Breaking the Legacy Mindset

For banks, the status quo can often stymie innovation. Even if executives have the desire to try something new, their institution can be incumbered by entrenched legacy systems.

But taking a chance on something new can open up institutions to the possibility of achieving something bigger. The decision to choose a new path is usually very difficult; loyalty and security can feel hard coded in our DNA. But sometimes it comes to the point where you realize that the thing you are doing over and over is never going to produce a different, game-changing outcome.

The adage of “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” continues to ring true in many ways in the fintech space. It refers to the idea that making a safe bet never got anyone in trouble; choosing the industry’s standard company, product or service had little repercussions for the executives making the decisions — even if there were newer, cheaper or better options. It was safe, the company was reliable and little happened in the way of bucking the status quo.

The payments industry has a number of parallels from which we can draw. The electronic payment ecosystem is more than 40 years old; while there has been innovation, it has not been at the same pace as the rest of the technology industry. Some bankers may remember “knuckle busters” and the carbon paper of old. Although banking have since shed those physical devices, the core processing behind the electronic payments system largely remains the same.

These legacy systems mean the payments industry traditionally has had extremely high barriers to entry. This is due to a number of factors, including increasing risk and regulatory compliance needs, high capital investments, a technology environment that is difficult to penetrate and complex integration webs between multiple partners. This unique environment increases the stickiness of mature offerings and creates a complex set of products and long-standing relationships that make it difficult for new products or providers to break through.

The industry’s fragmentation is also a blessing and a curse. While fragmentation gives institutions and consumers choices in the market, it hinders new companies from emerging. This makes it challenging for companies to gain traction or disrupt existing solutions with new and creative ways to solve problems and address needs. Breaking into the market is still only step one. Convincing banks that you can simplify their processes and scale your solutions is an ongoing challenge that smaller fintechs must overcome to truly participate — and potentially disrupt — the industry. The combination of these factors fuels a deep resistance to change in the banking industry.

Fintechs aren’t legacy companies — and that is a good thing. Implementations don’t need to take months, they can be done in weeks. Customer service isn’t challenging when communication happens openly and quickly. Enhancements are affordable, and newer platforms offer nimbleness and openness.

In order to succeed, fintechs must find ways to innovate within the gray space. This could look like any number of things: taking advantage of mandates that create new opportunities, stretching systems and capability gaps to explore new norms, or venturing out into entirely uncharted territory. And banks do not have to fit into the same familiar patterns; changing one piece of the puzzle does not always have to be a massive undertaking.

What within your bank’s walls just “works”? What system or processes have been on autopilot that could chart a new path? What external services are your customers using that the bank could bring in-house if executives thought outside the box? Fintech can complement the bank, if you select the right partner that expands your ecosystem. Fintech can change user experiences — simplifying them to deliver a truly different outcome altogether.

Take a chance on fintech. It will be epic.

The Future-Proof Response to Rising Interest Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Fintech Trends, Now and in the Future

A version of this article originally appeared on RSM US LLP’s The Real Economy Blog.

Financial technology, or fintech, is rapidly evolving financial services, creating a new infrastructure and platforms for the industry’s next generation. Much remains to be seen, but here are the top trends we expect to shape fintech this year and beyond:

1. Embedded Finance is Here to Stay
Increasingly, customers are demanding access to products and services that are embedded in one centralized location, pushing companies to provide financial services products through partnerships and white-label programs.

Health care, consumer products, technology companies can embed a loan, a checking account, a line of credit or a payment option into their business model and platform. This means large-scale ecosystem disruption for many players and presents a potential opportunity for companies that offer customized customer experiences. This also means the possibility of offering distinct groups personalized services uniquely tailored to their financial situation.

2. A Super App to Rule All
We also anticipate the rise of “super apps” that pull together many apps with different functions into one ecosystem. For example, WeChat is used in Asia for messaging, payments, restaurant orders, shopping and even booking doctors’ appointments.

