Turning to Technology as Margins Shrink

It’s a perfect storm for bank directors and their institutions: Increasing credit risk, low interest rates and the corrosive effects of the coronavirus culminating into a squeeze on their margins.

The pressure on margins comes at the same time as directors contend with a fundamental new reality: Traditional banking, as we know it, is changing. These changes, and the speed at which they occur, mean directors are wrestling with the urgent task of helping their organizations adapt to a changing environment, or risk being left behind.

As books close on 2020 with a still-uncertain outlook, the most recent release of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s Quarterly Banking Profile underlines the substantial impact of low rates. For the second straight quarter, the average net interest margin at the nation’s banks dropped to its lowest reported level.

The data shows that larger financial institutions have felt the pain brought about by this low-rate environment first. But as those in the industry know, it is often only a matter of time until smaller institutions feel the more-profound effects of the margin contraction. The Federal Reserve, after all, has said it will likely hold rates at their current levels through 2023.

In normal times, banks would respond to such challenges by cutting expenses. But these are not normal times: Such strategies will simply not provide the same long-term economic benefits. The answer lies in technology. Making strategic investments throughout an organization can streamline operations, improve margins and give customers what they want.

Survey data bears this out. Throughout the pandemic, J.D. Power has asked consumers how they plan to act when the crisis subsides. When asked in April about how in-person interactions would look with a bank or financial services provider once the crisis was over, 46% of respondents said they would go back to pre-coronavirus behaviors. But only 36% of respondents indicated that they would go back to pre-Covid behaviors when asked the same question in September. Consumers are becoming much more likely to use digital channels, like online or mobile banking.

These responses should not come as a surprise. The longer consumers and businesses live and operate in this environment, the more likely their behaviors will change, and how banks will need to interact with them.

Bank directors need to assess how their organizations will balance profitability with long-term investments to ensure that the persistent low-rate environment doesn’t become a drag on revenue that creates a more-difficult operating situation in the future.

The path forward may be long and difficult, but one thing is certain: Banks that aren’t evaluating digital and innovative options will fall behind. Here are three key areas that we’ve identified as areas of focus.

  • Technology that streamlines the back office. Simply reducing headcount solves one issue in cost management, which is why strategic investments in streamlining, innovating and enhancing back-office processes and operations will become critical to any bank’s long-term success.
  • Technology that improves top-line revenues. Top-line revenue does not grow simply by making investments in back-office technologies, which is why executives must consider solutions that maximize efforts to grow revenues. These include leveraging data to make decisions and improving the customer experience in a way that allows banks to rely less on branches for growth.
  • Technology that promotes a new working environment. As banks pivoted to a remote environment, the adoption of these technologies will lead to a radically different working environment that makes remote or alternative working arrangements an option.

While we do not expect branch banking to disappear, we do expect it to change. And while all three technology investment alternatives are reasonable options for banks to adapt and survive in tomorrow’s next normal, it is important to know that failing to appropriately invest will lead to challenges that may be far greater than what are being experienced today.

Why Banks Should Focus on Financial Strength in 2021

Winston Churchill is credited with having famously stated, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” After a year of profound challenges on many fronts, there very much remains a crisis, causing especially deep financial turmoil for millions of unemployed Americans as a result Covid-19.

Many are undoubtedly feeling financial uncertainty, stress and fear. This crisis represents a singular opportunity for banks to earn and establish deep foundations of trust with customers navigating the murky waters of their financial stress. These efforts will garner a loyalty and connection that will bear incredible fruit in the future, as those customers come out of their own individual crises. Banks should earn this deep trust by making their customers’ financial strength an urgent, key focus in 2021.

Many financial institutions are tuned into this urgency, according to our ongoing original research into financial services. Our recent survey of 220 bankers at institutions spanning the financial industry showed that two of the most significant shifts in business objectives for 2021 are toward recognizing the urgency of digital experience and financial wellness tools.

These two initiatives go hand in hand, especially following a year of branch closures. People are increasingly looking for ways to get financial guidance directly on their phones. We’ve found that 84% of consumers use their mobile banking app at least weekly and 26% use it daily. By contrast, 83% of consumers say they go into a branch once a month or less — and a third say that they plan to visit bank branches less frequently than they did before the pandemic once it is over.

Put simply, your customers need and expect real-time financial guidance on their devices. Here are three ways to offer that:

1. Show People Where They Are Today
First, people need to know where they are currently — financially speaking. Offering a money experience that provides users with a 360-degree view of their accounts in one place is like  seeing the words “You Are Here” on a map. That alone can provide tremendous relief, especially if an individual sees that they are not too far from help.

The same is true for finances. People need clarity about their broad financial picture. They need to be able to quickly see how they’ve been doing, with transactions that are cleansed, categorized, and augmented — and then visualized simply. The days of manually documenting every single check from a checkbook are long gone; very few people have the time or patience to do that kind of work. To be competitive, people need you to do the work for them. It’s not about money management. It’s about a money experience.

2. Help Them Look Ahead
Second, people need to know where to go next. This experience should be a GPS for finances, detailing what true financial strength looks like and laying out general principles to get to that destination. This means that people should be able to quickly see their savings goals, receive recommendations on what route to take and quickly choose or simply confirm automatic funneling of money toward those specific goals, without having to pause their busy life.

