A Bank Board’s Role During a Pandemic

Don’t just sit there — do  something!

This is probably the normal emotional reaction of many bank directors as the COVID-19 pandemic consumes large chunks of the U.S. economy, possibly putting their institutions at risk if the crisis leads to a deep and enduring recession.

The role of the board, even in a crisis of this magnitude, is still to provide oversight rather than manage. The board’s role doesn’t change during a crisis, but certainly the governance process must become more focused and strategic, the pace of deliberations must quicken and communication becomes even more important.

Bank boards are ultimately responsible for the safety and soundness of their institutions. While senior management devotes their full attention to running the bank during a time of unprecedented economic turmoil, the board should be looking ahead to anticipate what might come next.

“I think the challenge for [directors] is to gauge the creeping impact on their bank over the next few months,” says James McAlpin, who heads up the banking practice at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner in Atlanta. “The board’s role is oversight … but I believe that in certain times — and I think this is one of them — the oversight role takes on a heightened importance and the board needs to focus on it even more.”

Many economists expect the U.S. economy to tip into a recession, so every board needs to be looking at the key indicia of the health of their bank in relation to its loan portfolio. “I’ve spoken to a few CEOs and board members over the past couple of weeks where there are active conversations going on about benchmarks over the next few months,” says McAlpin. “‘If by, say, the end of April, certain events have occurred or certain challenges have emerged, this is what we’ll do.’ In other words, there’s pre-planning along the lines of, ‘If things worsen, what should be our response be?’”

This is not the first banking crisis that David Porteous, the lead director at Huntington Bancshares, a $109 billion regional bank in Columbus, Ohio, has lived through. Porteous served on the Huntington board during the previous banking crisis, recruiting a new executive management team and writing off hundreds of millions of dollars in bad loans. That experience was instructive for what the bank faces now.

Porteous says one of the board’s first steps during the current crisis should be to take an inventory of the available “assets” among its own members. Are there directors whose professional or business experience could be helpful to the board and management team as they work through the crisis together?

Communication is also crucial during a crisis. Porteous says that boards should be communicating more frequently and on a regular schedule so directors and senior executives can organize their own work flow efficiently. Given the social distancing restrictions that are in effect throughout most of the country, these meetings will have to occur over the phone or video conferencing.

“You may have meetings normally on a quarterly or monthly basis, but that simply is not enough,” Porteous says. “You need to have meetings in between those. What we have found at Huntington that served us very well in 2008 and 2009 and is serving us well now, we have set a time — the same day of the week, the same time of the day, every other week — where there’s a board call. So board members can begin to build their plans around that call.”

Porteous says the purpose of these calls is for select members of the management team to provide the board with updates on important developments, and the calls should be “very concise, very succinct” and take “an hour or less.”

Porteous also suggests that either the board’s executive committee or a special committee of the board should be prepared to convene on short notice, either virtually or over the phone, if a quick decision is required on an important matter.

C. Dallas Kayser, the non-executive chairman at City Holding Co., a $5 billion regional bank headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia, says that when the pandemic began to manifest itself in force, the board requested reports from all major divisions within the bank. “The focus was to have everybody drill down and tell us exactly how they’re responding to customers and employees,” he says. Like Porteous at Huntington, Kayser has asked the board’s executive committee to be available to meet on short notice. The full board, which normally meets once a month, is also preparing to meet telephonically more often.

As board chair, Kayser says he feels a special responsibility to support the bank’s chief executive officer, Charles “Skip” Hageboeck. “I’ve been in constant conversations with Skip,” he says. “I know that he’s stressed. Everyone is, in this situation.” Being a CEO during a crisis can be a lonely experience.  “I recognize that, and I’ve made myself available for discussions with Skip 24/7, whenever he needs to bounce anything off of me,” Kayser says.

