Banking’s Vaccine Dilemma

David Findlay has witnessed several crises over his 37-year banking career, but he says the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most challenging — one that continues to redefine what it means to be a good employer.

“We took a very protective stance of our entire workforce,” says Findlay, the CEO of $6 billion Lakeland Financial Corp., based in Warsaw, Indiana. Lakeland’s subsidiary, Lake City Bank, has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health department guidance to sanitize branches, and closed lobbies as needed. Around one-third of employees worked remotely.

These early decisions were easy, Findlay adds. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19 has resulted in a new dilemma, due to “divisions between those [who] believe in the efficacy of the vaccine,” he says, “and those [who] don’t.”

Righting the economic ship has long hinged on successfully defeating the coronavirus through the development and broad adoption of one or — as came to pass — multiple vaccines. “Ultimately, the economic recovery depends on success in getting the pandemic under control, and vaccinations are critical to our ability to accomplish that,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee in March.

Like all businesses, vaccinations allow banks to safely reopen branches and repatriate staff into offices. All three of the Covid-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are currently authorized for emergency use by the Federal Drug Administration; some Americans say they won’t get vaccinated until they receive full approval by the FDA.

In early May, Lakeland rolled out an organization-wide vaccination program, updating employees about Covid-19 cases, quarantines and vaccination efforts for the organization. Employees have had access to an on-site vaccination clinic, and the bank pays a $100 bonus to each vaccinated employee, with another $100 to the nonprofit of their choice.

The program was retroactive, so the roughly 40% of employees who were already fully vaccinated were rewarded, too. As of June 10, half of the bank’s employees reported that they had been vaccinated, which compares favorably to Indiana’s population, at 39%, and 30% for Lakeland’s home base in Kosciusko County.

We have made it clear that this is a personal choice and that we must all respect each other, regardless of [our] position on the vaccine,” says Findlay. “It has been a challenging 17 months, and we must all stick together so our culture can survive the pandemic.”

Carrots, not sticks, also drive the vaccination program at Pinnacle Financial Partners. “This is a personal decision, it’s a medical decision, so we don’t want to cross that line,” says Sarae Janes Lewis, director of associate and client experience at the $35 billion bank.

Pinnacle started communicating the benefits of the vaccine in December 2020 — around the time that the FDA first approved emergency use for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It started its incentive program in March, after the vaccine became more broadly available. Employees get time off to get vaccinated — a half day per shot — and receive a $250 gift card to spend as they like. “We wanted to make the amount enough to incentivize people,” says Lewis, “but we didn’t want it to be so much that it felt like someone who had not made that decision yet would feel overly pressured.” Pinnacle includes a thank-you note with each gift card.

And they’re promoting the upsides of getting vaccinated. Vaccinated employees aren’t required to wear a mask, for example; those who haven’t yet gotten the vaccine are asked to mask up. Pinnacle isn’t policing its employees’ mask use.

When Lewis and I spoke, 64% of Pinnacle’s associates reported to the bank that they were fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s well ahead of the bank’s hometown of Nashville, at 44%, and home state of Tennessee, where roughly one-third of eligible individuals are fully vaccinated. An employee survey revealed that many of Pinnacle’s employees who are hesitant may reconsider once one or more of the vaccines receive full FDA approval. When that happens, Lewis says that the bank may ramp up communications again, and incentives will remain in place.

This high vaccination rate — and understanding the vaccination status of its employees — has helped Pinnacle reopen locations and get a little closer to normal operations. “If there does happen to be an exposure, we’re not having to close offices anymore,” Lewis says. “It’s been pretty amazing to have that stability.”

Lake City and Pinnacle both boast above-average vaccination rates compared to their communities, but they’re still below President Joe Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to be partially or fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July. So, should banks help close this gap by requiring that employees get vaccinated?

Companies can do that, according to guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was updated in late May.

Adam Maier, a partner at the law firm Stinson LLP, believes banks like Pinnacle and Lake City, that focus on education and modest incentives, have the right approach. The EEOC guidance is “fraught with uncertainties,” he adds. “It’s such a tightrope to be walking to mandate vaccines and also make sure you’re not doing it on a discriminatory basis, or with a discriminatory outcome.” Companies still must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy or national origin. Incentives also can’t be coercive.

