not the only challenge that Asbury and the bank’s employees would find themselves facing in the early days of the pandemic. Soon thereafter, a second challenge came in the form of an opportunity that hardly anyone was ready for — not just at Atlantic Union but throughout the banking industry.

The Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program, included in a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill passed in late March, was designed to funnel $349 billion in loans to hard hit small businesses that have been forced to close as part of a broad nationwide lockdown intended to curb the virus’ spread. But almost no one was prepared to take loan applications on the program’s April 3 start date, least of all the SBA.

Many banks, including some of the country’s largest, were slow to engage because of their uncertainty about various details in the hastily rolled out program. Asbury, however, decided that Atlantic Union owed it to its small business customers in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland to quickly embrace the program and help them get funded.

“I think we all feel the weight of our responsibility,” Asbury says. “I never thought we would be an economic first responder. I never thought we would be at the scene of the crash, and here we are. You cannot say to your customers, ‘Sorry, it’s just too much work,’ or ‘Sorry, we just can’t go fast enough,’ or say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this for a privileged few, because the others aren’t worth it.’”

And yet for all of Asbury’s determination to respond quickly, there were many problems that had to be solved along the way. For starters, the bank did not have the right technology to handle the large volume of loan applications that it expected to receive. It had recently licensed an automated workflow solution to build an online account opening system, but the bank’s new head of digital technology concluded that it wasn’t the right solution for account opening. Asbury says she quickly negotiated a credit with the vendor and chose a different technology instead.

“The team literally, in a matter of days, was able to repurpose the solution and stand up an online application web portal and an automated workflow system, which is essentially a virtual assembly line,” Asbury says. Many of the bank’s employees worked 12 hour days and weekends to have the system up and running by April 3. “To be able to build this automated assembly line … recognizing that everyone working on it is sitting in their homes, is unbelievable,” he adds.

Another challenge was the SBA’s failure to provide lenders with a standard note agreement, one reason why some large banks were slow to engage in program. If a bank doesn’t use the SBA’s standard agreement, the agency won’t guarantee the loans. Asbury decided the bank couldn’t afford to wait for the SBA to resolve that issue, so he took a risk. “We used our best educated guess to create our own note, in the spirit of the agreement, and we began to fund,” he says. The agency later said it was okay for banks to use their own note agreements.

Once Atlantic Union began submitting loan applications, the SBA’s “E-Tran” electronic loan processing system kept crashing under the torrent of submissions it was receiving from lenders throughout the industry. The bank had 30 people who manually keyed in data, and is implementing automated technology to import the application data and upload it into the E-Tran system, which will greatly shorten the application process. “We think we can get the cycle time down to one minute for one loan, and that’s really important,” Asbury says.

The bank had 400 employees working full time on the program, including Asbury’s own administrative assistant who was approving loans. Through April 15, 5,717 Atlantic Union customers had been approved for loans totaling $1.42 billion. The program is now out of funds, although the bank has decided to continue accepting application in the hope that Congress will provide additional funding.

The pandemic proved to Atlantic Union that it is both resilient and innovative, traits that will benefit it long after the COVID-19 crisis has passed. “It’s going to cause us to be more courageous,” Asbury says. “I don’t mean we’re going to be hasty [or] impulsive, but I think that we’re going to be able to make big decisions more confidently, and frankly quicker as we’ve proven we can do it.”

Data In The Best, And Worst, Of Times

Helping their community and delivering personalized service is the foundational differentiation of every community bank. Now more than ever, customers expect that their community bank understands them and is looking out for their best interests.

Customers are communicating with their banks every day through their transactions — regardless if they are mobile, in person or online, each interaction tells a story. Are you listening to what they’re telling you? Whether your bank is navigating through today’s COVID-19 crisis or operating in the best of times, data will be key to success today and in the future.

Business intelligence to navigate daily operations is hard to come by on a good day, much less when things are in a pandemic disarray. Many bankers are working remotely for the first time and find themselves crippled by the lack of access to actionable data. A robust data analytics tool enables employees at all levels to efficiently access the massive amounts of customer, market, product, trend and service data that resides in your core and ancillary systems. Actionable data analytics can empower front-line bankers and risk managers to make data-driven decisions by improving and leveraging insight into the components that affect loan, deposit and revenue growth. Additionally, these tools often do the heavy lifting, resulting in organizational efficiencies that allow your bankers and executives to focus on strategic decision-making — not managing cumbersome data and reporting processes.

