Buying Bank Technology: If Not Now, When?


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FoMO, or the Fear of Missing Out, isn’t just a pop culture buzzword created to describe our obsession with social media. It’s an actual, scientifically proven phenomenon described in scientific literature as “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out—that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

That feeling probably sounds very familiar to bankers these days. In the press, in blogs, on podcasts, and at every industry conference, bankers are hearing that the time is now to make big technology changes in their organizations. Everyone seems to be busy innovating, and many bankers are left wondering if they’re the ones being left behind.

In this case, the answer may be “Yes.”

We are facing a set of once-in-a-generation circumstances that will determine the winners and losers in banking for the coming decades. And this separation of the “haves” from the “didn’t act fast enough to be among the haves” is already in motion.

Here are the four big trends that have converged to create the opportunity—or threat—of a lifetime for banks.

1) Tech Spending Neglected
A great deal has been written about how antiquated much of the banking infrastructure has become. Some concerns about legacy systems are overblown, but there is undoubtedly a marked difference between the digital experience customers have with their banks and what they encounter in most other parts of their lives. Banks still handle debits and credits as well as ever, but when compared to the Amazon, Netflix or Gmail experience, the gap is widening. Banks cut all spending following the financial crisis, and have been slow to replace those vacated technology budgets in the face of new regulations and shrinking margins. The result is wide swaths of banking technology that haven’t been upgraded in 10-plus years.

2) Expected “windfalls” from regulatory and tax reform
In our interactions with banks, there has been a sudden change in mood. Bankers have shifted quickly from the glass being half empty to half full, in large part because of the outcome of the November elections. Banks now see the potential for big windfalls, in the form of tax relief and regulatory reform, with a recent Goldman Sachs piece suggesting that industry earnings in 2018 could increase by 28 percent over current estimates if the chips fall just right.

3) Interest rates (and margins) are rising
In addition to those windfalls, banks are also getting a long-awaited earnings boost from rising interest rates. The Federal Reserve has increased overnight rates by 0.75 percent, and long-term rates have followed suit, with 10-year Treasury yields up more than 1 percent from their 2016 lows. Deposits rates have been slow to follow along, resulting in margins that are finally improving after years of painful compression.

4) Game changing technology is plentiful and accessible
Finally, in the decade since most banks have been actively in the market, the number and quality of technology solutions has exploded. Computing power, high quality data sets and cheap storage are contributing to a renaissance in enterprise software, and banks now have multiple possible solutions for just about any conceivable business need. You are no longer beholden to your core provider to sell you everything, as the new generation of tools are better at integrating, easier to deploy and easier to use. On top of all that, most of them are also incredibly cheap for the value they are providing, making them accessible to banks of all sizes and shapes.

When you combine these four factors, you see why there is so much hoopla around innovation and fintech. Many bankers are viewing the next few years as their one big chance to completely revamp the critical pillars of their business. Due to the long gap in meaningful technology investment, they are starting with a blank slate, and because of the recent improvement in profitability trends, they have sufficient budgets to make substantial changes. They are approaching the market and finding plentiful options and are excited by the opportunity.

Some will choose wisely and win big. Others will choose poorly and will not fare as well. But FoMO is real: If you simply stand on the sidelines and do nothing, that is also a choice. Your competitors will leave you behind, and soon your customers might just do the same.

If you’re not willing to make some changes in this environment, when will you be?

Surging Stock Prices and Your Long-Term Incentive Strategy


incentive-3-6-17.pngWith the Trump administration, investors are anticipating an easing in banking regulations and modest increases in interest rates. Accordingly, the market response to Trump’s election sent bank stock prices surging. From election to year-end, the Keefe, Bruyette & Woods NASDAQ Banking Index, which is made up of money center banks, as well as regional banks and thrifts, was up 22 percent, alongside a very strong 7 percent increase in the S&P 500. Full year returns were even better, and they were better for many smaller banks as well. For example, banks with total assets between $1 billion and $10 billion saw returns of 20 percent to 65 percent.

In our experience, large swings in stock prices trigger important design considerations for long-term incentive grant strategies and grant policies.

Long-term Incentive Strategies—Target Value Versus Fixed Share
Long-term incentive strategies among banks typically incorporate the use of full-value awards, such as restricted stock or performance shares, or stock options.

There are two common approaches used to determine the number of shares granted under equity awards—a target value approach and a fixed share approach.