Both Lake City and Pinnacle emphasize their respect for employee choice, and that appears to be a consistent theme for the industry. Bank of America Corp. CEO Brian Moynihan was asked in the company’s April shareholder call if the board would “commit to not coercing our employees into getting the COVID vaccine.” Moynihan responded that the bank emphasized communication and education — and the right for each employee to come to their own decision.

The megabank asks employees to update their vaccination status through an online portal. Requesting an employee’s vaccine status — confidentially — is clearly permitted by the guidance, Maier confirms.

“Whatever your approach is, just try to be respectful,” advises Maier. “Be reasonable and rational, and don’t get caught up in any individual employee’s decision.”

The Community Bank Advantage to Helping Small Businesses Recover

While the Covid-19 vaccination rollout is progressing steadily and several portions of the country are making steps toward reopening and establishing a new normal, it is still too early to gauge how many small businesses will survive the pandemic’s impacts.

In a 2020 study of small firms by McKinsey & Co., it was initially estimated between 1.4 million to 2.1 million of the country’s 31 million small businesses could fail because of the events experienced in 2020 and 2021. However, a more recent report from the Federal Reserve revealed that bankruptcies during 2020 were not as bad as originally feared — with around 200,000 more business failures than average. Simply put, the true impact of the pandemic’s interruptions cannot be known until later this year or even next.

A PwC study on bankruptcy activity across the broader business sectors reveals which industries were impacted the most. Of the bankruptcies in 2020 where total obligations exceeded $10 million, retail and consumer sectors led the way, followed by energy and real estate. Together, these three sectors accounted for 63% of all bankruptcies.

Reimagining Small Business Success
While a lack of revenue has been the most critical issue for small business owners, they are also suffering from other challenges like a lack of time and guidance. Business owners have faced tremendous pressure to meet local and national guidelines and restrictions around interacting with the public, many even having to transform their business models to reach customers remotely. Such burdens often leave business owners meeting operational needs during nights and weekends.

This creates a timely opportunity for community banks to better support business customers’ recovery from this period of economic stress. Financial instituions can provide anytime, anywhere access to their accounts and financial tools, more-effective cash flow management capabilities and personalized digital advisory services to meet evolving needs. These tailored services can be supported with personal digital support to revitalize the service and relationships that have always been a competitive advantage of community institutions.

Putting Humans at the Center
A 2021 study by Deloitte’s Doblin revealed five ways financial services firms can support their business customers post-pandemic, including demonstrate that they know the customer, help them save time, guide them with expertise, prepare them for the unexpected and share the same values. These findings provide insight into how business owners prefer to bank and what they look for in a bank partner. In fact, 62% of small businesses were most interested in receiving financial advice from their financial institutions.

The Doblin study goes on to explore the activities that institutions can engage in to better serve the small business marketplace. Top findings included enabling an easier lending journey, investing in innovative, digital-led initiatives and offering personalized, context-rich engagement. These areas have been priorities for community banks, and the pandemic has accelerated the timeline for adopting a strong digital strategy. Compared to competitors including national banks, digital banks and nontraditional players, community banks are uniquely positioned to help local businesses recover by combining digital solutions with services that center the human connections within the banking relationship.

As business owners look to finance their road to recovery, it’s been repeatedly shown that they prefer a relationship lender who understands their holistic financial picture and can connect them to the right products, rather than shopping around. Business owners want a trusted partner who uses technology to make things easy and convenient and is available to talk in their moments of need. The best financial technologies strengthen human connections during the process of fulfilling transactions. These technologies automate redundant tasks and streamline workflows to reduce the mundane and maximize the meaningful interactions. When done right, this strategy creates an enhanced borrower experience as well as happier, more productive bank employees.

There’s a clear sense that the events of 2020 and 2021 will permanently shape the delivery of financial services, as well as the expectations of small business owners. The year has been a crisis-induced stress test for how technology is used; more importantly, how that technology can be improved in the months and years ahead. The pandemic, as challenging and destructive at it has been, generated a significant opportunity to reimagine the future, including the ways bankers and small businesses interact. Those community institutions that take the lessons learned and find ways to build and maintain human relationships within digital channels will be well positioned to serve their communities and succeed.