The adoption of super apps has been slower in the United States, but finance and payment companies and apps including PayPal Holding’s PayPal and Venmo, Block’s Cash App, Coinbase Global’s cryptocurrency wallet, Robinhood Markets’ trading app, buy now, pay later firms Affirm and Klarna and neobank Chime are building out their functionality. Typical functions of these super apps include payments via QR code, peer-to-peer transfers, debit and checking accounts, direct deposits, stock trading, crypto trading and more.

3. DeFi Gains Further Acceptance
Roughly a third of all the venture capital fintech investments raised in 2021 went to fund blockchain and cryptocurrency projects, according to PitchBook data. This includes $1.9 billion in investments for decentralized finance (known as DeFi) platforms, according to data from The Block. DeFi has the potential not only to disrupt the financial services industry but radically transform it, via the massive structural changes it could bring.

DeFi is an alternative to the current financial system and relies on blockchain technology; it is open and global with no central governing body. Most current DeFi projects use the Ethereum network and various cryptocurrencies. Users can trade, lend, borrow and exchange assets directly with each other over decentralized apps, instead of relying on an intermediary. The net value locked in DeFi protocols, according to The Block, grew from $16 billion in 2020 to $101.4 billion in 2021 in November 2021, demonstrating its potential.

4. Digital Wallets
Digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay are increasingly popular alternatives to cash and card payments, and we expect this trend to continue. Digital wallets are used for 45% of e-commerce and mobile transactions, according to Bloomberg, but their use accounts for just 26% of physical point-of-sale payments. By 2024, WorldPay expects 33% of in-person payments globally to be made using digital wallets, while the use of cash is expected to fall to 13% from 21% in the next three to four years.

We are starting to see countries like China, Mexico and the United States strongly considering issuing digital currency, which could also drastically reduce the use of cash.

5. Regulators Catching Up to Fintechs
It’s no surprise that regulators have been playing catch up to fintech innovation for a few years now, but 2022 could be the year they make some headway. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, noting the rapid growth of “buy now, pay later” adoption, opened an inquiry into five companies late in 2021 and has signaled its intent to regulate the space.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Gary Gensler signaled the agency’s intent to regulate cryptocurrencies during an investor advisory committee meeting in 2021. The acting chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has similarly prioritized regulating crypto assets in 2022, noting the risks they pose. And this January, the Acting Comptroller of the Currency, Michael Hsu, noted that crypto has gone mainstream and requires a “coordinated and collaborative regulatory approach.”

Other agencies have also begun evaluating the use of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning in financial services.

The Takeaway
There are other forces at play shaping the fintech space, including automation, artificial intelligence, growing attention on environmental, social and governance issues, and workforce challenges. But we’ll be watching these five major trends closely as the year continues.

Should You Invest in a Venture Fund?

Community banks needing to innovate are hoping they can gain an edge — and valuable exposure — by investing in venture capital funds focused on early-stage financial technology companies.

Investing directly or indirectly in fintechs is a new undertaking for many community banks that may lack the expertise or bandwidth to take this next step toward innovation. VC funds give small banks a way to learn about emerging technologies, connect with new potential partners and even capture some of the financial upside of the investment. But is this opportunity right for all banks?

The investments can jump start “a virtuous circle” of improvements and returns, Anton Schutz, president at Mendon Capital Advisors Corp., argues in the second quarter issue of Bank Director magazine. Schutz is one of the partners behind Mendon Ventures’ BankTech Fund, which has about 40 banks invested as limited partners, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

If there is a return, it might not appear solely as a line item on the bank’s balance sheet, in other words. A bank that implements the technology from a fintech following a fund introduction might become more effective or productive or secure over time. The impact of these funds on bank innovation could be less of a transformation and more of an evolution — if the investments play out as predicted.