One of the things that every board will learn during a crisis is the strength of its culture. “The challenges that we all face in the banking industry are unprecedented, and it really becomes critical now for all directors, as well as the senior leadership of the organizations that they oversee, to work together,” says Porteous. One sign of a healthy board culture is transparency, where neither side holds back information from the other. “You should have that all the time, but it’s even more critical during a crisis. Management and the board have got to have a completely open and transparent relationship.”

This Is a Red Flag for Banks


yield-curve-7-5-19.pngThe yield curve has been in the news because its recent gyrations are seen as a harbinger of a coming recession.

The yield curve is the difference between short- and long-term bond yields. In a healthy economy, long-term bond yields are normally higher than short-term yields because investors take more risk with the longer duration.

In late June, however, the spread between the yield on the three-month Treasury bill and the 10-year Treasury note inverted—which is to say the 10-year yield was lower than the three-month yield.

Inverted Yield Curve.png

An inverted yield curve doesn’t cause a recession, but it signals a set of economic factors that are likely to result in one. It is a sign that investors lack confidence in the future of the economy. Or to put it another way, they have greater confidence in the economy’s long-term prospects than in its near-term outlook.

Long-term yields drop because investors want to lock in a higher return. This heightened demand for long-dated bonds allows the U.S. Department of the Treasury to offer lower yields. The historical average length of recessions is about 18 months, so a 10-year Treasury note takes investors well beyond that point.

Short-terms Treasury yields rise because investors are skittish about the economy’s near-term prospects, which requires the Treasury Department to entice them with higher yields.

It turns out that inverted yield curves have a pretty good track record of predicting recessions within the next 12 months. The last six recessions were preceded by inverted yield curves, although economists point out that inversions in 1995 and 1998 were not followed by subsequent downturns. And more than two years passed between an inversion in December 2005 and the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

Still, an inverted yield curve is an economic red flag for banks. The industry’s performance inevitably suffers in a recession, and even the most conservative institutions will experience higher loan losses when the credit cycle turns.

An inversion is a warning that banks should tighten their credit standards and rein in their competitive impulses. Some of the worst commercial loans are made 12 to 18 months prior to an economic downturn, and they are often the first loans to go bad.

Ironically, if banks tighten up too much, they risk contributing to a recession by cutting off the funding that businesses need to grow. Banks make these decisions individually, of course, but the industry’s herd instinct is alive and well.

It’s possible that the most recent inversion presages a recession in 2020. In its June survey, the National Association of Business Economics forecast the U.S. economy to grow 2.6 percent this year, with only a 15 percent chance of a recession. But they see slower growth in 2020, with the risk of a recession by year-end rising to 60 percent.

This has been an unprecedented time for the U.S. economy and we seem to be sailing through uncharted waters. On July 1, the economy’s current expansion became the longest on record, and gross domestic product grew at a 3.1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. Unemployment was just 3.6 percent in May—the lowest in 49 years—while inflation, which often rises when the economy reaches full employment because employers are forced to pay higher salaries to attract workers, remained under firm control.

These are historic anomalies, so maybe the old rules have changed.

The Federal Open Market Committee is widely expected to cut the fed funds rate in late July after raising it four times in 2018. That could both help and hurt bankers.

A rate cut helps if it keeps the economic expansion going. It hurts if it makes it more difficult for banks to charge higher rates for their loans. Many banks prospered last year because they were able raise their loan rates faster than their deposit rates, which helped expand their net interest margins. They may not benefit as much from repricing this year if the Fed ends up cutting interest rates.

Is an inverted yield curve a harbinger of a recession in 2020? This economy seems to shrug off all such concerns, but history says yes.

An Easy Way to Learn More About Banking


governance-5-24-18.pngEvery year when Richard Davis was the chief executive officer of U.S. Bancorp, he would travel to see Warren Buffett in Omaha, Nebraska.

“The meetings were always on the same day and always lasted exactly an hour and 15 minutes,” Davis once told me. “That wasn’t the plan. It just happened that way.”