Risk Practices For Today’s Economy

Organizations’ ability to strategically navigate change proved crucial during the Covid-19 pandemic, which required financial institutions to respond to a health and economic crisis. The resiliency of bank teams proved to be a silver lining in 2020, but banks can’t take their eye off the ball just yet.

Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP,  focuses on the key risks facing banks today and how the industry will emerge from the pandemic environment. In this video, Craig Sanders, a partner in the financial services practice at Moss Adams, shares his perspective and expertise on these issues.

  • Managing Credit Uncertainty
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  • Cybersecurity Today

A Lending Platform Prepared for Pandemic Pitfalls

Managing a loan portfolio requires meticulous review, careful documentation and multiple levels of signoff.

That can often mean tedious duplication and other labor-intensive tasks that tie up credit administration staffers. So, when Michael Bucher, chief credit officer at Lawton, Oklahoma-based Liberty National Bank, came across a demonstration of Teslar Software’s portfolio management system, he couldn’t believe it. The system effortlessly combined the most labor-intensive and duplicative processes of loan management, stored documents, tracked exceptions and generated reports that allowed loan and credit officers to chart trends across borrowers. The $738 million bank signed a contract at the end of 2019 and began implementation in February 2020.

That was fortuitous timing.

Teslar Software’s partnership with institutions like Liberty National, along with its efforts to assist banks and borrowers with applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, earned it the top spot in the lending category in Bank Director’s 2021 Best of FinXTech Awards. Finalists included Numerated — a business loan platform that was another outperformer during the PPP rollout — and SavvyMoney, which helps banks and credit unions offer pre-qualified loans through their digital channels. You can read more about Bank Director’s awards methodology and judging panel here.

Prior to implementing Teslar Software, Liberty National used a standalone platform to track every time a loan didn’t meet the bank’s requirements. It was an adequate way to keep track of loan exceptions when the bank was smaller, but it left him wondering if it would serve the bank’s needs as it continued to grow. The old platform didn’t communicate with the bank’s Fiserv Premier core, which meant that when the bank booked a new loan, a staffer would need to manually input that information into the system. The bank employed one person full-time to keep the loan tracking system up-to-date, reconcile it with the core and upload any newly cleared exceptions on various loans.

Bucher says it was immediately apparent that Teslar Software offered efficiency gains. Its system can integrate with several major cores and is refreshed daily. It collects documentation that different areas within the bank, like commercial loan officers and credit administration staff, can access, allows the bank to set loan exceptions, clears them and finalizes the documentation so it can be imaged and stored in the correct location. Staffers that devoted an entire day to cumbersome reconciliation tasks now spend a few hours reviewing documentation.

Bucher was also impressed by the fintech’s approach to implementation and post-launch partnership. The bank is close enough to Teslar Software’s headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas, that founder and CEO Joe Ehrhardt participated in the bank’s implementation kickoff. Teslar Software’s team is comprised of former bankers who leveraged that familiarity in designing the user’s experience. Between February and June of 2020, the earliest months of the coronavirus pandemic, Teslar Software built the loan performance reports that Liberty National needed, and made sure the core and platform communicated correctly. Weekly calls ensured that implementation was on track and the reports populated the correct data.

Teslar Software’s platform went live at Liberty National in June — missing the bulk of the bank’s first-round PPP loan issuance. But Teslar Software partnered with Jill Castilla, CEO of Citizens Bank of Edmond, and tech entrepreneur and NBA Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to power a separate website called PPP.bank, a free, secure resource for multiple banks to serve PPP borrowers.

“Teslar Software came to the rescue when they provided their Paycheck Protection Program application tool to all community banks during a period of extreme uncertainty for small businesses due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Castilla says in a statement to Bank Director. “The partnership we forged with them and Mark Cuban was a game changer for so many that were in distress.”

And Liberty National was able to use Teslar Software’s platform to create and process forgiveness applications for the 500 first-round PPP loans it made. Bucher says the forgiveness application platform is similar to the tax preparation software TurboTax — it breaks the complex application down into digestible sections and prompts borrowers to submit required documents to a secure portal. The bank needs only one employee to review these applications.

“We had such a good experience with the forgiveness side that for PPP in 2021, we partnered with them to handle the front end and the back end of PPP [application],” he says. “It’s now all centralized within Teslar so that when we move on to forgiveness, everything is going to be there. I’m expecting the next round of forgiveness to go a lot smoother than the previous round.”

