The Secret to a Low Efficiency Ratio


efficiency-5-31-19.pngOne of the most important metrics in banking is the efficiency ratio, which is generally viewed as a measurement of how carefully a bank spends money. Following this definition to its logical conclusion, the more parsimonious the bank, the lower its efficiency ratio should be.

But this common understanding fails to capture the true nature of what the efficiency ratio actually measures. It is in reality a fraction that expresses the interrelationship between the two most dynamic forces within any business organization: the growth of revenue and expenses.

Looked at this way, the efficiency ratio is actually a measurement of effective spending—how much revenue does every dollar of spending produce. And embedded within the efficiency ratio is a simple but extraordinarily important concept that is the key to high profitability—positive operating leverage.

But first, let’s look at how the efficiency ratio works. It’s an easy calculation. The numerator, which is the top half of the fraction, is expenses. And the denominator, which sits below it, is revenue. A bank that reports $50 of expenses and $100 of revenue in a quarter has an efficiency ratio of 50 percent, which is the benchmark for most banks (although most fall short).

However, not all 50 percent efficiency ratios are created equal.

Consider two examples. Bank Cheapskate reports $40 of expenses and $100 of revenue in its most recent quarter, for an efficiency ratio of 40 percent. Coming in 10 percentage points under the benchmark rate of 50 percent, Bank Cheapskate performs admirably.

Bank Topline reports $50 in expenses and $125 in revenue in its most recent quarter. This performance also results in an efficiency ratio of 40 percent, equivalent to Bank Cheapskate’s ratio. Again, an impressive performance.

While the two ratios are the same, it is unlikely that most institutional investors will value them equally. The important distinction is how they got there.

The argument in favor of Bank Cheapskate’s approach is simple and compelling. Being a low-cost producer is a tremendous competitive advantage in an industry like banking, which has seen a long-term decline in its net interest margin. It allows to a bank to keep deposits costs low in a tight funding market, or back away from an underpriced and poorly structured credit in a competitive loan market. It gives the bank’s management team optionality.

The case for Bank Topline’s approach is probably more appealing. Investors appreciate the efficiency of a low-cost producer, but I think they would place greater value on the business development skills of a growth bank. In my experience, most investors prefer a growth story over an expense story. Bank Topline spends more money than Bank Cheapskate, but it delivers more of what investors value most—revenue growth.

To be clear, the choice between revenue and expenses isn’t binary—this is where positive operating leverage comes in.

Positive operating leverage occurs when revenue growth exceeds expense growth. Costs increase, but revenue increases at a faster rate. This is the secret to profitability in banking, and the best management teams practice it.

A real-life example is Phoenix-based Western Alliance Bancorp. The bank’s operating efficiency ratio in 2018 was an exemplary 41.9 percent. The management team there places great importance on efficiency, although the bank’s expenses did rise last year. But this increase was more than offset by strong revenue growth, which exceeded expense growth by approximately 250 percent. This is a good example of positive operating leverage and it’s the real story behind the bank’s low efficiency ratio.

The greater the operating leverage, the lower the efficiency ratio because the ratio is relational. It is not solely a cost-driven metric. At Western Alliance and other banks that focus on creating positive operating leverage, it’s not just how much you spend—it’s how many dollars of revenue each dollar of expense creates.

To understand the real significance of a bank’s efficiency ratio, you have to look at the story behind the numbers.

Exclusive: The Inside Story of Colorado’s Leading Bank


bank-4-25-19.pngGreat leaders are eager to learn from others, even their competitors. That’s why Bank Director is making available—exclusively to members of our Bank Services program—the unabridged transcripts of in-depth conversations our writers have with the executives of top-performing banks.

One such bank is FirstBank Holding Co.

With $18.5 billion in assets, FirstBank is the third-largest privately-held bank in the United States and the biggest bank based in Colorado, where its headquarters sits 10 miles west of downtown Denver. It’s among the most efficient institutions in the industry, with an efficiency ratio often dipping below 50 percent. It has an abundance of risk-based capital. And its return on equity has ranked in the top 10 percent of large bank holding companies in all but one of the past 12 years.