Even though the meetings went over an hour, however, there were never people in the waiting room annoyed that the conversation went long. The tranquility was refreshing to Davis, who was accustomed to days packed with back-to-back meetings.

Buffett guards his time. He spends 80 percent of his day reading and thinking, he has said.

A student at Columbia University once asked Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, how to become a great investor. “Read 500 pages like this every day,” Buffett said, holding up a stack of papers. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

The same is true of banking, I believe.

But where should one start? What are the most important things to read if one wants to learn more about banking?

As someone who has been immersed in banking literature for nearly a decade, I recommend starting with the annual shareholder letters written by a trio of top-performing bankers.

The best known is Jamie Dimon’s annual letter written to the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

“Jamie Dimon writes the best annual letter in corporate America,” Buffett said on CNBC in early 2012. “He thinks well. He writes extremely well. And he works a lot on the report—he’s told me that.”

In his letter this year, Dimon talks about JPMorgan’s banking philosophy. He talks about leadership. He talks about the things JPMorgan doesn’t worry about: “While we worry extensively about all of the risks we bear, we essentially do not worry about things like fluctuating markets and short-term economic reports. We simply manage through them.”

And Dimon comments extensively on an array of critical issues facing not just the banking industry, but the broader economy and society: “[I]t is clear that partisan politics is stopping collaborative policy from being implemented, particularly at the federal level. This is not some special economic malaise we are in. This is about our society. We are unwilling to compromise. We are unwilling or unable to create good policy based on deep analytics. And our government is unable to reorganize and keep pace in the new world.”

A second CEO who writes an especially insightful letter is William Demchak at Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group.

In his latest letter, Demchak delves into PNC’s retail growth strategy, outlining the bank’s expansion into new markets using a combination of physical locations, aggressive marketing and digital delivery channels.

Demchak also discusses the changes underway in banking: “It’s an amazing time in the industry—exciting, if you’ve been preparing for it, and probably terrifying if you haven’t. . . . [I]n some ways, it feels like we’re running through the woods with 5,400 other players and one big bear: retail customers and deposit consolidation. Some will be lost in the chaos; others will fall victim to bad decisions and the realization that they waited too long to start moving toward the future.”

Last but not least is the letter written by Rene Jones at M&T Bank Corp, a regional lender with $120 billion in assets based in Buffalo, New York. Of all the annual messages written by bank CEOs this year, Jones’ does the most to advance the industry’s narrative.

It’s crafted around two arguments, the first of which concerns the growing share of retail deposits held by the nation’s biggest banks. This trend isn’t simply a function of scale and technology, Jones argues. It’s also driven by demographic patterns.

“Historically, deposit growth itself is highly correlated to increased employment, income and population,” Jones writes. “The banks with the most scale have benefited from their outsized presence in the largest U.S. markets, which unlike past recoveries, have experienced a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic growth.”

Jones’ second argument concerns the need to refine the existing regulatory framework: “Regulation, like monetary policy, is a tool whose purpose is simultaneously to promote the economy while protecting those who operate within it. It is a difficult balance—especially so after significant events such as the financial crisis. The practice of implementing and adjusting regulation is both necessary and healthy, because its impacts are felt by communities large and small.”

Jones’ message will resonate with bankers, as M&T has long been an unofficial spokesman for the industry on regulatory matters, giving voice to their frustration with the sharp swing in the regulatory pendulum over the past decade.

In short, all these letters are worth the modest amount of time they take to read. They are three of the leading voices in banking today. There’s a reason someone like Warren Buffett reads what they write.

The Big Picture of Banking in Three Simple Charts


banking-3-22-19.pngOne thing that separates great bankers from their peers is a deep appreciation for the highly cyclical nature of the banking industry.

Every industry is cyclical, of course, thanks to the cyclical nature of the economy. Good times are followed by bad times, which are followed by good times. It’s always been that way, and there’s no reason to think it will change anytime soon.

Yet, banking is different.

