Whipsawed by Interest Rates

One of the things that bankers hate most is uncertainty and abrupt changes in the underlying economics of their business, and the emerging global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is confronting them with the perfect storm.

You can blame it all on the Federal Reserve.

Indeed, the higher rates that the Fed gave in 2018, it is now taken away — and that is creating a big challenge for banks as they scramble to adapt to a very different interest rate scenario from what they were dealing with just 15 months ago.

On March 3, as the economic impact of the coronavirus both globally and in the United States was becoming more apparent and fears about a possible recession were mounting, the Fed made an emergency 50 basis-point cut in interest rates, to a range of 1% to 1.25%. The Fed’s action was dramatic not only because of the size of the reduction, but also because this action was taken “off cycle” — which is to say two weeks prior to the next scheduled meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, which is the Fed’s rate-setting body.

And as this article was being posted, many market observers were expecting that the Fed would follow with another rate cut at its March 17-18 meeting, which would drive down rates to their lowest levels since the financial crisis 12 years ago. Needless to say, banks have been whipsawed by these abrupt shifts in monetary policy. The Fed increased rates four times in 2018, to a range of 2.25% to 2.50%, then lowered rates three times in 2019 when the U.S. economy seemed to be softening, to a range of 1.50% to 1.75%.    

Now, it appears that interest rates might go even lower.

What should bank management teams do to deal with this unexpected shift in interest rates? To gain some insight into that question, I reached out to Matt Pieniazek, president of the Darling Consulting Group in Newburyport, Massachusetts. I’ve known Pieniazek for several years and interviewed him on numerous occasions, and consider him to be one of the industry’s leading experts on asset/liability management. Pieniazek says he has been swamped by community banks looking for advice about how to navigate this new rate environment.

One of Pieniazek’s first comments was to lament that many banks didn’t act sooner when the Fed cut rates last year. “It’s just disappointing that too many banks let their own biases get in the way, rather than listen to their balance sheets,” he says. “There are a lot of things that could’ve been done. Now everyone’s in a panic, and they’re willing to talk about doing things today when the dynamics of it are not very encouraging. Risk return or the cost benefit are just nowhere near the same as what they were just six months ago, let alone a year, year and a half ago.”

So, what’s to be done?

Pieniazek’s first suggestion is to dramatically lower funding costs. “No matter how low their funding costs are, very few banks are going to be able to outrun this on the asset side,” he says. “They’ve got to be able to [be] diligent and disciplined and formalized in their approach to driving down deposit costs.”

“In doing so, they have to acknowledge that there could be some risk of loss of balances,” Pieniazek continues. “As a result, they need to really revisit their contingency liquidity planning. They have to also revisit with management and the board the extent to which they truly are willing to utilize wholesale funding. The more you’re willing to do that, the more you would be willing to test the water on lowering deposits. I think there is a correlation to comfort level and challenging yourself to lower deposits and well thought out contingency planning that incorporates the willingness and ability to prudently use the wholesale market. Aggressively attacking deposit costs has to be accompanied by a real hard, fresh look at contingency liquidity planning and the bank’s philosophy toward wholesale markets.”

This strategy of driving down funding costs might be a hard sell in a market where competitors are still paying relatively high rates on deposits. “Well, you know what?” Pieniazek says. “You’ve got two choices. You either let village idiots drive your business, or you do what makes sense for your organization.”

Most banks will also feel pressure on the asset side of their balance sheets as rates decline. Banks that have a large percentage of floating rate loans may not have enough funding to offset them. As those loans reprice in a falling rate environment, banks will feel pressure to correspondingly lower their funding costs to protect their net interest margins as much as possible. And while community banks typically don’t have a lot of floating rate loans, they do have high percentages of commercial real estate loans, which Pieniazek estimates have an average life span of two and a half years. The only alternative to lowering deposit costs to protect the margin would be to dramatically grow the loan portfolio during a time of great economic uncertainty. But as Pieniazek puts it, “There’s not enough growth out there at [attractive] yield levels to allow people to head off that margin compression.”

