ESG Disclosure on the Horizon for Financial Institutions

Over the last several years, investors, regulators and other stakeholders have sought an increase of environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosures by public companies.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has taken a cautious approach to developing uniform ESG disclosure requirements, but made a series of public statements and took preliminary steps this year indicating that it may soon enhance its climate-related disclosure requirements for all public companies, including financial institutions. To that end, the SEC’s spring 2021 agenda included four ESG-related rulemakings in the proposed rule stage, noting October 2021 for a climate-related disclosure proposed rule. The SEC is also sifting through an array of comments on its March 15 solicitation of input on how the Commission should fashion new climate disclosure requirements.

Recent speeches by Chair Gary Gensler and Commissioners Allison Herren Lee and Elad Roisman highlight some of the key elements of disclosure likely under consideration by the staff, as well as their personal priorities in this area. Commissioner Lee has asserted that the SEC has full rulemaking authority to require any disclosures in the public interest and for the protection of investors. She noted that an issue also having a social or political concern or component does not foreclose its materiality. Commissioner Lee has also commented on the disclosure of gender and diversity data and on boards’ roles in considering ESG matters.

Commissioner Roisman has noted that standardized ESG disclosures are very difficult to craft and that some ESG data is inherently imprecise, relies on continually evolving assumptions and can be calculated in multiple different ways. Commissioner Roisman has advocated for the SEC to tailor disclosure requirements, and phase in and extend the implementation period for ESG disclosures. Meanwhile, Chair Gensler has also asked the SEC staff to look at potential requirements for registrants that have made forward-looking climate commitments, the factors that should underlie the claims of funds marketing themselves as “sustainable, green, or ‘ESG’” and fund-naming conventions, and enhancements to transparency to improve diversity and inclusion practices within the asset management industry.

Significance for Financial Institutions
In the financial services industry, the risks associated with climate change encompass more than merely operational risk. They can include physical risk, transition risk, enterprise risk, regulatory risk, internal control risk and valuation risk. Financial institutions will need to consider how their climate risk disclosures harmonize with their enterprise risk management, internal controls and valuation methodologies. Further, they will need to have internal controls around the gathering of such valuation inputs, data and assumptions. Financial institutions therefore should consider how changes to the ESG disclosure requirements affect, and are consistent with, other aspects of their overall corporate governance.

Likewise, financial institutions should also consider how human capital disclosures align with enterprise risk management. Registrants will not only need to ensure that the collection of quantitative diversity data results in accurate disclosure, but also how diversity disclosures might affect reputational risk and whether any corporate governance changes may be needed to mitigate those concerns.

We recommend that financial institutions consider the following:

  • Expect to include a risk factor addressing climate change risks, and for the robustness and scope of that risk factor to increase.
  • Consider disclosing how to achieve goals set by public pledges, as well as whether the mechanisms to measure progress against such goals are in place.
  • Expect ESG disclosure requirements to become more prescriptive and for quantitative ESG disclosures to become more sophisticated. Prepare to identify the appropriate sources of information in a manner subject to customary internal controls.
  • Establish a strong corporate governance framework to evaluate ESG risks throughout your organization, including how your board will engage with such risks.
  • Incorporate ESG disclosures into disclosure controls and procedures.
  • Consider whether and how to align executive compensation with relevant ESG metrics and other strategic goals.

What Directors Think About Diversity, Independence and Credible Challenge

Building a diverse board —as defined by gender, race and ethnicity — is a controversial issue in many corporate boardrooms today, banks included. An increasing number of large institutional investors and stock exchanges like the Nasdaq Stock Market are pushing for it, and a small but growing number of states either mandate it or are instituting disclosure requirements.

But not everyone is convinced that greater diversity inherently leads to better governance, as illustrated by results of Bank Director’s 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents agreed that diversity as defined by race, gender and ethnicity improves the performance of a corporate board. However, 36% agreed with statement but said the impact was overrated, and 5% disagreed that greater diversity improves performance.

James J. McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP and leader of the firm’s banking practice group, is a strong proponent of board room diversity. “I have experienced the power of diversity on a bank board of which I am a member,” he says. “We have gone from a board of eight men and one woman three years ago to now a majority female board. There is a difference resulting from that positive transformation. Our board is probably more risk averse that it used to be. We seem to be better prepared as a group for meetings. And as a group we ask more probing questions.”

Sponsored by Bryan Cave, the survey polled 217 directors and chief executives at banks under $50 billion in assets in February and March of 2021. The majority of the respondents were independent board members. Almost half of the participants represented banks with $1 billion to $10 billion in assets.