The typical bank borrows $10 for every $1 in equity. On one hand, this leverage accelerates the economic growth of the communities a bank serves. But on the other, it makes banks uniquely sensitive to fluctuations in employment and asset prices.

Even a modest correction in the business cycle or a major asset class can send dozens of banks into receivership.

“It is in the nature of an industry whose structure is competitive and whose conduct is driven by supply to have cycles that only end badly,” wrote Barbara Stewart in “How Will This Underwriting Cycle End?,” a widely cited paper published in 1980 on the history of underwriting cycles.

Stewart was referring to the insurance industry, but her point is equally true in banking.

This is why bankers with a big-picture perspective have an advantage over bankers without a similarly deep and broad appreciation for the history of banking, combined with knowledge about the strengths and infirmities innate in a bank’s business model.

How does one go about gaining a big-picture perspective?

You can do it the hard way, by amassing personal experience. If you’ve seen enough cycles, then you know, as Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., has said: “You don’t run a business hoping you don’t have a recession.”

Or you can do it the easy way, by accruing experience by proxy—that is, by learning how things unfolded in the past. If you know that nine out of the last nine recessions were all precipitated by rising interest rates, for instance, then you’re likely to be more cautious with your loan portfolio in a rising rate environment.

You can see this in the chart below, sourced from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ popular FRED database. The graph traces the effective federal funds rate since 1954, with the vertical shaded portions representing recessions.

Fed-Funds-Rate.png

A second chart offering additional perspective on the cyclical nature of banking traces bank failures since the Civil War, when the modern American banking industry first took shape.

This might seem macabre—who wants to obsess over bank failures?—but this is an inseparable aspect of banking that is ignored at one’s peril. Good bankers respect and appreciate this, which is one reason their institutions avoid failure.

Failures.png

Not surprisingly, the incidence of bank failures closely tracks the business cycle. The big spike in the 1930s corresponds to the Great Depression. The spike in the 1980s and 1990s marks the savings and loan crisis. And the smaller recent surge corresponds to the financial crisis.

All told, a total of 17,365 banks have failed since 1865. A useful analog through which to think about banking, in other words, is that it’s a war of attrition, much like the conflict that spawned the modern American banking industry.

A third chart offering insight into how the banking industry has evolved in recent decades illustrates historical acquisition activity.

Acquisitions.png

Approximately 4 percent of banks consolidate on an annual basis, equating to about 200 a year nowadays. But this is an average. The actual number has fluctuated widely over time. Twitter_Logo_Blue.png

From 1940 through the mid-1970s, when interstate and branch banking were prohibited in most states, there were closer to 100 bank acquisitions a year. But then, as these regulatory barriers came down in the 1980s and 1990s, deal activity surged.

The point being, while banking is a rapidly consolidating industry, the most recent pace of consolidation has decelerated. This is relevant to anyone who may be thinking of buying or selling a bank. It’s also relevant to banks that aren’t in the market to do a deal, as customer attrition in the wake of a competitors’ sale has often been a source of organic growth.

In short, it’s easy to dismiss history as a topic of interest only to professors and armchair historians. But the experience one gains by proxy from looking to the past can help bankers better position their institutions for the present and the future.

Take it from investor Charlie Munger: “There’s no better teacher than history in determining the future.”

Ensuring a Safe & Sound Banking System



One of the principal jobs of the Comptroller of the Currency—if not the principal job—is to ensure the safety and soundness of the U.S. banking system. After nine years of economic growth, are regulators looking ahead for a potential downturn? In this conversation at Bank Director’s Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference, former Comptroller of the Currency Tom Curry shares his thoughts and advice on a variety of issues with Bank Director Editor in Chief Jack Milligan.