Pieniazek’s second suggestion is to review your loan documents. “While I’m not suggesting [interest] rates are going to go negative, most banks do not have loan docs which prevent rates from going negative,” he says. “They need to revisit their loan docs and make sure that there’s lifetime floors on all of their loans that will not enable the actual note rate to go zero. They could always negotiate lower if they want. They can’t negotiate up.”

His final suggestion is that community banks need to strongly consider the use of derivatives to hedge their interest rate exposure. “If you think in an environment like this that your customers are going to allow you to dictate the structure of your balance sheet, you better think again,” he says. “Everyone’s going to want to shorten up … What you’re going to find is retail customers are going to keep their money short. In times of uncertainty, what do people want to do? They want to keep their cash close to them, don’t they?”

Of course, while depositors are going to keep their money on a short leash, borrowers “are going to want to know what the 100-year loan rate is,” Pieniazek says. And this scenario creates the potential for disaster that has been seen time and again in banking — funding long-term assets with short-term deposits.

The only thing you can do is augment customer behavior through the use of derivatives,” Pieniazek says. “Interest rate caps are hugely invaluable here for banks to hedge against rising rates while allowing their funding costs to remain or cycle lower if rates go lower. In a world of pressure for long-term fixed rate assets, being able to do derivatives … allows banks to convert fixed-rate loans in their portfolio to floating for whatever time period they want, starting whenever they want.”

During times of uncertainty and volatility, Pieniazek says it’s crucial that bank management teams make sound judgments based on a clear understanding of their ramifications. “Don’t let panic and fear result in you changing your operating strategy,” he says. “The worst thing to do is make material changes because of fear and panic. Let common sense and a clear understanding of your balance sheet, your risk profile, drive your thought process. And don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.”

Generational Shift Complicates Shareholder Succession

A challenge facing many community banks this new decade has nothing to do with public policy, the yield curve, regulation or technology.

A growing number of banks face an aging shareholder base, concentrated ownership and limited liquidity. This can lead to shareholder succession impositions when large shareholders want to exit their ownership position or an estate settlement creates a liquidity need.

Community banks have always been owned by local centers of influence, passed down through generations and thought of as both a financial investment and philanthropic participation in the community. But the societal aspect of bank ownership is not the same as the current ownership cedes to the younger generation, many of whom have moved away from home and see banking as an increasingly more digital experience.

Banking and securities regulations do not make the situation easier. There are parameters around a bank’s ability to issue stock in the local community to attract new shareholders. Banks are cautious of giving unknown investors a seat at the table, particularly institutional or activist owners, as they may only hold the stock for a defined, shorter period before seeking liquidity themselves. The bank itself can sometimes be a source of liquidity to repurchase stock from shareholders, but regulatory capital ratios may limit that capacity. Some advice for banks struggling with these issues includes the following:

Treat shareholder succession as a business initiative: Identifying issues before they occur, or a capital need before it becomes urgent, increases a bank’s flexibility. Boards should discuss shareholder liquidity issues, as some large owners may be sitting around the board table.

Investor relations is not just for large and liquid banks: Local banks are often owned by members of the local community. The legacy of family ownership is emotional, and large owners often do not want to “upset the apple cart” and force the bank to sell. Many may not realize that how they treat their position could impact the bank’s future. Some may not be open to discussing the issue, but others might appreciate the opportunity.

Address long-term liquidity in strategic planning: Under what conditions would the bank consider listing on a more liquid exchange, commencing a traditional public offering, or raising subordinated debt as a way to address shareholder succession? The owners of many closely held banks are wary of incurring dilution to their ownership stake but want to remain independent, which limits their options. For smaller banks, even upgrading to a slightly more liquid trading medium such as OTC Market Group’s OTCQX Banks market, may open the doors to investors that understand smaller, less-liquid situations and have capital to put to work.

Plan for shareholder liquidity as you would for balance sheet liquidity: It is helpful that directors and executives understand the bank’s capacity to repurchase shares, as the bank itself is often the first line of defense for an immediate liquidity need. Small bank holding company regulation gives community banks flexibility to leverage their capital structure by issuing debt at the holding company, which can be injected into the bank subsidiary as common equity. Creating an employee stock ownership plan or dividend reinvestment plan may help to manage and retain capital and dividend policy can also be critical.