Diversity is just one of many issues covered in this year’s survey. The list includes the practice of credible challenge, the desire for collegiality versus the freedom to disagree, board assessments, the board’s role in strategic planning and CEO performance evaluations. The survey results have been divided into five modules: board practices, the board/management relationship, strategic planning, board refreshment and diversity, and the role of the independent director.

The white paper also includes the insights of two experienced directors who helped us interpret the results: David. L. Porteous, the lead director at Huntington Bancshares, a $175 billion asset bank headquartered in Columbus, Ohio; and C. Dallas Kayser, the independent chair at City Holding Co., a $5.9 billion bank located in Charleston, West Virginia.

Ninety-nine percent of the survey respondents said that personal integrity was the most important attribute of an independent director, followed by the ability to exercise sound judgment at 96% and accountability at 94%.

“Regardless the size of the bank, the role of the independent director is pretty much the same,” says Porteous, who has served on the Huntington board since 2003, and as lead director since 2007. “There has to be a level of commitment, and that commitment has to be to your fellow directors. It has to be to the leadership of the organization, it has to be to the shareholders, to the community and to the regulators. If there comes a time when you just can’t dedicate that level of commitment, you should probably step down.”

To read more about these critical board issues, read the white paper.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Tips to Navigate Top Risk Factors for Banks in 2021

Risk is always a prominent factor for banks. Their ability to strategically navigate change proved to be crucial in a year of unprecedented challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moss Adams partnered with Bank Director to conduct the 2021 Risk Survey that explored key risks facing the industry — and forecast how banks will emerge from the pandemic. Below is a summary of top insights from the survey, as well as considerations that bank leadership should keep front of mind as they go into the second half of the year.

Rising Credit Risk Concerns

Unsurprisingly, concerns around credit risk increased in 2020.

Two-thirds of bank respondents worry about concentrations in their loan portfolio, particularly around industries significantly strained during the pandemic, including commercial real estate and hospitality. Almost all respondents modified loans in second and third quarters of 2020 to aid their customers during the initial wave; some of these modifications extended into the fourth quarter.

Evaluation Metrics and Portfolio Concerns

Two separate metrics are now in play for regulators’ evaluations. As a result, it’s important to remember that just because your bank’s loan portfolio doesn’t receive a favorable rating doesn’t mean your bank or management won’t be evaluated favorably.

Regulators might downgrade a portfolio rating as some credits went into deferrals due to business shutdowns and borrowers being unable to make payments. However, bank management could receive a strong rating because of actions they took to keep the bank running and support customers.

While modifications reflect current realities, they don’t diminish the fact that portfolios are degrading from a stability standpoint. Forty-three percent of respondents tightened underwriting standards during the pandemic, while roughly half are unsure if they’ll adjust standards in 2021 and 2022.

Banks that have good governance will loosen their underwriting standards and will be strategic about to whom they lend money. In addition, they will assess which loans they’ll permit to be in delinquent status without taking action, and which they’ll defer.

Increases in Stress Testing

While annual stress tests are common for banks, 60% of respondents expanded the quantity or depth of economic scenarios in response to the pandemic. This is despite regulators’ previous increase of the asset cap threshold for required testing.

Most institutions focus not just on interest rate stress testing — they test the whole portfolio. This is driving more stress testing on the viability of collateral for loans and liquidity. Institutions know they’ll face increased allowance provisions and write-offs, so they’re stress testing the capital resiliency of their organization and see how they would shoulder that burden.

Looking forward, banks may want to focus on concentrated risks within the portfolio. They may also want to apply different, more specific stress testing criteria to various segments such as multifamily real estate, hospitality and mortgages, knowing certain areas may pose greater risk.

Improved Plans for Continuity and Disaster Recovery

The pandemic placed a renewed focus on continuity and disaster recovery. While most organizations had a pandemic provision in their plans following guidance from the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC), they had been considered only hypothetical exercises. When an actual pandemic hit, many organizations had to react quickly, focus and learn how to adapt during the experience. Most banks will enhance their business continuity plans as a result of the pandemic: 84% of respondents say they’ve made or plan to make changes to their plans.

Key improvement areas include plans to:

  • Formalize remote work procedures.
  • Educate and train employees.
  • Provide the right tools to staff.
  • Ensure the bank’s IT infrastructure can adapt in a crisis.

Cybersecurity and Remote Work Setups

Three-quarters of respondents plan for at least some employees to work remotely after the pandemic abates. This makes cybersecurity a significant concern that boards need to further explore and implement additional precautions around.

Previously, with employees working in one space, there was only one entry point of attack for cybercriminals. Suddenly, with employees working from potentially hundreds of different locations, hundreds of entry points could exist.

Factoring in employees’ mental states is also a crucial vulnerability. It’s easier for cybercriminals to take advantage of or deceive employees that are navigating the difficulties of working from home and the general stresses of the pandemic. Increased staff training, as well as technology improvements, can help better detect and deter cyberthreats and intrusions.

