Deposit Costs Creep Up Following Rate Increases

The rapidly rising interest rate environment is beginning to impact the funding dynamics at banks as deposit competition increases and they pay up for time deposits.

While rising rates are generally good for lending, the unrelenting climb in interest rates hasn’t been uniformly positive for banks. Since the pandemic, many banks have had historic deposit growth and liquidity. The aggressive and continuous rising interest rate environment could change that

There was a 1.1% drop in total deposits at all Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-chartered banks in the third quarter, according to a November report from analysts at Janney Montgomery Scott. Excluding time deposits like certificates of deposits, or CDs, core deposits dropped 2%. But over that time, 40% of banks reported positive deposit growth in excess of 1%. That could mean that as core deposits leave banks, they are growing time deposits. 

The median cost of deposits for banks in the Kroll Bond Rating Agency universe more than doubled in the third quarter to 37 basis points. 

“No longer content with letting the hot money exit, this sharp increase in deposit costs is the product of a strategy of rate increases designed to stem outflows of less sticky or rate sensitive deposits,” wrote KBRA in a Nov. 15 report.  

One reason for this deposit shift is consumers and businesses are leveraging technology to move their funds into higher rate accounts. Core deposit outflows in future quarters could be unpredictable for institutions: they might happen at a faster pace or higher volume than a bank is prepared for, or a few large, important deposit relationships may leave. This could deplete available cash on hand that an institution would use for ongoing operations or to fund new loan opportunities. 

“The last time we went through a significantly rising rate environment, in the 1970s, money market funds did not exist. People were captive to the bank,” says Nate Tobik, CEO of CompleteBankData and author of “The Bank Investor’s Handbook.” “Now we’re [repeating] the ‘70s, except there are alternatives.”

One option banks had in the past to raise short-term liquidity — selling securities marked as available for sale (AFS) — may be off the table for the time being. The bank space carried a total unrealized loss, mostly tied to bonds, of more than $450 billion in the second quarter, according to the FDIC. This loss is recorded outside of net income, in a call report line item called accumulated other comprehensive income. Selling AFS securities right now would mean the bank needs to record the loss. 

“Over the past couple weeks, we have had multiple discussions with community bankers that have been very focused on deposit generation,” wrote attorney Jeffrey Gerrish, of Gerrish Smith Tuck, in a late October client newsletter. “Unfortunately, many of these community banks have a securities portfolio that is so far under water they really don’t see the ability to sell any securities to generate cash because they cannot afford to take the loss. This is a very common scenario and will result in a pretty healthy competition for deposits over the next 12 to 24 months.”

In response, banks will need to consider other options to raise alternative funds fast. Noncore funding can include brokered CDs, wholesale funding or advances from the Federal Home Loan Banks system. Tobik says CDs appeal to banks because they are relatively easy to raise and are “time deterministic” — the funding is locked for the duration of the certificate. 

All of those products come at a higher rate that could erode the bank’s profit margin. 

Another ratio to watch at this time is the liquidity ratio, wrote Janney analysts in a Nov. 21 report. The liquidity ratio, which compares liquid assets to total liabilities, is used by examiners as a more “holistic” alternative to ratios like loans-to-deposits. The median liquidity ratio for all publicly traded banks at the end of the third quarter was 20%, with most banks falling in a distribution curve ranging from 10% to 25%.

The 20% median is still 4% higher than the median ratio in the fourth quarter of 2019. The effective federal funds rate got as high as 2.4% in summer 2019, compared to 3.08% in October. Janney did find that banks between $1 billion and $10 billion had “relatively lower levels” of liquidity compared to their smaller and bigger peers.

But for now, they see little to worry about, but a lot to keep their eyes on. “Our analysis shows that while liquidity has tightened slightly by several measures since a [fourth quarter 2021] peak, banks still maintain much higher levels of liquidity than prior to the pandemic and have plenty of capacity to take on additional wholesale funding as needed to supplement their core funding bases,” they wrote.

Going forward, banks will need to balance the tension between managing their liquidity profile and keeping their cost of funds low. What is the line between excess liquidity and adequate liquidity? How many deposit relationships need to leave any given bank before it starts a liquidity crunch? What is cost of paying more for existing deposits, versus the potential cost of bringing in wholesale or brokered deposits? 

The answers will be different for every bank, but every bank needs to have these answers.