The right answer is usually a combination of all of the above: There is no silver bullet for addressing shareholder liquidity in a smaller, more closely held bank; all of the discussed initiatives will play a part. Many banks get caught flat-footed after the fact, either faced with an estate settlement or a family with a large position seeking liquidity. Dealing with an urgent liquidity need, often in tight timing, limits the bank’s flexibility and options.

If a merger or sale is the right alternative, control that dialog: Some shareholders looking to exit may find the premium in a sale attractive relative to the desire of others for independence. It’s a worthwhile exercise for boards and executives to understand the bank’s value in a sale, as well as likely partners, even if a sale is only a remote possibility. This allows your bank to identify preferred partners and ascertain their ability to pay a competitive valuation independent of any urging from shareholders. Highlight those strategic alternatives to the board on a regular basis. If an urgent shareholder need forces the bank to seek a partner, your bank has already begun addressing these issues and building those relationships.

Shareholder succession issues can drive change and create uncertainty, risk and opportunity at community banks. Careful analysis and planning can help lead to a desired outcome for all involved.

Why Some Banks Purposefully Shun the Spotlight


strategy-8-9-19.pngFor as many banks that would love to be acquired, even more prefer to remain independent. Some within the second group have even taken steps to reduce their allure as acquisition targets.

I was reminded of this recently when I met with an executive at a mid-sized privately held community bank. We talked for a couple hours and then had lunch.

Ordinarily, I would go home after a conversation like that and write about the bank. In fact, that’s the expectation of most bank executives: If they’re going to give someone like me so much of their time, they expect something in return.

Most bank executives would welcome this type of attention as free advertising. It’s also a way to showcase a bank’s accomplishments to peers throughout the industry.

In this particular case, there was a lot to highlight. This is a well-run bank with talented executives, a unique culture, a growing balance sheet and a history of sound risk management.

But the executive specifically asked me not to write anything that could be used to identify the bank. The CEO and board believe that media attention — even if it’s laudatory — would serve as an invitation for unwanted offers to acquire the bank.

This bank in particular has a loan-to-deposit ratio that’s well below the average for its peer group. An acquiring bank could see that as a gold mine of liquidity that could be more profitably employed.

Because the board of this bank has no interest in selling, it also has no interest in fielding sufficiently lucrative offers that would make it hard for them to say “no.” This is why they avoid any unnecessary media exposure — thus the vague description.

This has come up for me on more than one occasion in the past few months. In each case, the bank executives aren’t worried about negative attention; it’s positive attention that worries them most.

The concern seems to stem from deeper, philosophical thoughts on banking.

In the case of the bank I recently visited, its executives and directors prioritize the bank’s customers over the other constituencies it serves. After that comes the bank’s communities, employees and regulators. Its shareholders, the biggest of which sit on the board, come last.

This is reflected in the bank’s loan-to-deposit ratio. If the bank focused on maximizing profits, it would lend out a larger share of deposits. But it wants to have liquidity when its customers and communities need it most – in times when credit is scarce.

Reading between the lines reveals an interesting way to gauge how a bank prioritizes between its customers and shareholders. One prioritization isn’t necessarily better than the other, as both constituencies must be appeased, but it’s indicative of an executive team’s philosophical approach to banking.

There are, of course, other ways to fend off unwanted acquisition attempts.

One is to run a highly efficient operation. That’s what Washington Federal does, as I wrote about in the latest issue of Bank Director magazine. In the two decades leading up to the financial crisis, it spent less than 20% of its revenue on expenses.

This may seem like it would make Washington Federal an attractive partner, given that efficiency tends to translate into profitability. From the perspective of a savvy acquirer, however, it means there are fewer cost saves that can be taken out to earn back any dilution.

Another way is to simply maintain a high concentration of ownership within the hands of a few shareholders. If a bank is closely held, the only way for it to sell is if its leading shareholders agree to do so. Widely dispersed ownership, on the other hand, can invite activists and proxy battles, bringing pressure to bear on the bank’s board of directors.

Other strategies are contractual in nature. “Poison pills” were in vogue during the hostile takeover frenzy of the 1980s. Change-of-control agreements for executives are another common approach. But neither of these are particularly savory ways to defend against unwanted acquisition offers. They’re a last line of defense; a shortcut in the face of a fait accompli.