But these bets still carry drawbacks and risks. Venture capital dollars have flocked to the fintech space, pushing up valuations. In 2021, $1 out of every $5 in venture capital investments went to the fintech space, making up 21% of all investments, according to CB Insight’s Global State of Venture report for 2021. Participating in a VC fund might distract management teams from their existing digital transformation plan, and the investments could fail to produce attractive returns — or even record a loss.

Bank Director has created the following discussion guide for boards at institutions that are exploring whether to invest in venture capital funds. This list of questions is by no means exhaustive; directors and executives should engage with external resources for specific concerns and strategies that are appropriate for their bank.

1. How does venture capital investing fit into our innovation strategy?
How do we approach innovation and fintech partnerships in general? How would a fund help us innovate? Do we expect the fund to direct our innovation, or do we have a clear strategy and idea of what we need?

2. What are we trying to change?
What pain points does our institution need to solve through technology? What solutions or fintech partners have we explored on our own? Do we need help meeting potential partners from a VC fund, or can we do it through other avenues, such as partnering with an accelerator or attending conferences?

3. What fund or funds should we invest in?
What venture capital funds are raising capital from community bank investors? Who leads and advises those funds? What is their approach to due diligence? Do they have nonbank or big bank investors? What companies have they invested in, and are those companies aligned with our values? What is the capital commitment to join a fund? Should we join multiple funds?

4. What is our risk tolerance?
What other ways could we use this capital, and what would the return on investment be? How important are financial returns? What is our risk tolerance for financial losses? Is our due diligence approach sufficient, or do we need some assistance?

5. What is our bandwidth and level of commitment?
What do we want to get out of our participation in a fund? Who from our bank will participate in fund calls, meetings or conferences? Would the bank use a product from an invested fintech, and if so, who would oversee that implantation or collaboration with the fintech? Do bank employees have the bandwidth and skills to take advantage of projects or collaborations that come from the fund?

Busting Community Bank Credit Card Myths

Credit card programs continue to be among the most significant opportunities for the nation’s largest banks; is the same true for community banks?

After a slowdown in 2020, credit card applications grew back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. It is projected that credit cards will experience strong growth in 2022, particularly in small business and commercial segments. While a few community banks recognize the business opportunity in credit cards, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reports, over 83% do not own any credit card assets on their books.

The potential rewards of issuing credit cards are huge. Customers who have more financial products with their bank show improved retention, with more activity across the products, leading to higher profitability. It can help community banks serve their local community and improve their customers’ financial health. And community banks can realize a high return on assets (ROA) from their credit card program.

Despite these benefits, community bank executives hold back their institutions from issuing credit cards due to several myths and misconceptions about the space. Credit card issuing is no easy task — but with available technology and servicing innovations makes it possible to bust these myths.

Myth 1: The Upfront Investment is Too High
While it would be a significant investment for a financial institution to put together a credit card program from scratch, there is no need to do that. A bank can leverage capabilities built and offered by companies who offer credit cards as a service. In fact, community banks need to make little to no upfront investment to add innovative solutions to their offerings.

Myth 2: Customers are Well Served by Agent Banks
In the past, many community banks opted to work with an agent bank to offer credit cards because it was the only option available. But participating in an agent bank referral program meant they essentially lost their customer relationship to the issuing bank. Additionally, the community banks cannot make their own credit decisions or access the credit card data for their own customers in this model. Alternative options means that banks should consider whether to start or continue their agent bank credit card offering, and how it could affect their franchise in the long run.

Myth 3: Credit Card Programs are Too Risky
A handful of community banks have chosen to issue subprime credit cards with high fees and interest rates — and indeed have higher risk. However, sub-prime lending is not the focus of vast majority of community banks. Relationship lending is key; credit cards are a great product to deepen the relationships with customers. Relationship-based credit card portfolios tend to have lower credit losses compared to national credit card programs, particularly in economic downturns. This can provide comfort to conservative bankers that still want to serve their customers.