Looking Forward

Though many respondents noted the resilience of the industry, it’s important to not get complacent. Banks certainly weathered the hard times, but the biggest impacts of the past year likely won’t be fully visible until the pandemic subsides.

Once that occurs, some businesses will reopen but may need more capital. Others may still close permanently, leaving banks to determine which loans won’t get repaid, engage bankruptcy courts, take cents on the dollars for the loan and charge write-offs.

So while this past year has been a major learning experience, the lesson likely won’t be concluded until early 2022.

 

Assurance, tax, and consulting offered through Moss Adams LLP. Investment advisory services offered through Moss Adams Wealth Advisors LLC.

ESG Principles at Work in Diversifying Governance

Before environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters became commercially and culturally significant, the lack of diversity and inclusion within governance structures was noted by stakeholders but not scrutinized.

The shifting tides now means that organizations lacking diversity in their corporate leadership could be potentially subjected to shareholder lawsuits, increased regulation and directives by state laws, investment bank requirements, and potential industry edicts.

Board and management diversity is undoubtedly a high-priority issue in the banking and financial services sectors. Numerous reports establish minority groups have historically been denied access to capital, which is mirrored by the lack of minority representation on the boards of financial institutions.

Some progress has been made. For example, for the first time in its 107-year history, white men held fewer than half of the board seats at the Federal Reserve’s 12 regional outposts. This was part of an intentional effort, as Fed leaders believe a more representative body of leaders will better understand economic conditions and make better policy decisions. However, further analysis reflects such diversity predominantly among the two-thirds of directors who are not bankers, while the experienced banking directors are mainly white males.

Board Diversity Lawsuits
The current pending shareholder suits have been primarily filed by the same group of firms and targeted many companies listed by a recent Newsweek article as not having a Black director. None of these suits involve financial institutions, but it is not hard to foresee such cases coming in the future. The lawsuits generally assert that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties and made false or misleading public statements regarding a company’s commitment to diversity. The Courts have summarily dismissed at least two suits, but a legal victory may not even be the goal in some cases.

Recently, Google’s parent settled its #MeToo derivative litigation and agreed to create a $310 million diversity, equity, and inclusion fund to support global diversity and inclusion initiatives within Google over the next ten years. The fund will also support various ESG programs outside Google focused on the digital and technology industries.

Regulatory, Industry, and Shareholder Efforts
Federal and state regulatory efforts preceded these recent lawsuits. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has issued compliance interpretations advising companies on the disclosure of diversity characteristics upon which they rely when nominating board members and is expected to push more disclosure in the future. Additionally, the U.S. House of Representatives considered a bill in November 2019 requiring issuers of securities to disclose the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of their boards of directors and executive officers and any plans to promote such diversity.

These efforts will likely filter into boardrooms and may spur additional board regulation at the state level. In 2019, California became the first state to require headquartered public companies to have a minimum number of female directors or face sanctions, increasing 2021. In June 2020, New York began requiring companies to report how many of their directors are women. As other states follow California’s lead regarding board composition, we can expect more claims to be filed across the country.

At the industry level, the Nasdaq stock exchange filed a proposal with the SEC to adopt regulations that would require most listed companies to elect at least one woman director and one director from an underrepresented minority or who identify as LGBTQ+. If adopted, the tiered requirements would force non-compliant companies to disclose such failures in the company’s annual meeting proxy statement or on its website.

In the private sector, institutional investors, such as BlackRock and Vanguard Group, have encouraged companies to pursue ESG goals and disclose their boards’ racial diversity, using proxy votes to advance such efforts. Separately, Institutional Shareholder Services and some non-profit organizations have either encouraged companies to disclose their diversity efforts or signed challenges and pledges to increase the diversity on their boards. Goldman Sachs Group has made clear it will only assist companies to go public if they have at least one diverse board member.

Concrete Plans Can Decrease Director Risk
Successful institutions know their diversity commitment cannot be rhetorical and is measured by the number of their diverse board and management leaders. As pending lawsuits and legislation leverage diversity statements to form the basis of liability or regulatory culpability, financial institutions should ensure that their actions fully support their diversity proclamations. Among other things, boards should:

  • Take the lead from public and private efforts and review and, if necessary, reform board composition to open or create seats for diverse directors.
  • When recruiting new board members, identify and prioritize salient diversity characteristics; if necessary, utilize a diversity-focused search consultant to ensure a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Develop a quantifiable plan for diversity issues by reviewing and augmenting governance guidelines, board committee efforts, and executive compensation criteria.
  • Create and promote diversity and inclusion goals and incorporate training at the board and management levels.
  • Require quarterly board reporting on diversity and inclusion programs to reveal trends and progress towards stated goals.