3. Get Personal
Third, the money experience should also guide and protect users by offering personalized advice and warnings moment to moment — leading user toward what they need to do. This requires a foundational corpus of clean, enriched data coupled with powerful algorithms behind the scenes to even have a shot at offering an elegant, personalized experience. It is exactly the kind of money experience that will establish trust and build loyalty, especially from customers in dire need of it. This will also become more and more critical as customers desire going into a branch less and less.

Creating a money experience that follows these principles will help create a world where individuals are empowered to be financially strong, where fewer and fewer face personal financial crises.

For me, this mission is personal. I’ve taken an entrepreneurial approach to my career, bounding between exhilarating highs and anxiety-inducing lows. I’ve experienced four separate times where my income dropped to zero, and felt the overwhelming weight of trying to navigate my finances as a young husband and father. I empathize with anyone who feels that stress. Similarly, I can also empathize with the deep trust and lifetime loyalty that can be established when someone helped navigate out of those tough situations. This understanding motivates me to help banks and fintech companies offer a money experience that empowers true financial strength in 2021.

How Digital Transformation is Driving Bank M&A

Three large bank acquisitions announced in the closing quarter of 2020 may signal a fundamental shift in how a growing number of regional banks envision the future.

While each deal is its own distinct story, there is a common thread that ties them together: the growing demand for scale in an industry undergoing a technological transformation that accelerated during the pandemic. Even large regional banks are hard pressed to afford the kind of technology investments that will help them keep pace with mega-banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., which spend billions of dollars a year between them on their own digital transformation.

In October, First Citizens BancShares acquired New York-based CIT Group. Valued at $2.2 billion, the deal will create a top 20 U.S. bank with over $100 billion in assets, and combines the Raleigh, North Carolina-based bank’s low-cost retail funding base with CIT’s national commercial lending platform.

The two companies are a good strategic fit, according to H. Rodgin Cohen, the senior chair at Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented CIT. “If you look at it from CIT’s perspective, you can finance your loans at a much-cheaper cost,” says Cohen in an interview. “From a First Citizen perspective, you have the ability to use that incredible funding base for new categories of relatively higher-yielding loans.”

But digital transformation of banking was an underlying factor in this deal, as increasing numbers of customers shift their transactions to online and mobile channels. The fact that the pandemic forced most banks to close their branches for significant periods of 2020 only accelerated that trend.

“There is enormous pressure to migrate to a more digital technology-driven approach — in society as a whole — but particularly in banking,” Cohen says. “The key is to be able to spread that technology cost, that transformational cost, across the broadest possible customer base.  It doesn’t take a lot of direct savings on technology, simply by leveraging a broader customer base, to make a transaction of size really meaningful.”

A second scale-driven deal is PNC Financial Services Group’s $11.6 billion acquisition of BBVA USA, the U.S. arm of the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria. Announced in mid-November, the deal will extend Pittsburgh-based PNC’s retail and middle-market commercial franchise — now based in the Mid-Atlantic, South and Midwest — to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, with overlapping locations in Texas, Alabama and Florida. In a statement, PNC Chairman and CEO William Demchak said the acquisition provided the bank with the opportunity to “bring our industry-leading technology and innovative products and services to new markets and clients.”

The deal will create the fifth-largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $566 billion. But Demchak has made it clear in past statements that PNC needs to grow larger to compete in a consolidating industry dominated by the likes of JPMorgan and Bank of America.

Lastly, in a $6 billion deal announced in mid-December, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares is acquiring Detroit-based TCF Financial Corp. to form the tenth largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $170 billion. Chairman and CEO Stephen Steinour says the two companies are an excellent fit with similar cultures and strategies.

“It’s a terrific bank,” Steinour says in an interview. “I’ve known their chairman for a couple of decades. Many of our colleagues have friends there, or family members. We compete against them. We see how they operate. There’s a lot to like about what they’ve built.”

The acquisition will extend Huntington’s retail footprint to Minnesota, Colorado, Wisconsin and South Dakota, while deepening its presence in the large Chicago market. And with extensive overlapping operations in Michigan, Huntington expects the deal to yield approximately $490 million in cost saves, which is equivalent to 37% of TCF’s noninterest expense.

But this deal is predicated on much more than just anticipated cost saves, according to Steinour.

What Apple and Google and Amazon are doing is teaching people how to become digitally literate and creating expectations,” he says. “And our industry is going to have to follow that in terms of matching those capabilities. This combination is an opportunity to accelerate and substantially increase our digital investment. We have to do more, and we have to go faster, because our customers are going to expect it.”

Steinour hedges on if these recent deals also signal that banking is entering a new phase of consolidation, in which regionals pair off to get bigger in a new environment where scale matters. But last year’s $66 billion merger of BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. to form Truist Financial Corp. — currently the fifth-largest U.S. bank, although the post-merger PNC will drop it down a peg — was also driven by a perceived need for more scale. Senior executives at both companies said the primary impetus behind the deal was the ability to spread technology costs over a wider base.

But clearly, the need for scale was a factor for Huntington as well. “We’re investing heavily in this opportunity to combine two good companies, get a lot stronger, accelerate our investments and spread that over a much bigger customer base,” he says. “That makes eminent sense to us.”

As Steinour comments later, “We’ll be stronger together.”

Strategic Insights From Leading Bankers: First Financial Bankshares

Few banks have built value for their shareholders like Abilene, Texas-based First Financial Bankshares.