Myth 4: Credit Card Programs are Unprofitable
This could not be further from the truth. The average ROA ratio overall for banks increased from 0.72% in 2020 to 1.23% in 2021, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; credit cards could be five times more profitable. In fact, business credit cards and commercial cards tend to achieve an ROA of 8% or higher. Commercial cards, in particular, are in high demand and expected to grow faster due to digital payment trends that the pandemic accelerated among businesses. Virtual cards provide significant benefits to businesses; in turn, they increase spend volume and lead to higher interchange and lower risk to the bank.

Myth 5: Managing Credit Cards is Complex, Time-Consuming and Expensive
Banks can bust this myth by partnering with a organizations that specialize in modern technology and program management of credit cards. There is technology available across all card management disciplines, including origination, credit decision making, processing, sales/servicing interfaces, detailed reporting, integrated rewards, marketing and risk management. Partners can provide expertise on policies and procedures that banks will require for the program. Community banks can launch and own credit card programs in 120 days or less with innovative turnkey solutions — no new hires required.

Considering the past challenges and perceptions about credit cards, it is no surprise that these misconceptions persist. But the future of credit cards for community banks is bright. Community banks armed with knowledge and foresight will be positioned for success in credit cards. Help from the right expertise will allow them to enhance their customer experiences while enjoying high profitability in the long run.

The Rustle About the Russell

The upcoming annual Russell reconstitution is undoubtedly a frequent topic of conversation and concern for smaller public banks. For these institutions and potentially many others, recent regulatory updates provide a viable alternative.

On an annual basis, a team at FTSE Russell evaluates the composition of their indices and rebalances the portfolio of the top 3,000 companies. This “annual reconstitution” can produce an unfortunate side effect: smaller companies on the lower end of an index’s minimum market capitalization threshold may find that they no longer qualify for inclusion when the threshold increases. These firms can experience a semi-annual whipsaw — sometimes they make the cut, other times they don’t.

When a company is removed from “The Russell,” index fund managers no longer hold shares in that company. In fact, a Russell Index mutual fund manager would be in violation of several rules from the Securities and Exchange Commission if they trade in a ticker that no longer included in an index that they market themselves as tracking.

In simplest terms, when a company is bounced from the Russell, it’s bounced from the $11 trillion pool of index-fund portfolios. For smaller companies that tend to be otherwise thinly traded, this can be a major problem. Many banks that were removed from the Russell at the last re-balance saw a decrease of 30% in their stock, virtually overnight.

The One-Two Punch
Russell indices have a long list of securities they exclude. It is probably easier for most people to think of the composition of Russell’s US-based indices as including only public securities that are “listed” on an exchange, like the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.

Maintaining an exchange listing can be a major ongoing commitment of a firm’s time and money. U.S. exchange listing fees are based on a bank’s market capitalization and total shares outstanding; listing additional shares and corporate actions incur added costs for banks.

So what happens when a listed company gets bounced from the Russell? Share prices drop because index funds begin selling positions en masse, and liquidity dries up as index funds buyers disappear. But the firm remains listed on the exchange, footing the bill for the related ongoing compliance overhead or face a de-listing. In turn, the firm ends up incurring all of the costs and reaps none of the benefits. 

Where to go from here?
Some estimates suggest that the minimum qualification criteria for some of Russell’s most popular indices will increase the minimum market cap from $250 million to about $299 million. For banks, this generally means over $2 billion in assets. This is an unfortunate fate for listed banks that may find themselves in the crosshairs; for dozens of others, it may mean further postponing plans for an IPO.

But an alternative does exist that smaller banks can uniquely benefit from. Recent overhauling of SEC Rule 15c2-11 positions the OTCQX Market as a regulated public market solution for U.S. regional and community banks. The market provides a cost-effective alternative that leverages bank regulatory reporting standards and can save banks around $500,000 a year compared to listing on an exchange.