Consequently, keeping a low media profile is one way that some top-performing banks choose to fend unwanted acquisition offers off at the proverbial pass.

While being acquired is certainly an attractive exit strategy for many banks, it isn’t for everyone. And for those banks that have earned their independence, there are things they can do to help sustain it.

Improving Shareholder Liquidity, Employee Performance through ESOPs


ESOP-6-18-19.pngMost banks face challenges to find, incentivize and retain their best employees in an increasing competitive market for talent. Often, smaller banks and banks structured as Subchapter S corporations have the added challenge of providing liquidity for their shareholders and founders. An employee stock ownership plan can be an excellent tool for addressing those issues.

An ESOP creates a buyer for the bank’s stock, generating liquidity for shareholders of private or thinly traded banks and providing market support for publicly traded ones. An ESOP’s buying activity can reduce shares outstanding and increase a bank’s earnings per share. It can also increase employee benefits and gives them a sense of ownership that can improve recruitment, retention and performance.

ESOPs are tax-qualified defined contribution retirement plans for employees that primarily invest in employer securities. ESOPs offer accounts to employees, similar to 401(k) retirement plans. But unlike a 401(k), employees do not contribute anything to the plan; instead, the bank makes the contribution on their behalf.

ESOPs are an excellent employee benefit and a recruitment, retention and performance tool. ESOPs do not pay taxes on an annual basis, so taxes are deferred while the stock remains in a plan. When the employee retires or takes a distribution from the plan, the value of the distribution is taxed as ordinary income. Employees also have the ability to roll over the distribution to an individual retirement account.

Employees at companies that offer an ESOP have, on average, 2.6 times more in retirement assets than employees working at companies that do not have an ESOP, according to the National Center for Employee Ownership. Additionally, companies with broad-based stock option plans experienced an increase in productivity of 20 percent to 33 percent above comparable firms after plans were implemented. Medium-sized companies saw gains at the higher end of the scale. Employee ownership is also associated with higher rates of employee retention. According to a survey by the Rutgers University’s NJ/NY Center for Employee Ownership, workers at employee-owned companies are less likely to look for other jobs and more likely to take action when co-workers are not working well.

There are a couple of different ways that banks can establish ESOPs. The simplest and most efficient is called a non-leveraged ESOP, where the bank or holding company makes a tax-deductible cash contribution. The contribution can be in stock or cash and is recorded as compensation expense. If the bank contributes cash, those funds can be used to purchase stock directly from shareholders and create liquidity and demand in the stock. However, it can take years for a non-leveraged ESOP to accumulate a significant enough position to make a meaningful difference to a bank.

The other method, called a leveraged ESOP, uses a bank’s holding company to lend money directly to the ownership plan. The holding company is required because banks are not permitted to lend directly to the ESOP or guarantee a loan made to the ESOP. The holding company can use cash on its balance sheet, borrow it from a third-party lender or guarantee a third-party loan made directly to the ESOP. The ESOP uses the funds to purchase a large block of non-issued shares from the holding company or directly from shareholders. Although leveraged ESOPs have higher costs and complexity, they can make an immediate, meaningful difference in liquidity and employee benefits. This approach also has the benefit of increasing earnings per share upfront, since the shares underlying the ESOP loan to make the purchase are not considered outstanding. However, the repurchased shares negatively impact tangible common equity and tangible book value.

An ESOP can help the right bank accomplish many of its goals and objectives. Banks should carefully review their goals and objectives with qualified professionals that know and understand both the ESOP and commercial bank industries.

A Better Way to Value Deposit-Driven Deals


deposits-4-1-19.pngThere’s no doubt that the focus these days on acquisitions centers around deposits. When surveyed at the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, 71 percent of attendees said that a target’s deposit base was the most important factor in making the decision to acquire. This suggests that targets with excess liquidity (low loan-to-deposit ratios) will be highly valued in the market going forward.

This strategic objective is out of whack with traditional deal valuation metrics.