A tool that aggregates transformative data points from various siloed systems and makes them readily available and easy to interpret allows your management team to be better prepared to proactively manage and anticipate the potential impact of a crisis. This positions your bank to offer products and services that your customers need, when they need them.

But most community banks have not implemented a data analytics solution and as such, they  must consider how to manually generate the information needed to monitor and track customer behaviors to assist them in navigating this crisis. Below are a few potential early warning indicators to monitor and track as your bank navigates the current coronavirus crisis so you can proactively reach out to customers:

  • Overdrafts, particularly for customers who have never overdrawn.
  • Missing regular ACH deposits.
  • Past due loans, particularly customers who are past due for the first time.
  • Line of credit advances maxing out.
  • Lines of credit that cannot meet the 30-day pay-down requirement.
  • Declining deposit balances.
  • Large deposit withdrawals.
  • Businesses in industries that are suffering the most.

If your community bank is one of the many that are proactively assisting customers during this pandemic, make sure you are tracking data in a manner that allows you to clearly understand the impact this crisis is having on your bank and share with your community how you were able to help your customers during this critical time. Some examples include:

  • Paycheck Protection Loan Program details: number of applications received, processed and funded; amount forgiven; cost of participating for the bank; customer versus non-customer participation, impact on lending team, performance.
  • Customer assistance with online banking: How did you help those who are unfamiliar with online banking services? How many did you assist?
  • Loan modifications, including extensions, deferments, payment relief, interest-only payments and payment deferrals.
  • Waived fees and late charges.
  • Emergency line of credits for small business customers.

Having easy access to critical customer information and insights has never been more important than it is today, with the move to remote work for many bankers and rapidly changing customer behaviors due to the economic shutdown. Customers are making tough choices; with the right data in your bankers’ hands, you will have the ability to step up and serve them in ways that may just make them customers for life.

Why We Ignore Big Risks

Should we have seen COVID-19 coming?

A pandemic was far from the top risk on corporate radars a few months ago, even though experts in a variety of fields warned about the possibility of one for years.

Best-selling author Michele Wucker refers to risks like this as “gray rhinos.” It’s a metaphor for the obvious challenges that societies tend to neglect, often due to the size of the risk.

“It’s meant to evoke a two-ton thing with its horn [pointed] straight at you, and pawing the ground, snorting, probably about to charge,” says Wucker, the author of “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.” She is the CEO and founder of Gray Rhino & Co., which helps leaders and organizations identify and respond to these risks.

To learn about preparing for the next big threat, I interviewed Wucker about why we often ignore obvious threats, and how to approach the next crisis. The transcript that follows has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: What are the most powerful forces that keep us from identifying and addressing gray rhinos?
MW: There are psychological and organizational and governmental [forces] that keep us from recognizing what we need to. Human beings are hardwired to ignore some of the things that we don’t want to see. We tend to deny information if we don’t like it — if we don’t like the solution to a problem. A lot of this is unconscious. So, when you recognize that unconscious bias, you’re way ahead of everybody else because it makes you much more able to see what’s in front of you.

But in terms of organizations and governments, more structural and policy factors, some of them have to do with decision-making. We like to surround ourselves with people who think the way that we do. And when we do that, it confirms what we already think. It makes us even less likely to see red flags. So, decision-making processes and organizational culture are one reason.

In terms of governments and even corporations, the incentives that we’ve set up are misaligned.

Businesses look so much at quarterly earnings, and too often pay so much attention to the short term, that they forget they are putting long-term value at risk. And for politicians who are looking at election cycles of just a few years, it’s much easier for them to tell people what they want to hear and kick the can down the road so that the problem explodes on the next guy’s watch. Our society tends to reward people for picking up the mess after the fact. And when somebody makes a hard decision that prevents the mess from happening in the first place, we don’t celebrate as much as we should.

BD: One of the things we often talk about [at Bank Director] is the danger of groupthink and the lack of diversity on corporate boards. As we’re looking at the impact of this pandemic, I would not be surprised to see things like diversity and similar initiatives taking a back seat to these more short-term concerns that we’re seeing now. Is that a mistake?
MW: Absolutely. It would be a huge mistake to stop looking at how we can make better decisions by bringing the right voices around the table, having a group of people who can overcome groupthink. And really what would be most helpful now would be an extra emphasis on who else are you going to bring to the table to help solve the problems right now? An injection of diversity in decision-making could be one of the most important factors helping us to not just get out of the crisis, but set ourselves up for future success.

