The Return of the Credit Cycle

It has been like waiting for the second shoe to fall.

The first shoe was the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced the U.S. economy into lockdown mode in March 2020. Many banks prepared for an expected credit apocalypse by setting up big reserves for future loan losses — and those anticipated losses were the second shoe. Sure enough, the economy shrank 31.4% in the second quarter of 2020 as the lockdown took hold, but the expected loan losses never materialized. The economy quickly rebounded the following quarter – growing an astonishing 38% — and the feared economic apocalypse never occurred.

In fact, two and a half years later, that second shoe still hasn’t dropped. To this day, the industry’s credit performance since the beginning of the pandemic has been uncommonly good. According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, net charge-offs (which is the difference between gross charge-offs and any subsequent recoveries) for the entire industry were an average of 23 basis points for 2021. Through the first six months of 2022, net charge-offs were just 10 basis points.

Surprisingly, the industry’s credit quality has remained strong even though U.S. economic growth was slightly negative in the first and second quarters of 2022. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, which tracks changes in the country’s gross domestic product, had yet to release a preliminary third quarter number when this article published. However, using its own proprietary model, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimated in early October that U.S. GDP in the third quarter would come in at 2.9%.

This would suggest that the industry’s strong credit performance will continue for the foreseeable future. But an increasing number of economists are anticipating that the U.S. economy will enter a recession in 2023 as a series of aggressive rate increases this year by the Federal Reserve to lower inflation will eventually lead to an economic downturn. And this could render a significant change in the industry’s credit outlook, leading to what many analysts refer to as a “normalization of credit.”

So why has bank loan quality remained so good for so long, despite a bumpy economy in 2022? And when it finally comes, what would the normalization of credit look like?

Answering the first question is easy. The federal government responded to the pandemic with two major stimulus programs – the $2.2 trillion CARES Act during President Donald Trump’s administration, which included the Paycheck Protection Program, and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act during President Joe Biden’s administration — both which pumped a massive amount of liquidity into the U.S. economy.

At the same time, the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee cut the federal funds rate from 1.58% in February 2020 to 0.05% in April, and also launched its quantitative easing policy, which injected even more liquidity into the economy through an enormous bond buying program. Combined, these measures left both households and businesses in excellent shape when the U.S. economy rebounded strongly in the third quarter of 2020.

“You had on one hand, just a spectacularly strong policy response that flooded the economy with money,” says R. Scott Siefers, a managing director and senior research analyst at the investment bank Piper Sandler & Co. “But No. 2, the economy really evolved very quickly on its own, such that businesses and individuals were able to adapt and change to circumstances [with the pandemic] very quickly. When you combine those two factors together, not only did we not see the kind of losses that one might expect when you take the economy offline for some period of time, we actually created these massive cushions of savings and liquidity for both individuals and businesses.”

The second question — what would a normalized credit environment look like? — is harder to answer. Ebrahim Poonawala, who heads up North American bank research at Bank of America Securities, says the bank’s economists are forecasting that the U.S. economy will enter a relatively mild recession in 2023 from the cumulative effects of four rate increases by the Federal Reserve — including three successive hikes of 75 basis points each, bringing the target rate in September to 3.25%. The federal funds rate could hit 4.4% by year-end if inflation remains high, and 4.6% by the end of 2023, based on internal projections by the Federal Reserve.

“There’s obviously a lot of debate around the [likelihood of a] recession today, but generally our view is that we will gradually start seeing [a] normalization and higher credit losses next year, even if it were not for an outright recession,” Poonawala says. While a normalized loss rate would vary from bank to bank depending on the composition of its loan portfolio, Poonawala says a reasonable expectation for the industry’s annualized net charge-off rate would be somewhere between 40 and 50 basis points.

That would be in line with the six-year period from 2014 through 2020, when annual net charge-offs for the industry never rose above 49 basis points. And while loan quality has been exceptional coming out of the pandemic, that six-year stretch was also remarkably good — and remarkably stable. And it’s no coincidence that it coincides with a period when interest rates were at historically low levels. For example, the federal funds rate in January 2014 was just 7 basis points, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ FRED online database. The rate would eventually peak at 2.4% in July 2019 before dropping back to 1.55% in December of that year when the Federal Reserve began cutting rates to juice a sagging economy. And yet by historical standards, a federal funds rate of even 2.4% is low.