The two primary traditional deal metrics are tangible book value (TBV) payback period and earnings per share (EPS) accretion. Investors expect every deal to meet the benchmarks of a low TBV payback period (ideally less than three years) and be accretive to EPS, according to a presentation from Keefe Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud.

These are earnings-based metrics, and targets with low loan-to-deposit ratios have lower earnings because they have larger securities portfolios relative to loans. Therefore, traditional consolidation modeling will undervalue those targets with longer payback periods and lower accretion. Potential acquirers will struggle to justify competitive prices for these highly valued targets.

Why are deals that clearly create shareholder value by strengthening the buyer’s deposit base not reflected by the deal metrics du jour? Because those metrics are flawed. How can you justify a deposit-driven deal to an investor base that is focused on TBV payback and EPS accretion? By abandoning traditional valuation methods and using forward-looking, common sense analytics that capture the true value of an acquisition.

Traditional consolidation methodology projects the buyer and seller independently, then combines them with some purchase accounting and cost savings adjustments. Maybe the analyst will increase consolidated loan growth generated from the excess deposits acquired. This methodology does not capture the true value of the acquired deposits.

The intelligent acquirer should first project its own financials under realistic scenarios, given current market trends. Industry deposit growth has already begun to slow, and the big banks are taking more and more market share. If the bank were to grow loans organically, it must be determined:

  • How much of the funding would come from core deposits and how much would require brokered deposits or other borrowings like Federal Home Loan Bank advances and repurchase agreements? This change in funding mix will drive up incremental interest expense.
  • How many of the bank’s existing depositors will shift their funds from low cost checking and savings accounts to higher cost CDs to capture higher market rates? This process will increase the bank’s existing cost of funds.
  • What will happen to my deposit rates when my competitors start advertising higher rates in a desperate play to attract deposits? This will put more pressure on the bank’s existing cost of funds.
  • How many of my existing loans will reprice at higher rates and help overcome increasing funding costs? Invictus’ BankGenome™ intelligence system suggests that, while the average fixed/floating mix for all banks in the US is 60/40, the percentage of floating rate loans actually repricing at higher rates in the next 12 months is much lower because the weighted average time between loan reset dates is more than six quarters.

Standalone projections for the buyer must adequately reflect the risks inherent in the current operating environment. These risks will affect a bank’s bottom line and, therefore, shareholder value. This process will create a true baseline against which to measure the impact of the acquisition. Management must educate its investors on the flaws in legacy analytics, so they can understand a deal’s true value.

In the acquisition scenario, the bank is acquiring loan growth with existing core deposit funding attached. And if the target has excess deposits, the acquirer can deploy those funds into additional loans grown organically without the funding risks due to current market trends. The cost differential between the organic growth and acquisition scenarios creates real, tangible savings. These savings translate to higher incremental earnings from the acquisition, which alleviate TBV payback periods and EPS accretion issues. Traditional deal metrics may be used as guideposts in evaluating an acquisition, but a misguided reliance on them can obscure the true strategic and financial shareholder value created in a transaction.

Every target should be analyzed in depth, with prices customized to the acquirer’s unique balance sheet and footprint. Don’t pass on a great deal because of flawed traditional methodologies.

Rodge Cohen: Are We Preparing to Fight the Last War?


risk-3-1-19.pngHis name might not command the same recognition on the world stage as the mononymous Irish singer and song-writer known simply as Bono, but in banking and financial services just about everyone knows who “Rodge” is.

H. Rodgin Cohen–referred to simply as Rodge—is the unrivaled dean of U.S. bank attorneys. At 75, Cohen, who is the senior chairman at the New York City law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, is still actively involved in the industry, having recently advised SunTrust Banks on its pending merger with BB&T Corp.

Cohen has long been considered a valued advisor within the industry.

In the financial crisis a decade ago, he represented corporate clients like Lehman Brothers and worked closely with the federal government’s principal players, including Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. His character even made an appearance in the movie “Too Big To Fail,” based on a popular book about the crisis by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Eleven years later, Cohen says the risk to the banking industry is no longer excessive leverage or insufficient liquidity—major contributing factors to the last crisis.