As companies express their commitment to the board and C-level diversity and other ESG efforts, they should create and follow concrete plans with defined goals and meticulously measure their progress.

2021 Governance Best Practices Survey Results: Who’s Driving Bank Strategy?

The best banks balance short-term thinking with long-term strategy.

“Long-term performance is always our paramount objective,” Bank OZK Chair and CEO George Gleason told Bank Director at its recent Inspired by Acquire or Be Acquired virtual event. The $27 billion bank topped Bank Director’s 2021 RankingBanking study. “If short-term results suffer because of our focus on long-term objectives, then that’s just part of it.”

Strategic discipline starts with a bank’s leadership team — and the board should play an important role in developing the strategy and monitoring its execution. But that’s not always the case, according to the results of the 2021 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

The survey explores the board’s approach to strategic planning, as well as governance practices, board composition and the relationship between executives and the board. The results find that most boards don’t drive strategic planning at their institutions: Just 20% say the board drives this process and collaborates with management to develop the strategic plan. Most — 56% — say their board establishes the risk appetite but relies on management to develop the strategy.

The vast majority believe their strategic planning process is effective. But of the 11% who believe their process to be ineffective, some express regret over the lack of input from their board. One respondent believes their bank’s strategic plan to be “too in the weeds,” while another holds the opposite concern. “It flies at 30,000 feet for [the] most part,” says one independent chair. “[We] need to get a little closer to the ground with metrics and clear paths for management to build.”

Most — 84% — reviewed their strategic plan during the pandemic, but few shortened the time horizon of their strategy. This may seem surprising, given previous indicators that Covid-19 accelerated bank strategy in some areas, particularly around the implementation of digital technology. Perhaps this indicates that, for most bank leadership teams, balancing short-term results and long-term strategy remains top of mind.

Key Findings

Strategic Review
Three-quarters of respondents say their board reviews the strategic plan annually. Roughly two-thirds bring in an outside advisor or consultant to assist in developing the strategic plan — but not generally every year.

Board Responsibilities
When asked to identify the board’s most important functions, the majority of respondents point to holding management accountable for achieving goals in a safe and sound manner (61%) and meeting its fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders (60%). Just 34% say that setting strategy is a key board responsibility.

Competitive Pressures
Respondents say that pressure on net interest margins (52%), the ability to grow organically in their markets (44%) and meeting customer demands for digital options (37%) threaten the long-term viability of their bank.

Interacting With Management
The vast majority of independent directors, chairs and lead directors believe they’re getting the right level of information from bank executives. Almost all interact at least quarterly with the bank’s CEO (98%), CFO (94%) and chief risk officer (85%).

Credible Challenge
Three-quarters say their board has several directors willing to ask tough questions when warranted; 92% find their management team receptive to feedback.

Needle Moving on Board Diversity
Almost 60% believe that fostering diversity in the boardroom improves corporate performance. Thirty-nine percent have three or more board members who bring diverse characteristics to the board, based on gender, race or ethnicity.

Assessing Performance
Less than half conduct an annual evaluation of their board’s performance, which most use to assess the effectiveness of the board as a whole (84%), improve governance processes (60%), identify training needs for the board (59%) or assess committee performance (58%).

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics

Imagine a local manufacturer, beloved as an employer and a pillar of the community. The company uses 100% renewable energy and carefully manages its supply chain to be environmentally conscious. The manufacturer has a diverse group of employees, upper managers and board. It pays well and provides health benefits. It might be considered a star when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) parameters.

Now imagine news breaks: Its product causes some customers to develop cancer, an outcome the company ignored for years. How did a good corporate citizen not care about this? You could say this was a governance failure. Everyone would agree that it was a trust-busting event for customers.

ESG, at its root, is about looking at the overall impact of a company. The most profound impact of banks is the impact of banking products. Most bank products are built for use in a perfect world with perfect compliance, but perfect compliance is hard for some people. Noncompliance disproportionately affects the most vulnerable customers ⎯ people living paycheck-to-paycheck and managing their money with little margin to spare. That isn’t to say that these individuals are all under or near the poverty line: Fully 18% of people who earn more than $100,000 say they live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey of 8,000 U.S. workers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. There is growing recognition that bank products need to reflect the realities of more and more Americans.

Years ago, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares started working on better overdraft solutions for customers whose financial lives were far from perfect. Currently, the $123 billion regional bank will not charge for overdrafts under $50 if a customer automatically deposits their paycheck. If the customer overdrafts $50 or more, the bank sends them an alert to correct it within 24 hours.

Likewise, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group recently announced a new feature that gives PNC Virtual Wallet customers 24 hours to cure an overdraft without having to pay a fee.  If not corrected, an overdraft amounts to a maximum of $36 per day.