Did this sustained low interest rate environment help keep loan losses low during that six-year run? Siefers believes so. “I don’t think there’s any question that cheap borrowing costs were, and have been, a major factor,” he says.

If interest rates do approach 4.6% in 2023 — which would raise the debt service costs for many commercial borrowers — and if the economy does tip into a mild recession, the industry’s loan losses could well exceed the recent high point of 49 basis points.

“There is a case to be made that a recession could look a bit more like the 2001-02 [downturn] in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble [bursting],” says Poonawala. “You saw losses, but it was an earnings hit for the banks. It wasn’t a capital event.”

That recession lasted just eight months and the decline in GDP from peak to trough was just 0.3%, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The industry’s net charge-off ratio rose to an average of 107 basis points in 2002 before dropping to 86 basis points in 2003, 59 basis points in 2004 and bottoming out at 39 basis points in 2006.

This same cyclical pattern repeated itself in 2008 — the first year of the financial crisis – when the average net charge-off rate was 1.30%. The rate would peak at 2.67% in 2010 before declining to 68 basis points in 2013 as the economy gradually recovered.

When we talk about the normalization of credit, what we’re really talking about is the return of the normal credit cycle, where loan losses rise and fall with the cyclical contraction and expansion of the economy. Banks have experienced something akin to a credit nirvana since 2014, but it looks like the credit cycle will reappear in 2023 — aided and abetted by higher interest rates and an economic downturn.

Bank Compensation Survey Results: Findings Released

NASHVILLE, TENN., June 21, 2022 – Bank Director, the leading information resource for directors and officers of financial institutions nationwide, today released the results of its 2022 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Newcleus Compensation Advisors. The findings confirm that intensifying competition for talent is forcing banks to pay up for both new hires and existing employees.

The 2022 Compensation Survey finds that 78% of responding directors, human resources officers, CEOs and other senior executives of U.S. banks say that it was harder in 2021 to attract and keep talent compared to past years. In response to this increased pressure, 98% say their organization raised non-executive pay in 2021, and 85% increased executive compensation. Overall, compensation increased by a median 5%, according to participants.

“Banks are challenged to find specialized talent like commercial lenders and technology personnel, but they’re also struggling to hire branch staff and fill entry-level roles,” says Emily McCormick, Bank Director’s vice president of research. “In this quest for talent, community banks are competing with big banks like Bank of America Corp., which recently raised its minimum wage to $22 an hour. But community banks are also competing against other industries that have been raising pay. How can financial institutions stand out as employers of choice in their markets?”

Asked about specific challenges in attracting talent, respondents cite an insufficient number of qualified applicants (76%) and unwillingness among candidates to commute for at least some of their schedule (28%), in addition to rising wages. Three-quarters indicate that remote or hybrid work options are offered to at least some staff.

“It is obvious from the survey results that talent is the primary focus for community banks,” says Flynt Gallagher, president of Newcleus Compensation Advisors. “Recruiting and retaining talent has become a key focus for most community banks, surpassing other concerns that occupied the top spot in prior surveys — namely tying compensation to performance. It is paramount for community banks to step up their game when it comes to understanding what their employees value and improving their reputation and presence on social media. Otherwise, financial institutions will continue to struggle finding and keeping the people they need to succeed.”

Key Findings Also Include:

Banks Pay Up
Banks almost universally report increased pay for employees and executives. Of these, almost half believe that increased compensation expense has had an overall positive effect on their company’s profitability and performance. Forty-three percent say the impact has been neutral.

Commercial Bankers in Demand
Seventy-one percent expect to add commercial bankers in 2022. Over half of respondents say their bank did not adjust its incentive plan for commercial lenders in 2022, but 34% have adjusted it in anticipation of more demand.

Additional Talent Needs
Banks also plan to add technology talent (39%), risk and compliance personnel (29%) and branch staff (25%) in 2022. Respondents also indicate that commercial lenders, branch and entry-level staff, and technology professionals were the most difficult positions to fill in 2020-21.

Strengthening Reputations as Employers
Forty percent of respondents say their organization monitors its reputation on job-posting platforms such as Indeed or Glassdoor. Further, 59% say they promote their company and brand across social media to build a reputation as an employer of choice, while just 20% use Glassdoor, Indeed or similar platforms in this manner. Banks are more likely to let dollars build their reputation: Almost three-quarters have raised starting pay for entry-level roles.