Outside of PPP, Teslar Software has allowed Liberty National’s credit administration team to manage its current workload, even as staffing decreased from 10 people to six. Instead of taking a full day to review and verify loan exceptions, it takes only a few hours. Bucher says the bank is exploring an expanded relationship with the fintech to add additional workflow modules that would reduce duplication and eliminate the use of email to share documents.

Fraud Attempts on the Rise Since Pandemic’s Start

As Covid-19 passes its one year anniversary in the United States, businesses are still adjusting to the pandemic’s impacts on their industry.

Banking is no exception. While banks have quickly adjusted to new initiatives like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, the most notable impact to financial institutions has been the demand for online capabilities. Banks needed to adjust their offerings to ensure they didn’t lose their client base.

“ATM activity is up, drive-through banking is up 10% to 20% and deposits made through our mobile app are up 40%,” said Dale Oberkfell, president and CFO of Midwest Bank Centre last June.

The shift to digital account openings has been drastic. The chart below looks at the percent change in cumulative number of evaluations from 2019 to 2020 for a cohort of Alloy customers, limited to organizations that were clients for both years. Since the onset of the pandemic, digital account opening has increased year-over-year by at least 25%.

Although the shift to digital was necessary to meet consumer demands, online banking opens up the possibility of new types of fraud. To study the pandemic’s impact on fraudulent applications, we took a closer look at changes in consumer risk scores since the onset of the pandemic. Similar to credit scores, risk scores predict the likelihood of identity or synthetic fraud based on discrepancies in information provided, behavioral characteristics and consortium data about past fraud activity.

Comparing the pandemic months of March 2020 to December 2020 to the same period in 2019, Alloy clients saw a dramatic rise in high-risk applications. Total high-risk applications increased by 137%, driven both by overall growth in digital application volume and a comparatively riskier population of applicants.

There are several ways for you to protect your organization against this growing threat. One way is to use multiple data sources to create a more holistic understanding of your applicants and identify risky behaviors. It also ensures that you are not falling victim to compromised data from any one source. It’s a universal best practice; Alloy customers use, on average, at least 4 data sources.

Another way for you to protect your institution is by using an identity decisioning platform to understand and report on trends in your customer’s application data. Many data providers will return the values that triggered higher fraud scores, such as email and device type. An identity decisioning platform can store that data for future reference. So, even if a risky application is approved at onboarding, you can continue to monitor it throughout its lifetime with you.

Digital banking adoption and usage is expected to only increase in the future. Banks need to ensure that their processes for online capabilities are continuously improving. If your organization is spending too much time running manual reviews or using an in-house technology, it may be time for an upgrade. Click here to see how an identity decisioning platform can improve your process and help you on-board more legitimate customers.

A New Look at Problem Loan Management

Regardless of how you describe 2020, change was the common theme.

Not only did the coronavirus pandemic and economic contaction in 2020 change the way the banking industy identifies problem loans, it changed the way it approaches them. As 2020 unfolded, CLA continued to encourage institutions to evaluate policies and procedures, given that most were written for normal operating environments. A problem loan is a credit that cannot be repaid according to the terms of the initial agreement, or in an otherwise acceptable manner. In a time when payment deferrals and modifications are numerous and widespread, and government-assisted credit is necessary, how does problem loans identification change?

Risk Identification
The first step in problem loan management (PLM) is an effective risk identification program, which includes proper monitoring and continually applying appropriate risk ratings. Management teams can use internal reviews performed periodically or annually to assist with early risk detection.

Monitoring
Frequent monitoring of the portfolio remains one of the critical pillars of PLM. This requires collecting updated financials and information to monitor the wherewithal of the borrower, guarantor and related entities on a standalone and combined basis. Increased monitoring is warranted, especially for vulnerable industries.

Resources
Who leads your bank’s PLM program? Many lenders have not been exposed to a PLM process, or have not been in the industry long enough to experience an economic downturn. The art of PLM involves objective parties, including a group independent of the loan officer, to manage the loans effectively.

Evaluation of performance
Financials for 2020 will include unusual items, and completing year-over-year comparisons will require eliminating “extraordinary” items. For example, removing funds received through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program will be essential to ascertain and review the performance of core operations. Banks will need to consider how a borrower’s core performance would have met the requirements of the original loan terms without modifications. It is pertinent to remove these items and evaluate how the borrower is functioning at its core.