Highlights from this video:

  • Risks in the Banking System Today
  • Preparing for a Potential Economic Downturn
  • What’s Changing with Regulatory Relief
  • Developing a Good Regulatory Relationship
  • The Impact of Regtech and Fintech

Optimistic About Loans But Worried About Deposits


risk-3-5-18.pngThere are a lot of reasons why Greg Steffens is confident about the economy. As the president and CEO of $1.8 billion asset Southern Missouri Bancorp, which is headquartered in the southern Missouri town of Poplar Bluff, he sees that consumers are more confident, wages are growing, most corporations and individuals just got a tax break, and the White House announced a major infrastructure funding plan.

Steffens projects that a strong local economy will help Southern Missouri to grow loans by 8 to 10 percent this year. But he sees the potential for net interest margin compression as well, particularly because competition for loans and deposits has gotten so tight.

His thoughts about the future, a mixture of optimism and concern, are typical of bankers these days as shown by Promontory Interfinancial Network’s latest Bank Executive Business Outlook Survey. Although bankers report higher funding costs and increased competition for deposits, their optimism about the future has improved, and economic conditions for their banks are better now than they were a year ago.

Top-Lines-Q4-2017-long-version.pngAlong with a generally improving national economy and improvements in the banking sector, the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act shortly before the survey was taken likely influenced the increase in optimism among many bankers. The emailed survey, conducted from Jan. 16 through Jan. 30, included responses from bank CEOs, presidents and chief financial officers from more than 370 banks.

Some highlights include:

  • Sixty-three percent say economic conditions have improved compared to a year ago, while 5 percent say things have gotten worse, compared to 49 percent last quarter who said conditions improved and 9 percent who said things had gotten worse.
  • Slightly more than 58 percent report a recent increase in loan demand, up 7.5 percentage points from last quarter.
  • Bankers think the future will be even better with 64 percent projecting an increase in loan demand in 2018, compared to just 51.2 percent who projected annual loan growth in the fourth quarter 2017 survey.
  • The Bank Confidence IndexSM, which measures forward-looking projections about access to capital, loan demand, funding costs and deposit competition, improved by 2.4 percentage points from last quarter to 50.5, the highest rating for the index since the second quarter of 2016.
  • Regionally, the highest percentage of bankers expecting loan growth is from the South at 71.9 percent. But the biggest improvement in expectations for loan growth is in the Northeast, which climbed 27.1 percentage points from last quarter to 64.1 percent expecting loan growth in 2018.

Charlie Funk, the president and CEO of MidwestOne Financial Group, a $3.2 billion asset banking company in Iowa City, Iowa, says he expects the tax cuts will lead to higher commercial loan growth, although he hasn’t seen evidence of that yet.

He’s worried now about another factor on his balance sheet: deposit competition. “Deposits are going to be where the major battles are fought,’’ he says. The bank already is paying some large corporate depositors more than 1 percent APR on money market accounts, compared to 30 basis points just after the financial crisis. He expects the bank’s net interest margin to narrow somewhat this year as deposit costs increase faster than loan yields.

Other bankers report higher levels of deposit competition as well. In the Promontory Interfinancial Network survey, 80 percent of respondents expect competition for deposits to increase during the year, compared to 77.4 percent who thought so last quarter. The overwhelming majority have seen higher funding costs this year at 78.1 percent, compared to 68.4 percent last quarter who experienced higher funding costs. Nearly 89 percent of respondents expect funding costs to increase this year.

Representatives from larger community banks, with $1 billion to $10 billion in assets, were more likely to say funding costs will increase. The Northeast had the highest percentage of respondents saying funding costs will moderately or significantly increase, at 92.3 percent.

One of those Northeastern banks is Souderton, Pennsylvania-based Univest Corp. of Pennsylvania. With $4.6 billion in assets and a 100 percent loan-to-deposit ratio, the highly competitive deposit market is putting pressure on the bank to match loan growth with deposits. Univest Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Roger Deacon says funding costs have inched up, partly driven by competition for deposits. “The competition is almost as high on the deposit side as on the loan side,’’ he says.

The good news is that the bank is asset sensitive, meaning that when rates rise, its loans are expected to reprice faster than its deposits. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the impact of rising rates on our business,’’ Deacon says.