Over the 20-year period ending June 30, 2020 — the cut-off date for institutions featured in Bank Director’s 2021 RankingBanking study, sponsored by Crowe LLP — the $10.6 billion bank generated a 2,074% total shareholder return. That figure is second only to Bank OZK in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the entire banking industry. First Financial placed sixth overall in the study and earned top honors in the Best Bank for Creating Value category. It also rated highly for its retail strategy.

“They’re one of the best banks out there,” says Brett Rabatin, head of equity research at Hovde Group. First Financial’s culture, M&A track record and competitive strategy — delivering a high level of service in small-town markets — set it apart. “A lot of banks like to say, ‘we’re relationship lenders,’ [but] this is one of the few banks where it shows up. It shows up in their loan yield, it shows up in the profitability.”

To delve further into First Financial’s performance for the RankingBanking study, Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick interviewed First Financial Chairman and CEO Scott Dueser about the bank’s customer-centric philosophy, prospective M&A opportunities and how he leverages his Texas connections. The interview was conducted on Oct. 14, 2020, and has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: Based on my earlier reporting on First Financial and its culture, I know you have placed a strong cultural emphasis on building excellence and serving the customer. How does that differentiate First Financial from other institutions in its markets?

SD: I like to think of us as the Ritz-Carlton of banks because of what [Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. co-founder] Horst Schulze has done for us. Horst has been outstanding, not only [in] training us [on] customer service, but also as a mentor on business and dealing with people. Horst doesn’t call it hiring people; you select people and that changes your whole attitude about it. We have a very strong team of people that work together extremely well.

I’m disappointed if somebody leaves our bank and is not extremely happy. That’s what we want to accomplish every time somebody walks in.

Our philosophy of how we do business is very important to us, and adds to the bottom line and the value of our stock. That’s the fact that we’re not in the big city, we’re in the small towns around the big city, where we can be the big fish in the little pond and be the No. 1 bank. We’re not in the big cities fighting the big boys; that takes a lot of money and a lot of time, and it’s a battle that frankly, I don’t think we can win. Why not stay in the areas [where] we do well and focus on that? That’s been our focus, along with credit quality and going after the better customers in our markets. 

BD: Covid-19 has impacted how banks serve the customer. Has anything really shifted for your bank in that regard, or do you feel like the situation is proving your strategy out in a way?

SD: It’s proven the strategy out. I will tell you the best thing that we did was we never closed our doors. We stayed open, and we came to work every day, and we learned how to work through Covid and how to serve the customer [in that environment]. We got a lot of business from it, because when customers went to their bank and found it locked, they didn’t like it. Those banks that locked their doors lost a lot of business, because 33% of the [Paycheck Protection Program] loans that we made were somebody else’s customers. To do that, we asked [those customers] for all their business, and they moved all their business. We grew about a billion dollars through the pandemic.

We made the decision not to cut hours and not to lock our doors, but to be here. We split big departments [where] half the people went home, half the people stayed here, but everybody that was customer facing had to come to work. Our goal was to make the workplace the safest place our people could be. Frankly, today we still feel like the safest place to be is here at work. We’ve kind of managed Covid, not that we haven’t gotten it. We manage it by masking and social distancing, and don’t come to work if you feel bad. We don’t want you to work [then]. That’s kind of the main rules.

I have been on the governor’s task force to reopen Texas. That has helped me tremendously, because I knew the inside scoop of how the state was fighting Covid.

BD: You also had a hand in the Texas Tech Excellence in Banking program that opened in 2020. I assume you see some indirect benefits to keeping those types of networks and communication lines open.

SD: No question. The Excellence of Banking Program was something that I took to Tech and said, “We really need to do this. It will be great for Tech. It’ll be great for the banking industry.” We were able to raise $12 million to endow that program; that’s from foundations and banks. There were about 50 banks involved in that program that gave $1,000 and above.

What’s neat about this program is it is focused [on] bringing minorities and women into banking. That’s something that we really need. We had interns from that program here this summer, and I’m very impressed with the high level of students that we have. I think all the banks that have participated are impressed with the interns that they got out of it. We are hiring people out of that program as we speak. It’s a direct benefit to the bank, but also a direct benefit to my alma mater.

BD: Looking at your past few M&A deals, First Financial does an excellent job of keeping costs down. With pricing coming down, do you see some opportunities on the horizon?

SD: I think there’ll be lots of opportunities next year. I do think Covid has made a lot of people think about whether they want to stay in the industry or not, and whether they want to keep their bank. If they don’t have people lined up to run their bank, they probably need to put it on the market. I think we’ll see a lot of banks go on the market, especially from the fact that a lot of banks missed their heyday when they could have gotten a premier price a year ago. That’s not going to happen today. Pricing is down. They’re going to say, “Hey, I’d rather take today’s price and see what happens next.”

With our price and our premium on the price, even in today’s market, we can go buy some banks that other people probably can’t, because they can’t make the deal work. With our stock price, we can make the deal work.

RankingBanking will be examined further as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired virtual platform. Click here to access the agenda.

What Banks Can Learn from OceanFirst’s Loan Sale

As the coronavirus continues to whipsaw the economy, when will bank asset quality begin to crack and losses start to materialize?

One bank, at least, has decided not to wait for that day to arrive.