In “The Gray Rhino,” I quote [European Central Bank President] Christine Lagarde … [her] comment that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters instead, we wouldn’t have had that problem. In my mind, that’s not quite right. It should have been Lehman Siblings, because too much of any gender or outlook or perspective or risk attitude is the wrong approach to take. There’s a lot of research showing that when you have diverse voices in different demographics, different specializations, different perspectives, you’re much better set up to make good decisions for the future.

One problem we are having right now is that there were unintended consequences of some of the decisions that were made to get us out of the 2008 crisis. It’s important when you’re getting out of a crisis to make sure that you’re not setting yourself up for something worse down the road, and to put in place check-in measures along the way, to make sure that the fixes you put in place are working the way you meant them to.

BD: Crises can force change. What do you hope to see business leaders learn from this current crisis to ensure they’re better prepared for the next crisis on the horizon?
MW: I love the way you phrased that because people are always trying to look backwards, because they’re so used to thinking of black swans. [Editor’s Note: A “black swan” refers to a rare, unforeseeable crisis.] It’s important to look back to learn what we’ve done wrong, but unless you apply it to the future, it’s a bit of an exercise in futility.

The biggest lesson I think people should learn is how important it is to be proactive about problems, particularly big problems that seem overwhelming. It’s very important for everybody to do their part to address problems. … Leaders really need to focus on two new mindsets. One, proactive, long-term, forward-looking emphasis on creating value, and thinking in complex systems. The Business Roundtable statement last August about restating the purpose of a corporation was interesting in that way. They came out and said it’s no longer a matter of prioritizing your shareholders alone, because if you don’t think about all of the other stakeholders in your orbit, that has the potential to reduce shareholder value.

I think it really brought a complex systems approach to this debate in business communities. For so long, people had looked just at shareholders, and thought about other stakeholders’ needs as a zero-sum game. This new systems-thinking approach shows how they’re all related; that you can’t effectively protect your shareholders unless you’re also looking at your other stakeholders. That brings us back to your point about having diverse voices and making sure you’re getting all the inputs you need.

BD: What are the other gray rhinos that banks and corporations might be ignoring right now?
MW: I’ve been focusing personally on a trio of interrelated gray rhinos. Inequality. The fact that the people in the bottom whatever percent you want to apply are falling behind. [This is] already hurting economic growth and making the entire economy much more vulnerable, as we’re now seeing in a painful way. So, inequality is the first one.

Second one is climate change, which is closely related to inequality, because the people who are contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change generally tend to not be the same ones as the people who are affected the most. And third, financial fragilities, which are closely related to both climate change and inequality, as we’re seeing right now when the bottom part of the population loses their jobs and they’re blown apart, taking the whole economy down with it.

As we saw in the conversations in Davos in January, and with BlackRock’s statement about climate risk and investment risk being one and the same, there’s a close relationship between climate change decisions and shoring up the way that the whole financial system and the global economy works. Many central banks and researchers around the world last year made the point that insurers are undercapitalized if you look at the potential impact of climate change.

I think there’s also complex systems thinking, a limit to that — if you’re financing fossil fuel companies, but you have other investments that are negatively affected by climate change, say oceanfront property, then you’re basically investing in hurting the other companies and investments in your portfolio.

So, that trio to me is important, and the pandemic has shown how dangerous all three of them are and that we need to deal with all three of them together.

Loan Modification Rules Suspended in Race to Minimize Pandemic Losses

The suspension of accounting rules on modified loans is another dramatic measure that regulators and lawmakers have taken in the struggle to limit pandemic-related loan defaults.

The question of how — and increasingly, whether — to account for, report and reserve for modified loans has taken on increasing urgency for banks working to address borrowers’ unexpected hardship following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Regulators homed in on the treatment for troubled debt restructurings, or TDRs, in late March, as cities and states issued stay-at-home orders and the closure of nonessential businesses sparked mass layoffs. The intense focus on the accounting for these credits comes as a tsunami of once-performing loans made to borrowers and businesses across the country are suddenly at risk of souring.

“The statements from regulators and the CARES Act are trying to reduce the conversations that we have about TDRs by helping institutions minimize the amount of TDR challenges that they’re dealing with,” says Mandi Simpson, a partner in Crowe’s audit group.