2013 Bank Board & Executive Survey: Rising Optimism on Banking


2013-Bank-Board--Executive-Survey.pngIn June of this year, Bank Director asked CEOs, senior executives, chairmen and audit committee members of the nation’s banks for their insights on the current state of the banking industry–and their thoughts on the future. The 2013 Bank Board & Executive Survey was sponsored by Grant Thornton LLP.

Bank leaders hold a rosier view of economic affairs for the coming year–although they remain wary of the impact of economic events on their institutions. Lending will continue to drive plans for growth, while banks strive for efficiencies that improve the bottom line in a continued low interest rate environment. Technology is also top of mind for respondents, who reveal what retail innovations they value and what cyber security risks keep them up at night. 

With fewer than half of the rules within the Dodd-Frank Act finalized, it’s not surprising that survey respondents remain deeply concerned about the implementation of regulations coming out of Washington. Nichole Jordan, national banking and securities sector leader for Grant Thornton, says that bankers see that things are getting better, but remain wary of competitive and regulatory challenges. “There’s still a great deal of uncertainty as a result of the evolving regulatory environment,” she says. “Banks are increasingly concerned that they will be unable to meet onerous compliance requirements and still be profitable.”

Key Findings

  • Forty-three percent of executives and directors surveyed expect the U.S. economy to improve in the next six months, a rise of 30 percentage points since last year’s survey. 
  • Margin compression was the top concern for 89 percent of respondents, followed by the regulatory compliance burden for 86 percent of respondents and loan competition for 78 percent. 
  • When asked about specific regulatory issues, respondents indicate greater concern about implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act and the regulatory and supervisory activities of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and lesser concern about Basel III implementation and the Bank Secrecy Act. Most respondents describe the CFPB’s impact as more negative than positive, though they are split on whether the CFPB will impact their bank’s business strategy.
  • Executives and directors express less concern on the issue of capital than other issues, with 71 percent indicating that their bank’s capital levels are satisfactory. Of those that do plan to raise capital, half plan to do so through a private offering to existing shareholders, while 47 percent plan a secondary offering on the public market.
  • Cyber security risk is a growing concern for bankers, particularly for institutions with more than $10 billion in assets. When asked about specific aspects of cyber security risk, respondents worry most about online banking fraud, at 76 percent, and data theft, at 73 percent. 
  • Banks are willing to trim staff as a way to become more efficient. Forty percent of respondents indicate that their bank plans to reduce staff, and 34 percent plan to close branches. 
  • Banks remain wary of social media, with less than half of respondents saying their bank engages with customers via Facebook or Twitter.

About the Survey:

Over 130 senior executives and directors of U.S. banks with more than $500 million in assets responded to the 2013 Bank Board & Executive Survey. Sixty-three percent of respondents serve as board members; CEOs account for 18 percent of responses. Thirty-eight percent of respondents work for or serve on the board of a bank with between $1 billion and $5 billion in assets, and most , at 71 percent, represent a publicly owned institution. 

For full survey results, click here.

Phone Survey: Fiscal Cliff Will Impact Banks and Their Customers


fiscal-cliff.jpgAfter endless amounts of media coverage on the fiscal cliff, I felt it was time to hear from community bank chief executive officers.  Unlike the pundits on TV, community bankers work with small and medium-sized businesses that are driving economic growth and I thought it would be interesting to get a quick take on the fiscal cliff from the point of a view of community bankers. For instance, which will hurt bank customers the most: cuts in spending or tax increases? What are the chances that Congress and the president will reach a deal to avert the fiscal cliff before Jan. 1? How will the drastic cuts in spending and tax increases impact lending? What are the prospects for economic growth if a deal is reached?