Many of the banks that trade on OTCQX are under $350 million in market cap and can choose to provide liquidity for their shareholders through a network of recognized broker-dealers and market makers.

One key takeaway for management teams is that unless an institution can qualify for inclusion in the Russell and grow rapidly enough to keep up with annual reconstitutions, it may be time for them to re-evaluate the value of trading on listed exchanges.

5 Key Factors for Fintech Partnerships

As banks explore ways to expand their products and services, many are choosing to partner with fintech companies to enhance their offerings. These partnerships are valuable opportunities for a bank that otherwise would not have the resources to develop the technology or expertise in-house to meet customer demand.

However, banks need to be cautious when partnering with fintech companies — they are subcontracting critical services and functions to a third-party provider. They should “dig in” when assessing their fintech partners to reduce the regulatory, operational and reputational risk exposure to the bank. There are a few things banks should consider to ensure they are partnering with third party that is safe and reputable to provide downstream services to their customers.

1. Look for fintech companies that have strong expertise and experience in complying with applicable banking regulations.

  • Consider the banking regulations that apply to support the product the fintech offers, and ask the provider how they meet these compliance standards.
  • Ask about the fintech’s policies, procedures, training and internal control that satisfy any legal and regulatory requirements.
  • Ensure contract terms clearly define legal and compliance duties, particularly for reporting, data privacy, customer complaints and recordkeeping requirements.

2. Data and cybersecurity should be a top priority.

  • Assess your provider’s information security controls to ensure they meet the bank’s standards.
  • Review the fintech’s policies and procedures to evaluate their incident management and response practices, compliance with applicable privacy laws and regulations and training requirements for staff.

3. Engage with fintechs that have customer focus in mind — even when the bank maintains the direct interaction with its customers.

  • Look for systems and providers that make recommendations for required agreements and disclosures for application use.
  • Select firms that can provide white-labeled services, allowing bank customer to use the product directly.
  • Work with fintechs that are open to tailoring and enhancing the end-user customer experience to further the continuity of the bank/customer relationship.

4. Look for a fintech that employs strong technology professionals who can provide a smooth integration process that allows information to easily flow into the bank’s systems and processes.

  • Using a company that employs talented technology staff can save time and money when solving technology issues or developing operational efficiencies.

5. Make sure your fintech has reliable operations with minimal risk of disruption.

  • Review your provider’s business continuity and disaster recovery plans to make sure there are appropriate incident response measures.
  • Make sure the provider’s service level agreements meet the needs of your banking operations; if you are providing a 24-hour service, make sure your fintech also supports those same hours.
  • Require insurance coverage from your provider, so the bank is covered if a serious incident occurs.

Establishing a relationship with a fintech can provide a bank with a faster go-to-market strategy for new product offerings while delivering a customer experience that would be challenging for a bank to recreate. However, the responsibility of choosing a reputable tech firm should not be taken lightly. By taking some of these factors into consideration, banks can continue to follow sound banking practices while providing a great customer experience and demonstrating a commitment to innovation.

The Merger Compliance Issue You May Not Have Considered

2022 will clearly be a challenging year for bank mergers, with the marketing and communication tools requiring extra attention and effort.

Government agencies continue to review bank mergers more closely; one area impacted by the growing oversight climate is the marketing and communication banks use to announce mergers and welcome newly acquired account holders. These tools are the first items and messages that account holders and staff encounter, but are far too often, they are the last thing bankers review in the process of completing a merger.

When we discuss merger communication planning and execution with our clients, both pre- and post-purchase, we spend the most time talking about the following three issues:

1. Getting solid, manageable, actionable data from the acquired institution
We find that many financial institutions that are acquired have been anticipating such a transaction for a number of years. As such, core systems and files may not be completely up to date; investments in technology upgrades and certain housekeeping details may have been deferred or even scrapped.