Action plans
The routine nature of completing a quarterly problem loan action report deserves a new look. Banks of all sizes must address problem loans and develop plans to mitigate exposure. Action plans are a way for management to track and document each borrower’s circumstances and next steps to reduce credit risk exposure.

Problem Loan Action Plan Considerations

  • Borrower identification and history — Identify the obligor(s) (direct and indirect), ownership composition, type of business, underlying debt(s), and operational changes over the past few years or as a result of COVID-19.
  • Communication — If the borrower remains communicative, address commitments made, if any, and all legal correspondence.
  • Financial analysis — Update financial information with a look at historical trend on standalone and global basis and impact of COVID-19.
  • Repayment history — Review payment status, including any late payments or 30/60/90-day history. Discuss modifications.
  • Collateral valuation and analysis — Evaluate need for updated values given changes in market, property type, or other pertinent factors.
  • Risk rating — Consider current and recommended risk rating changes, if any.
  • Impairment analysis — Clearly document the analysis or testing for impairment to support quarterly Allowance for Loan and Lease Losses analysis.
  • Progress update — Address actionable items from the last review. Is workout plan effective?
  • Next steps — Detail steps the borrower and institution will take to improve the status of the loan. Establish clear and quantifiable objectives and timeframes for both parties and document results as the plan progresses.

The information contained herein is general in nature and is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal, accounting, investment, or tax advice or opinion provided by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CliftonLarsonAllen) to the reader. For more information, visit CLAconnect.com.

CLA exists to create opportunities for our clients, our people, and our communities through our industry-focused wealth advisory, outsourcing, audit, tax, and consulting services. Investment advisory services are offered through CliftonLarsonAllen Wealth Advisors, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor.

Strengthening Stress Tests After Covid-19

Banks below $50 billion in assets aren’t required to conduct an annual stress test, following regulatory relief passed by Congress in May 2018. But most banks still conduct one or more annual tests, according to Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey.

A stress test determines whether a bank would have adequate capital or liquidity to survive an adverse event, based on historical or hypothetical scenarios. Financial institutions found value in the practice through the Covid-19 pandemic and related economic events, which created significant uncertainty around credit — particularly around commercial real estate loans and loans made to the hospitality sector, which includes hotels and restaurants.

“It gives you a peace of mind that we are prepared for some pretty big disasters,” says Craig Dwight, chair and CEO at $5.9 billion Horizon Bancorp, based in Michigan City, Indiana. Horizon disclosed its stress test results in third quarter 2020 to reassure its investors, as well as regulators, customers and its communities, about the safety and soundness of the bank. “We were well-capitalized, even under two-times the worst-case scenario,” he says. “[T]hat was an important message to deliver.”

Horizon Bancorp has been stress testing for years now. The two-times worst case scenario he mentions refers to loss history data from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency; the bank examines the worst losses in that data, and then doubles those losses in a separate analysis. Horizon also looks at its own loan loss history.

The bank includes other data sets, as well. Dwight’s a big fan of the national and Midwest leading indicators provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago; each of those include roughly 18 indicators. “It takes into consideration unemployment, bankruptcy trends, the money supply and the velocity of money,” he says.

It’s a credit to the widespread adoption of stress testing in the years following the financial crisis of 2008-09. “All the infrastructure’s in place, so [bank management teams] can turn on their thinking fairly quickly, and [they] aren’t disconnected [from] what’s happening in the world,” says Steve Turner, managing director at Empyrean Solutions, a technology provider focused on financial risk management.

However, Covid-19 revealed the deficiencies of an exercise that relies on historical data and economic models that didn’t have the unexpected — like a global pandemic — in mind. In response, 60% of survey respondents whose bank conducts an annual stress test say they’ve expanded the quantity and/or depth of economic scenarios examined in this analysis.

“We have tested pandemics, but we really haven’t tested a shutdown of the economy,” says Dwight. “This pandemic was unforeseen by us.”

Getting Granular
The specific pain points felt by the pandemic — which injured some industries and left others thriving — had banks getting more granular about their loan portfolios. This should continue, says Craig Sanders, a partner at Moss Adams LLP. Moss Adams sponsored Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey.