Bank Director’s executive editor, John J. Maxfield, interviewed FirstBank’s CEO Jim Reuter and Chief Operating Officer Emily Robinson for the second quarter 2019 issue of Bank Director magazine. (You can read that story, “How FirstBank Profits from Being Private,” by clicking here.)

In the interview, Reuter and Robinson shed light on:

  • The benefits of being a privately-held bank
  • How FirstBank became a leader in the digital evolution of banking
  • Strategies to stay disciplined at the top of the cycle
  • The advantage of having three former FirstBank CEOs serving on the board
  • Their philosophy on capital management and allocation

The interview has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

download.png Download transcript for the full exclusive interview

Takeaways from the BB&T-SunTrust Merger


merger-2-27-19.pngIn early February, BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks, Inc. announced a so-called merger of equals in an all-stock transaction valued at $66 billion. The transaction is the largest U.S. bank merger in over a decade and will create the sixth-largest bank in the U.S. by assets and deposits.

While the transaction clearly is the result of two large regional banks wanting the additional scale necessary to compete more effectively with money center banks, banks of all sizes can draw important lessons from the announcement.

  • Fundamentals Are Fundamental. Investors responded favorably to the announcement because the traditional M&A metrics of the proposed transaction are solid. The transaction is accretive to the earnings of both banks and BB&T’s tangible book value, and generates a 5-percent dividend increase to SunTrust shareholders. 
  • Cost Savings and Scale Remain Critical. If deal fundamentals were the primary reason for the transaction’s positive reception, cost savings ($1.6 billion by 2022) were a close second and remain a driving force in bank M&A. The efficiency ratio for each bank now is in the low 60s. The projected 51 percent efficiency ratio of the combined bank shows how impactful cost savings and scale can be, even after factoring in $100 million to be invested annually in technology.
  • Using Scale to Leverage Investment. Scale is good, but how you leverage it is key. The banks cited greater scale for investment in innovation and technology to create compelling digital offerings as paramount to future success. This reinforces the view that investment in a strong technology platform, even on a much smaller scale than superregional and money center banks, are more critical to position a bank for success.
  • Mergers of Equals Can Be Done. Many have argued that mergers of equals can’t be done because there is really no such thing. There is always a buyer and a seller. Although BB&T is technically the buyer in this transaction, from equal board seats, to management succession, to a new corporate headquarters, to a new name, the parties clearly went the extra mile to ensure that the transaction was a true merger of equals, or at least the closest thing you can get to one. Mergers of equals are indeed difficult to pull off. But if two large regionals can do it, smaller banks can too.
  • Divestitures Will Create Opportunities. The banks have 740 branches within 2 miles of one another and are expected to close most of these. The Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Miami markets are expected to see the most branch closures, with significant concentrations also occurring elsewhere in Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Deposit divestitures estimated at $1.4 billion could present opportunities for other institutions in a competitive environment for deposits. Deposit premiums could be high.
  • The Time to Invest in People is Now. Deals like this have the potential to create an opportunity for community banks and smaller regional banks particularly in the Southeast to attract talented employees from the affected banks. While some banks may be hesitant to invest in growth given the fragile state of the economy and the securities markets, they need to be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves.
  • Undeterred by SIFI Status. The combined bank will blow past the new $250 billion asset threshold to be designated as a systemically important financial institution (“SIFI”). While each bank was likely to reach the SIFI threshold on its own, they chose to move past it on their terms in a significant way. Increased scale is still the best way to absorb greater regulatory costs – and that is true for all banks.
  • Favorable Regulatory Environment, For Now. Most experts expect regulators to be receptive to large bank mergers. Although we expect plenty of public comment and skepticism from members of Congress, these efforts are unlikely to affect regulatory approvals in the current administration. It is possible, however, that the favorable regulatory environment for large bank mergers could end after the 2020 election, which could motivate other regionals to consider similar deals while the iron is hot.
  • Additional Deals Likely. The transaction may portend additional consolidation in the year ahead. As always, a changing competitive landscape will present both challenges and opportunities for the smaller community and regional banks in the market. Be ready!