TDRs materialize when a bank offers a concession on a credit that it wouldn’t have otherwise made to a borrower experiencing financial difficulties or hardship. Both of those prongs must exist for a loan to be classified as a TDR. Banks apply an individual discounted cash flow analysis to modified credits, which makes the accounting complicated and tedious, Simpson says.

“You can imagine, that could be pretty voluminous and cumbersome” as borrowers en mass apply for modifications or forbearance, she says.

Late last month, federal bank regulators provided guidance on TDRs to encourage banks to work with borrowers facing coronavirus-related hardship. Still, Congress intervened, broadening both the relief and the scope of eligible loans.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, which went into effect on March 27, suspended the requirements under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles for coronavirus loan modifications that would have otherwise been categorized as TDRs. It also suspended the determination that a loan that has been modified because of the coronavirus would count as a TDR, “including impairment for accounting purposes.” This applies to any loan that receives a modification that was not more than 30 days past due as of Dec. 31, 2019.

The law encourages banks to record the volume of modified loans. It also specified that bank regulators can collect data about these loans for supervisory purposes.

Bank regulators issued their revised interagency statement on April 7 to align with Congress’ rule. Bankers should maintain appropriate allowances and reserves for all loan modifications. It adds that examiners will exercise judgment when reviewing modifications and “will not automatically adversely risk rate credits that are affected by COVID-19.”

Importantly, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s chief accountant issued an opinion accepting the CARES Act treatment of TDRs as GAAP on April 3. The statement reconciled U.S. accounting policy and federal law, and spared auditors from issuing modified opinions for institutions that adopt the TDR relief.

But the accounting relief could create longer-term issues for banks, says Graham Steele, staff director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business. He previously served as minority chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and was a member of the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

He understands the imperative to provide forbearance and flexibility, but he says the modifications and concessions could lead to diminished cash flows that could erode a bank’s future lending capacity. He points out that it’s also unclear what would happen to balance sheets once the national emergency ends, and how fast those modifications would be reclassified.

“This seems like an ‘extend and pretend’ policy to me,” he says. “Congress and regulators have offered forbearance, but they’re changing mathematical and numerical conventions that you can’t just assume away.”

Simpson says that as part of the tracking of modified loans, institutions may want to consider those credits’ risk ratings and how their probability of default compares to performing loans. She is encouraging her clients to consider making appropriate and reasonable disclosures to share with investors, such as the amount and types of modifications. The disclosures could also give bank executives a chance to highlight how they’re working with borrowers and have a handle on their borrower’s problems and financial stress.

“I think proactively helping borrowers early on is a good move. I know banks are challenged to keep up with the information, just I am, and the timing is challenging,” Simpson says. “They’re needing to make very impactful decisions on their business, and you’d like to be able to do that with a little bit more proactivity than reactivity. Unfortunately, that’s just not the place that we find ourselves in these days.”

COVID-19 Poses New Cybersecurity Challenges for Banks

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the banking world upside down, not the least by requiring a significant number of employees to work remotely.

Social distancing requirements have forced many companies, banks included, to have large numbers of their employees work from home. Not only is this a stark departure from how most banks have traditionally operated, it happened very quickly; the new coronavirus swept across the country like a derecho, giving them little time to prepare.

And while social distancing will hopefully “flatten the curve” of the pandemic’s infection rate, to use a now common expression, it has had the unintended consequence of increasing the industry’s cyber risk by opening banks up to new attacks.

The “core threat,” according to Ron Buchanan, the chief information security officer at $17.6 billion Atlantic Union Bankshares Corp. in Richmond, Virginia, involves remote access platforms like virtual private networks (VPNs) and video conferencing platforms. This would include companies using VPNs for the first time, or companies that risk exposing services and sensitive or internal communications online.

“There are plenty of companies out there that aren’t used to working remote and are in a rush to enable remote access services and doing that without the knowledge and proper protections,” Buchanan says. “That creates the vulnerable environment for the attackers to go after. And that’s what they’re focused on.”

In some instances, employees who are working remotely are forced to use their home computers because they don’t have a company laptop. “[With s]ome clients of ours, not [every employee] has a company-issued laptop to take home,” says Shawn Connors, a principal in PwC’s cybersecurity and privacy practice.

In that scenario, the employee may have to use a home computer that is operating outside of the bank’s security framework. The bank’s challenge is to understand “what information is potentially leaving the confines of the organization, where is it going and do those machines that are accessing or manipulating that data, are they at the corporate standard of what one would expect to put into appropriately managed cyber risk?” Connors says.