Low Concerns About CEO Turnover
Sixty-one percent of respondents indicate that they’re not worried about their CEO leaving for a competing financial institution, while a third report low to moderate levels of concern. More than half say their CEO is under the age of 60. Respondents report a median total compensation spend for the CEO at just over $600,000.

Remote Work Persists
Three quarters of respondents say they continue to offer remote work options for at least some of their staff, and the same percentage also believe that remote work options help to retain employees. Thirty-eight percent of respondents believe that remote work hasn’t changed their company’s culture, while 31% each say it has had either a positive or negative impact.

The survey includes the views of 307 independent directors, CEOs, HROs and other senior executives of U.S. banks below $100 billion in assets. Compensation data for directors, non-executive chairs and CEOs was also collected from the proxy statements of 96 publicly traded banks. Full survey results are now available online at BankDirector.com.

About Bank Director
Bank Director reaches the leaders of the institutions that comprise America’s banking industry. Since 1991, Bank Director has provided board-level research, peer-insights and in-depth executive and board services. Built for banks, Bank Director extends into and beyond the boardroom by providing timely and relevant information through Bank Director magazine, board training services and the financial industry’s premier event, Acquire or Be Acquired. For more information, please visit www.BankDirector.com.

About Newcleus
Newcleus powers organizations as the leading designer and administrator of compensation, benefit, investment and finance strategies. The personalized product selections, carrier solutions and talent retention programs are curated to optimize benefits and improve ROI. www.newcleus.com.

Source:
For more information, please contact Bank Director’s Director of Marketing, Deahna Welcher, at dwelcher@bankdirector.com.

Advice to Bank Directors: Don’t Be Reactive on Credit Quality

With credit quality metrics at generationally stellar levels, concern about credit risk in 2022 may seem unwarranted, making any deployed defensive strategies appear premature.

For decades, banking has evolved into an orientation that takes most of its risk management cues from external stakeholders, including investors, trusted vendors, market conditions — and regulators in particular. Undoubtedly, becoming defensive prematurely can add challenges for management teams at a time when loan growth is still a main strategic objective. But waiting until credit metrics pivot is sure to add risk and potential pain. Banks have four key reasons to be more vigilant in 2022 and the next couple of years. These, and the suggested steps that prudent management teams should take in their wake, are below.

1. The Covid-19 sugar high has turned sour.
All of the government largesse and regulatory respites in response to Covid-19 helped unleash 40-year-high inflation levels. In response, the Federal Reserve has begun ramping up interest rates at potential intervals not experienced in decades. These factors are proven to precede higher credit stress. Continuing supply chain disruptions further contribute and strengthen the insidious inflation psychology that weighs on the economy.

Recommendation: Bankers must be more proactive in identifying borrowers who are particularly vulnerable to growing marketplace pressures by using portfolio analytics to identify credit hotspots, increased stress testing and more robust loan reviews.

2. Post-booking credit servicing is struggling across the industry.
From IntelliCredit’s perspective, garnered through conducting current loan reviews and merger and acquisition due diligence, the post-booking credit servicing area is where most portfolio management deficiencies occur. Reasons include borrowers who lag behind in providing current financials or — even worse — banks experiencing depletions in the credit administration staff that normally performs annual reviews. These talent shortages reflect broader recruitment and retention challenges, and are exacerbated by growing salary inflation.

Recommendation: A new storefront concept may be emerging in community banking. Customer-facing services and products are handled by the bank, and back-shop operational and risk assessment responsibilities are supported in a co-opt style by correspondent banking groups or vendors that are specifically equipped to deliver this type of administrative support.

3. Chasing needed loan growth during a credit cycle shift is risky.
Coming out of the pandemic, community banks have lagged behind larger institutions with regards to robust organic loan growth, net of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Even at the Bank Director 2022 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference, investment bankers reminded commercial bankers of the critical link between sustainable loan growth and their profitability and valuation models. However, the risk-management axiom of “Loans made late in a benign credit cycle are the most toxic” has become a valuable lesson on loan vintages — especially after the credit quality issues that banks experienced during the Great Recession.

Recommendation: Lending, not unlike banking itself, is a balancing game. This should be the time when management teams and boards rededicate themselves to concurrent growth and risk management credit strategies, ensuring that any growth initiatives the bank undertakes are complemented by appropriate risk due diligence.