Student Loans Come Due

Just as the Federal Reserve raises rates and inflation hits a 40-year high, Americans with federal student loan debt will start making payments on the debt after a two-year pause. On Aug. 31, the Department of Education will require 41 million people with student loans to begin paying again. 

According to the Federal Reserve, about one in five Americans have federal student loan debt and they saved $5 billion per month from the forbearance. It’s safe to say that a lot of people are going to struggle to restart those payments again and some of them work for banks.

The good news is that there are new employee programs that can help. One CARES Act provision allowed companies to pay up to $5,250 toward an employee’s student loans without a negative tax hit for the employee. Ally Financial, Fidelity Investments, SoFi Technologies, and First Republic Bank are a few of the many financial companies offering this benefit to employees. First Republic launched its program in 2016, after its purchase of the fintech Gradifi, which helps employers repay their employees’ loans. These programs typically pay between $100 and $200 a month on an employee’s loans, and usually have a cap.

The 2020 Bank Director Compensation Survey shows that 29% of financial institutions offered student loan repayment assistance to some or all employees. Many of those programs discontinued when the student forgiveness program started. In the anticipation of government forbearance coming to a close, now is a good time to think about restarting your program or even developing one. 

Americans now hold $1.59 trillion in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. How did we get here? College got more expensive— much more expensive. 

Earlier this summer, the Federal Reserve and Aspen Institute had a joint summit to discuss household debt and its chilling effect on wealth building. The average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has risen 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%, according to EducationData.org.

At the same time, wages have not shown much inflation-adjusted growth. ProPublica found in 2018 that the real average wage of workers, after accounting for inflation, has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And inflation in 2022 has far outpaced wage increases. Some economists speculate that any pandemic-era wage increases are effectively nullified by this rapid inflation.

Not all borrowers are equally impacted. Sixteen percent of graduates will have a debt-to-income ratio of over 20% from their student loans alone, according to the website lendedu.com, while another 28% will have a DTI of over 15%. The 44% of graduates with that level of debt exiting school will face a steep climb to meaningful wealth building. The students that didn’t graduate will have an even harder climb.

Those graduates who struggle with their student loans will be less likely to buy a home or more likely to delay home ownership. They will be less likely to take on business debt or save for retirement. Housing prices have risen in tandem with education prices. The “starter home” of generations past has become unattainable to many millennial and Gen Z debt holders.

More than half of borrowers owe $20,000 or less. Seven percent of people with federal debt owe more than $100,000, according to The Washington Post. Economists at the Federal Reserve say borrowers with the least amount of debt often have difficulty repaying their loans, especially if they didn’t finish their degree. Conversely, people with the highest loan balances are often current on their payments. It’s likely that people with higher loan debt generally have higher education levels and incomes.

The Aspen Institute published a book known as “The Future of Building Wealth: Brief Essays on the Best Ideas to Build Wealth — for Everyone,” in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It illuminates long-term solutions for financial planning, focusing on policies and programs that could be applied at a national scale. 

In the absence of these national solutions, some employers are taking the matter into their own hands with company policies designed to help employees with student debt. Those banks are making a difference for their own employees and are part of the solution. 

Inflation, Interest Rates and ‘Inevitable’ Recession Complicate Risks

What is the bigger risk to banks: inflation, or the steps the Federal Reserve is taking to bring it to heel?

Community banks are buffeted by an increasingly complicated operating environment, said speakers at Bank Director’s 2022 Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference in Chicago, held June 13 to 15. In rather fortuitous timing, the conference occurred in advance of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee’s June meeting, where expectations were high for another potential increase in the federal funds rate. 

On one hand, inflation remains high. On the other hand, rapidly increasing interest rates aimed at interrupting inflation are also increasing risk for banks — and could eventually put the economy into a tailspin. Accordingly, interest rates and the potential for a recession were the biggest issues that could impact banks over the next 12 to 18 months, according to a pop up poll of some 250 people attending the event.  

Brandon Koeser, a financial services senior analyst at audit and consulting firm RSM US, said that inflation is the “premier risk” to the economic outlook right now. He called the consumer price index trend line “astonishing” — and its upward path may still have some momentum, given persistently high energy prices. Just days prior, on June 10, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the CPI increased 1% in May, to 8.6% over the last 12 months. 

Koeser also pointed out that inflation is morphing, broadening from goods into services. That “rotation” creates a stickiness in the market that will be harder for the Federal Reserve to fight, increasing the odds that inflation persists.