Larger banks generally have had less trouble meeting the demands of a distributed workforce because they have a more robust technology infrastructure to begin with, as well as more employees working from remote locations. Many smaller banks, on the other hand, have been challenged by the sudden shift to a work-from-home policy.

“We have definitely had a number of clients where, not only is the capacity not there, but they have a security concern on top of it because they don’t have control of the device that’s actually going to be accessing data in these corporate environments,” Connors says. “Overnight, some really bad hygiene practices have been put back in place, just because they got caught flat-footed.”

For its part, Atlantic Union has been able to handle the sudden shift to a distributed workforce in stride. “It hasn’t had too much of an impact on us because we already had a large number of laptop users with the right security protections on those laptops,” says Buchanan. “So really, it was just a slight tuning adjustment to scale up that coverage and keeping a close eye on the increased load on the VPN infrastructure.”

Buchanan has sent out communications reminding employees who are working from home that they are required to use the bank’s VPN and must abide by restrictions such as a prohibition against printing out documents at home.

There has also been a surge in video conferencing, which may not be the most secure communications platform for sensitive meetings. “The biggest risk is if you’re having a confidential conversation and someone eavesdrops on that call, and they’re eavesdropping on that confidential conversation,” Buchanan says. “If you’ve turned on the security settings, which means turning on the password and all the encryption settings, it increases the security of the call. And if you don’t recognize someone and you can’t figure out who it is, then you should assume the call has been compromised and either kick that connection off or change calls.”

The Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an industry consortium focused on cybersecurity, offers home security resources for institutions that are managing a distributed workforce.

Directors’ Defense Against the Pandemic Impact on Credit

Bank directors and management teams must prepare themselves and their institution for the potential for an economic crisis due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This preparation process is different than how they would manage credit issues in more traditional economic downturns; traditional credit risk management tools and techniques may not apply or be as effective. Directors and others in bank management may need to consider new alternatives and act quickly and deliberately if they are going to be successful during this very difficult time.

The traditional three lines of defense against quickly elevating credit risk may not work to prevent the credit impact of the new coronavirus and its consequences. The “horse is out of the barn” and no existing, normal risk management system can prevent some level of losses. This pandemic is the proverbial black swan.

The real questions now are how can banks prepare to deal with the related issues and problems?

Some institutions are likely to be better prepared, including those with:

  • A strong capital base.
  • Good, conservative allowance reserve levels.
  • Realistic credit risk assessments and portfolio ratings prior to the pandemic.
  • Are poised to take part in a potential acquisition.
  • A good strategic approach that is not materially swayed by quarterly earning pressures.
  • A management and board that “tells it like it is” and is realistic.
  • Good relationship with regulators, CPA firms, professionals and investors.

What are a bank’s options when trying to assess and manage the pandemic’s impact?

  • Deny the problem and kick the can down the road.
  • Wait for the government and regulators to provide solutions or a playbook for the problems.
  • Sell the bank — most likely at a big discount if at all.
  • Liquidate the bank, likely only after expending capital, with assistance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
  • Be proactive and put in place processes to deal with the problem and consequences.

There are some steps a bank can take to be proactive:

  • Identify emerging and potential problems and the options to handle them, and then create a plan that is strategic, operational and provides the best financial result.
  • Commit to doing what’s right for the bank, its employees, customers and community.
  • Enhance or replace the current credit risk management system with a robust identification, measurement, monitoring, control and reporting program.
  • Adopt an “all hands-on deck” to improve focus and deal with material issues in a priority order, deferring things that do not move the needle.
  • Assess internal resources and consider moving qualified personnel into areas that require more focus.
  • Seek outside professional assistance, if needed, such as loan workout or portfolio analysis and planning.
  • Perform targeted reviews of portfolio segments that are or may become challenged because of the pandemic and potential fallout, along with others may have had weaker risk profiles before the pandemic.
  • Communicate the issues such as the magnitude of the financial challenge to employees, the market, regulators, CPAs and other professionals who provide risk management services to your bank.
  • Deal with problems head-on and decisively to maintain credibility and respect from various constituencies while achieving a superior result.