“With this new tool, we’re able to shift away from the industry’s widely used overdraft approach, which we believe is unsustainable,” said William Demchak, chairman and CEO of the $474 billion bank, in a statement. The statement alone reframes what sustainability means for banking.

The banks that become ESG leaders will create products that improve the long-term financial health of their retail and small businesses customers. To do so, some financial institutions are asking their customers to measure their current financial realities in order to provide better solutions.

For example, Credit Human, a $3.2 billion credit union in San Antonio, is putting financial health front and center both in their branches and digitally. Their onboarding process directs individuals to a financial health analysis supported by FinHealthCheck, a data tool that helps banks and credit unions measure the financial health of customers and the potential outcomes of the products they offer. The goal of Credit Human is to improve the financial health of their customers and eventually make it a part of the overall measurement of the product’s performance.

Measurement alone will not build better bank products. But it will provide banks and credit union executives with critical information to align their products with customer well being. With the implementation of overdraft avoidance programs such as PNC’s Low Cash Mode, the bank expects to help its customers avoid approximately $125 million to $150 million in overdraft fees annually. PNC benefits its bottom line by driving more customers to its Virtual Wallet, nabbing merchant fee income and creating customer loyalty in the process. PNC’s move makes it clear that they believe promoting the long-term financial health of their customers promotes the long-term financial health of the company.

Banks need to avoid appearing to care about ESG, while failing to care about customers. The banks that include customer financial health in their ESG measurement will survive, thrive and become the true ESG stars.

ESG: Walk Before You Run

Covid-19 and last year’s protests over racial injustice added to the mounting pressure corporations face to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues — but banks may be further ahead than they believe.

“ESG took on a life of its own in 2020,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner at the consulting firm McLagan. Institutional investors have slowly turned up the heat on corporate America, along with community groups, proxy firms and ratings agencies, and regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which now mandates a human capital management disclosure in annual reports. Customers want to know where companies stand. Prospective employees want to know if a company shares their values. And President Joe Biden’s administration promises to focus more on social and environmental issues.

Big banks like Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have been responding to these pressures, but now ESG is trending down through the industry. With the right approach, banks may find that these practices actually improve their operations. However, smaller community and regional banks can’t — and probably shouldn’t — merely copy the ESG practices of their larger brethren. “People have to think about what’s appropriate for their bank, given [its] size and location,” says Appelbaum. “What are they already doing that they could expand and beef up?”

That means banks shouldn’t feel pressured to go big or go home when it comes to ESG. Begin with the basics: Has your bank reduced waste by encouraging paperless statements? How many hours do employees spend volunteering in the community? “When you sit down and talk to bankers about this, it’s interesting to see [their] eyes open,” says Brandon Koeser, senior manager and financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM. The pandemic shed light on how banks support their employees and communities. “The reality is, so much of what they’re doing is part of ESG.”

Robin Ferracone, CEO of the consultancy Farient Advisors, tells companies to think of ESG as a journey, one that keeps strategy at its core. “You need to walk before you run. If you try to bite [it] all off at once, you can get overwhelmed,” she says. Organizations should prioritize what’s important to their strategy and stakeholders. ESG objectives should be monitored, revisited and adjusted along the way.

Stakeholders are watching. Glacier Bancorp CEO Randall Chesler was surprised to learn just how closely in a conversation with one of the bank’s large investors two years ago.

“One of our investors asked us, ‘Have you looked at this? We see your score isn’t very good; are you aware of that? What are you going to do about it?’ And that was the first time that we started to dig into it and realized that we were being scored by ISS,” says Chesler. (Institutional Shareholder Services provides an ESG rating on companies, countries and bonds to inform investors.)

It turned out that $18.5 billion Glacier was doing a lot, particularly around the social and governance aspects of ESG. The Kalispell, Montana-based bank just wasn’t telling its story. This is a common ESG gap for community and regional banks.

Glacier worked with consultants to develop a program and put together a community and social responsibility report, which is available in the investor relations section of its website, along with other governance documents such as its code of ethics. This provided the right level of information to lift Glacier’s score. “Our benchmark was, we want to be at our peer-level scoring on ESG,” says Chesler. “[We] ended up actually better. And we continue to watch our scores.”

“Community banks have the social and governance aspects covered better than many industries because [banks are] heavily regulated,” says Joe Scott, a managing director at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Where they likely lag, he says, is around the environment; most are just beginning to assess these risks to their business. And it’s important that banks get this right as stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG. “We’re hearing that, beyond equity and debt investors, larger depositors — particularly corporate depositors, institutional depositors, state treasurers’ officers [and] others like that — are incorporating ESG into their considerations on who they place large deposits with. That could be a theme over time— other kinds of stakeholders factoring in ESG more and more.”