On the top of that list is the master  customer information file, or MCIF, or scrubbing the core database for customer contact details and transaction history. The prime culprit is e-Statements; their popularity has reduced the number of mailed physical statements, which generate a change of address notification if they’re returned. Fortunately, there are a number of tools and strategies available to fix this problem. We also encourage our clients to explore this during the pre-purchase phases, in case updating the data requires a costly solution that needs to be negotiated into the final deal. We believe regulators may want to know that customers have received these disclosures — having the right address is a big part of that.

2. Weaving customer advocacy into welcome materials
The new compliance culture is driving more concise and clear messaging for the account holder; the primary contact points coming through online or web communications, along with printed welcome material that goes out with the disclosures. This does not mean “dumb down” your messaging; it is our opinion that this includes presenting the account holder with impact points and advocacy in the clearest possible terms. This is a direct response to the new wave of consumer awareness and advocacy that we see in other parts of banking, like mortgage.

Specifically, in the welcome materials, there is a balance between brand and awareness messaging and instructions for the new account holder. Banks must adjust this combination to create an even mix of both. When in doubt, perfect the message towards the account holder. We advise our clients to consider including strong presentations concerning:

  • What is changing and when.
  • Different methods for getting questions answered or product help.
  • Clear explanations of the features and benefits offered to the account holder.
  • Introduction to new services like digital banking.

Serial acquirers should pay close attention to this; they can fall into the trap of dusting off the material from the last merger, making a few adjustments and moving along. It is our observation that material that may have been delivered more than six months ago may not meet current regulatory oversight needs. (Check out our article in the first quarter 2022 issue of Bank Director magazine for more on this important issue.)

3. Personalization
We struggle to understand why financial institutions send out large — more than 30 pages, in addition to the disclosures — welcome information kits. It is not only much more expensive than necessary and environmentally unfriendly — it makes it harder for the consumer to find the information that applies to them.

There are two parts to this. First, print-on-demand materials means creating welcome kits can be as economical as static materials in all but the smallest mergers. Second, this setting allows you to target the right message to the right household or business. This allows the acquirer to get solid data, complete account mapping and tackle the most challenging task: programming the algorithms to make sure the right material gets to the right household or business.

A Look Ahead to 2022: The Year of Digital Lending

2021 has been a year of challenge and change for community bankers, especially when it comes to lending.

Banks modernized and digitized significant portion of loan activity during the pandemic; as a byproduct, customers have begun to realize the inefficiencies in traditional lending processes. Community financial institutions that hope to stay ahead in 2022 should prioritize the incorporation of digital and automated loan processes.

Although the need to digitize commercial lending has long been a point of discussion, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) sparked a fire that turned talk into action for many institutions. Bankers quickly jumped in to help small businesses receive the funding they needed, whether that meant long hours, adopting new technologies or creating new processes. The amount of PPP loans processed in that small window of time would not have been possible without many bankers leveraging trusted technology partners.

One result of this approach was enhancing transparency and boosting efficiencies while helping small businesses at the same time. Many in the banking industry saw firsthand that, despite the commonly held belief, it is possible to digitize lending while maintaining personal, meaningful relationships. Bankers do not have to make a choice between convenience and personal connection, and we expect to see more institutions blend the two going forward.

Bankers also have a newfound familiarity with Small Business Administration programs following the wind down of the PPP. The program marked many institutions’ first time participating in SBA lending. Many now have a greater understanding of government guaranteed lending and are more comfortable with the programs, opening the door for continued involvement.

Embracing digitization in lending enhances efficiencies and creates a more seamless experience not only for the borrower, but for employees institution-wide. This will be especially important as the “Great Retirement” continues and bank executives across the country end their careers with no one in place to succeed them. To make the issue even worse, recruiting and maintaining technology talent has become increasingly difficult — even more so in rural markets. Such issues are leading some banks to sell, disrupting the businesses and communities that rely on them.