It is best for everyone in the bank to work together and act quickly, thoughtfully, honestly and strategically. There will, of course, be some expected and understood need in the short term for increases in allowance provisioning. If planning and actions are executed well, the long-term results will improve the bank’s performance and enhance its credibility with the market, regulators and all other professionals. Just as valuable as an outcome is that your bank’s reputation will be enhanced with your employees, who will be proud to have been part of the effort during these difficult times.

A Bank Board’s Role During a Pandemic

Don’t just sit there — do  something!

This is probably the normal emotional reaction of many bank directors as the COVID-19 pandemic consumes large chunks of the U.S. economy, possibly putting their institutions at risk if the crisis leads to a deep and enduring recession.

The role of the board, even in a crisis of this magnitude, is still to provide oversight rather than manage. The board’s role doesn’t change during a crisis, but certainly the governance process must become more focused and strategic, the pace of deliberations must quicken and communication becomes even more important.

Bank boards are ultimately responsible for the safety and soundness of their institutions. While senior management devotes their full attention to running the bank during a time of unprecedented economic turmoil, the board should be looking ahead to anticipate what might come next.

“I think the challenge for [directors] is to gauge the creeping impact on their bank over the next few months,” says James McAlpin, who heads up the banking practice at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Atlanta. “The board’s role is oversight … but I believe that in certain times — and I think this is one of them — the oversight role takes on a heightened importance and the board needs to focus on it even more.”

Many economists expect the U.S. economy to tip into a recession, so every board needs to be looking at the key indicia of the health of their bank in relation to its loan portfolio. “I’ve spoken to a few CEOs and board members over the past couple of weeks where there are active conversations going on about benchmarks over the next few months,” says McAlpin. “‘If by, say, the end of April, certain events have occurred or certain challenges have emerged, this is what we’ll do.’ In other words, there’s pre-planning along the lines of, ‘If things worsen, what should be our response be?’”

This is not the first banking crisis that David Porteous, the lead director at Huntington Bancshares, a $109 billion regional bank in Columbus, Ohio, has lived through. Porteous served on the Huntington board during the previous banking crisis, recruiting a new executive management team and writing off hundreds of millions of dollars in bad loans. That experience was instructive for what the bank faces now.

Porteous says one of the board’s first steps during the current crisis should be to take an inventory of the available “assets” among its own members. Are there directors whose professional or business experience could be helpful to the board and management team as they work through the crisis together?

Communication is also crucial during a crisis. Porteous says that boards should be communicating more frequently and on a regular schedule so directors and senior executives can organize their own work flow efficiently. Given the social distancing restrictions that are in effect throughout most of the country, these meetings will have to occur over the phone or video conferencing.

“You may have meetings normally on a quarterly or monthly basis, but that simply is not enough,” Porteous says. “You need to have meetings in between those. What we have found at Huntington that served us very well in 2008 and 2009 and is serving us well now, we have set a time — the same day of the week, the same time of the day, every other week — where there’s a board call. So board members can begin to build their plans around that call.”

Porteous says the purpose of these calls is for select members of the management team to provide the board with updates on important developments, and the calls should be “very concise, very succinct” and take “an hour or less.”

Porteous also suggests that either the board’s executive committee or a special committee of the board should be prepared to convene on short notice, either virtually or over the phone, if a quick decision is required on an important matter.

C. Dallas Kayser, the non-executive chairman at City Holding Co., a $5 billion regional bank headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia, says that when the pandemic began to manifest itself in force, the board requested reports from all major divisions within the bank. “The focus was to have everybody drill down and tell us exactly how they’re responding to customers and employees,” he says. Like Porteous at Huntington, Kayser has asked the board’s executive committee to be available to meet on short notice. The full board, which normally meets once a month, is also preparing to meet telephonically more often.

As board chair, Kayser says he feels a special responsibility to support the bank’s chief executive officer, Charles “Skip” Hageboeck. “I’ve been in constant conversations with Skip,” he says. “I know that he’s stressed. Everyone is, in this situation.” Being a CEO during a crisis can be a lonely experience.  “I recognize that, and I’ve made myself available for discussions with Skip 24/7, whenever he needs to bounce anything off of me,” Kayser says.

One of the things that every board will learn during a crisis is the strength of its culture. “The challenges that we all face in the banking industry are unprecedented, and it really becomes critical now for all directors, as well as the senior leadership of the organizations that they oversee, to work together,” says Porteous. One sign of a healthy board culture is transparency, where neither side holds back information from the other. “You should have that all the time, but it’s even more critical during a crisis. Management and the board have got to have a completely open and transparent relationship.”