The fiscal cliff refers to the series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will reduce the federal deficit by $503 billion in fiscal year 2012 to 2013, unless Congress comes up with a compromise to avoid the automatic cuts and tax increases, according to Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Half of the scheduled cuts would come from the defense budget. Some of the automatic tax increases include a reversal of the George W. Bush tax cuts, which would mean an increase in the top tax rate and higher capital gains and dividend taxes. Payroll taxes would also go back to prior year levels. The Congressional Budget Office has projected the automatic “cliff” could reduce the nation’s gross domestic product by 2.9 percent in the first six months, meaning unemployment would rise and the economy would likely fall into a double-dip recession, according to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

We conducted a phone poll Dec. 7 to Dec. 13 and got responses from 58 bank CEOs.

In our phone poll, CEOs expressed pessimism on the prospect of reaching a compromise before the deadline for automatic tax increases and spending cuts. Fifty-five percent of CEOs said they did not believe that Congress and the president would get a deal in place before the deadline.

Unsurprisingly, 66 percent of all CEOs thought the tax increases would be more detrimental to their customers than the spending cuts. Eighteen percent thought cuts would affect their customers more than tax increases.

On a happier note, if the fiscal cliff is averted and a compromise deal is reached with some tax increases and spending cuts, 57 percent of bank CEOs expected to see some economic growth while only 29 percent thought the economy would be stagnant with little growth.

While 67 percent of all bankers surveyed said they did not believe that “going off” the fiscal cliff would affect their lending activity, 31 percent said they thought the failure to reach a compromise would cause their bank to be less likely to lend.

Hopefully before the ball drops in Times Square, the folks in Washington won’t let the ball drop on the economy. 

The Mixed Blessing of Bank Deposits


mixed-blessing.jpgThe U.S. banking industry is drowning in deposits and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As of June 30, deposits in U.S. banks (but excluding credit unions) totaled $8.9 trillion, up nearly 8.5 percent from June 30, 2011, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Total bank deposits have actually increased every year since 2003, although the increase from 2011 to 2012 was the sharpest jump over that time.

There’s no great mystery why this is happening. The U.S. economy’s uncertain outlook and a volatile stock market has led many consumers and businesses to park their investment funds in insured deposit accounts rather than risk losing a big chunk in another market meltdown. Normally banks would be quite happy to have a surfeit of low-cost deposit funding, but it’s actually something of a mixed blessing nowadays. Slack loan demand and low rates of return on investment securities like U.S. Treasuries, the latter a direct result of the Federal Reserve’s easy money policy in recent years that has kept interest rates low, are making it very difficult for banks to earn a decent return on all those deposits.

What makes this multi-year increase in deposits so interesting is that it has occurred at the same time banks have been closing branches and pruning their networks. As of June 30, according to the FDIC, there were 97,337 bank branches nationwide, down from a high of 99,550 in 2009, and there has been a consistent year-over-year decline since then. There’s no mystery why this is happening either. Two seminal events since 2010—new restrictions on overdraft charges and a cap on debit card fees—have taken a big bite out of the profitability of most retail banking operations and banks have responded by cutting costs, partly through layoffs but more so through branch closings. That deposit levels have continued to rise, even as the number of branches has declined, has no doubt made it easier for banks to trim their brick-and-mortar networks.

But here’s the rub. What happens if in a few years the U.S. economy makes a strong comeback and retail investors are once again confident enough to put their money into the stock market? Banks don’t have to compete with the stock market now for consumer funds, but they would in that scenario. Most banks have developed multi-channel distribution systems with the traditional branch as the hub and alternatives like automated teller machines, in-store branches, the Internet and more recently the mobile phone as spokes. And while remote channels like online and mobile have steadily grown in popularity in recent years, how effective will they be as deposit gathering tools if banks must once again compete for funds?

Here’s my best guess at what the future holds: Don’t be surprised if, say, five years from now the trend has reversed itself and banks are once again opening new branches.  It might be like a relic of days gone by, but a deposit war between Main Street and Wall Street would be just the thing to give the hoary old bank branch a new lease on life.