Partnering with technology providers can give institutions the bandwidth to effectively serve more small businesses and provide them with the customer experiences they have come to expect without increasing staff. Adopting more digital and automatic aspects in small business lending allows banks to reduce tedious manual processes and optimize efficiencies, freeing up employee time and resources so they can focus on strategy and growth efforts. Not to mention, such a work environment is more likely to attract and retain top talent.

Using technology partners to centralize lending also has benefits from a regulatory compliance standpoint, especially as potential changes loom on the horizon. Incorporating greater digitization across the loan process provides increased transparency into relevant data, which can streamline and strengthen a bank’s documentation and reporting. The most successful institutions deeply integrate lending systems into their cores to enable a holistic, real-time view of borrower relationships and their portfolio.

Community institutions have been a lifeline for their communities and customers over the last two years. If they want to build off that momentum and further grow their customer base, they must continue to lean into technology and innovation for lending practices. Developing a comprehensive small business strategy and digitizing many aspects of commercial, small business and SBA lending will position community banks to optimize their margins, better retain their talent and help their communities thrive.

A Seller’s Perspective on the Return of Bank M&A

Any thoughts of a lingering impact on mergers and acquisitions as a result of the 2020 economic downturn caused by Covid-19 should be long gone: 2021 bank transaction value exceeded $50 billion for the first time since 2007.

Continued low interest rates on loans and related compression of net interest margin, coupled with limited avenues to park excess liquidity have made many banks consider whether they can provide sustainable returns in the future. Sustainability will become increasingly difficult in the face of continued waves of change: declining branch transactions, increasing cryptocurrency activity and competition from fintechs. Additionally, the fintech role in M&A activity in 2021 cannot be ignored, as its impact is only expected to increase.

Reviewing 2021 M&A transactions, one could argue that the market for bank-to-bank transactions parallels the current residential home market: a finite amount of supply for a large amount of demand. While more houses are being built as quickly as possible, the ability for banks to organically grow loans and deposits is a much slower process; sluggish economic growth has only compounded the problem. Everyone is chasing the same dollars.

As a result, much like the housing market, there are multiple buyers vying for the same institutions and paying multiples that, just a few years ago, would have seemed outlandish. For sellers, while the multiples are high, there is a limit to the amount a buyer is willing to pay. They must consider known short-term gains in exchange for potential long-term returns.

For banks that are not considering an outright sale, this year has also seen a significant uptick in divestures of certain lines of business that were long considered part of the community bank approach to be a “one-stop shop” for customer needs. Banks are piecemeal selling wealth management, trust and insurance services in an attempt to right-size themselves and focus on the growth of core products. However, this approach does not come without its own trade-offs: fee income from these lines of business has been one of the largest components of valuable non-interest income supporting bank profitability recently.

Faced with limited ability to grow their core business, banks must decide if they are willing to stay the course to overcome the waves of change, or accept the favorable multiples they’re offered. Staying the course does not mean putting down an anchor and hoping for calmer waters. Rather, banks must focus on what plans to implement and confront the waves as they come. These plans may include cost cutting measures with a direct financial impact, such as branch closures and workforce reductions, but should entail investments in technology, cybersecurity and other areas where returns may not be quantifiable.

So with the looming changes and significant multiples being offered, one might wonder why haven’t every bank that has been approached by a buyer decides to sell? For one, as much as technology continues to increasingly affect our everyday lives, there is a significant portion of the population that still finds value in areas where technology cannot supplant personal contact. They may no longer go to a branch, but appreciate knowing they have a single point of contact who will pick up the phone when they call with questions. Additionally, many banks have spent years as the backbone of economic development and sustainability in their communities, and feel a sense of pride and responsibility to provide ongoing support.

In the current record-setting pace of M&A activity, you will be hard pressed to not find willing buyers and sellers. The landscape for banks will continue to change. Some banks will attack the change head-on and succeed; some will decide their definition of success is capitalizing on the current returns offered for the brand they have built and exit the market. Both are success stories.