The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, passed nearly a decade ago, raised bank capitalization levels substantially compared to pre-crisis levels. In fact, bank capitalization levels have been rising for 40 years, going back to the thrift crisis in the late 1980s. Dodd-Frank also requires large banks to hold a higher percentage of their assets in cash to insure they have enough liquidity to weather another financial storm.

The lesson from the last crisis, says Cohen, revolves around the importance of having a fortress balance sheet. “I think that was the lesson which has been thoroughly learned not merely by the regulators, but by the banks themselves, so that banks today have exponentially more capital, and the differential is even greater in terms of having more liquidity,” says Cohen.

But does anyone know if these changes will be enough to help banks survive the next crisis?

“I don’t think it is possible to calculate this precisely, but if you look at the banks that did get into trouble, none of them had anywhere near the level of capital and liquidity that is required now,” says Cohen. “Although you can’t say with certainty that this is enough, because it’s almost unprovable, there’s enough evidence that suggests that we are at levels where no more is required.”

It is often said that generals have a tendency to fight the last war even though advances in weaponry—driven by technology—can render that war’s tactics and strategies obsolete. Think of the English cavalry on horseback in World War I charging into German machine guns.

It can be argued that regulators, policymakers and even customers in the United States still bear the emotional scars of the last financial crisis, so we all find comfort in the fact that banks are less leveraged today than they have been in recent history, particularly in the lead up to the last crisis.

But what if a strong balance sheet isn’t enough to fight the next war?

“I think the biggest risk in the [financial] system today is a successful cyberattack,” says Cohen. While a lot of attention is paid to the dangers of a broad attack on critical infrastructure that poses a systemic risk, Cohen worries about something different.

“That is a very serious risk, but I think the more likely [danger] is that a single bank—or a group of banks—are hit with a massive denial of service for a period of time, or a massive scrambling of records,” he says. This contagion could destabilize the financial system if depositors begin to worry about the safety of their money.

Cohen believes that financial contagion, where risk spreads from one bank to another like an infectious disease, played a bigger role in the financial crisis than most people appreciate. And he worries that the same scenario could play out in a crippling cyberattack on a major bank.

“Until we really understand what role contagion played in 2008, I don’t think we’re going to appreciate fully the risk of contagion with cyber,” he says. “But to me, that is clearly the principal risk.”

And herein lays the irony of the industry’s higher capital and liquidity requirements. They were designed to protect against the risk of credit bubbles, such as the one that precipitated the last crisis, but they will do little to protect against the bigger risk faced by banks today: a crippling cyberattack.

“That’s why I regard [cyber] as the greatest threat,” says Cohen, “because a fortress balance sheet won’t necessarily help.”

More Banks Want To Sell For This Reason


liquidity-1-14-19.pngPeople often ask what are the main factors that are motivating banks to sell. Not surprisingly, sellers frequently cite a lack of succession planning, a lack of scale and increasing costs for technology and compliance.

But one surprising area that is becoming more influential is shareholder liquidity, now more often the primary factor we see pushing institutions to sell.

For many banks, the age of their average shareholder is approaching or exceeds 70. This leads to three primary challenges:

  • As shareholders pass away, the personal representative often needs to liquidate shares in order to settle the estate. If the issuer can’t provide a source of liquidity, the estate will “dump” the shares, sometimes at a steep discount.
  • Other shareholders are engaged in estate planning and seeking to sell shares.
  • Local shareholders are bequeathing shares to children and grandchildren spread all over the country who have no commitment to the community or desire to hold shares in the local bank.

There are also de novo banks whose investors bought in during the late 1990s and early 2000s with the promise of a 10- to 15-year time horizon. They are 20 years older and eager for a liquidity event.

There are many tools institutions can use to provide shareholders with increased liquidity, including:

1. Matching Programs. Some of our clients keep “interested purchaser” and “interested sellers” lists, in order to help match prospective buyers and sellers. This can be a simple way to help shareholders find an avenue for sale. If a shareholder asks for help in selling their shares, you can provide them with a list including the contact information of interested purchasers.

There are important considerations when administering a matching program. You will want to (1) avoid activity that would require registration with the SEC as a broker-dealer, and (2) make sure you, as the issuer, are not seen as “offering” the shares. To mitigate those risks, you should play a very limited role in any matching transaction. You should not negotiate, offer opinions, handle transaction money, or actively promote the service or solicit customers. You may, however, provide certain limited information and make shareholders aware of the service.