Why It’s Never Been Easier to Adopt a Fintech Solution


innovation-4-9-18.pngFor many banks and financial services firms (incumbents), emerging financial technology firms (fintechs) were once viewed in two camps: flash-in-the pan, one-hit wonders or serious threats institutions should avoid. Perhaps the media was partially to blame for this “us vs. them” mentality with its prolific use of words like “disruption” or its positioning of fintechs as the only companies who embraced change or were capable of innovation. Beneath the exuberant headlines espousing the promise of these new technologies and the industries they would revolutionize, there was more than a hint of negativity, a healthy dose of fear mongering, and a pretty clear message, “Dear banks, you are not invited to the party. In fact, we are coming to crash yours.”

Although those of us who worked in banking and wealth management bristled at the tone and approach of these young companies, none of us could disagree with much of what they were saying: things were broken and radical change was afoot. Yet, there was something about the disruptor’s manifesto that seemed a little naïve, a bit misguided and certainly incomplete.

There was the assumption that financial institutions were resistant to change or opposed to innovation; neither of which, I would argue, were entirely true. For a myriad of reasons companies wanted change. The unspoken matter was how could they realize it in a cost effective and compliant way without disrupting any core processing or custodial technologies. Would these technologies integrate cleanly?

Fast forward to 2018
Much has changed. Many of the disruptive fintechs with their go-it-alone, direct-to-consumer business models have pivoted to business-to-business service models and now service the very companies and industries they set out to upend. Similarly, banks who either ignored the boisterous fintechs or chose to build internally are rethinking their strategies and engaging with start-ups.

What has changed?
The quick answer is everything. The disruptors have not only proven their technologies, but the market has begun demanding their services. Furthermore, the speed of innovation, adoption and deployment has quickened at such a rate that what was once deemed new or disruptive is suddenly table stakes.

Having experienced how difficult it is to create brand identity and how expensive it is to acquire clients, many fintechs have turned their focus to servicing institutional clients. Fintechs have a deeper understanding of the complex business activities and regulatory and compliance processes with which financial services must adhere and are designing their technologies accordingly. The technology is often preconfigured, ready to integrate into existing back-end processes, and deployable at a large scale.

Us vs. Them Becomes We
Fintechs are easier to partner with and their solutions have become easier to adopt. No longer is innovation limited to the banks or organizations with large IT budgets and staffs. FinTechs have made innovation available to all financial firms, with prices and engagement models that meet most budgets.

The nimble nature of fintechs has allowed them to adapt to changes and fine-tune their technology at a much quicker rate, bringing the most scalable solutions to the market. With an emphasis on engagement and a seamless experience for both clients and institutions, fintechs are no longer serious threats but rather trusted partners bringing a necessary business function to institutions.

Lastly, and equally important, the value proposition for incumbents to adopt digital solutions is clearer and far more comprehensive than previously articulated or understood. Fintechs make it easier for institutions to launch new business services such as wealth management or lending solutions to diversify product offerings, deepen client engagement, enhance client acquisition and strengthen loyalty. This not only helps grow the overall business, but many incumbents have realized significant cost savings through the automated processing solutions these new technologies offer and the elimination of manual back-end processes. As a result, businesses are seeing improved efficiency ratios and in some cases, higher valuations.

To conclude, a new breed of fintechs has emerged, many with the same face, most with a new sophistication and a deeper understanding of integration but all with the mission to empower. Transformation through collaboration is an impressive phenomenon, one that every firm should take advantage of and fintechs provide that opportunity.