  • Target value approach: The bank targets a specific award “fair value.” Thus, as stock prices surge, the number of shares granted is reduced to deliver the same grant value. Conversely, when stock prices decline, more shares are granted. This is the most common method for determining the number of shares awarded.
  • Fixed share approach: The bank targets a specified number of shares. Thus, as stock prices surge, the fair value of the award also increases. The volatility in grant value is one of the reasons this approach is less common.

No matter the approach used, sudden surges in stock prices will result in significant changes in either the number of shares granted or the fair value of the award, assuming no adjustments are made to the grant strategies. For example, the increase in stock prices over the past year for banks with assets between $1 billion and $10 billion will likely result in a 16 to 40 percent decline in shares delivered through a target value approach or a 20 to 65 percent increase in fair values at banks utilizing a fixed share approach.

The advantages in delivering equity through a target value approach include providing tighter controls over the accounting expense of long-term incentive programs, a clearer understanding of the award value to the participant, greater consistency in disclosed compensation values for proxy-reported officers, and maintaining alignment with competitive market compensation levels. However, when stock prices surge, no matter the cause, the resulting reduction in shares under a target value approach may be perceived as a so-called performance penalty by participants. Your participants in the plan might wonder, “The stock price went up and you cut my shares?”

Alternatively, under the fixed share approach the increase in the fair value of the award may result in higher compensation expense, greater variability of disclosed compensation, and compensation levels that are positioned higher relative to the market than the bank’s stated compensation philosophy.

Considerations
In light of the potential variability in grant values or the number of shares issued, banks should thoroughly review the impact of recent stock price changes on their long-term incentive grant strategies to avoid unintended consequences.

Target value programs can be adjusted through an increase in the value delivered or revisions to the approach used to determine shares, or a combination of these two approaches. Generally, an increase in the value delivered would not correspond directly with the increase in stock price, for example award values would increase 20 to 30 percent of the gain in stock price. In adjusting the approach used to determine the number of shares issued, banks can use an average stock price (for example, 90 to 150 days) rather than the price on the date of grant.

Conversely, fixed share programs would be adjusted to reduce the grant value through a reduction in the number of shares issued. For example, shares granted would be reduced by 10 percent to 15 percent of the gain in share price.

In all cases, the impact of adjustments to long-term incentive strategies on total compensation should be evaluated against market compensation and share utilization levels as well as the bank’s stated compensation philosophy. Further, the rationale for adjusting long-term incentive strategies should be communicated clearly to program participants.

Why Every Basis Point Matters Now


derivatives-2-17-17.pngAfter eight years of waiting for interest rates to make a meaningful move higher, the fed funds rate is making a slow creep towards 2 percent. With a more volatile yield curve expected in the upcoming years and continued competition for loans, net interest margins (NIM) may continue to compress for many financial institutions. The key to achieve NIM expansion will involve strong loan pricing discipline and the full toolkit of financial products to harvest every available basis point.

Where to look on the balance sheet? Here are some suggestions.

Loan Portfolio
The loan portfolio is a great place to look for opportunities to improve the profitability. Being able to win loans and thus grow earning assets is critical to long-term success. A common problem, however, is the mismatch between market demand for long-term, fixed rate loans and the institution’s reluctance to offer the same.

Oftentimes, a financial institution’s interest rate risk position is not aligned to make long-term, fixed rate loans. A few alternatives are available to provide a win-win for the bank and the borrower:

  • Match funding long-term loans with wholesale funding sources
  • Offer long-term loans and hedge them with interest rate swaps
  • Offer a floating rate loan and an interest rate swap to the borrower and offset the interest rate swap with a swap dealer to recognize fee income upfront

With the ability to offer long-term fixed rate loans, the financial institution will open the door to greater loan volumes, improved NIM, and profitability.

How much does a financial institution leave on the table when prepayment penalties are waived? A common comment from lenders is that borrowers are rejecting prepayment language in the loan.

How much is this foregone prepayment language worth? As you can see from the table below, for a 5-year loan using a 20-year amortization, the value of not including prepayment language is 90 basis points per year.

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At a minimum, financial institutions should look to write into the loan at least a 1- to 2-year lock out on prepayment, which drops the value of that option from 90 basis points to 54 basis points for a 1-year lock out or 34 basis points for a 2-year lock out. That may be more workable while staying competitive.

Investment Portfolio
The investment portfolio typically makes up 20 percent to 25 percent of earning assets for many institutions. Given its importance to the financial institution’s earnings, bond trade execution efficiency may be a way to pick up a basis point or two in NIM.