4. Stakeholders may overreact to any uptick in credit stress.
Given the current risk quality metrics, banker complacency is predictable and understandable. But regulators know, and bankers should understand, that these metrics are trailing indicators, and do not reflect the future impact of emerging, post-pandemic red flags that suggest heightened economic challenges ahead. A second, unexpected consequence resulting from more than a decade of good credit quality is the potential for unwarranted overreactions to a bank’s first signs of credit degradation, no matter how incremental.

Recommendation: It would be better for investors, peers and certainly regulators to temper their instincts to overreact — particularly given the banking industry’s substantial cushion of post Dodd-Frank capital and reserves.

In summary, no one knows the extent of credit challenges to come. Still, respected industry leaders are uttering the word “recession” with increasing frequency. Regarding its two mandates to manage employment and inflation, the Fed right now is clearly biased towards the latter. In the meantime, this strategy could sacrifice banks’ credit quality. With that possibility in mind, my advice is for directors and management teams to position your bank ahead of the curve, and be prepared to write your own credit risk management scripts — before outside stakeholders do it for you.

The Future-Proof Response to Rising Interest Rates

After years of low interest rates, they are on the rise — potentially increasing at a faster rate than the industry has seen in a decade. What can banks do about it?

This environment is in sharp contrast to the situation financial institutions faced as recently as 2019, when banks faced difficulties in raising core deposits. The pandemic changed all that. Almost overnight, loan applications declined precipitously, and businesses drew down their credit lines. At the same time, state and federal stimulus programs boosted deposit and savings rates, causing a severe whipsaw in loan-to-deposit ratios. The personal savings rate — that is, the household share of unspent personal income — peaked at 34% in April 2020, according to research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. To put that in context, the peak savings rate in the 50 years preceding the pandemic was 17.7%.

These trends became even more pronounced with each new round of stimulus payments. The Dallas Fed reports that the share of stimulus recipients saving their payments doubled from 12.5% in the first round to 25% in the third round. The rise in consumers using funds to pay down debt was even more drastic, increasing from 14.6% in round one to 52.3% in round three. Meanwhile, as stock prices remained volatile, the relative safety of bank deposits became more attractive for many consumers — boosting community bank deposit rates.

Now, of course, it’s changing all over again.

“Consumer spending is on the rise, and we’ve seen a decrease in federal stimulus. There’s less cash coming into banks than before,” observes MANTL CRO Mike Bosserman. “We also expect to see an increase in lending activities, which means that banks will need more deposits to fund those loans. And with interest rates going up, other asset classes will become more interesting. Rising interest rates also tend to have an inverse impact on the value of stocks, which increases the expected return on those investments. In the next few months, I would expect to see a shift from cash to higher-earning asset classes — and that will significantly impact growth.

These trends are unfolding in a truly unprecedented competitive landscape. Community banks are have a serious technology disadvantage in comparison to money-center banks, challenger banks and fintechs, says Bosserman. The result is that the number of checking accounts opened by community institutions has been declining for years.

Over the past 25 years, money-center banks have increased their market share at the expense of community financial institutions. The top 15 banks control 56.2% of the overall marketshare, up from 40% roughly 25 years ago. And the rise of new players such as fintechs and neobanks has driven competition to never-before-seen levels.

For many community banks, this is an existential threat. Community banks are critical to maintaining competition and equity in the U.S. financial system. But their role is often overlooked in an industry that is constantly evolving and focused on bigger, faster and shinier features. The average American adult prefers to open their accounts digitally. Institutions that lack the tools to power that experience will have a difficult future — regardless of where interest rates are. For institutions that have fallen behind the digital transformation curve, the opportunity cost of not modernizing is now a matter of survival.

The key to survival will be changing how these institutions think about technology investments.

“Technology isn’t a cost center,” insists Christian Ruppe, vice president of digital banking at the $1.2 billion Horicon Bank. “It’s a profit center. As soon as you start thinking of your digital investments like that — as soon as you change that conversation — then investing a little more in better technology makes a ton of sense.”

The right technology in place allows banks to regain their competitive advantage, says Bosserman. Banks can pivot as a response to events in the macro environment, turning on the tap during a liquidity crunch, then turn it down when deposits become a lower priority. The bottom line for community institutions is that in a rapidly changing landscape, technology is key to fostering the resilience that allows them to embrace the future with confidence.

“That kind of agility will be critical to future-proofing your institution,” he says.