OceanFirst Financial Corp., a $12 billion institution based in Red Bank, New Jersey, accelerated the resolution of some of its credit losses by selling an $81 million in higher-risk commercial loans with forbearance exposure in late September and October. All of the loans had an underlying, systemic weakness that the bank believed would persist after the coronavirus pandemic subsided.

The sales included $30 million in New York exposure and $51 million in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, executives said. Hotel exposure made up $15 million, $12 million was related to restaurant and food and over $4 million was in gym and fitness exposure. The bank recorded a $14 million mark on the loans, which it took as a charge to third quarter earnings.

The bank also decided to sell its loans associated with the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program during the quarter. These sales, along with additional provisioning, contributed to a net loss in the third quarter of $6 million, or 10 cents per diluted share.

First Loss is the Best Loss
Banks of all sizes are weighing their options for dealing with trouble credits, and what a credit workout will cost them in time, staffing and expenses, Greenland says.

“The friction of handling non-performing loans at a bank is huge. It’s not what banks are meant to do,” he says. “Most of the choices a bank has right now are working it out, selling it or owning the real estate.”

OceanFirst Chairman and CEO Christopher Maher says that proactively identifying and recognizing credit risk leads to smaller losses and faster recoveries. According to Maher, OceanFirst sold loans in 2007 and recovered around 70 cents on the dollar; in a year, those assets traded closer to 40 cents.

“Many bankers will say that your first loss is your best loss,” he says. “If you’re early to do something, you will get a good recovery; if you hem and haw and wait, the numbers don’t get better.”

Maher acknowledges that the ultimate recovery rates on the sold loans may have been higher if the bank had held onto them. But that recovery could take years, consuming valuable time and attention to deal with the questionable credit quality.

“There’s a finality that comes with the disposition. We were very conscious that had we merely kept these on the books, established a risk pool and taken a reserve for the $14 million — that may have proven to earn us more money in the long run. But it may also have led to several quarters of discussions about valuations with a lot of stakeholders … explaining why you thought a fitness center or a hotel property was actually valued where you think it is,” he said during the bank’s third-quarter earnings call. “This way, we get the final disposition. We know exactly what the answer is. We can be certain that we took those risks off the balance sheet.”

Strike While the Iron is Hot
Interest in distressed assets is high right now. Kingsley Greenland, CEO of loan marketplace DebtX, says that many of interested buyers using his platform had proactively raised funds in 2019 in advance of a mild downturn and are now sitting on “dry powder.” Prospective buyers are visiting the site more frequency, and both the number of buyers that enter into a nondisclosure agreement to conduct due diligence on an asset and the number of bids are up.

Throughout 2020, DebtX has seen a number of sellers listing hotel loans and now labor-intensive small business loans; Greenland expects retail and office commercial real estate loans to appear in greater numbers in 2021.

OceanFirst managed the sale of its New York portfolio alone, capitalizing on a group of real estate investors who specialize in the city and in those types of assets. It used investment bank Piper Sandler to manage the sale of the $51 million pool of loans covering New Jersey and Pennsylvania, since the bidder base consisted of institutional credit fund buyers looking for distressed loan notes. He says working with a partner helped when it came to assembling the data rooms and legal agreements.

“We made the decision that if there are buyers, we can get good recoveries now,” he says. “There will be the same buyers next year, but there will be more loan sales and they will not be at the [price] we got.”

Back to (Growing the) Business
Maher said the sale “liberated” resources the bank could use as it refocuses on growing profits by rebuilding its net interest margin and boosting operating margins. The two blocks of loan sales lowered its loan-to-deposit ratio to under 90% and generated $388 million in cash proceeds that the bank could deploy toward capital management actions that include repurchases and acquisitions. It also makes it easier to navigate conversations with regulators and prospective sellers that they have a handle on their credit risk.

“Putting this behind us allows us to potentially have stronger and more stable earnings in 2021, which should hopefully translate into a better stock multiple,” he says. “As we transition to next year, investors in general are not going to want to hear about credit surprise and provisions.”

The Board’s Blessing is Important
Maher says credit mitigation work can be tough for bankers, who pride themselves on their close relationships with borrowers and their ability to make good loans. That can make them feel vulnerable when credit quality turns, complicating efforts to resolve credit in a timely fashion, or lead to holding onto troubled loans longer than is prudent.

“The admission that a loan may be troubled is hard. It feels like a personal failure,” Maher says, adding that he has experience with this as a commercial lender. “There’s always this hope that if I give it a little more time, it’ll be OK and I won’t have this black mark or this failure.”

The board has an important role to play in these moments, diffusing emotions and helping management look ahead. Boards should make it clear that they don’t want to cast blame on the previous decisions to extend these loans, but instead focus on decisions that will strengthen the bank moving forward.

“The board plays a role here. If management feels vulnerable or that they’re going to be criticized, then they’re going to be less likely to do it,” Maher says. “I think often, the board/management interaction can perpetuate this failure to just deal with it.”

Recommendations for Banks Prepping for LIBOR Transitions, Updated Timelines

While much of the focus this summer was on Covid-19, the decline in GDP and the fluctuating UE rates, some pockets of the market kept a different acronym in the mix of hot topics.

Regulators, advisors and trade groups have made significant movement and provided guidance to help banks prepare for the eventual exit of the London Interbank Offered Rate, commonly abbreviated to LIBOR, at the end of 2021. These new updates include best practice recommendations, updated fallback language for loans and key dates to no longer offer new originations in LIBOR.