A financial institution investing in new issue bonds should look at the prospectus and determine the underwriting fees and sales concessions for the issuance. There are many examples in which the underwriting fees and sales concessions are 50 to 100 basis points higher between two bonds from the same issuer with the same characteristics, with both issued at par. To put that in yield terms, on a 5-year bond, the yield difference can be anywhere between 10 and 20 basis points per year.

If you are purchasing agency debentures in the secondary market, you can access all the information you need from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE) to determine the mark up of the bonds you purchased. Using Bloomberg’s trade history function (TDH), in many cases, it is easy to determine where you bought the bond and how much the broker marked up the bond. Similar to the new issue example above, a mark-up of 25 to 50 basis points more than you could have transacted would equate to 5 to 10 basis points in yield on a 5-year bond.

For a typical investment portfolio, executing the more efficient transactions would increase NIM by 1.5 to 5 basis points. For many institutions, simply executing bond transactions more efficiently equates to a 1 percent to 3 percent improvement in return on assets and return on equity.

Wholesale Funding
A financial institution can use short-term Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB) advances combined with an interest rate swap to lock in the funding for the desired term. By entering into a swap coupled with borrowing short-term from the FHLB, an institution can save a significant amount of interest expense. Here is an example below:

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Derivatives
As you can see from a few of the previous examples, derivatives can be useful tools. Getting established to use derivatives takes some time, but once in place, management will have a tool that can quickly be used to take advantage of inefficient market pricing or to change the interest rate risk profile of the institution.

Number of Community Banks Using Derivatives, by Year

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Conclusion
In a low interest-rate environment and with increased volatility in rates across the yield curve, net interest margins are projected to continue to be under pressure. The above suggestions could be crucial to ensuring long-term success. Offering longer-term loans and instilling more efficient loan pricing is the start to improved financial performance.

Rising Stock Prices Could Impact Deal Market


stock-prices-1-19-17.pngThe year 2016 was filled with tumult and that had a negative impact on activity in the bank mergers and acquisitions (M&A) market, while higher bank stock prices are adding to the uncertainty. Will higher stock prices last? Will they lead to higher valuations in the months ahead? This article takes a look at M&A activity in 2016 with an eye toward how the environment could impact pricing and trends in 2017.

After posting 285 healthy bank acquisitions in 2014 and 279 deals in 2015, the market slipped back to 241 last year, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence. There are several reasons for this, but they can all be summed up in a single word—uncertainty. And bankers hate uncertainty like dirt hates a bar of soap.

In the first quarter of 2016, the sharp decline in the price of oil and economic softness in China and in Europe led to concerns about how that might impact the U.S. economy. There was even some talk that economic weakness abroad could result in a recession here in the United States by the end of 2016. “When oil fell off, combined with the China thing, it really took the bloom off of the rose,” says Dory Wiley, president and chief executive officer at Commerce Street Holdings, a Dallas-based investment bank. The Southwest, where Wiley works, saw a drop off in deal-making following the fall-off in oil prices. “It kind of froze all the buyers and a lot of deals, and of course sellers are always very reluctant to change their price expectations, so it slowed the amount of deals.”

The U.S. economy did not in fact slip into a recession in the second half of 2016, growing 2.9 percent in the third quarter, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. (Data for the fourth quarter was not available when this article was written.) But there was still plenty of uncertainty entering the second half of the year, which perhaps had an even more paralyzing effect on the M&A market. Once the presidential election campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump had gone into full swing (both parties held their nominating conventions in July), it seems that some bank boards decided to hold off on a possible acquisition or sale in hopes that a Trump victory would create a better economic environment for banks, and have a positive impact on bank stocks.

Stocks, indeed, rose. The KBW Nasdaq Bank Index, a compilation of large U.S. national money center and regional bank stocks, expanded from 63.24 on January 19, 2016, to 75.42 on November 7, for an increase of 16 percent. However, immediately following the presidential election the index shot up from 75.42 on November 7 to 92.31 as of January 12 of this year, an increase of 22 percent. While Donald Trump’s election victory might have been received as good news by many bankers, it seems to have brought about a slowdown in M&A activity precisely because bank stock prices were going up. With valuations on the rise, some boards were reluctant to sell out if their franchise could fetch a higher price later on by waiting.