Sanders and Turner offer several suggestions of how to strengthen stress testing in the wake of the pandemic. “[D]issect the portfolio … and understand where the risks are based on lending type or lending category,” says Sanders. “It’s going to require the banks to partner a little more closely with their clients and understand their business, and be an advisor to them and apply some data analytics to the client’s business model.” How will shifting behaviors affect the viability of the business? How does the business need to adjust in response?

He recommends an annual analysis of the entire portfolio, but then stratifying it based on the level of risk. High risk areas should be examined more frequently. “You’re focusing that time, energy and capital on the higher-risk areas of the bank,” says Sanders.

The survey finds two-thirds of respondents concerned about overconcentrations in their bank’s loan portfolio, and 43% of respondents worried specifically about commercial real estate loan concentrations. This represents a sharp — but expected — increase from the prior year, which found 78% expressing no concerns about portfolio concentrations.

We’re still not out of the woods yet. Many companies are now discussing what their workplace looks like in the new environment, which could have them reducing office spaces to accommodate remote workers. If a bank’s client has a loan on an office space, which they then rent to other businesses, will they be able to fill the building with new tenants?

If this leads to defaults in 2021-22, then banks need to understand the value of any loan collateral, says Sanders. “Is the collateral still worth what we think it was worth when we wrote the loan?”

It’s hard to predict the future, but Sanders says executives and boards need to evaluate and discuss other long-term effects of the pandemic on the loan portfolio. Today’s underlying issues may rise to the surface in the next couple of years.

Knowing What Will Break Your Bank
Stress testing doesn’t tend to focus on low-probability events — like the pandemic, which (we hope) will prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Turners says bank leaders need to bring a broader, more strategic focus to events that could “break” their bank. That could have been the pandemic, without the passage of government support like the CARES Act.

It’s a practice called reverse stress testing.

Reverse stress testing helps to explore so-called ‘break the bank’ situations, allowing a banking organization to set aside the issue of estimating the likelihood of severe events and to focus more on what kinds of events could threaten the viability of the banking organization,” according to guidance issued by the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and OCC in 2012. The practice “helps a banking organization evaluate the combined effect of several types of extreme events and circumstances that might threaten the survival of the banking organization, even if in isolation each of the effects might be manageable.”

Statistical models that rely on historical norms are less useful in an unforeseen event, says Turner. “[I]f someone told you in February of 2020 that you should be running a stress test where the entire economy shuts down, you’d say, ‘Nah!’” he says. “What are the events, what are the scenarios that could happen that will break me? And that way I don’t have to rely on my statistical models to explore that space.”

Testing for black swan events that are rare but can have devastating consequences adds another layer to a bank’s stress testing approach, says Turner. These discussions deal in hypotheticals, but they should be data driven. And they shouldn’t replace statistical modeling around the impact of more statistically normal events on the balance sheet. “It’s not, ‘what do we replace,’” says Turner, “but, ‘what do we add?’”

With stress testing, less isn’t more. “My advice is to run multiple scenarios, not just one stress test. For me, it’s gotta be the worst-case stress test,” says Dwight. And stress testing can’t simply check a box. “Can you sleep at night with that worst case scenario, or do you have a plan?”

Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP, 188 independent directors, chief executive officers, chief risk officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $50 billion in assets. The survey was conducted in January 2021, and focuses on the key risks facing the industry today and how banks will emerge from the pandemic environment.

Bank Director has published several recent articles and videos about stress testing, including an Online Training Series unit on stress testing. You may also consider reading “Recalibrating Bank Stress Tests to a New Reality.”

Digital Transformation From a Branch Perspective

If you ask five bankers to define what constitutes a successful digital transformation, you will receive five different answers. However, organizations can employ a few measures to help them succeed, including establishing priorities, assessing capabilities and creating a digital road map.

Meeting current challenges
Many financial institutions were in no rush to transform prior to March 2020. However, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the implementation of digital-first models. It also put pressure on organizations to battle-test alternative business models supporting remote operations and service delivery. Most notably, banks had to activate remote working models while simultaneously figuring out how to service and support face-to-face customers.