Reflections on Fintech at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference


AOBA-finxtech.png

I spent the first part of last week in Phoenix at the Bank Director Acquire or Be Acquired (AOBA) conference and as always I came away feeling like I knew more about industry conditions and expectations than I did when I got on the plane. If you are a bank executive, you should probably be there every year and may want to consider taking your team on a rotating basis every year. If you serve the industry in some way, you must be there as well. If you are, like me, a serious bank stock investor, you need to be there at least once every few years to stay on top of how bankers feel about their industry and how they plan to grow their banks.

The mood this year was much more upbeat than last year. All the concerns about low interest rates, regulatory costs and other potential headwinds have been blown away by a blast of post-election enthusiasm. Bankers were almost giddy in anticipation of higher rates, a stronger economy and possible regulatory relief. Everyone I talked with during my three-day stay was upbeat and enthusiastic about the future of banking.

There has also been a tremendous change in bankers’ view of fintech of late. Fintech companies have often been viewed as the enemy of smaller banks, and I have talked with many community bankers who are legitimately concerned about their ability to keep up with the new high-tech world. One older gentleman told me at Bank Director’s Growing the Bank conference last May in Dallas that if this was where the industry was going, he would just retire as there was no way he could compete with the upstart fintech companies.

Over the course of the last year, however, a different reality has begun to set in. Fintech companies have discovered that the regulators and bankers were not ready to concede their traditional turf and consumers still like to conduct business within the highly regulated, insured-deposit world of traditional banking. Banks have begun to realize that instead of relying on their traditional practices, much of what fintech companies are doing could make them more efficient and enable them to offer services that attract new customers and make those relationships stickier.

It has become apparent to many of the bankers I chatted with that fintech is not a revolution but an extension of changes that has been going on for years. Drive through bank branches and ATMs were also thought to be revolutionary developments when they were introduced, and today they are considered standard must-have items for any bank branch. Mobile banking is just another step along the evolutionary scale. More customers today interact with their mobile devices than through traditional means like branch visits, phone calls and ATM transactions. That’s not going to change, and bankers are adjusting.

Chris Nichols of CenterState Bank spoke in a breakout session about using fintech to improve the bottom line. He pointed out that if you used the traditional banking approach based on in-branch transactions it cost about $390 per customer per year to service your clients. Using the same cash required to build a branch and spending it to improve the bank’s mobile offering could bring the annual cost per customer down to just $20 a year. Processing a customer deposit costs the average bank about $2 if done in a branch and just $0.20 if done via a mobile phone. Nichols also suggested that acquiring a C&I loan customer could be as high as $14,200 when done via traditional banking methods, but the expense drops to just $3,060 if the transaction is done on a mobile platform.

The proper use of fintech, according to Nichols’ presentation, should also allow banks to lower their efficiency ratio and increase their returns on assets and equity. That is the kind of news that gets bank CEOs and boards excited about expanding the use of technology even if they still carry flip phones and use AOL for home internet.

While you can expect to see partnerships between bankers and fintech companies expanding in the future, bankers will use the technology that reduces costs or creates more revenue streams. They will offer the mobile payment and deposit services customers demand today. The litmus test for technology is, “Does it make or save me money or dramatically improve my customer relationship?” If the answer to these questions is no, then banks will pass on even the most exciting and innovative fintech ideas. They are bankers, after all, not tech gurus.

Mega-Acquirers: Compensation Practices That Make a Difference


As football coach Lou Holtz famously stated, “In this world you’re either growing or you’re dying, so get in motion…” In the past two years, 545 banks have been acquired—the highest level of activity since 2006 to 2007. During this busy cycle, the regional public banks between $5 billion and $50 billion have enjoyed greater profitability than either their smaller or larger counterparts.

With improving financial markets, increasing regulatory requirements, and decreasing margins, some of these regional banks have been executing an acquisition growth strategy for several years. Pearl Meyer identified 22 “mega-acquirers,” banks in the top quartile of regional banks ranked by three-year asset growth. These mega-acquirers have averaged a three-year asset growth rate of over 30 percent, compared to just over 7 percent for other regionals. Not only do they outperform in asset growth, but also on a number of other key financial metrics.