Johnathan Hightower, a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave LLP, supports this theory with data that shows a noticeable slowdown in deal flow in the fourth quarter of 2016. There were 88 announced deals in the fourth quarter of 2014 and 82 in the fourth quarter of 2015. In the final quarter of last year, the number of announced deals dropped off to 62. “I think a good bit of that can be attributed to uncertainty on the political scene,” says Hightower.

As we head into 2017, the biggest question might be how high bank stock prices will go, because continued increases may discourage M&A activity as buyers and sellers alike try to work out how deals should be valued, and what kind of structure should be used. “I think whenever you see a sharp change in valuation like we’ve seen over the past eight weeks or so, it does cause some complication in working out exchange math and exchange mechanics,” says Hightower. For example, does the seller want to lock in a fixed exchange ratio or opt for a structure that would allow the deal price to float higher if its stock price continues to rise? “The seller is doing that same sort of math on its end, so it can be hard to reach agreement, or at least require some creativity in structuring a deal,” he says.

How much higher can bank stock prices go? Jim McAlpin, who heads up the financial services practice at Bryan Cave, says he recently led a strategic planning session for the board of a Texas bank. “I was talking to the CEO about where the board was on a possible sale,” McAlpin recalls. “He said that given the recent changes [in the bank’s stock price], they’re now thinking that three times book value is possible. A year ago I would have laughed hard at that. I only chuckled this time because he said there was a bank across the street that went for 2.3 times book value. We just recently saw a bank in Georgia go for almost 2.7 [times book value] in part because of rising valuations.”

For an industry that has been dogged by low interest rates, margin pressures and economic sluggishness for several years now, the future suddenly seems very bright. But will it last? “The interesting question that no one can answer right now is, will we see a real shift in economic growth that would support an overall lift in those valuations?” asks Hightower. “Can we expect banks to have healthy, sustainable growth because we’ve got healthy, sustainable growth in the overall economy?”

Prices remained fairly steady from 2014 through 2016. According to S&P, average deal pricing was 1.42 times tangible book value in 2014, then went up slightly to 1.43 in 2015 before dipping back down to 1.35 in 2016, despite the steady run up in stock prices through the year. But we’ve now entered a period where, as the mutual fund industry likes to say, past performance may not be indicative of future results. “When you look at what the market has done in the last three to four months, with the election behind us … I don’t know that past pricing is going to be as relevant as it was,” says Wiley.

Other factors that impacted the M&A market last year include a kind of speed control that bank regulators exercise over the pace of deals. While the regulators are generally more receptive to acquisitions than they were in the years immediately after the financial crisis, and are approving deals much faster now, they still limit the frequency of deals for even experienced acquirers. “You’d be lucky to get somewhere between one and three [deals a year now],” according to Wiley. And that has added a layer of complexity to the M&A process, particularly for investment bankers. “So a guy calls you up and says, ‘Hey, run some comps, figure out what I’m worth.’ That’s not enough,” he says. “The investment banker running the deal has to know who’s in the market, who isn’t in the market and when they’re going to be in the market because it’s not an easy answer anymore.”

And because they are limited as to the pace they can string deals together, many acquirers have become more selective in what they are willing to buy. “Even with stock prices rallying like they have the last three or four months … it doesn’t mean that the acquirer can run around and just give his stock away because he’s got to be picky,” says Wiley. “He’s like, ‘Hey, I only get a couple shots at this because the regulators aren’t going to let me do anything.’’’

Does that mean it is now a buyer’s market? “I thought it was a buyer’s market for the last eight years,” says Wiley. “The only thing now is that the buyers are starting to realize it. They’ve got a big stock price now and they’re feeling good about themselves. Somebody told them they were pretty.”

New Factors Impacting Bank M&A


As the industry heads into 2017, new factors including commercial real estate concentrations and a potential rise in interest rates could affect the pace of mergers and acquisitions. In this video, Jim McAlpin and Jonathan Hightower, both partners at Bryan Cave LLP, detail the drivers of M&A.

  • What is driving M&A in today’s environment?
  • What could shift M&A expectations in 2017?
  • What was the best deal announced in 2016?
  • What makes a successful deal?

Bank M&A Update: Oil Prices and Low Interest Rates May Be Hurting Deals


The state of the bank merger and acquisition (M&A) market thus far in 2016 has been tepid compared to prior years. 2015 began the same way, but was helped by a tremendous fourth quarter in which the number of deals announced was more than 25 percent higher than the average of the first three quarters of the year. At the end of 2015, many bankers and industry experts hoped that the euphoria from the fourth quarter would carry over into 2016. Instead, the first quarter of 2016 saw M&A deals retreat to the moderate levels experienced in the first three quarters of 2015, with a modest increase in the second quarter giving way to a much lower third quarter. Year-to-date, announced deals are down a modest 5.6 percent compared to the same time period last year.