Four Essential Governance Practices

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, focused on how bank boards manage their business, including their composition, independence and oversight. The analysis also digs into some key best practices, which Bryan Cave Partner James McAlpin Jr. explores further in this video.

  • Meeting Frequency
  • Appointing a Lead Director
  • Building Diversity
  • Assessing the Board

What We’ve Learned From the Pandemic (So Far)

Year in and year out, Bank Director’s surveys tap into the views of bank leaders across the country about critical issues: risk, technology, compensation and talent, corporate governance, and M&A and growth.

But 2020 has been a year for the record books. It’s been an interesting time for me as head of research for Bank Director, with the results of our recent surveys revealing changes that, in my view, will continue to have far-ranging effects for the industry.

As boards plan for 2021 and beyond, here are a few things I believe you should be considering.

The Great Tech Ramp-Up
The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated technology adoption by the industry, an issue we explored in Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey.

Sixty-five percent of the executives and board members responding to that survey told us that their bank implemented or upgraded technology to respond to Covid-19, primarily to issue Paycheck Protection Program loans. As a result, most banks reported increased spending on technology, above and beyond their budgets for 2020.

The primary drivers that fuel bank technology strategies remain the same — improving customer experience and generating efficiencies — and pressure has only grown on financial institutions to adapt. More than half of the survey respondents told us that their bank’s technology plans had been adjusted due to the pandemic, with most focused on enhancing their digital banking capabilities.

“The next generation will rarely use a branch,” one survey respondent commented, “so a totally quick efficient comprehensive digital experience will be necessary to survive.”

The 2020 Compensation Survey confirmed that most banks dialed back on branch service early in the pandemic; by the time we fielded the Technology Survey in June and July, bank leaders finally recognized the digital channel’s preeminence in terms of growing the bank and serving customers. (The previous year’s survey found respondents placing equal emphasis on digital and branch channels.)

Our FinXTech Special Report on mobile banking provides tips on evaluating your bank’s mobile app.

The Technology Survey revealed gaps in small business and commercial lending as well — deficiencies that have been laid bare as a result of the pandemic. More than half of respondents that have adjusted or accelerated their technology strategy indicated they’d expand digital lending capabilities.

Some bankers I spoke with about the survey results indicated concerns that banks could dial back on technology spending due to the profitability pressures facing the industry. However, given the changes we’ve seen, I don’t believe it’s sustainable to dial back on this investment.

That leaves bank leaders facing a few key challenges, starting with determining where to invest their technology dollars. It’s difficult to gauge where the wind will blow, but the survey provides solid clues: 42% believe process automation will be one of the most important technologies affecting their bank, followed by data analytics (39%). Almost 40% believe the security structure to be vitally important; cybersecurity is a perennial concern for bank leaders and as banking grows more digital, this will require additional investment.

Additionally, 64% told us that modernizing their bank’s digital applications forms a core element of their bank’s strategy.

Implementing new technology requires expertise, and the 2020 Compensation Survey found most respondents (79%) telling us that it’s difficult to attract technology and digital talent.

But this may not mean bringing data scientists or other highly-specialized roles on staff. Olney, Maryland-based Sandy Spring Bancorp hired a senior data strategist who is responsible for the use, governance and management of information across the organization; that individual also reviews vendor capabilities and identifies areas that help the bank achieve its goals. “The senior data strategist should be on the lookout for ways to find opportunities for and through data analytics, whether that’s predicting customer trends or finding new revenue-generating opportunities,” said John Sadowski, chief information officer at the $13 billion bank.

Finally, 69% told us their bank didn’t streamline vendor due diligence processes in response to Covid-19. As technology adoption accelerates, consider whether your bank’s third-party management process is sufficiently comprehensive, while still allowing it to quickly and efficiently put new solutions into place. 

Work-From-Home Will Alter the Workplace
The 2020 Compensation Survey found that banks almost universally implemented or expanded remote work options as a result of the pandemic; the 2020 Technology Survey later told us that for many banks (at least 42%) that change will be permanent for at least some of their staff.

In late October, $96 billion Synchrony Financial — a direct, virtual bank — announced that remote work will become permanent for its employees, allowing them to choose from three options. Some can simply work from home. Others can schedule office space, while some will have an assigned desk. This third group includes executives, who will be asked to work remotely at least a couple days a week to reinforce the cultural shift.

It’s a move that the bank believes will make employees happy, but it also promises to yield significant cost savings by cutting real estate expenses.

It could also yield competitive benefits for banks seeking top talent. Glacier Bancorp, for example, doesn’t limit hires to its Kalispell, Montana-based headquarters — instead, it hires anywhere within its multi-state footprint. That helps the $18 billion bank recruit the technology talent it needs, human resources director David Langston told me in May.