Median Financial Performance of Mega-Acquirers Versus Other Regionals (as of 12/31/2015)

  3-yr Asset CAGR (%) Price/Tangible Book (%) TSR CAGR (%) Diluted EPS after Extraordinary Items CAGR (%)
1-Yr 3-Yr 5-Yr 1-Yr 3-Yr 5-Yr
Mega Acquirers (n=22) 31.58 171.48 21.63 21.56 16.55 25.56 20.12 9.82
Other Regionals (n=89) 7.30 158.87 7.62 15.19 9.97 3.39 6.85 5.29

CAGR: Compound Annual Growth Rate
TSR: Total shareholder return defined as stock price appreciation plus dividends Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Pay Differences
While there are many factors that can influence financial success, we looked specifically at whether or not mega-acquirers structure executive compensation differently. The answer is yes and no. The median pay of CEOs for the mega-acquirers and other regionals aren’t markedly different. The mix between base salary, annual incentives, and long-term incentives for CEOs also were generally consistent for all regionals. There were, however, three key differences.

  • Mega-acquirers manage to results. Fewer mega-acquirers have an annual incentive plan with a discretionary component (33 percent versus 46 percent for other regionals), potentially inferring that mega-acquirer executives are accountable for achieving financial goals regardless of the external environment.
  • Mega-acquirers focus on both revenues and cost. While all regionals use net income as a metric equally, mega-acquirers are more likely to include an efficiency ratio in their annual plans (27 percent versus 17 percent for other regionals).
  • Mega-acquirers tend to use more time-vested restricted stock and fewer performance shares. Curiously, mega-acquirers are getting good financial results without the use of performance-based equity. Eighty-two percent (82 percent) of mega-acquirers provide time-based equity awards to their CEOs versus 73 percent for other regionals. Prevalence of performance-based shares is 36 percent for mega-acquirers versus 51 percent for other regionals.

While we can only speculate why there is a greater preference for restricted stock rather than performance shares, there are a couple possibilities. First, performance shares often vest based on achieving operational metrics. The argument may be that future operational performance is a function of what is acquired and this can be hard to pin down even if it is measured on a relative basis. Second, while median stock ownership for mega-acquirer CEOs is similar to other regionals, it is more than twice that of regional CEOs at the 75th percentile. There may be a strong desire by some of the mega-acquirers to ensure that the CEO has meaningful share ownership and is willing to achieve this through time-based vesting. In our experience, actual share ownership is what drives behavioral shifts and creates shareholder alignment.

Considerations
These pay differences are subtle. However, when you combine strategy, financial results, and pay practices together, the implications provide for compelling discussion in the boardroom.

Has the use of discretion in incentive plans gone too far? Discretionary components are inappropriately used if they are a way of explaining away poor performance on the defined metrics. Discretion is best used when it is a qualitative assessment of non-financial results or where it is difficult to determine financial outcomes due to acquisition or other factors. Establishing what will be evaluated qualitatively at the beginning of the year, rather than at year-end also fosters discipline in using appropriate discretion.

If there aren’t meaningful differences in CEO compensation values, are you getting what you are paying for? Holding CEOs and their executive teams accountable for strategy deployment and financial results is a primary board responsibility. Open and honest feedback coupled with active oversight can ensure the bank is getting value from its compensation dollars.

Are you evaluating the CEO on the right things? Simply focusing the CEO’s evaluation on whether the bank made its numbers that year is insufficient. A more holistic view of the role using seven characteristics should be considered:

  1. Strategy and Vision
  2. Leadership
  3. Innovation/Technology
  4. Operating Metrics
  5. Risk Management
  6. People Management
  7. External Relationships

Conclusion
Compared to both smaller and larger banking organizations, regional banks have enjoyed relatively strong performance despite a challenging operating environment—and mega-acquirer performance has been even stronger. Has executive pay design played a role in the success of mega-acquirers? The differences in design are small, but potentially impactful—a tighter link to performance, a stronger focus on operational effectiveness, and for some, a higher level of long-term equity ownership.