M&A Activity by Region

Quarter Mid Atlantic Midwest Northeast Southeast Southwest West Other* Total Deals
2015-Q1 7 26 2 12 10 8   65
2015-Q2 5 27 5 14 11 7   69
2015-Q3 9 24 3 9 12 6 1 64
2015-Q4 13 30 3 24 6 7   83
2016-Q1 4 38 1 10 5 5 1 63
2016-Q2 6 29 2 14 7 8   66
2016-Q3 4 25 1 14 6 7   57

*No geography listed
Source: SNL Financial, an offering of S&P Global Market Intelligence

The Midwest has been bolstering the modest numbers experienced year-to-date. This impact on the overall percent change in M&A activity for 2015 and the first three quarters of 2016 is apparent when compared to the other regions.

Indicators Affecting Bank M&A
Oil prices have had an impact on the number of deals in the Southwest. Credit quality does have an impact on deal volume, but between Jan. 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, credit quality has been fairly good compared to the levels experienced in years 2008 to 2010.

The decline in longer-term interest rates could have an impact on buyers’ perceptions of banks’ future earnings prospects with already compressed net interest margins. The 10-year U.S. Treasury constant maturity rate has flattened in 2016, and this could be a contributing factor in the number of announced bank M&A deals.

As shown below, average deal pricing has declined, which also could be contributing to the decline in the number of M&A deals announced.

Pricing Over Time

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Although not shown, a review of the trailing 12-month return on assets for the selling banks and also the level of tangible equity and tangible assets shows they are fairly consistent quarter to quarter, so these financial metrics are not responsible for the decline in either pricing ration.

An overrepresentation of the banks in the Midwest also has had an impact on why the median pricing ratios have declined. The sellers in this region tended to be smaller, and the size of the seller does affect the price realized:

Median Price/Tangible Book Value Jan. 1, 2015, through Sept. 30, 2016

Asset Size of Seller Mid Atlantic Midwest Northeast Southeast Southwest West Total
<$50 Million N/A 121.9% NA 96.9% 115.3% 50.1% 115.3%
$50M – $100M 129.1% 108.4% 146.7% 96.3% 132.7% 128.1% 114.4%
$100M – $500M 122.6% 126.2% 142.6% 136.2% 150.1% 133.5% 133.3%
$500M – $1B 161.5% 136.0% 125.7% 161.4% 165.8% 178.7% 157.7%
$1B – $5B 152.8% 179.3% 164.2% 194.9% 156.9% 222.1% 179.3%
$5B – $15B 219.4% 155.7% N/A 233.0% N/A N/A 219.4%
>$15B 159.8% 199.3% N/A 151.5% N/A 272.1% 171.4%

More than 80 percent of the transactions announced involve sellers with less than $500 million in assets, which explains the lower realized pricing ratios. The Midwest contains a significant number of bank charters with less than $500 million in assets and, as a result, if this region’s total deal volume is up and the rest of the regions are down or flat, the impact on the overall pricing still will trend down.

Looking Ahead
The big questions remaining are what will happen in the fourth quarter of 2016 and whether the industry’s experience this year will be a predictor for 2017.

None of the economic factors are expected to materially improve for the fourth quarter. The Federal Reserve is expected to increase interest rates modestly, but there are Fed governors who favor no interest rate increase this year. As a result, it appears unlikely that the compression of net interest margin will improve drastically over the next 15 months. What does seem likely to occur is consistent quarter-to-quarter deal totals, although a reduction in the number of deals in the Midwest region could lead to even lower M&A totals for 2017.

Busting the Logjam in Small Business Lending


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With reports touting the health of the economy and the officials at the Federal Reserve talking about raising interest rates again, the lending environment must be good for small business owners, right? Wrong.

According to Babson’s 2016 State of Small Business in America report, obtaining capital is a challenge that frustrated SMB owners continue to face. Even those receiving a loan from a traditional lender obtain less than half the amount they applied for. What’s standing in the way of entrepreneurs borrowing from a traditional bank?

Lingering fear from the Great Recession: From 2008 to 2013, small businesses benefited from loosened lending restrictions. But in the past couple of years, fears about SMB lending has shifted thinking and brought about a tightening of standards–leading banks to provide available loan opportunities only to bigger businesses, which they view as less risky.