Smart Ways to Find Loan Growth

In a long career focused on credit risk, I’ve never found myself saying that the industry’s biggest lending challenge is finding loans to make.

But no one can ignore the lackluster and even declining demand for new loans pervading most of the industry, a phenomenon recently confirmed by the QwickAnalytics® National Performance Report, a quarterly report of performance metrics and trends based on the QwickAnalytics Community Bank Index.

For its second quarter 2021 report, QwickAnalytics computed call report data from commercial banks $10 billion in assets and below. The analysis put the banks’ average 12-month loan growth at negative -0.43 basis points nationally, with many states showing declines of more than 100 basis points. If not reversed soon, this situation will bring more troubling implications to already thin net interest margins and stressed growth strategies.

The question is: How will banks put their pandemic-induced liquidity to work in the typical, most optimal way — which, of course, is making loans?

Before we look for solutions, let’s take an inventory of some unique and numerous challenges to what we typically regard as opportunities for loan growth.

  • Due to the massive government largess and 2020’s regulatory relief, the coronavirus pandemic has given the industry a complacent sense of comfort regarding credit quality. Most bankers agree with regulators that there is pervasive uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s ultimate effects on credit. Covid-19’s impact on the economy is not over yet.
  • We may be experiencing the greatest economic churn since the advent of the internet itself. The pandemic heavily exacerbated issues including the e-commerce effect, the office space paradigm, struggles of nonprofits (already punished by the tax code’s charitable-giving disincentives), plus the setbacks of every company in the in-person services and the hospitality sectors. As Riverside, California-based The Bank of Hemet CEO Kevin Farrenkopf asks his lenders, “Is it Amazonable?” If so, that’s a market hurdle bankers now must consider.
  • The commercial banking industry is approaching the tipping point where most of the U.S. economy’s credit needs are being met by nonbank lenders or other, much-less regulated entites, offering attractive alternative financing.

So how do banks grow their portfolios in this environment without taking on inordinate risk?

  • Let go of any reluctance to embrace government-guaranteed lending programs from agencies including the Small Business Administration or Farmers Home Administration. While lenders must adhere to their respective protocols, these programs ensure loan growth and fee generation. But perhaps most appealing? When properly documented and serviced, the guaranties offer credit mitigants to loan prospects who, because of Covid-19, are at approval levels below banks’ traditional standards.
  • Given ever-present perils of concentrations, choose a lending niche where your bank has both a firm grasp of the market and the talent and reserves required to manage the risks. Some banks develop these capabilities in disparate industries, ranging from hospitality venues to veterinarian practices. One of the growing challenges for community banks is the impulse to be all things to all prospective borrowers. Know your own bank’s strengths — and weaknesses.
  • Actively pursue purchased loan participations through resources such as correspondent bank networks for bankers, state trade groups and trusted peers.
  • Look for prospects that previously have been less traditional, such as creditworthy providers of services or products that cannot be obtained online.
  • Remember that as society and technology change, new products and services will emerge. Banks must embrace new lending opportunities that accompany these developments, even if they may have been perceived as rooted in alternative lifestyles.
  • In robust growth markets, shed the reluctance to provide — selectively and sanely — some construction lending to help right the out-of-balance supply and demand currently affecting 1 to 4 family housing. No one suggests repeating the excesses of a decade ago. However, limited supply and avoidance of any speculative lending in this segment have created a huge value inflation that is excluding bankers from legitimate lending opportunities at a time when these would be welcomed.

Bankers must remember the lesson from the last banking crisis: Chasing growth using loans made during a competitive environment of lower credit standards always leads to eventual problems when economic stress increases. This is the “lesson on vintages” truism. A July 2019 study from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on failed banks during the Great Recession revealed that loans made under these circumstances were critical contributors to insolvency. Whatever strategies the industry uses to reverse declining loan demand must be matched by vigilant risk management techniques, utilizing the best technology to highlight early warnings within the new subsets of the loan portfolio, a more effective syncing of portfolio analytics, stress testing and even loan review.

Banking KPI Insights: Year-End Metrics of Note

Executives can glean actionable insights from understanding the benchmarks and trends within key performance indicators, or KPI. Here were some of the highlights from 2020 to help you understand trends and benchmark your organization. 

