A New Opportunity for Revenue and Efficiency

Intelligence-Report.pngIn 2017, Bank Director magazine featured a story titled “The API Effect.” The story explained how banks could earn revenue by using application programming interfaces, or APIs, and concluded with a prediction: APIs would be so prevalent in five years that banks who were not leveraging them would be similar to banks that didn’t offer a mobile banking application in 2017.

Today, the banking industry is on a fast track to proving that hypothesis.

Banks are hurtling into the digital revolution in response, in no small part, to the outbreak of Covid-19, a novel coronavirus that originated in China before spreading around the globe. The social distancing measures taken to contain the virus have forced banks to operate without the safety nets of branches, paper and physical proximity to customers. They’re feeling pressure to provide up-to-the-minute information, even as the world is changing by the hour. And they’re grappling with ideas about what it means to be a bank and how best to serve customers in these challenging times.

One way to do so is through APIs, passageways between software systems that facilitate the transfer of data.

APIs make it possible to open and fund new accounts instantly — a way to continue to bring in deposits when people can’t visit a branch. They pull data from call centers and chat conversations into systems that use it to send timely and topical messages to customers. And they enable capabilities like real-time BSA checks — an invaluable tool for banks struggling to process the onslaught of Paycheck Protection Program loans backed by the Small Business Administration.

All those capabilities will still be important once the crisis is over. But by then, thanks to the surge in API adoption, they’ll also be table stakes for banks that want to remain competitive.

In short, there’s never been a better time to explore what APIs can do for your bank, which is the purpose of this FinXTech Intelligence Report, APIs: New Opportunities for Revenue and Efficiency.

The report unpacks APIs — exploring their use cases in banking, and the forces driving adoption of the technology among financial institutions of all sizes. It includes:

  • Five market trends driving the adoption of APIs among banks
  • Actionable API use cases for growing revenue and creating efficiencies
  • A map of the API provider landscape, highlighting the leading companies enabling API transformation
  • An in-depth case study of TAB Bank, which reimagined its data infrastructure with APIs
  • Key considerations for banks developing an API strategy

To learn more, download our FinXTech Intelligence Report, APIs: New Opportunities for Revenue and Efficiency.

BOLI Carriers Prepare for COVID-19 Impact

Purchases of bank-owned life insurance were strong in 2019 as bankers capitalized on its attractive yields relative to other investments available to banks.

What 2020 holds remains to be seen, given trends in the market and broader economy. Total BOLI purchases likely could be lower this year, as carriers are generally not willing to accept large premiums from a single policyholder. However, BOLI activity in the $10 million and under purchase size may be similar to 2019 levels. At the close of the first quarter, it is too early to know the full impact of COVID-19, but we have a few observations based on discussions with several major BOLI carriers:

  1. The carriers have not priced in any risk premium for potentially higher mortality rates and do not expect to do so. In addition, the carriers do not expect to tighten the requirements to obtain guaranteed issue underwriting. In a guaranteed issue BOLI case, the insureds answer several questions, but no physicals are required. Guaranteed issue underwriting can be obtained with as few as 10 insureds.
  2. It is virtually impossible for carriers to find fixed income investments that produce yields that approximate the yield on the existing portfolio, given that short-term interest rates have dropped to near zero and the 10-year Treasury declined from 2.49% on April 1, 2019 to 62 basis points a year later.
  3. While carriers continue to accept new BOLI premium, some are reluctant to take a large premium from any one customer to avoid diluting the portfolio for existing policyholders. Movements in the yield of the portfolio tend to lag the market because carriers’ portfolios are very large (often $50 billion to $200 billion) and generally have a duration of five to 10 years. For this reason, current crediting rates for several carriers remain above 3%.
  4. Several carriers indicated that they started reducing credit exposure and increasing asset diversification several years ago. While they did not anticipate a pandemic, the market had been good for so long and they thought it would be wise to start reducing the risk in the portfolio ahead of a potential downturn. In addition, credit spreads had also narrowed, so there was less reward for additional risk.
  5. Carriers primarily invest in fixed-income investments; a decline in the stock market has minimal impact on most carrier investment portfolios.

BOLI Growth In 2019
BOLI purchases totaled $4.3 billion in 2019, an increase of 147% over the 2018 total, according to IBIS Associates, an independent market research firm. The total represents the third-highest amount of BOLI purchases in the past dozen years.