Now in 2021, the initial challenges posed by the pandemic have mostly been addressed. At the same time, bankers acknowledge that branch traffic levels might never recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Establishing priorities
First, organizations should establish priorities. The average mid-size, full-service retail office has annual operating expenses exceeding $350,000 a year — real money that could be repurposed to build a competitive digital service. Unleashing this capital and using it more effectively is key to initiating an effective digital transformation.

One initial objective should be to rank branch locations in terms of profitability and other performance metrics to identify the bottom 20%. In most cases, that percentage represents the locations that have been habitual low performers, or that might be in declining markets or suboptimal locations. It’s important to determine if these locations are leased, and if so, if there is a clear path to exit the lease. These details affect the timeline required to exit and any write-offs or write-downs related to each location.

Digital channels do not work in a vacuum. Experience tells us that community bankers do not like to lay off staff who live and work in these markets, and organizations should consider redeployment of these employees. Reassigned branch personnel can support new customers and existing users as they navigate organization websites and online product applications.

Once organizations understand the exit strategy and cost impact for low-performing locations, they can create plans that outline the timing and potential resources that could be freed up from physical branches and funneled into the digital channel.

Assessing capabilities
After determining the digital transformation budget, organizations should make an honest assessment of their existing capabilities and identify gaps or weaknesses. One goal should be to fix what is broken or not optimal, then prioritize the spend and deployment timeline for true enhancements.

Selecting digital enhancements involves many options, dependencies and complexities, which can slow down decision-making about digital transformation initiatives. Fixing obvious problems first and then investigating enhancements will take time, so organizations don’t need to close low-performing branches immediately.

Executives need to fully understand the features of potential enhancements, what is lacking from current capabilities, what is additive to current capabilities, enhancement release timelines and costs associated with each improvement. They also should consider the roll-out of these features and the impact on existing and future customers.

Creating a digital road map
Creating a digital road map can enable banks to set expectations about when changes to digital services will occur. Doing so requires honest introspection about where the organization is positioned on the digital transformation continuum.

For example, banks might think they have effective online account opening processes, but they should ask: Is it truly an automated, end-to-end process that works at all times under all conditions? Or do deposit operations personnel need to manually move data or paper along to make sure accounts can get set up? Organizations should fully understand where and how their existing customers might be affected, and where and how new customers will be serviced as they open accounts online.

While creating their digital road maps, banks also should take a look at the digital features they’ve already deployed. Are they useful and easy to adopt? Do they drive the user toward desired actions? Do the customers really use the available digital features? Are there benefits to users? If the answers to any of these questions is “no,” organizations should consider removing problematic features or improving processes.

Teeing up for success
Keeping tabs on customer usage trends and optimizing the customer experience should be top priorities in a digital transformation. Banks that make necessary changes can help improve the entire digital experience. To learn more about digital transformation from a branch perspective, view this video.

 

How Digital Channels Can Complement Physical Branches

With the rise of digital services and changing customer habits during Covid-19, the future of brick-and-mortar banking may seem in doubt.

Looking ahead, physical bank branches remain crucial for any community bank’s outreach and distribution strategy, but their use and purpose will continue to evolve. Digital acceleration is an opportunity for community banks to reshape the in-person banking environment. Incorporating the digital channel allows banks to offer more comprehensive, customer-focused experiences that complement their brick-and-mortar branches.

Physical Banks Remain a Valuable Asset
Digital banking is a critical way for community banks to provide excellent service. Integrating best-in-class online services allows financial institutions of all sizes to compete against larger banks that may be slower to innovate. Digital branch tools can bring greater accessibility and convenience for customers, a larger customer base and enhanced automation opportunities.

While many customers are excited by digital tools, not every demographic will adapt right away. Customers of all ages may lack confidence in their own abilities and prefer to talk to someone in person. These visits can be a prime opportunity for staff to educate customers on how to engage with their digital platforms.

In-person banking is an opportunity for banks to offer above-and-beyond customer service, especially for more complex services that are difficult to replicate digitally. An in-person conversation can make all the difference when it comes to major financial decisions, such as taking out a mortgage or other loans. Customers may start out with remote tools, then visit a branch for more in-depth planning.

How One Community Bank Is Evolving
Flushing Bank in Uniondale, New York, is using digital account opening software to accelerate growth. The $8 billion bank’s mobile and online banking capabilities went live in March 2020 — the timing of which allowed the bank to more easily serve customers remotely. Digital deposit account openings comprised 19% of Flushing’s customer growth between April and June.