Why does this matter to community banks? Syndicated loans make up only 1.7% of the nearly $200 trillion debt market that is tied to LIBOR — a figure that includes derivatives, loan, securities and mortgages. Many community banks hold syndicated loans on their balance sheets, which means they’re directly affected by efforts to replace LIBOR with a new reference rate.

A quick history refresher: In 2014, U.S. federal bank regulators convened the Alternative Rates Reference Committee (ARRC) in response to LIBOR manipulation by the reporting banks during the financial crisis. A wide range of firms, market participants and consumer advocacy groups — totaling about 1,500 individuals — participate in the ARRC’s working groups, according to the New York Federal Reserve. The ARRC designated the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (SOFR) as a replacement rate to LIBOR and has been instrumental in providing workpapers and guidelines on SOFR’s implementation.

In April 2019, the ARRC released proposed fallback language that firms could incorporate into syndicated loan credit agreements during initial origination, or by way of amendment before the cessation of LIBOR occurs. The two methods they recommended were the “hardwired approach” and the “amendment approach.” After a year, the amendment approach was used almost exclusively by the market.

In June 2020, the ARRC released refreshed Hardwired Fallbacks language for syndicated loans. The updates include language that when LIBOR ceases or is declared unrepresentative, the-LIBOR based loan will “fall back” to a variation of SOFR plus a “spread adjustment” meant to minimize the difference between LIBOR and SOFR. This is what all other markets are doing and reduces the need for thousands of amendments shortly after LIBOR cessation.

In addition, the ARRC stated that as of Sept. 30, lenders should start using hardwired fallbacks in new loans and refinancings. As of June 30, 2021, lenders should not originate any more loans that use LIBOR as an index rate.

As the market continues to prepare for LIBOR’s eventual exit, BancAlliance recommends banks take several steps to prepare for this transition:

  • Follow the ARRC’s recommendations for identifying your bank’s LIBOR-based contracts and be aware of the fallback language that currently exists in each credit agreement. Most syndicated loans already have fallback language in existing credit agreements, but the key distinction is the extent of input the lenders have with respect to the new rate.
  • Keep up-to-date with new pronouncements and maintain a file of relevant updates, as a way to demonstrate your understanding of the evolving environment to auditors and regulators.
  • Have patience. The new SOFR-based credit agreements are not expected until summer 2021 at the earliest, and there is always a chance that the phase-out of LIBOR could be extended.

Steering a De Novo Through a Crisis and Beyond

New York-based Piermont Bank opened its doors in July 2019. Just eight months later — on March 1 — a New York woman returning home from Iran became the city’s first Covid-19 case. By March 20, with cases in the state rapidly climbing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that non-essential businesses close. One hundred days after reporting its first case, New York began reopening — but as of Nov. 19, restrictions remained in place, and New York City public schools recently returned to virtual learning to combat a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.

What a time to run a bank — especially a new one.

It sounds counterintuitive at first blush, but Wendy Cai-Lee, the bank’s founder and chief executive, believes Piermont is well positioned to serve customers. The $117 million bank focuses heavily on commercial real estate loans; it also makes commercial and industrial (C&I) loans.

She points out that as a de novo, the bank’s balance sheet is clean; her team didn’t have to devote attention to working with troubled borrowers. Piermont also has a lot of capital on hand, with a leverage ratio of 32.82% as of June 30.

But Cai-Lee recognizes the broader, longer-term impact the pandemic could have on the New York market. “We have seen appraisal values essentially drop anywhere between 10% to 35%,” she says. Her team has a risk assessment meeting every Monday; when we spoke in October, they were evaluating the potential fallout from the end of unemployment benefits through the CARES Act, set to expire at the end of the year. “That’s going to impact people’s ability to pay their rent, and I do think that’s going to bring some impact to multi-family that we haven’t seen so far,” she says.

Serving customers during the pandemic had some banks scrambling to adopt new technology to serve customers; in contrast, Piermont was already positioning itself as a “tech-enabled” bank. “When it comes to innovation, I’m a big believer that it’s not only technology that we need to focus on, but also process,” says Cai-Lee. She aims to create an end-to-end digitized process without sacrificing on risk controls.

“I use technology to digitize everything that the client doesn’t see so that I can move all those resources to allow my bankers to spend the time with the client to find specific pain points” and identify the right solution, she explains. “This allows my bankers to engage the client very differently.” Piermont can close commercial loans in three days, she says, rather than a couple of weeks. And innovation isn’t limited to technology; Piermont offers subscription pricing for its services, for example, and recently announced a banking-as-a-service platform it’s offering through a partnership with Treasury Prime.

I spoke with Cai-Lee before that announcement. “We’re actually not going to be that anonymous bank behind these fintechs,” she says. “We’re actually going to market front and center along with the API partner so that we can actually focus on creating the right product for them.”

Piermont Bank also seeks to serve women- and minority-owned businesses, which have been particularly devastated by the pandemic and have historically lacked access to credit and investor capital. A lot of banks say they want to serve women and minority entrepreneurs, yet these groups remain underserved. When I ask how Cai-Lee’s plans differ from other institutions’ efforts, she credits Piermont’s diverse team.