It’s even more impressive when considering that most banks continued to have strong loan demand and less liquidity than in most previous years. At year-end 2019, BOLI cash surrender value (CSV) held on the balance sheets of U.S. banks totaled $178 billion, according to the December 2019 NFP-Michael White report.

Robust BOLI activity has been driven by attractive tax-equivalent yields, strong credit quality and leverage ($1 invested in BOLI typically returns $3 to $4 of tax-free death benefits). Banks can use BOLI as a way to retain key employees by providing life insurance benefits or informally funding nonqualified benefit plans; BOLI earnings can also be used to offset and recover health care and 401(k) or other retirement plan expenses.

According to the IBIS report, 77% of 2019 BOLI purchases were for general account, 22% for variable separate account and just 1% was for hybrid separate account. In general account policies, the general assets of the insurance company issuing the policies support the CSV. In variable separate and hybrid separate products, the CSVs are legally segregated from the general assets of the carrier, which provides enhanced credit protection in the event of carrier insolvency. The credit risk and price risk of the underlying assets remain with the policyholder in a variable policy, whereas the carrier retains those risks in a general account or hybrid policy.

Purchases of variable separate accounts dominated the market in 2006-07; since that time, general account BOLI has typically led the way. This is due to the simplicity of general account products relative to variable separate products as well as the increased product options, generally higher yields, and the high comfort level bankers have with the creditworthiness of mainstream BOLI carriers.

According to the IBIS data, 2019 general account BOLI purchases were at their highest level in the last 16 years. According to the NFP-Michael White report, 3,346 banks — representing 64.6% of all US banks — now hold BOLI assets. This is an increase from the 64.1% of banks that held BOLI at the end of 2018. Seventy-one percent of banks with over $100 million in assets hold BOLI; 77.3% of banks with over $300 million in assets do.

Beyond PPP: Supporting Small Business Through the Covid Crisis

In the first wave of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, West Des Moines, Iowa-based Bank Iowa Corp. closed around 400 loans totaling $72 million, according to CEO Jim Plagge. When we spoke — just a few days before the SBA re-opened the portal for another $320 billion of PPP loans — the $1.4 billion bank was prepared to submit another 75 or so applications.

The bank’s branch teams — which are split to encourage social distancing and minimize the impact if someone were to get sick — have also taken to ordering takeout every day to support local restaurants that have been particularly hard hit. “[We’re] just trying to support them,” he says.

This desire to support the 23 communities it serves inspired Bank Iowa’s “Helping Hand” program, which is accepting nominations to assist local organizations, small businesses and nonprofits. The bank’s goal is to serve at least one need in each of its seven regions. “We’re only as strong as the communities we serve,” says Plagge. “So, we’re just trying to help where we possibly can.”

Banks play a vital role in supporting their communities, one we’re seeing played out across the country as bankers put in extra hours to help customers, especially small businesses that keep towns alive. Bank Iowa, like many financial institutions, recognizes that supporting small businesses can’t be limited to the SBA program — PPP loans have proved difficult to obtain, and they don’t make sense for some companies that still need help.

Bank Iowa reached out immediately to borrowers to understand the impact of the coronavirus crisis for each one, says Plagge. The bank has deferred loan payments, restructured debt and set up working capital lines. Bankers have also been a shoulder to cry on.

“[We’re] trying to be there to help our clients talk through the difficulties they’re facing,” says Plagge. “Hopefully we can offer some advice and encourage them along the way.”

Relationships matter. “We typically see that business banking account managers get good scores for being courteous, knowledgeable and responsive,” says Paul McAdam, a senior director, regional banking in the financial services practice at J.D. Power. Small business owners will be even more sensitive to their banker’s response in today’s desperate environment, asking: “‘Do I feel like I’m connecting with them? Do they understand my needs and what I’m going through right now?’”

In addition to building long-term relationships, supporting small businesses now could help banks reduce later damage to their loan portfolios. But unfortunately, tough decisions will be required in the coming months. Plagge says Bank Iowa has started stress testing various sectors. With agriculture comprising a significant portion of the loan portfolio, they’re examining the impact of a reduction in revenue for ag producers.

“Our goal will be to try to work with every borrower and see them through this,” Plagge says. “But we also know that may not be possible in every case.”

David K. Smith, a senior originations consultant at FICO, advises banks to segment their portfolio, so lenders understand which businesses they can help, and which pose too great a risk. Does the business have a future in a post-Covid economy? “You can only help so many without sinking your portfolio,” he says.