It is “paramount” that the economy regain some semblance of price stability, Koeser said. In response, central bankers are increasing the pace, and potential size, of federal fund rate increases. But jacking up rates to lower prices without causing a recession is a blunt approach akin to “trying to thread a needle wearing boxing gloves,” he said.

While higher interest rates are generally good for banks, an inflationary environment could dampen loan growth while intensifying interest rate and credit risk, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s 2022 Risk Review. Inflation could lead consumers to cut back on spending, leading to lower business sales, and it could make it harder for borrowers to afford their payments.

At the same time, banks awash in pandemic liquidity added longer-term assets in 2021 in an attempt to capture some yield. Assets with maturities that were longer than three years made up 39% of assets at banks in 2021, compared with 36% in 2019, according to the FDIC. Community banks were even more vulnerable. Longer-term assets made up 52% of total assets at community banks at the end of 2021.

Managing this interest rate risk could be a challenge for banks that lack institutional knowledge of this unique environment. Kyle Manny, a partner at audit and consulting firm Plante Moran, pointed out that many banks are staffed with individuals who weren’t working in the industry in the 1980s or prior. He shared an anecdote of a seasoned banker who admitted he was “caught flat footed” by taking too much risk on the yield curve in the securities portfolio, and was now paying the price after the fair value of those assets fell. 

And high enough rates may ultimately send the economy into a recession. In Koeser’s poll of the audience, about 34% of audience members believe a recession will occur within the next six months; another 36% saw one as likely occurring in the next six to 12 months. Koeser said he doesn’t think it’s “impossible” for the central bank to avert a recession with a soft landing — but the margin for error is getting so small that a downturn may be “inevitable.”

Banks have limited options in the face of such macroeconomic trends, but they can still manage their own credit risk. David Ruffin, principal at credit risk analytics firm IntelliCredit, a division of Qwickrate, said that credit metrics today are the most “pristine” he had seen in his nearly 50 years in the industry. Still, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and inflation could hide emerging credit risk on community bank portfolios. Kamal Mustafa, chairman of the strategic advisory firm Invictus Group, advised bankers to dig into their loan categories, industry by industry, to analyze how different borrowers will be impacted by these countervailing forces. Not all businesses in a specific industry will be impacted equally, he said.

So while banks can’t control the environment, they can at least understand their own loan books. 

The Unlimited Potential of Embedded Banking

With fewer resources and smaller customer bases, community banks often find themselves on the losing end of a tug-of-war game when getting involved in emerging technologies. But that’s where embedded banking is a game-changer.

Embedded banking offers every financial institution — regardless of size — a chance to grab market share of this relatively untapped, billion-dollar opportunity.

Embedding financial services into non-financial applications is a market that could be worth almost $230 billion in revenues by 2025, according to a report from Lightyear Capital. That means forward-thinking community banks could see a big upside if they make the strategic investment — as could their non-bank partners. And those companies that are orchestrating integrations behind the scenes could also reap rewards in the form of subscription or transactional services. And ultimately, end users will benefit from the seamless experience this technology provides. While it’s a winning proposition for all, a successful embedded finance operation involves preparation and strategy. Let’s take a closer look at the four players who stand to benefit with embedded banking.

Community Banks: Building Reach
As community banks retool their strategies to adapt to more digital users, they also face growing challenges from digital-only neobanks and fintechs to retain their existing customers. They will need innovative features on-par with their big-budgeted competitors to thrive in the space.

Embedded banking is a legitimate chance for these banks to stake out a competitive advantage. Embedded banking, a subset of banking as a service (BaaS), allows digital banks and other third parties to connect with banks’ systems directly via application programming interfaces, or APIs. Today, 70% of banks that sponsor BaaS opportunities have less than $10 billion in assets. The cost to compete is low, and the services that non-bank entities are seeking are already available on banking platforms.

To start, institutions work with a technology company that can build APIs that can extend their financial services, then identify partners looking to embed these services on their digital platform. A best-case scenario is finding a digital banking partner that can deliver the API piece and has connections with potential embedded banking partners. Once a bank has an embedded banking strategy in place, expansion opportunities are unlimited. There are numerous non-bank partners across many industry verticals, offering entirely new customers at a lower cost of a typical customer acquisition. And these partnerships will also bring new loans, deposits and payment transactions that the bank wouldn’t otherwise have.