Inhibited Earnings Capacity
The coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting changes in fiscal policy and economic behavior have measurably inhibited earnings capacity for most community banks. Bank balance sheets have grown principally due to government stimulus payments, limited capital investment by small and mid-sized businesses and a general flight to quality by consumers.

The fourth quarter of 2020 recorded continued strong capital levels — along with challenges in earnings growth due to historically low net interest margins. Expectations that the pandemic will persist well into 2021, assurances of continued government assistance and the continuation of low interest rates into the foreseeable future mean that change is unlikely in the coming months.

Return on Average Equity
Community bank profitability of 8.90%, in relation to average equity, was relatively stable when compared to the previous three quarters of 2020, as well as the fourth quarter of 2019. For most community banks, continued low interest rates, excess liquidity and limited loan demand all restricted profitability. In addition, cost reduction opportunities arising from technology investments and staff reductions appear to have stabilized. Loan loss provisions continued to be relatively low; credit quality remained favorable, in part due to the benefits of government stimulus.

Non-interest Income to Net Income
Non-interest income grew to 13.17% of total income during the fourth quarter of 2020, compared to an average of 11.60% for the trailing four quarters. This reflects the combination of continued downward pressure on net interest margin, which remained constant at 3.35%, and efforts to expand fee-based income, such as higher fee levels on deposit accounts. Given the Federal Reserve’s intention to keep interest rates low for the foreseeable future and the likelihood of tempered loan demand, this trend should continue throughout 2021.

Credit, Credit Quality
Credit demand for community banks continued to decline through the fourth quarter. Keeping in mind that that the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP2) didn’t launch until January 2021, the community bank space saw loan to deposit ratios decline to 74.15% at the end of 2020. This compares to 82.09% at the end of 2019, and an average of 79.4% for full-year 2020. The decline is somewhat muted by the first round of PPP (PPP1) loans issued by community banks, although the majority of PPP1 loans were issued by large banks.

Credit quality remains favorable, due to the benefits of government stimulus and limited loan demand. Nonperforming loans totaled just 0.53% of loans. Average loan loss allowance levels held steady at 1.30% of total loans at the end of 2020. In some instances, banks recaptured provisions for loan losses recognized during the first half of 2020.  We anticipate a more-normalized loan loss provision curve in 2021, subject to the duration of the pandemic, the effectiveness of government stimulus and fiscal policy.

Efficiency Ratio
Cost management continues to be a challenge. Notably, the benefits of technology investments have either been fully realized or limited due to the absence of loan demand. The operating inefficiency of branches in an increasingly virtual environment drove the largest increase in the industry’s efficiency ratio, from an average of 63.35% for the previous two quarters to 66.82% in the forth quarter of 2020. As community banks continue assessing the shift to digital banking and the emergence of nonbank alternatives, we expect more changes to branch networks and technology investments as a way to increase operating efficiency.

Merger and acquisition (M&A) insights
Certainly, 2020 represented the quietest year in recent history as to the number and size of community bank acquisitions. For the most part, both buyers and sellers paused to assess the strategic and economic value of deals, as well as to focus on the uncertainties and operational demands arising from the pandemic and the political and regulatory landscape.

We believe 2021 will represent the restart of the rapid consolidation of the community bank sector based on recent elections, the promise of an economic recovery fueled by continued government stimulus and a  successful distribution of vaccines. We believe more appealing pricing dynamics for both buyers and sellers will emerge as the economy stabilizes and small and mid-sized businesses  reopen. Lastly, the evolution of fintechs and the broader acceptance of these solutions by consumers, businesses and regulators will likely motivate community bankers to engage in targeted and strategic transactions.

Download the full KPI report
Understanding how your bank measures up within the industry is critical to achieving long-term success. Download Baker Tilly’s most recent banking industry benchmarking report to give you meaning behind the numbers.

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.

Beware Third-Quarter Credit Risk

Could credit quality finally crack in the third quarter?

Banks spent the summer and fall risk-rating loans that had been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and recession at the same time they tightened credit and financial standards for second-round deferral requests. The result could be that second-round deferrals substantially fall just as nonaccruals and criticized assets begin increasing.

Bankers must stay vigilant to navigate these two diametric forces.

“We’re in a much better spot now, versus where we were when this thing first hit,” says Corey Goldblum, a principal in Deloitte’s risk and financial advisory practice. “But we tell our clients to continue proactively monitoring risk, making sure that they’re identifying any issues, concerns and exposures, thinking about what obligors will make it through and what happens if there’s another outbreak and shutdown.”