Implementing digital account opening expanded Flushing Bank’s geographic footprint. The online account opening software allowed the existing branches to become more efficient and have a wider reach within the surrounding community, servicing more customers without building new branches.

At the same time, in-person branches and staff remain irreplaceable for Flushing Bank. The bank is leveraging digital tools as more than just an online solution: New technology includes appointment booking, improved phone services and enhance ATM video capabilities, creating a digital experience that is safe, convenient and delightful.

Transforming Brick-and-Mortar Banking for the Future
Digital tools allow more transactions to occur remotely, which may lessen in-person branch traffic while expanding the institution’s geographic reach. Banks can focus on the transactions that do occur in person, and ensure that digital tools improve customer service in branches.

A report from Celent and Reflexis surveying banks on their current strategies noted how more institutions could use digital tools for maximum effect. Just as digital channels offer comprehensive data analysis capabilities, banks can more effectively track each customer’s in-person journey as well. One starting point is to determine why customers visit physical locations — in one case, a bank learned many customers come in looking for a notary and will quickly leave if one is not available.

The report suggests that digital tools can automate their staff’s workflow, ultimately contributing to an improved customer experience. For instance, only a third of surveyed banks offer digital appointment booking, a service that can create a more efficient experience for both customers and staff. Or, banks could onboard customers with account opening software on tablets at physical branches. These tablets are often easier for customers to understand, lower the burden on staff, and help prevent fraud with thorough identity validation.

Community banks have an opportunity during this transitional time to develop a digital strategy that complements their physical branches. A comprehensive plan includes best-in-class digital tools for remote transactions while bringing new digital capabilities to brick-and-mortar locations to ensure the highest-quality customer service.

Positive Outlook for Bank M&A as the Pandemic Subsides

Will there be an acceleration of bank merger and acquisition activity in 2021 and beyond?

The short answer is yes.

As the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, we expect bank M&A activity to rebound, both in terms of branch and whole-bank acquisitions. Banks and their advisors have evolved since the pandemic’s onset forced office closures and the implementation of a new remote working environment. In the past year, institutions and their boards of directors improved technology and online banking capabilities in response to customer needs and expectations. They also gained substantial experience providing banking products and services in a remote environment. This familiarity with technology and remote operations should cause acquirors and sellers alike to reconsider where they stand in the M&A market in 2021 and beyond.

We see a number of factors supporting an improved M&A market in 2021. First, many acquirors and potential deals were sidelined in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic’s uncertainty setting in and the markets were in turmoil. We expect a number of these deals to be rekindled in mid- to late-2021, if they haven’t already resurfaced. We also expect a robust set of acquirors to return to the market looking to add deposits, retail and commercial customers, lending teams, and additional capabilities.

Second, there remains a growing number of small banks struggling to compete that would likely consider potential merger partners with similar cultures and in similar geographic markets. Similarly, risk management and compliance costs continue to challenge bank managers amid tough competition from community banks, credit unions and other non-bank financial institutions. Some small banks have also struggled to provide the digital offerings that have become commonplace since the pandemic began. These challenges are sure to have smaller banks considering merger partners or new investors.

Third, larger banks are looking to grow deposits and market share as they look to compete with more regional players that have the necessary compliance infrastructure and digital offerings. We expect these more regional players to use acquisition partners as a way to grow core deposits and increase efficiencies. Acquiring new deposits and customers also affords these regional banks the ability to cross-sell other products that smaller banks may not have been able to offer the same customers before — increasing revenue in a sustained low-interest rate environment.

Finally, the low-interest rate environment has opened the capital markets to banks of all sizes looking to raise subordinated debt, which may support community bank M&A. Many subordinated debt offerings are priced in the 4% to 5% range, and often are oversubscribed within just a few days. Banks have found these offerings to be an attractive tool to pay off debt with higher interest rates, fund investments in digital infrastructure, provide liquidity to shareholders through buyback programs and seek branch or whole-bank acquisition targets.

We are already seeing activity pick up in bank M&A, and expect that as the economy — and life itself — begins to normalize in 2021, more transactions to be announced. The prospects for an active merger market in 2020 were cut off before spring arrived. This year, as we approach spring once again, the M&A market is not likely to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the outlook is certainly much more optimistic for bank M&A.