Cai-Lee is Asian American; before founding Piermont, she led the commercial real estate, commercial lending, and consumer and business banking divisions at $50 billion, Pasadena, California-based East West Bancorp, which serves markets in the U.S. and China. Before that, she spent almost a decade at Deloitte, where she was literally the poster child for diversity. “They had a [life-size] cutout of me made and had it in the lobby of every Deloitte domestic office,” she recalls.

When she founded Piermont Bank, she prioritized adding a diverse array of voices and backgrounds when she assembled her team. She believes it’s a strength for the bank. “The reason why [women and minorities are] underserved is — no different from serving any industry or any demographic out there — unless you understand their pain points, it’s hard to come up with the right product and service to serve them,” says Cai-Lee. “If you don’t have enough representation of women, of minorities on your board and senior management [team], how do you foster an environment where [you can] address that demographic?”

The Promise, and Peril, of Risk Technology

The pandemic has underlined how essential risk technology is for proactive and responsive financial institutions.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, bank risk managers were already incorporating such technology to manage, sift and monitor various inputs and information. The pandemic has complicated those efforts to get a handle on emerging and persistent risks — even as it becomes increasingly critical to incorporate into day-to-day decision-making.

Data, and getting insights from it, has always been central to how risk managers have worked. That hasn’t changed,” says Sandeep Mangaraj, an industry executive at Microsoft who focuses on digital banking transformations.

Prior to the pandemic, concerns about operational risk had increased “somewhat” or “significantly” among 51% of CEOs, chief risk officers and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2020 Risk Survey, which was completed just before the pandemic. More than half also revealed heightened concerns around cybersecurity, credit and interest rate risk, and strategic risk.

That survey also found respondents indicating there was room for technology to improve their compliance with Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering rules (76%), know your customer (50%) requirements, and vendor management requirements.

One way executives and risk managers can keep up is by incorporating risk technology to help sift through reams of data to derive actionable insights. These technologies can create a unified view of risk across exposure types and aggregation levels — product, business line, region — so executives can see how risk manifests within the bank. Some of these solutions can also capture and provide real-time information, supplementing slower traditional sources or replacing end-of-day reports.

But the pandemic led more than half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey to alter or adjust their technology roadmaps — including 82% of respondents at institutions with more than $10 billion in assets. Two-thirds said they would upgrade existing technology; just 16% planned to add technology to improve regulatory compliance.

Artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in helping banks more efficiently and effectively comply with regulations and manage risk. Many banks are still early in their risk technology journeys, and are working to identify areas or situations that can be serviced or assisted by risk technologies. Forty-six percent of respondents to Bank Director’s Technology Survey say they are not utilizing AI yet.

Those that have are applying it to situations like fraud monitoring, which generates large amounts of data that the bank can correlate and act on, Mangaraj says. Others have applied it to process intelligence and process improvement, or used it to enhance the control environment. Key to the success of any AI or risk-technology endeavor is finding the right, measurable application where a bank can capture value for heightened risk or capabilities.

“We have a client who uses AI to monitor trader conversations that can proactively flag any compliance issues that may be coming up,” he says. “There are lots and lots of ways in which you can start using it. Key is identify cases, make sure you have clear measurement of value, monitor it and celebrate it. Success breeds success.”

The addition and incorporation of innovative risk technologies coincides with many banks’ digital transformations. While these changes can often complement each other, they can also make it difficult for a bank to manage and measure its risk, or could even introduce risk.

A strong management team, effective controls and active monitoring of the results are essential keys to a bank’s success with these technology endeavors, says James Watkins, senior managing director at the Isaac-Milstein Group. Watkins served at the FDIC for nearly 40 years as the senior deputy director of supervisory examinations, overseeing the agency’s risk management examination program.

“It’s time for a fresh look of the safeguards and controls that banks have in place — the internal controls and the reliability of the bank system’s and monitoring apparatuses. All of those are extremely important,” he says.

Bank executives and boards of directors must have the processes and procedures in place to ensure they’re using this technology and contextualizing its outcomes in a prudent manner.

“I think the importance of general contingency planning, crisis management strategies, thinking strategically — these are all areas that boards of directors and senior management really need to be attuned to and be prepared for,” Watkins says.

What We’ve Learned From the Pandemic (So Far)

Year in and year out, Bank Director’s surveys tap into the views of bank leaders across the country about critical issues: risk, technology, compensation and talent, corporate governance, and M&A and growth.

But 2020 has been a year for the record books. It’s been an interesting time for me as head of research for Bank Director, with the results of our recent surveys revealing changes that, in my view, will continue to have far-ranging effects for the industry.

As boards plan for 2021 and beyond, here are a few things I believe you should be considering.

The Great Tech Ramp-Up
The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated technology adoption by the industry, an issue we explored in Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey.

Sixty-five percent of the executives and board members responding to that survey told us that their bank implemented or upgraded technology to respond to Covid-19, primarily to issue Paycheck Protection Program loans. As a result, most banks reported increased spending on technology, above and beyond their budgets for 2020.

The primary drivers that fuel bank technology strategies remain the same — improving customer experience and generating efficiencies — and pressure has only grown on financial institutions to adapt. More than half of the survey respondents told us that their bank’s technology plans had been adjusted due to the pandemic, with most focused on enhancing their digital banking capabilities.

“The next generation will rarely use a branch,” one survey respondent commented, “so a totally quick efficient comprehensive digital experience will be necessary to survive.”