Eight months into the pandemic, the suspension of troubled loan reporting rules and widespread forbearance has made it difficult to ascertain the true state of credit quality. Noncurrent loan and net charge-off volumes stayed “relatively low” in the second quarter, even as provisions skyrocketed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. noted in its quarterly banking profile.

The third quarter may finally reveal that nonperforming assets and net charge-offs are trending higher, after two quarters of proactive reserve builds, John Rodis, director of banks and thrifts at Janney Montgomery Scott, wrote in an Oct. 6 report. He added that the industry will be closely watching for continued updates on loan modifications.

Banks should continue performing “vulnerability assessments,” both across their loan portfolios and in particular subsets that may be more vulnerable, 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.

“Banks need to ensure that they are actively having those conversations with their customers,” he says. “In areas that have some vulnerability, they need to take a look at fresh forecasts.”

Both Watkins and Goldblum recommend that banks conduct granular, loan-level credit reviews with the most current information, when possible. Goldblum says this is an area where institutions can leverage analytics, data and technology to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of these reviews.

Going forward, banks should use the experiences gained from navigating the credit uncertainty in the first and second quarter to prepare for any surprise subsequent weakening in credit. They should assess whether their concentrations are manageable, their monitoring programs are strong and their loan rating systems are responsive and realistic. They also should keep a watchful eye on currently performing loans where borrower financials may be under pressure.

It is paramount that banks continue to monitor the movement of these risks — and connect them to other variables within the bank. Should a bank defer a loan or foreclose? Is persistent excess liquidity a sign of customer surplus, or a warning sign that they’re holding onto cash? Is loan demand a sign of borrower strength or stress? The pandemic-induced recession is now eight months old and yet the industry still lacks clarity into its credit risk.

“All these things could mean anything,” Watkins says. “That’s why [banks need] strong monitoring and controls, to make sure that you’re really looking behind these trends and are prepared for that. We’re in uncertain and unprecedented times, and there will be important lessons that’ll come out of this crisis.”

Evaluating Executives’ 2020 Performance

Bank boards know that the world has shifted dramatically since January, when they drafted  individual executives’ performance expectations. Using those outdated evaluations now may be a fruitless exercise.

As the impact of the pandemic and the social justice movements continue to unfold across the United States, boards may not feel that they have much more clarity on performance expectations currently than they did back in March. At many banks, credit quality has replaced loan volume as the key operating priority. Unprecedented interest rate cuts have further deteriorated earnings power.

Many boards of directors are revisiting how to evaluate the executive team’s individual performance for fiscal year 2020, considering these new realities for their businesses. Individual performance evaluations are a tool for evaluating leadership behaviors and abilities; as such, it sends a clear indication of what the board values from their leaders. After a year like this, all stakeholders will be interested to know what the board prioritized for their bank’s leadership. 

Considerations for Updated Individual Performance Evaluations
This year has been defined by unprecedented developments that broadly and deeply impact all stakeholders. More than any other industry, banks have been called on to support the country using every tool in their toolkit. Reflecting this broad impact, bank boards may find it useful to establish a revised framework for evaluating leadership performance using six “Critical Cs” for 2020:

  • Continuity of Business: How quickly and effectively was the bank able to transition to a new operating model (including remote work arrangements, staffing essential workers in office or branch, etc.) and minimize business disruption?
  • Customer Satisfaction: How were customers impacted by the change in the operating model? If measured, how did the scores vary from a normal year?
  • Credit Quality: Where are the trends moving and how are executives responding? Did the institution face legacy issues that took some time to address and may be compounding current issues?
  • Capital Management: What balance sheet actions did executives take to strengthen the bank’s position for the future?
  • Coworker Wellbeing: What was the “tone at the top”? How did executives respond to the needs of employees? If measured, how did the bank’s engagement scores vary from other years?
  • Community Support: What did the bank do to lead in our communities? How effective was the bank in delivering government stimulus programs like the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program?

For publicly-traded banks, the compensation discussion and analysis section of the proxy statement should provide a thorough description of the rationale and process used for realigning these criteria and the evaluation approach used to assess performance. Operating results are likely to be well below early-year expectations for most banks; as a result, shareholders will be keenly interested in how leadership responded to the current environment and how that informed pay decisions by the board.