Nonbanks: Retaining Customers, Bolstering Satisfaction
Companies outside of the finance industry are rapidly recognizing how this technology can benefit them. Customer purchases, loans or money transfers can all be facilitated using services from a bank partner via APIs. Companies can offer valuable, in-demand financial services with a seamless user experience for existing customers — and this innovation can fuel organic growth. Additionally, the embedded banking partnership generates vast amounts of customer data, which companies can use to enhance personalization and bolster customer loyalty.

Consumers: Gaining Convenience, Personalization
Making interactions stickier is key to getting consumers to spend more time on a website. Sites should be feature-rich and comprehensive, so users don’t need to leave to perform other functions. Embedding functionality for relevant financial tasks within the platform allows users to both save time and spend more time, while giving them valuable financial products from their trusted brand. They also benefit from data sharing that generates personalized content and offers.

Tech Companies: Growing Partnerships, New Opportunities
Technology providers act as the conduit between the financial institution’s services and the non-bank partner’s experience. These providers — usually API-focused fintech companies — facilitate the open banking technology and connections. By keeping the process running smoothly, they benefit from positive platform growth, the creation of extensible embedded banking tools that they can reuse and revenue generated from subscription or transaction fees.

Everyone’s a Winner
This wide-open embedded banking market has the potential to be a game changer for so many entities. The good news is there is still plenty of room for new participants.

The Emerging Impacts of Covid Stimulus on Bank Balance Sheets

In the middle of 2020, while some consumers were stockpiling essentials like water and hand sanitizer, many businesses were shoring up their cash reserves. Companies across the country were scrambling to build their war chests by cutting back on expenses, drawing from lines of credit and tapping into the Small Business Administration’s massive new Paycheck Protection Program credit facility.

The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be a long and painful journey, and that businesses would need cash in order to remain solvent and survive. Though this was true for some firms, 2020 was a year of record growth and profitability for many others. Further, as the SBA began forgiving PPP loans in 2021, many companies experienced a financial windfall. The result for community banks, though, has been a surplus of deposits on their balance sheets that bankers are struggling to deploy.

This issue is exacerbated by a decrease in loan demand. Prior to the pandemic, community banks could generally count on loan growth keeping up with deposit growth; for many banks, deposits were historically the primary bottleneck to their loan production. At the start of 2020, deposit growth began to rapidly outpace loans. By the second quarter of 2021, loan levels were nearly stagnant compared to the same quarter last year.

Another way to think about this dynamic is through the lens of loan-to-deposit (LTD) ratios. The sector historically maintained LTDs in the mid-1980s, but has recently seen a highly unusual dip under 75%.

While these LTDs are reassuring for regulators from a safety and soundness perspective, underpinning the increased liquidity at banks, they also present a challenge. If bankers can’t deploy these deposits into interest-generating loans, what other options exist to offset their cost of funds?

The unfortunate reality for banks is that most of these new deposits came in the form of demand accounts, which require such a high degree of liquidity that they can’t be invested for any meaningful level of yield. And, if these asset and liability challenges weren’t enough, this surge in demand deposits effectively replaced a stalled demand for more desirable timed deposits.

Banks have approached these challenges from both sides of the balance sheet. On the asset side, it is not surprising that banks have been stuck parking an increasing portion of the sector’s investment assets in low-yield interest-bearing bank accounts.

On the liabilities side, community banks that are flush with cash have prudently trimmed their more expensive sources of funds, including reducing Federal Home Loan Banks short-term borrowings by 53%. This also may be partially attributable to the unusual housing market of high prices and low volumes that stemmed from the pandemic.

As the pandemic subsides and SBA origination fees become a thing of the past, shareholders will be looking for interest income to rebound, while regulators keep a close eye on risk profiles at an institutional level. Though it’s too soon to know how this will all shake out, it’s encouraging to remember that we’re largely looking at a profile of conservative community banks. For every Treasury department at a mega bank that is aggressively chasing yield, there are hundreds of community bank CEOs that are strategically addressing these challenges with their boards as rational and responsible fiduciaries.

Visit https://www.otcmarkets.com/market-data/qaravan-bank-data to learn more about how Qaravan can help banks understand their balance sheets relative to peers and benchmarks.

What’s Driving Interest in Bank Primacy?

Becoming a valued client’s primary commercial bank — or primacy –– has been a hot topic during our daily conversations with bankers. At some point during those discussions, how to define and achieve primacy is bound to come up.