Fallout from Dodd-Frank: Post-2008 recession, new regulations created paperwork headaches for large lenders and small community banks alike. But the annoyances aren’t just isolated to a potential borrower being required to fill out a couple of additional forms. Compliance increased the cost of originating loans, so much so that it’s no longer fiscally responsible for lenders to issue lots of small loans.

In fact, Oliver Wyman research (PDF) indicates underwriting these loans costs a marginal $1,600 to $3,200 per loan. Compare these costs to the annual revenue smaller loans generate—$700 to $3,500 on average—and they’re clearly unprofitable.

Fewer lending options: It has also become very expensive to raise capital to open new community banks due to heightened regulatory requirements since the financial crisis. These local financial institutions are a great lending option for small business owners when big banks tighten their lending requirements. But with fewer local banks, SMB owners are left with fewer borrowing options than ever.

The stimulus encouraged banks to stockpile reserves: Prior to 2008, the U.S. economic structure encouraged financial institutions with large amounts of cash to lend it to other banks in need of liquidity. The federal stimulus pact reduced this cash flow, and large banks began sitting on their significant reserves–reducing the amount of available capital to smaller lenders, which in turn would be passed on to small business owners in their form of much needed credit.

Despite these obstacles, traditional lenders can and should break the SMB lending logjam. According to Barlow Research’s 2016 Small Business Annual Report, SMB loan demand is trending down slightly in a year-over-year comparison—off 9 percent between 2010 and 2016. However, this downward trend applies only to the traditional-lender space. New digital marketplace lenders are helping SMB borrowers to get around this credit logjam–and capturing more and more SMB lending business that used to go to banks.

According to one report by Morgan Stanley, loan origination at alternative lenders has doubled every year since 2010, reaching $12 billion in 2014. While banks are still the dominate credit source for small businesses, last year SMBs sought 22 percent of their financing from alternative lenders. That’s hardly a trend that benefits small businesses. Marketplace lenders do offer SMB borrowers fast, convenient loans–but that speed and convenience comes at a steep price, with expensive and often opaque lending terms that have attracted increasing scrutiny from regulators.

How can traditional lenders reverse this trend and break the SMB lending logjam? Simply put, banks need to harness the power of financial technology, machine learning and big data to bring small business lending online. By streamlining the origination process, banks can reduce operational costs dramatically for these loans while offering the speed and convenience SMB borrowers demand–and get–from alternative lenders. Reducing loan origination costs improves their profitability and introduces a virtuous circle of increased lending that expands lending options for borrowers at more competitive pricing.

The innovations don’t stop there. New machine learning algorithms can supplement the traditional, narrowly defined credit score criteria with enhanced, real-time data like shipping trends, social media reviews and other information relevant to a small business’ financial health. Thus armed, banks can identify an expanded field of highly qualified borrowers without increasing risk. They can pilot risk-based pricing models based on a borrower’s creditworthiness, ending the all-or-nothing style of flat pricing for approved loans. The possibilities are exciting and enormous. But traditional lenders will need the right financial technology to break this lending logjam and unleash the SBM market’s full potential.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Mirador blog.

Election Results Could Mean Less Regulation for Banks


Regulation-11-10-16.pngIt’s an understatement to say Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s surprise victory shook up the world Tuesday. Trump got elected promising change in Washington and made statements that portrayed a confusing mix of anti-bank and anti-regulation rhetoric. But with the House and Senate now controlled by Republicans, many industry observers are optimistic that the election will mean the appointment of more bank-friendly regulators, while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) could also be weakened.

Although many economists feel Trump’s policies would be bad for the national economy, bankers by and large felt Trump would actually be good for the economy, according to a Bank Director poll in September.

“We think the main result of Donald Trump’s election will be that Trump will be able to appoint regulators who are more industry friendly than regulators appointed by President Obama,’’ wrote Brian Gardner, an analyst with investment banking company Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, in a note to investors Wednesday. “The regulatory implications are more important than what might come out of Congress but are broadly positive for financials in our view.”

CFPB
As far as banking regulations, the biggest thing in jeopardy may be the CFPB. President Trump will be able to appoint someone to head the agency, and a Republican-led Congress may make a move to gut or end it. That’s not to say such a move would be easy to do, but if Congressional elections in 2018 remove even more Democrats from office, it’s a possibility. The existence and approach of the CFPB has been a thorn in the side of many.