Remote work is a cultural shift that many bank executives will be reticent to make. But even if a long-term remote work option doesn’t align with your bank’s culture, offering flexibility will help support employees, who have their own struggles at home with virtual schooling or caring for high-risk family members.

Too often, working parents are forced to choose between their children and their career, meaning companies are losing valuable employees or, in the least, productivity.

A recent McKinsey study finds that a lack of flexibility, among other issues, drives women in particular to leave the workforce. The authors also advise that companies “should look for ways to re-establish work-life boundaries” — putting policies in place to assure meeting times and work communications occur within set hours, and encouraging employees to take advantage of flexible scheduling. Unfortunately, employees often worry that taking advantage of these benefits will damage their reputation at work. “To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will not be measured based on when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility [and] can model flexibility in their own lives. … When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.”

Flexibility and remote work can help companies retain valued employees.

It’s difficult to change a culture, especially if you believe that what you’re doing works. But sometimes, culture can change around you.  I’d encourage you to approach these issues with fresh eyes to ensure your leadership team can direct the change — not the other way around.

Don’t Put Diversity on the Backburner
Almost half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey told us their bank doesn’t measure its progress around diversity and inclusion, indicating to me that they don’t have clear objectives around creating an inclusive culture that hires, retains and rewards employees despite race, ethnicity or gender.

Further, just 39% of the CEOs and directors responding to our 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey told us their board has several members who are diverse, based on race, ethnicity or gender. And almost half believe that diversity’s impact on a company’s performance is overrated.

Employees and customers take this issue seriously. Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp., which has been recognized for LGBTQ workplace equality by the Human Rights Campaign since 2016, incorporates inclusion in its “cycle of engagement.” This starts with engaged employees who provide a higher level of service that delights customers, resulting in strong financial performance for the institution, allowing the company to invest back into its employees — continuing the virtuous cycle.

The $13 billion bank’s culture promotes respect, teamwork, empathy — and inclusion, COO Robert Cozzone told me in a recent interview. “Think about working for a company where you enjoy being around the people that you work with, you enjoy the work that you do, you buy into the mission of the company — you’re going to be much more productive than if you don’t have those things,” he says. Today, “It’s all that more important to show [employees] care and empathy and understanding.”

Small, rural banks may believe it’s difficult to hire diverse talent, making it nearly impossible for them to tackle this issue. Expanding remote work options, mentioned earlier, can help. But ultimately, it’s an issue that companies nationwide will need to address as the demographics of the country change. “We all need to do better [on] diversity and inclusion,” one survey respondent wrote. “Many of us out in rural America don’t have as many opportunities, but we need to keep this topic front of mind, and [read] information and stories on how to be more intentional.”

Directors Must Be Engaged and Educated
The 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey also found 39% indicating that at least some members of their board aren’t actively engaged in board meetings; 36% said some members don’t know enough about banking to provide effective oversight.

That survey, conducted just before the pandemic effectively shut down the U.S. economy, found executives and directors identifying three top challenges to the viability of their institution: pressure on net interest margins (53%), meeting customer demands for digital options (40%) and industry consolidation and the growing power of big banks. Further, most directors said that staying on top of the changes occurring in the industry is one of the great challenges facing their board.

Confronting these issues will require engaged and knowledgeable leadership.

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, surveyed 265 independent directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks to understand trends around the acquisition of talent, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, surveyed more than 150 independent directors, CEOs, chief operating officers and senior technology executives of U.S. banks to understand how technology drives strategy at their institutions and how those plans have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also includes compensation data collected from the proxy statements of 98 public banks. The survey was conducted in June and July 2020.

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, surveyed 159 independent directors, chairmen and CEOs of U.S. banks under $50 billion in assets to understand the practices of bank boards, including board independence, discussions and oversight, engagement and refreshment. The survey was conducted in February and March 2020.

Bank Director has published several recent articles and videos about issues related to today’s economic environment. Our Online Training Series includes units on “Managing the Balance Sheet in a Zero-Rate Environment” and “Managing Through the Coronavirus Pandemic.” You may also consider watching Bank Director Editor at Large Jack Milligan’s conversation with Huntington Bancshares CEO Steve Steinour, which focuses on “Strategic Planning in an Age of Uncertainty.”

Our Bank Services membership program also includes licenses to FinXTech Connect, which helps banks identify technology providers. You can find out more about that tool and how to access it here.

Is an Independent Chair a Best Practice?

Independence is a foundational principal in corporate governance.

Many good governance proponents would argue that corporate boards should be comprised primarily of outside directors who meet the legal definition of independence. In laypersons’ terms, this means they are free of any conflicts of interest that would prevent them from discharging their fiduciary responsibilities to the company’s owners.