But primacy is not a brand-new concept. So why has it vaulted in recent months to the top of the to-do list at many commercial banks? We dug into the PrecisionLender pricing database to look for potential explanations.

The lending environment since the start of the pandemic in 2020 has not been a friendly one for bankers that build relationships purely around credit. Thanks to decreases in rates that weren’t always accompanied by similar declines in funding costs, the return on equity for credit-only relationships has declined more than 200 basis points in the past 24 months.

Cohort Group of Credit-Only Relationships

Profitability Trends

At the same time, deposits aren’t helping banks. In the previous market cycles, deposits were extremely attractive: They were a way to maintain, or even improve, spreads by lower funding costs. But right now, deposit costs aren’t really much lower than other wholesale funding options. Even though these relationships have experienced significant deposit growth in the past two years, that’s only been enough for banks to tread water when it comes to return on equity.

We then looked at a third group of commercial relationships. This group started off as credit only, but expanded to include both deposits and ancillary fee-based business. This group is the type of primary relationship that banks are now focused on winning: clients who keep a substantial portion, if not all, of their accounts with the same institution. The return on equity payoff is handsome – an average increase of about 190 basis points over the past two years.

Cohort Group of Relationships – Cross-Sell Growth

Profitability Trends

Bankers will often argue there are situations where it’s worth it to book a credit-only deal. We looked a variety of banks, from a wide range of geographies and asset sizes, and found that to be true — but only in a very select set of situations.

Credit-Only Accounts: Spread Over COF vs. ROE by Size



Depending on the bank’s targets for return on equity, small business loans can be profitable even without cross-selling other products or reservices. But as loan sizes rise and margins narrow, the return on credit-only relationships drops markedly. In some cases, such as Bank B, bankers may end up booking large loans that actually have a negative return on equity. But perhaps that relationship is only meant to stay credit-only for a brief time. Even if the return isn’t great initially, it can be worth it to land the initial, credit-only relationship with the hopes of expanding later, right?

In theory, yes. In reality, credit-only is not a temporary status for a considerable number of commercial relationships. Winning ancillary business takes time; sometimes it never happens. Nearly a third of credit-only relationships started between 2016 and 2019 have yet to add any non-credit accounts. We found 15% of relationships started more than 10 years were still credit-only today.

Credit-Only Incidence as of August 2021

By Relationship Start Date

In previous research, we’ve found that banks have historically failed to reprice credits over time, even when anticipated cross-selling opportunities did not materialize. This left the portfolio with underperforming relationships that dragged down performance for years.

The case for credit-only relationships gets even weaker when compared to broader relationships that encompass credits, deposits and fee-based services. Obviously, bankers know “broader is better,” but they not have realized just how much better these relationships are for the portfolio.

Credit-Only vs. Broader Relationships

Relationship ROE by Size of Credit Relationship



Taken together, this data explains why primacy is the topic du jour at many commercial banks. Simply lending your way past the stress that 2020 put on your bank’s portfolio isn’t an option; it can actually be a game of diminishing returns that could drag on for years. Adding deposits — something banks have had no trouble doing over the past two years — may only be enough to keep your bank running in place. To make a significant impact on the bottom line, your bank needs to achieve primacy through broader relationships with your most-valued clients. That’s why everyone’s talking about primacy now. But the smart banks are doing more than just talking; they’re adding processes and investing in technology to make primacy a reality.

Why Record Deposit Growth Should Spur Funding Rebalancing

Is there such thing as a gold lining?

In a year with seemingly constant crises, finding silver linings has been crucial in maintaining optimism and planning for a post-pandemic future. Banks have faced myriad challenges, but core deposit growth may represent a fundamental strategic advantage for profitability enhancement.

Total FDIC-insured domestic bank deposit balances increased by nearly 18%, or just under $2.6 trillion, over the first nine months of 2020. While government stimulus efforts and the Federal Reserve’s return to a zero interest rate policy are driving factors, higher levels of deposits should remain on bank balance sheets into the foreseeable future. Forward-thinking banks should be proactive in repositioning this funding to aid profitability improvement for years to come. Core deposit growth gives banks a chance to reduce exposure to higher cost non-transaction deposits, brokered deposits, repurchase agreements and borrowings. But despite this year’s massive deposit inflows, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reports that other borrowed funds have only declined by 12%, or $167 billion, over the first nine months of 2020.