The Dodd-Frank Act
It’s unlikely the Dodd-Frank Act will be gutted entirely even with a Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats still will have at least 47 seats in the Senate and be able to block legislation that they don’t support, as 60 votes are needed to pass legislation in the Senate, Gardner wrote.

Even some industry lobbyists will be advocating against that, as it would create even more uncertainty. “Our industry has spent billions implementing Dodd Frank and complying with the CFPB,’’ said Richard Hunt, the president and CEO of the Consumer Bankers Association, in an interview Wednesday. “The last thing the banking industry needs is a whipsaw effect of uncertainty.”

Instead, some lobbyists are advocating for measures that would ease regulation on community banks, especially. The Independent Community Bankers of America “believes the unified Republican control of the executive and legislative branches presents a unique opportunity for enacting significant community bank regulatory relief and fully intends to leverage this opportunity for the benefit of community banks, their customers, and the communities they serve,” the group wrote in a memo to members and published on its website.

Wall Street Reform
The Republican Party platform this year, which former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort said was in fact Trump’s platform, supported the return of the Glass-Steagall Act, which forbid banks from having both commercial and investment banking businesses. It was a surprising move, as the other person supporting the return of Glass-Steagall was Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren. But few expect Trump to actually push hard for this, let alone be successful.

Aite Group senior analyst Javier Paz, who covers assets managers, wrote in a note that there was talk of President Trump leaning hard on Wall Street, but “we believe this was a tactical shift to keep Hillary Clinton from outflanking him on the topic of Wall Street reform. Time will tell, but we highly doubt new pieces of legislation building on what Dodd-Frank started will be forthcoming under President Trump.”

Hunt says he counted about 35 seconds of anti-bank rhetoric during four presidential and vice presidential debates. “There is campaigning and then there’s governing,’’ he says. “This is where Speaker Ryan, McConnell and the president will get together and come up with a shared vision for what they want the first 100 days and first year to look like to show the American people that Washington can work.”

Federal Reserve
There is a lot of uncertainty about what impact a Trump presidency will have on the Federal Reserve. Trump has been critical of Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen and the central bank’s policies. He has said the Fed has been artificially keeping rates too low but his views on the Fed have not been consistent. He will be able to appoint two members to the Federal Reserve after he takes office, and Yellen’s term ends in January 2018, according to Gardner. Although the Fed was widely expected to raise rates in December, some predict that won’t happen now, as uncertainty about the markets could lead the Fed to delay a rate hike.

Rates Are Lower for Longer: How Do I Find Yield for My Bank?


BOLI-11-2-16.pngAs U.S. Treasury bond yields worsen, the banking industry finds itself in a familiar position. Bank portfolio managers would like better yield, but regulations restrict banks from going down the credit stack or out the curve to reach for yield. Net interest margins are at all-time lows and regulations compel us to manage regulatory risk first—price, rate and repayment risks are now secondary. Banking as we know it has changed, and not necessarily for the better. But there is a silver lining.

In December 2015, the Federal Reserve raised the funds rate 25 basis points. Immediately, foreign purchasers starving for yield drove prices to new highs, resulting in yields that were lower than before the Fed increased the rate. In early 2016, several countries moved to negative rates. Should the Fed raise rates again soon, more foreign deposits will find Treasury bonds even more compelling again.

Long term, given that the U.S. national debt stands at $19.5 trillion, the U.S. Treasury can’t afford rates to be appreciably higher. The recession of 2007, the war on terror and expansion of social programs has greatly limited options. Most economists agree that the treasury debt market will remain in the lower-for-longer phase for quite some time. Ouch. So, what to do?

Lending is the first most obvious answer but regulations remain confounding. Many bankers feel as if they are only able to grow by stealing market share. Multiple banks chasing the same high quality loans exacerbate spread compression. Agency debt and mortgage-backed securities have yields basically stuck in the 1.70 percent to 1.75 percent range. Municipals remain relatively attractive, but the laborious process, small sizes, ongoing care and price sensitivity make them less compelling.

The judicious use of Bank Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) could be a winning answer. Hear me out—with crediting rates (yield) at nearly 4 percent the concept has merit. Most money center banks and many super regionals maintain BOLI holdings at maximum allowable percentages. Yields are compelling, counterparty risk is stable and price risk is minimal. Interestingly, large banks are more likely than small banks to use the maximum allowable BOLI. Community bankers sometimes forget this break is available to all banks regardless of asset size.