The 2020 Compensation Survey confirmed that most banks dialed back on branch service early in the pandemic; by the time we fielded the Technology Survey in June and July, bank leaders finally recognized the digital channel’s preeminence in terms of growing the bank and serving customers. (The previous year’s survey found respondents placing equal emphasis on digital and branch channels.)

Our FinXTech Special Report on mobile banking provides tips on evaluating your bank’s mobile app.

The Technology Survey revealed gaps in small business and commercial lending as well — deficiencies that have been laid bare as a result of the pandemic. More than half of respondents that have adjusted or accelerated their technology strategy indicated they’d expand digital lending capabilities.

Some bankers I spoke with about the survey results indicated concerns that banks could dial back on technology spending due to the profitability pressures facing the industry. However, given the changes we’ve seen, I don’t believe it’s sustainable to dial back on this investment.

That leaves bank leaders facing a few key challenges, starting with determining where to invest their technology dollars. It’s difficult to gauge where the wind will blow, but the survey provides solid clues: 42% believe process automation will be one of the most important technologies affecting their bank, followed by data analytics (39%). Almost 40% believe the security structure to be vitally important; cybersecurity is a perennial concern for bank leaders and as banking grows more digital, this will require additional investment.

Additionally, 64% told us that modernizing their bank’s digital applications forms a core element of their bank’s strategy.

Implementing new technology requires expertise, and the 2020 Compensation Survey found most respondents (79%) telling us that it’s difficult to attract technology and digital talent.

But this may not mean bringing data scientists or other highly-specialized roles on staff. Olney, Maryland-based Sandy Spring Bancorp hired a senior data strategist who is responsible for the use, governance and management of information across the organization; that individual also reviews vendor capabilities and identifies areas that help the bank achieve its goals. “The senior data strategist should be on the lookout for ways to find opportunities for and through data analytics, whether that’s predicting customer trends or finding new revenue-generating opportunities,” said John Sadowski, chief information officer at the $13 billion bank.

Finally, 69% told us their bank didn’t streamline vendor due diligence processes in response to Covid-19. As technology adoption accelerates, consider whether your bank’s third-party management process is sufficiently comprehensive, while still allowing it to quickly and efficiently put new solutions into place. 

Work-From-Home Will Alter the Workplace
The 2020 Compensation Survey found that banks almost universally implemented or expanded remote work options as a result of the pandemic; the 2020 Technology Survey later told us that for many banks (at least 42%) that change will be permanent for at least some of their staff.

In late October, $96 billion Synchrony Financial — a direct, virtual bank — announced that remote work will become permanent for its employees, allowing them to choose from three options. Some can simply work from home. Others can schedule office space, while some will have an assigned desk. This third group includes executives, who will be asked to work remotely at least a couple days a week to reinforce the cultural shift.

It’s a move that the bank believes will make employees happy, but it also promises to yield significant cost savings by cutting real estate expenses.

It could also yield competitive benefits for banks seeking top talent. Glacier Bancorp, for example, doesn’t limit hires to its Kalispell, Montana-based headquarters — instead, it hires anywhere within its multi-state footprint. That helps the $18 billion bank recruit the technology talent it needs, human resources director David Langston told me in May.

Remote work is a cultural shift that many bank executives will be reticent to make. But even if a long-term remote work option doesn’t align with your bank’s culture, offering flexibility will help support employees, who have their own struggles at home with virtual schooling or caring for high-risk family members.

Too often, working parents are forced to choose between their children and their career, meaning companies are losing valuable employees or, in the least, productivity.

A recent McKinsey study finds that a lack of flexibility, among other issues, drives women in particular to leave the workforce. The authors also advise that companies “should look for ways to re-establish work-life boundaries” — putting policies in place to assure meeting times and work communications occur within set hours, and encouraging employees to take advantage of flexible scheduling. Unfortunately, employees often worry that taking advantage of these benefits will damage their reputation at work. “To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will not be measured based on when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility [and] can model flexibility in their own lives. … When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.”

Flexibility and remote work can help companies retain valued employees.

It’s difficult to change a culture, especially if you believe that what you’re doing works. But sometimes, culture can change around you.  I’d encourage you to approach these issues with fresh eyes to ensure your leadership team can direct the change — not the other way around.

Don’t Put Diversity on the Backburner
Almost half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey told us their bank doesn’t measure its progress around diversity and inclusion, indicating to me that they don’t have clear objectives around creating an inclusive culture that hires, retains and rewards employees despite race, ethnicity or gender.

Further, just 39% of the CEOs and directors responding to our 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey told us their board has several members who are diverse, based on race, ethnicity or gender. And almost half believe that diversity’s impact on a company’s performance is overrated.

Employees and customers take this issue seriously. Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp., which has been recognized for LGBTQ workplace equality by the Human Rights Campaign since 2016, incorporates inclusion in its “cycle of engagement.” This starts with engaged employees who provide a higher level of service that delights customers, resulting in strong financial performance for the institution, allowing the company to invest back into its employees — continuing the virtuous cycle.

The $13 billion bank’s culture promotes respect, teamwork, empathy — and inclusion, COO Robert Cozzone told me in a recent interview. “Think about working for a company where you enjoy being around the people that you work with, you enjoy the work that you do, you buy into the mission of the company — you’re going to be much more productive than if you don’t have those things,” he says. Today, “It’s all that more important to show [employees] care and empathy and understanding.”