Likewise, many governance experts would say that splitting the chair and CEO roles between two individuals also is a best practice. In this instance, the chair would be an independent director who focused their attention on managing the board, while the CEO ran the company.

Having an independent chair can be especially helpful when the board has appointed a new CEO who has never held that position before; the chair can focus on board governance while the CEO transitions into their new role. Splitting the jobs can also provide a check on an overbearing CEO who might dominate the board if they were also the chair.

This approach would seem to enhance the board’s independence, but is it a best practice? And does splitting the chair and CEO roles necessarily improve the company’s profitability?

Results from Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey suggest that most bank boards have a majority of independent directors. The survey included 159 independent directors, chairs and CEOs at banks under $50 billion in assets. It was sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

Forty-four percent of the survey participants say they have just one inside director on their boards, while 27% have two, 12% have three and 18% have more than three. An inside director is normally a member of management. Survey banks with more than $10 billion in assets were more likely to have just one inside director, while banks under $500 million in assets were more likely to have multiple insiders on their boards.

A majority of survey participants — 58% — have an independent director as their board chair, while the CEO was also the board chair at 31% of the respondents. Interestingly, survey banks under $500 million in assets were more likely to have split the chair and CEO roles (73%), while banks over $10 billion were less likely to have dual roles (50%).

James McAlpin Jr., a Bryan Cave partner who leads the firm’s banking practice group, says that while a combined role can make a difference in a situation where the board has to replace the CEO because of a performance issue, he does not consider it to be a best practice.

“Maybe 10 years ago I would have said, ‘Yes, it is a best practice for the chair not to be the CEO,’ but I have changed my opinion,” McAlpin says. “I do think it absolutely matters who the individual is. And in an instance where you have a well performing and highly respected CEO, it may make the most sense for that person to be the chair because they often want to run the board. And it would be difficult to retain them if they are not the chair.”

McAlpin’s point speaks to a simple truth at most banks: It is the CEO who drives the company’s performance, not the board or an independent chairman. A strong governance culture can certainly have a positive impact on a bank’s financial performance by establishing an effective risk management culture, adopting compensation practices that reward high performance and making sure that a capable CEO is in place. And an independent chairman can provide a CEO with an important sounding board if the two have a good relationship. But the CEO runs the company, not the board or the independent chair.

“I’ve never seen a study of this, but I doubt you would see any statistical advantage in terms of performance for having an independent chair,” McAlpin says. “In fact, it might be the opposite where the banks perform better if the chair and CEO are the same person.”

Greg Carmichael was not given the chairman’s title when he became the CEO at Fifth Third Bancorp, a $203 billion regional bank in Cincinnati, in November 2015.

“When we made the transition to myself as the new incoming CEO, we elevated our lead director to become the chairman for a period of time,” Carmichael explains. “It was decided and voted on when I became CEO that at some point I would become the chairman. And that time frame was roughly two years. They didn’t want to put the burden of the chairman role on me initially, which was appropriate. They also wanted to make sure that I had a chairman in place to help me through that transition to CEO.”

Carmichael was later appointed chairman in January 2018, and he says it was helpful that initially he could just focus his attention on running the company. “When you become a new CEO, you’re drinking from a fire hose and you’re just inundated with a ton of information and there are things you have to demonstrate and manage that take a lot time,” he says. “You have to get your operating rhythm in place. You have to get your credibility with [Wall Street], with your own organization; you have got to chart your vision, what you’re about and where you’re taking the company, and that takes an inordinate amount of time your first couple of years. They didn’t want that to be encumbered by me worrying about the board dynamics and the board meetings and so forth.”

Marsha Williams, Fifth Third’s chair during Carmichael’s early years as CEO, had served on the bank’s board since 2008; prior to her elevation, she had been the board’s lead director for two years. “It was very helpful to me because I had a great relationship with Marsha and it was always just a reassuring conversation or good guidance if there was input on something she thought was important,” he says.

After Carmichael assumed the title of chairman, Williams returned to her previous role as the board’s lead director. Carmichael says they continue to work together well. “There’s probably not a week that goes by that we don’t talk,” he says. “She’s a great sounding board on ideas and thoughts that I have. She’s good at giving me independent feedback from the board [about] things they’d like to hear more about.”

Carmichael’s relationship with Williams highlights the importance of having a lead director when the CEO is also the board chair. Lead directors have less authority than board chairs, but they can help build an important bridge between the CEO and the independent directors.

Unfortunately, of the survey banks that have appointed an independent chair, only 55% have also appointed a lead director. “I think having a lead director is a best practice,” says McAlpin. “It’s important to have someone [the CEO] can talk to without having to talk to the entire board to bounce ideas off. I think it’s important for both the board and the CEO.”