BOLI has a positive effect upon your efficiency ratio as it provides additional tax-free dollars for employee benefits. Since efficiency ratio equals expenses divided by revenue, every additional dollar of revenue results in an ever-larger denominator, hence the ratio shows an immediate positive impact. BOLI is purchased at par and is always held at par eliminating price risk. Given the current cheapness of the asset, BOLI can be surrendered within a year (net of taxes and penalties) and still provide a higher return than mortgage-backed securities.

BOLI can be viewed as outsourcing a portion of your portfolio. Choose a provider that only uses insurance carriers that are A+ rated or better and that employ seasoned, capable portfolio managers. In the event of an untimely loss of an insured employee, the insurance payments help the family and assist the institution to pay for costs related to replacement.

Recently, I met with the president of an $8 billion asset bank who commented, “I really thought I didn’t want to discuss my BOLI holdings. Then I realized it’s a $100 million asset on my books and I’d better get interested in how to optimize it!” We are currently completing a review of his policy holdings.

In the current market, the BOLI asset is extraordinarily cheap. It is a high yielding, low risk asset with a superb degree of price stability. Does it solve every answer? No. Will BOLI always be this cheap? No. But given recent advancements by insurance carriers and asset managers, it is a financial tool that really demands a hard look.

Will Higher Rates Help or Hurt Banks? The Answer Is “Yes.”


interest-rates-12-28-15.pngWill the long awaited hike in interest rates turn out to be good or bad for U.S. banks? The honest answer is probably yes to both possibilities, depending on the size of the bank in question and how the Federal Reserve manages monetary policy over the next couple of years.

In case you just got back from Mars, the Fed announced on December 16 that it was raising the interest rate on overnight borrowings between banks (known as the federal funds rate) by a quarter of a percentage point. The significance of the Fed’s action had less to do with the size of the increase than with the fact that this was the first time the central bank had raised rates in more than seven years. There was a lot of commentary after the rate hike about how this would impact the U.S. economy, although a strong case can be made that this was actually a vote of confidence in the economy’s long-term prospects. The job market has rebounded since the recession ended in June 2009 and unemployment was 5.5 percent in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While the recovery is still a work in progress, Fed Chairman Janet Yellen expressed confidence in the economy’s future during a press conference after the rate increase was announced.

Although the Fed’s central mission is to fight inflation, deflation—which is a persistent decline in asset values and consumer prices—has actually been a much greater risk in recent years. Having cut the fed funds rate to nearly zero, and embarking upon a controversial strategy of massive bond purchases to pump money into the economy—known as quantitative easing—there was little more the Fed could do other than wait for the economy to heal itself, which it largely has. Yellen and the Federal Open Market Committee, the 12-member group at the Fed that actually sets monetary policy, has been waiting for an opportunity to begin pushing rates back up. Clearly the time was right.

How will this affect the nation’s banks? The impact of a quarter-point increase in the fed funds rate should be manageable, at least for now. Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry has expressed publicly his concern that some banks might be exposed to interest rate risk as the Fed tightens its monetary policy. Large banks, which tend to use variable rate pricing on their commercial and industrial loans, permitting lenders to reprice them if rates go up, will probably experience less economic impact than smaller banks. Many small banks don’t have the same flexibility to reprice their business loans. So as rates go up, smaller banks could actually see their net interest margins tighten even more as their deposit costs rise.

Still, the rate increase had been anticipated, predicted and over analyzed for so long that no bank should have been taken by surprise. Managing interest rate risk is an important task for management and the board, and the industry has been given ample time to prepare.

Ultimately, the impact of higher rates on the banking industry might be determined by how quickly the Fed tightens its policy. The Fed has said that it wants to continue raising rates gradually over the next few years—the exact term it used was to “normalize” rates but how gradually? Hike rates too quickly and some smaller banks could be stressed if they can’t reprice their loan portfolios fast enough to keep pace. But if banks are impacted disproportionately depending on whether they are asset or liability sensitive (being asset sensitive means your loans reprice faster than your deposits, while being liability sensitive means the reverse is true), one thing that would hurt everyone is a slow-down in the economy. Here, I would expect the Fed to be very careful. Having nursed the economy back to health, I think the last thing it wants to do is tip the economy back into a recession by acting too aggressively.

At the very least, banks should know what to expect, and the Fed—which has been very transparent under Yellen—will no doubt let them know when to expect it.