Higher loan-loss provisioning in 2020 has strained net income across the banking sector, reducing net operating income to levels not seen since the Great Recession. This may make the costs of funding restructuring — such as prepayment fees or relationship discounts on loan pricing — seem like exorbitant earnings constraints, representing an impediment to action. We believe this is short-sighted.

Economic weakness and macro uncertainty has tempered loan growth, and forced banks to maintain larger balances of lower-yielding liquid assets on the asset side of the balance sheet. Most community banks remain heavily reliant on net interest income to drive higher operating revenues. But net interest margin pressure has accelerated in 2020; combined with negligible core loan growth (excluding participation in the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program), operating revenues have been stuck in neutral. As a result, return on equity and return on assets metrics have suffered.

There are three reasons why banks should judiciously adjust their funding profiles while the yield curve maintains a positive slope and before competitive factors limit alternatives.

Driving higher core deposit balances in challenging economic times through above-peer rates not only promotes growth, but engenders customer goodwill and loyalty. Banks have the luxury of growing customer deposit balances by increasing their offered interest rates, which  can be offset by reducing the reliance on higher-cost borrowings. Furthermore, assuming the Federal Reserve’s interest rate policy stays in place for several years, future opportunities will emerge to gradually adjust core deposit products’ rates. 

Funding adjustments provide the chance to rethink deposit products, loans or investments that may no longer be core to the business strategy. Liability restructuring can be the impetus for corresponding changes to the asset side of the balance sheet. Perhaps certain loan categories are no longer strategic, or investment securities have moved beyond risk parameters. Asset and liability rebalancing can refresh and refocus these efforts. 

Banks with higher core deposits as a percentage of total deposits higher tangible book value (TBV) multiples than peers. Our research at Janney shows that for all publicly traded banks, price-to-TBV multiples are 15% higher for banks with core deposit ratios above 80% compared to banks with less than 80% core deposit ratios. Better funding should also result in a higher core deposit premium, when a more-normalized M&A environment returns.

Nobody expects banks to perfectly forecast the future, but it would be a low-probability wager to assume that Fed intervention and the current interest rate policy will remain in place indefinitely. Banks that allow market forces to dictate deposit pricing and borrowings exposure without taking action are missing a huge opportunity. Making mindful funding decisions today to reduce reliance on non-core liabilities lays the groundwork for changes in future profitability and shareholder value.

Navigating Troubled, Murky Waters

Banks face a cloudy future as they navigate today’s unique environment, characterized by an economic downturn — caused by a health crisis rather than an asset bubble or industry malfeasance — and a prolonged low-rate environment.

“This downturn is different,” says Steve Turner, a managing director at Empyrean Solutions who has focused on balance sheet management and risk over his multi-decade career.

“All of the problems in the last downturn, you pretty much knew where you were. You could look at your balance sheet, you could look at the credit profiles,” he continues. But this time, “we have such a wide range of things that could be happening to us over the next number of months and years.”

With that in mind, Turner joined me as co-host for a virtual peer exchange on Aug. 5, where 10 chief financial officers shared their perspectives on how they’re planning for loan losses and handling the deposit glut, and the lessons they learned from the last crisis.

Asset Quality Remains Strong … For Now
So far, these CFOs aren’t seeing indicators of weakness in their markets. Yet, their experience in the industry tells them that losses are coming. How does a bank still using the incurred loss model justify a loan allowance that aligns with U.S. accounting principles and still prepares it for what history tells them is inevitable?

“The allowance, we’re struggling with that a little bit,” says Suzanne Loken, CFO at $1.3 billion S.B.C.P. Bancorp in Cross Plains, Wisconsin. “Just looking at our data, we don’t see the losses coming through.”

The bank provides talking points to lenders so they can conduct structured conversations with troubled clients, she adds.

Banks are doing their best to monitor the environment, sometimes employing a deeper analysis so they can better assess any potential damage. Joseph Chybowski, CFO at $2.8 billion Bridgewater Bancshares, shares that his team at the Bloomington, Minnesota-based bank created a tenant rental database to better identify troubled areas. “[It’s] a much more granular look on a go-forward basis of what our borrowers’ tenant bases look like,” he explains.