But banks should also look for ways to keep relationships alive. “As small businesses go out of business, there’s an entrepreneur there … that person who lost this company is going to be on the market creating another company soon,” says Smith.

After the crisis, this could lead to a wave of start-up businesses — which banks have typically hesitated to support. “They’re going to have to rethink policy, because [of] the sheer number of these that are going to pop up,” says Smith. Some businesses won’t fail due to poor leadership; they simply couldn’t do business in an abnormal environment, given shelter-in-place and similar orders issued by local governments. “Bankers will have to appreciate that to a certain degree and figure out a solution, because it will help bring the economy back faster,” he says.

How Innovative Banks Fight Covid Through Giving

Charitable initiatives are not new to banks.

Many have foundations, donation-matching programs or standing committees dedicated to giving back. What is new to banks, however, is how fast they’re being expected to contribute to vital causes while juggling other time-sensitive priorities created by the Covid-19 crisis.

Launching an impactful, Covid-specific relief program could be a non-starter for banks unless they leverage technology to make it happen quickly. Two Northeastern banks have proved that it’s possible to spin up new products and programs in days with the help of fintech partners.

As the extent of the Covid-19 crisis became clear, the Community Engagement Steering Committee at The Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, a unit of Cape Cod Five Mutual Company, kicked its planning into high gear. The committee includes employees from different areas of the Massachusetts-based bank.

Before Covid-19 struck, it convened on a weekly basis to plan community initiatives and review applications for support. Now, the committee needed to move quickly to help local healthcare organizations battling the virus on the frontlines. That goal led to a partnership between the bank and Pinkaloo, a charitable-giving fintech the bank connected with at an industry event last year.

Pinkaloo had been presenting to the bank’s internal teams since January, but the arrival of Covid pushed Cape Cod 5, as the bank is called, to formalize the partnership. “Speed to market was important to us because of the emergent need,” says Stephanie Dennehy, chief marketing officer for the $3.6 billion bank.

In a week, the fintech and bank launched giving portals for seven different healthcare providers in the bank’s footprint.

To make it happen, Pinkaloo stayed in close contact with the bank’s team and everyone — from information security to legal to executive leadership — worked quickly to streamline the implementation process. The result was that a vendor management program that would normally take two to three weeks was completed in two to three days, says Adrian Sullivan, the bank’s chief digital officer.

Covid has showed banks that they can move fast in exigent circumstances, but will those lessons last beyond the current crisis?

Sullivan thinks they will. “The way we’ve done things remotely and in such an expedited fashion — I think that becomes new normal,” he says. “We realized how fast it really can be done, so I think we will shift for the better and start to work in a more agile fashion.”

To the southeast of Cape Cod 5 is a single-branch, digital-first bank that’s no stranger to iterating quickly. Quontic Bank, based in Astoria, New York, chose to support relief efforts with a new savings account.

The Drawbridge Savings account pays depositors an annual percentage yield of 0.50% on balances up to $250,000; the bank matches the interest paid on these accounts with a donation towards its #BeTheDrawbridge campaign. The savings account approach made sense to Quontic. They didn’t want to rely on a transaction-based account when people are changing their spending habits and stockpiling funds, says Patrick Sells, Quontic’s chief innovation officer.

To make the idea a reality, Sells put in a call to one of the bank’s existing technology partners, MANTL. MANTL’s account-opening solution automatically books new accounts to the bank’s core. MANTL engineers worked through the weekend and delivered the new savings product in three days. The bank’s team worked all weekend too, preparing disclosures, developing marketing plans and completing all the other steps required to bring the new financial product to market.

Although the stakes are higher in times of crisis, the $395 million bank is used to working in an agile manner. “One of the core values that applies here is progress, not perfection,” says Sells. “Striving for perfection so often gets in the way of progress, and especially quick progress.” Quontic can pivot if it makes a decision that doesn’t work, but the bank recognizes it can’t make any decisions when it’s frozen in the planning stage.

Covid-19 is changing the world quickly. Banks that want to help will need to lean on technology to put their plans in motion fast.

Coronavirus Tests Banks’ Emergency Succession Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Leaders Meet Followers’ Critical Needs During COVID-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preparing to Be There for Your Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viewing the COVID-19 Crisis From a New Vantage Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Retail Strategies for the Post-Coronavirus Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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