Small, rural banks may believe it’s difficult to hire diverse talent, making it nearly impossible for them to tackle this issue. Expanding remote work options, mentioned earlier, can help. But ultimately, it’s an issue that companies nationwide will need to address as the demographics of the country change. “We all need to do better [on] diversity and inclusion,” one survey respondent wrote. “Many of us out in rural America don’t have as many opportunities, but we need to keep this topic front of mind, and [read] information and stories on how to be more intentional.”

Directors Must Be Engaged and Educated
The 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey also found 39% indicating that at least some members of their board aren’t actively engaged in board meetings; 36% said some members don’t know enough about banking to provide effective oversight.

That survey, conducted just before the pandemic effectively shut down the U.S. economy, found executives and directors identifying three top challenges to the viability of their institution: pressure on net interest margins (53%), meeting customer demands for digital options (40%) and industry consolidation and the growing power of big banks. Further, most directors said that staying on top of the changes occurring in the industry is one of the great challenges facing their board.

Confronting these issues will require engaged and knowledgeable leadership.

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, surveyed 265 independent directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks to understand trends around the acquisition of talent, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, surveyed more than 150 independent directors, CEOs, chief operating officers and senior technology executives of U.S. banks to understand how technology drives strategy at their institutions and how those plans have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also includes compensation data collected from the proxy statements of 98 public banks. The survey was conducted in June and July 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, surveyed 159 independent directors, chairmen and CEOs of U.S. banks under $50 billion in assets to understand the practices of bank boards, including board independence, discussions and oversight, engagement and refreshment. The survey was conducted in February and March 2020.

Bank Director has published several recent articles and videos about issues related to today’s economic environment. Our Online Training Series includes units on “Managing the Balance Sheet in a Zero-Rate Environment” and “Managing Through the Coronavirus Pandemic.” You may also consider watching Bank Director Editor at Large Jack Milligan’s conversation with Huntington Bancshares CEO Steve Steinour, which focuses on “Strategic Planning in an Age of Uncertainty.”

Our Bank Services membership program also includes licenses to FinXTech Connect, which helps banks identify technology providers. You can find out more about that tool and how to access it here.

2021 Bank M&A Survey Results: Uncertainty Stalls Growth Plans

Will bank M&A activity thaw out in 2021?

Bank deals have been in deep freeze due to Covid-19 and the related economic downturn, but most of the executives and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, say their bank remains open to doing deals.

More than one-third say their institution is likely to purchase a bank by the end of 2021; this represents a significant decline compared to last year’s survey, when 44% believed an acquisition likely in 2020. Branch and loan portfolio acquisitions also look slightly less attractive compared to a year ago.

The barriers to dealmaking may prove difficult to surmount in today’s uncertain economic and political environment.

With pressures on small businesses and the commercial real estate market exacerbated by remote work and social distancing measures, the recovery of the U.S. economy — and bank M&A — may hinge on conquering the coronavirus. In response, bank leaders are focused on credit quality: 63% point to concerns about the quality of a potential target’s loan book as a top barrier to making an acquisition, up significantly from last year’s survey (36%).

Despite concerns about credit quality and profitability, 85% say their bank is no more likely to sell due to Covid-19, and just 7% regret that they didn’t sell before the current downturn, when target banks could expect to command a higher price.

This willingness to carry on and weather these challenges may find its foundation in respondents’ long-term expectations. More than half anticipate a slow rebound for the U.S. economy. Twenty-eight percent don’t expect to return to pre-crisis levels in 2021, and 7% believe the recession will deepen.

Still, half believe that when the crisis abates, their bank will be just as strong as it was earlier this year. Forty-four percent express even greater optimism, believing they’ll emerge even stronger.

Key Findings

Loan Losses
More than half (57%) believe their bank’s loan loss allowance will be sufficient to cover expected losses over the next 12 months. Two-thirds say that less than 5% of residential mortgages will default and 64% that less than 5% of commercial loans will default.

Willing to Pay for Quality
When describing their bank’s acquisition strategy, 44% indicate that they seek strategic acquisitions, regardless of price. One-quarter look for low-priced acquisitions of historically well-run banks; 27% are comfortable paying a premium for well-managed banks.

Tech Acquisitions Rare
Just 11% believe they’ll purchase a technology company. Of these, 63% express interest in buying a business or commercial lending platform; 63% are open to acquiring a consumer deposit-gathering platform. Almost half seek data analytics capabilities.

Price Remains a Barrier
Potential acquirers’ concerns about pricing as a barrier to dealmaking have dropped significantly — from 72% last year to 60% in this year’s survey. However, more respondents express concern about their ability to use stock as currency in a deal, as well as demands on their capital should they acquire.

Effects on Capital
Most believe their bank’s capital levels are sufficient to weather the economic downturn, assuming a rapid (98%) or slow (98%) recovery in 2021, or mild recession (97%). Eighty-one percent believe they can weather a deeper recession. Just one-quarter plan to raise capital over the next six months.

High Marks for Trump
An overwhelming majority award President Trump’s administration positive marks for the rollout of Paycheck Protection Program loans (90%) and stimulus payments (91%), and its support of the U.S. economy (88%). Two-thirds believe the administration has effectively responded to the pandemic.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.