Focus on Deposits, Funding Costs
Arkadelphia, Arkansas-based Southern Bancorp planned to jettison its excess liquidity in 2020, as part of its strategy to improve earnings and profitability. Instead, Paycheck Protection Program loans have swelled the balance sheet of the $1.5 billion community development financial institution (CDFI). “And when these loans are forgiven, our excess liquidity is going to almost double from that perspective,” says CFO Christopher Wewers. “So, [we’re] working hard to drive down the cost of funds.”

In the discussion, the CFOs report that new PPP customers were required to open a deposit account with them to apply for the loan, fueling deposit growth. They expect to deepen these relationships, as their banks essentially kept these customers afloat when their old bank left them out to dry.

The group also confirms that they’re exercising caution around promoting particular deposit products, like certificates of deposit. And the retail team, like the lending team, should be provided talking points so they can better convey today’s reality to customers, says Emily Girsh, CFO at Reinbeck, Iowa-based Lincoln Savings Bank, a $1.4 billion subsidiary of Lincoln Bancorp. “We need to help walk [customers] through and educate them about the market.”

Lessons from the Last Crisis
While the root of the coronavirus crisis differs from the 2008-09 financial crisis, bankers did learn valuable lessons about managing through a prolonged low-rate environment.

“We learned a deposit pricing lesson,” says Michele Schuh, CFO at Anchorage, Alaska-based First National Bank Alaska, which has $4.6 billion in assets. To strengthen customer relationships in the aftermath of the previous crisis, the bank floored deposit rates. “Our assets didn’t immediately downward reprice [then], so we wanted to continue to share and provide some level of above-market yield to the customers that had money deposited in the bank.”

No one could have forecasted that a decade later, rates would remain low. “As rates have come back down … we’ve taken a little bit more practical approach to trying to decide where and how we might floor rates,” she adds.

There’s also caution around hedging. Out of the last crisis, “there were institutions for five years that were betting on rates going up, and [those] institutions lost a lot of money,” notes Kevin LeMahieu, CFO of $2.2 billion Bank First Corp., based in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. “

In the most uncertain environment in memory, how bank leaders look ahead will matter,” says Turner. “Stress testing should look at more scenarios, early warning indicators and processes should be beefed up, and sensitivity to staff and customer concerns should be heightened. Fee income opportunities and creating relationships with new customers from the PPP program will be opportunities to offset some of the lost income from net interest margin compression.”

The Best Way To Increase Digital Deposits

Consumers have come to expect the ability to do banking — and a wide range of other activities — online. These expectations are only likely to grow with the Covid-19 pandemic.

While some banks have offered online services for some time, many others may be rethinking their strategy as they consider options that might help them grow market share beyond their traditional or geographically limited service areas. After all, digital banking has the potential to draw deposits and service loans from a broader pool of potential customers. As banks of all sizes contend with margin compression and increased competition, one of the easiest and most expeditious ways to cut costs is through the use of technology.

As banks work to increase deposits in an increasingly digital world, they have the opportunity to take different, sometimes divergent, approaches to connecting with audiences and compelling them to become customers. Two key strategies are:

  • Establishing a digital branch — a digital version of an existing branch
  • Launching an entirely new digital bank, with an entirely different look and feel from the existing brand

There is no right approach as long as banks are meeting customers’ digital needs. Each bank should pursue an approach that incorporates their brand, their core strategies and their target audiences. But small community banks don’t have to be hampered by the lack of big budgets or deep pockets when providing excellent experiences to their customers and fuel consistent growth, though. By leveraging truly optimized digital capabilities, community banks can grow faster and at a low cost.

Extending the Brand Name
There’s great value in brand loyalty. Many community banks have long-standing positive relationships; strong brand awareness and loyalty are firmly established within the communities they serve. When doubling down on offering online services, leveraging its existing brand name can help the bank establish immediate awareness and preference for its services.

Leveraging the existing brand name can be a less-costly undertaking, since new logos, branding platforms, key messages and marketing collateral don’t need to be established.

The potential downside? When reaching into new markets, an existing brand name may not have enough awareness to compete against the large, national, online brands. Fortunately, the online landscape offers even very small community banks the opportunity to build a very large footprint. To do that, some are launching new brands designed to reach an entirely new target audience.

Launching a New Online Brand
Reaching a new audience is one of the biggest benefits for banks that launch a new online brand. It also creates an opportunity to shift the bank’s image if the existing brand has not been strong or does not convey the modern, nimble image that tends to appeal to younger audiences.