This year has created an unprecedented opportunity to test the leadership abilities of the executive team. Using the six “Critical Cs” will help boards assess the performance of their leadership teams in crises, craft a descriptive rationale for compensation decisions for fiscal year 2020, as well as evaluate leadership abilities for the future.

When it Comes to Loan Quality, Who Knows?

Seven months into the Covid-19 pandemic, which has flipped the U.S. economy into a deep recession, it’s still difficult to make an accurate assessment of the banking industry’s loan quality.

When states locked down their economies and imposed shelter-in-place restrictions last spring, the impact on a wide range of companies and businesses was both immediate and profound. Federal bank regulators encouraged banks to offer troubled borrowers temporary loan forbearance deferring payments for 90 days or more.

The water was further muddied by passage of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, which included the Paycheck Protection Program – aimed at a broad range of small business borrowers – as well as weekly $600 supplemental unemployment payments, which enabled individuals to continuing making their consumer loan repayments. The stimulus made it hard to discriminate between borrowers capable of weathering the storm on their own and those kept afloat by the federal government.

The CARES Act undoubtedly kept the recession from being even worse, but most of its benefits have expired, including the PPP and supplemental unemployment payments. Neither Congress nor President Donald Trump’s administration have been able to agree on another aid package, despite statements by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and many economists that the economy will suffer even more damage without additional relief. And with the presidential election just two months away, it may be expecting too much for such a contentious issue to be resolved by then.

We expect charge-offs to increase rapidly as borrowers leave forbearance and government stimulus programs [end],” says Andrea Usai, associate managing director at Moody’s Investors Service and co-author of the recent report, “High Volume of Payment Deferrals Clouds a True Assessment of Credit Quality.”

Usai reasons that if there’s not a CARES Act II in the offing, banks will become more selective in granting loan forbearance to their business borrowers. Initially, banks were strongly encouraged by their regulators to offer these temporary accommodations to soften the blow to the economy. “And the impression that we have is that the lenders were quite generous in granting some short-term relief because of the very, very acute challenges that households and other borrowers were facing,” Usai says.

But without another fiscal relief package to help keep some of these businesses from failing, banks may start cutting their losses. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of loan forbearance. “They will continue to do that, but will be a little more careful about which clients they are going to further grant this type of concessions to,” he says.

For analysts like Usai, getting a true fix on a bank’s asset quality is complicated by the differences in disclosure and forbearance activity from one institution to another.  “Disclosure varies widely, further limiting direct comparisons of practices and risk,” the report explains. “Disclosure of consumer forbearance levels was more comprehensive than that of commercial forbearance levels, but some banks reported by number of accounts and others by balance. Also, some lenders reported cumulative levels versus the current level as of the end of the quarter.”

Usai cites Ally Financial, which reported that 21% of its auto loans were in forbearance in the second quarter, compared to 12.7% for PNC Financial Services Group and 10% for Wells Fargo & Co. Usai says that Ally was very proactive in reaching out to its borrowers and offering them forbearance, which could partially explain its higher percentage.

“The difference could reflect a different credit quality of the loan book,” he says. “But also, this approach might have helped them materially increase the percentage of loans in forbearance.” Without being able to compare how aggressively the other banks offered their borrowers loan forbearance, it’s impossible to know whether you’re comparing apples to apples — or apples to oranges.

If loan charge-offs do begin to rise in the third and fourth quarters of this year, it doesn’t necessarily mean that bank profits will decline as a result. The impact to profitability occurs when a bank establishes a loss reserve. When a charge-off occurs, a debit is made against that reserve.

But a change in accounting for loss reserves has further clouded the asset quality picture for banks. Many larger institutions opted to adopt the new current expected credit losses (CECL) methodology at the beginning of the year. Under the previous approach, banks would establish a reserve after a loan had become non-performing and there was a reasonable expectation that a loss would occur. Under CECL, banks must establish a reserve when a loan is first made. This forces them to estimate ahead of time the likelihood of a loss based on a reasonable and supportable future forecast and historical data.

Unfortunately, banks that implemented CECL this year made their estimates just when the U.S. economy was experiencing its sharpest decline since the Great Depression and there was little historical data on loan performance to rely upon. “If their assumptions about the future are much more pessimistic then they were in the previous quarter, you might have additional [loan loss] provisions being taken,” Usai says.

And that could mean that bank profitability will take additional hits in coming quarters.