Is Bigger Better?


5-1-13_Sutherland.pngThe title of the E.F. Schumacher book “Small is Beautiful” best articulates the argument that bigger may not be better. There’s no mistaking the fact that efficiency ratios and size have a negative correlation. Surprised?

Community banks are doing a bang-up job when it comes to controlling the largest expense line in a bank—people. Unlike the larger global banks that seem inclined to hire-and-fire as a knee-jerk approach to controlling staff costs, community banks are a shining example of how to get it right. In fact, the big banks have a few lessons to learn from their smaller counterparts in this area.

This is evident when you compare the efficiency ratios of community banks to the larger banks.

Efficiency ratios are a good way of measuring how a bank is doing from a revenue-to-expense perspective and here the community banks have done an outstanding job of managing costs well. Also, their locational advantage in the burbs and serving the communities there in a focused manner needs to be acknowledged and large banks can learn from this approach to the small- and medium-sized customers.

The average efficiency ratio of the top 200 community banks in the third quarter 2012 at 50 percent was significantly better than JPMorgan Chase & Co. (63 percent), Bank of America (77 percent), Citi (73 percent) and Wells Fargo & Co. (58 percent) at the end of 2012.

That said, lack of size and lack of a critical mass of transactions are drawbacks when it comes to optimizing operations and technology costs. In general, since people and real estate costs tend to be low in the locales where community banks operate, the strategy has been to replace people with people instead of people with technology. While this approach has withstood the test of time, it remains to be seen whether it will continue to be successful – especially in a world where consumers are demanding better banking products and savvier technologies, and millennials are emerging as the largest customer base for retail banking.

Let’s consider the cost of technology and how size affects strategy. Take the case of voice biometrics, a multi-channel approach to customer service whereby one platform self-serves customers’ needs for voice, email, text, chat and fax. It costs between $100,000 to $150,000 to deploy a voice biometrics technology. But in the absence of a large transaction base that can benefit from this technology, it becomes a wasteful mechanism to bring this type of technology in-house and smaller banks end up hiring more internal staff to service customers. While that is not a bad move from a short term return perspective, it’s not a strategy for the long haul. Customers today (thanks to Apple and similar companies) are gradually demanding better ways to be served by institutions that offer the latest technologies and enable day-to-day tasks like mobile banking.

Consider, too, how size affects the ability to incorporate an analytics platform, an essential tool that provides everything from customer lifetime value to pricing sensitivities or churn management. Again, this technology costs a few hundred thousand dollars, an expense that many community banks cannot justify. Unable to embrace these techniques, these institution remain locked in the same orbit while bigger banks are able to more accurately price, segment and gather key information about their customers. This helps them better serve their target customers.

While it is tough to assign a number to what size is right, it seems that banks at $5 billion and above have a better chance at embracing leading-edge technologies and operations processes—and, as an outcome of deploying superior processes, are able to achieve significant operations and technology improvements. So, what is the solution for smaller community banks? Here are some suggestions:

  • Look for size elsewhere.  If M&A is not an option to pool resources, look into a variety of service providers, such as Fiserv and Sutherland Global Services, which are able to extend their efficiencies of scale and operations to smaller community banks, based on global aggregated demand for these services.
  • Look at buying a service wrapped with a technology, rather than buying a technology. This ensures the blended unit cost of getting both the service and the technology is low.
  • Use long-term variable contracts as a technique to keep short-term pricing low, but build into the contract the language to ensure poor performance is penalized.
  • Ensure that a Project Management Office (PMO) that will serve your needs in operations and technology is part of any technology service contract.

Community banks have consistently been the most important driver of economic activity in the US. When they become more efficient from an operations and technology perspective, they are a growing tide that buoys other small banks across the industry. Size and efficiencies do have a correlation, and it is very important for community banks to embrace modern techniques of managing operations and technology. By definition, community banks are small and “Small is Beautiful” indeed.