The drawbacks, though, include the costs of creating a new brand, both in terms of time and money with no certainty or guarantee that the new brand will gain traction in the market. In addition, launching a new brand relinquishes any opportunity to leverage any existing brand equity. Operational planning and related costs may also be higher, given the likelihood that some positions and services will be duplicated between physical and online branches.

Still, community banks should carefully consider both options in light of their unique positioning, strategies and goals. While both approaches represent some level of risk, they also provide specific benefits that can be capitalized on to grow market share and revenue. We’ve worked with banks in both camps that have seen incredible growth and gained operational efficiencies well beyond their goals.

No matter the approach, when it comes to digital banking, it’s imperative to have clear objectives, buy-in from all stakeholders, focused resources to make it happen, and partners that can provide guidance and best-practices along the way.

Customer Experience: The Freedom to Experiment

NYMBUS.pngSurety Bank faces the same geographic limits to growth that other small community banks do. The $137 million bank operates four branches in Daytona Beach, Pierson, Lake Mary and DeLand, Florida, its headquarters. These are, at most, no more than 45 miles from one another.

But CEO Ryan James believes the bank can fuel deposit growth nationwide through the launch of a digital brand, booyah!, which targets college students and young graduates with fee-free deposit accounts. The bank’s relationship with its core is enabling him to make this bet.

Surety converted from a legacy core provider to the Nymbus SmartCore in 2018. It launched booyah! a year later using Nymbus SmartLaunch, a bank-in-a-box product designed to help banks quickly and inexpensively stand up a digital branch under an existing charter.

Nymbus SmartLaunch received the award for the Best Solution for Customer Experience at Bank Director’s 2020 Best of FinXTech Awards in May. Backbase, a digital banking provider, and Pinkaloo, a white-labeled charitable giving platform, were also finalists in the category. (Read more about how Pinkaloo worked with a Massachusetts community bank here.)

Bigger banks have reported mixed results from their efforts to establish digital brands. Wyomissing, Pennsylvania-based Customers Bancorp was one of the first to do so when it established its BankMobile division in 2015, targeting millennials. The $12 billion bank partnered with T-Mobile US three years later to offer accounts to the cell phone carrier’s 86 million customers. Meanwhile, JPMorgan Chase & Co. closed its digital bank, Finn, last year.

Growth costs money. Opening a freestanding branch can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $4.5 million, according to a 2019 Bancography survey. And unlike bigger banks, small institutions face significant obstacles in opening a separate digital brand to differentiate themselves nationwide — they don’t have capital to spend on experiments.

But if a small bank can establish a new digital brand at a reasonable cost, the experiment becomes more feasible.

“Why can’t you start a digital bank cheap?” says James. Surety’s legacy customers and booyah!’s new customers share the same user experience — SmartLaunch offers online applications for deposit and loan accounts, along with remote deposit capture, payment options, bill pay and debit card management. Bank customers can also set custom alerts and take advantage of personal financial management tools. Creating booyah! was really just a matter of adding a new logo and color scheme.

“It’s the same thing [we] already have,” he says. “Why does it have to be hundreds of millions of dollars in investments?”

That was the story from his old core provider, he says. But Nymbus didn’t leverage hefty fees to make booyah! a reality. What’s more, Surety isn’t locked into its experiment.

“What I love about them is you test, you pivot, and you do what makes sense” for your bank, James says. “You don’t have to give away years of your profits to try something new.”

Whether or not booyah! is a success, Nymbus provides Surety with the flexibility to quickly and easily spin up other brands that focus on specific customer segments, or shutter anything that doesn’t work, like Chase did with Finn.

If its digital brand works, Surety has a lot to gain. With the industry squeezed for profits in a prolonged low-rate environment, cheaply expanding its footprint to draw more deposits could help the bank maintain its high level of profitability in an increasingly challenging environment. The bank maintains a high return on equity (15.11% as of Dec. 31, 2019), return on assets (1.68%) and net interest margin (4.05%), according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

In a world populated with countless First National Banks, Farmers Banks and the like, booyah! certainly doesn’t sound like a typical bank. So, why booyah? Curious, I asked James. “Why not?” he replies. 

The name, frankly, isn’t the point.

Ultimately, Chase didn’t need Finn; it was already a nationwide bank with an established, well-recognized brand and millions of customers using its mobile app. But for Surety Bank, booyah! represents the potential to gain deposits outside its Florida footprint — without putting the bank’s bottom line at risk.