2. Repurchase Programs. Repurchase programs can take many forms, but the two most common are buyback programs and tender offers. With a buyback program, the board adopts a policy authorizing the company to repurchase shares within certain parameters. You may then inform shareholders of the program, but you may not actively solicit shareholders to participate in the program. Alternatively, a tender offer is an active solicitation whereby you ask a shareholder to make an investment decision in a limited amount of time. Furthermore, a tender offer is often more successful because it is “easy.” A shareholder simply needs to accept the issuer’s offer and doesn’t need to engage in negotiations with the company or other unfamiliar shareholders. Tender offers also allow the issuer to target strategic goals, such as offering redemption to small shareholders or out-of-state shareholders.

There are certain bank regulatory considerations involved with any share buyback or redemption transaction. In addition, specific securities laws and requirements apply to tender offers.

3. Transfer Services. Legislation enacted in recent years (the JOBS Act and the FAST Act) allows the use of a third-party online platform to implement certain securities transactions. By using a third-party platform, you can remain involved and offload most of the compliance risk to the vendor. Such platforms can often act as a white-labeled bulletin board for your shareholders to interact.

4. Listing. There are always the options of listing your securities over-the-counter (or OTC), on the recently-created bank-specific OTCQX, or going public and listing your shares on NASDAQ or NYSE.

To fund some of the repurchase initiatives identified above, some banks have successfully raised new capital from community members and customers, many of whom have not had the opportunity to invest in the bank. When a repurchase program is coupled with an offering, several banks have successfully “recycled” their shareholder base, buying time to execute their strategy without the added pressure of liquidity concerns.

There are a lot of options to consider, but community bank executives and boards should be aware of the increasing challenge shareholder liquidity is presenting to their peers and how to manage it proactively.

Five Reasons Why You Should Reconsider Short-Term Loans


lending-7-16-18.pngFor the better part of a decade, regulatory agencies have placed obstacles in front of banks that all but prohibited them from offering short-term, small-dollar lending options for their customers. Now, at least one major regulator has signaled a shift in its opinion about those products, which should inspire banks to reconsider those options.

Here are five reasons banks often cite when discussing why they don’t offer short-term, small-dollar options, and a case why they should rethink those ideas.

You don’t think your customers need it
Perhaps many of your branches are in affluent areas, or you believe that your customers have access to other types of short-term liquidity. But the statistics regarding American personal finances may surprise you:

Nearly 50 percent of American consumers lack the necessary savings to cover a $400 emergency, according to the Federal Reserve.
The personal savings rate dipped to 2.8 percent in April 2018, the lowest rate in over a decade, according to the St. Louis Fed.
Each year 12 million Americans take out payday loans, spending $9 billion on loan fees, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Based on these statistics, it’s likely that a portion of your customer base is affected by the lack of savings, or has a need for better access to liquidity, and chances are good that they’d be receptive to a small-dollar, short-term loan solution.

It’s Cost and Resource Prohibitive
For most financial institutions, introducing a traditional small-dollar loan program is cost-prohibitive–operationally, and from a staffing standpoint. From the cost of loan officers and underwriters to the overhead, the reality is it would take time and resources many banks do not have.

Enter fintech firms, bringing proprietary technology and the application of big data. The right fintech partner can manage the time, human and financial resources you may not have, such as application, underwriting and loan signing processes. In some cases, the whole thing can be automated, resulting in a “self-service” program for your customers, eliminating the human resource need.

Underwriting Challenges and Charge-Off Concerns
Another challenge is the loan approval process and how to underwrite these unique loans. A determination of creditworthiness by a traditional credit check does not adequately predict the consumer’s current ability to repay using recent behavior instead of a period of many years. Today’s fintech firms use proprietary technology to underwrite the loans, incorporating a variety of factors to mitigate charge-offs.

The OCC recently released a bulletin outlining “reasonable policies and practices specific to short-term, small-dollar installment lending.” It stated such policies would generally include “analysis that uses internal and external data sources, including deposit activity, to assess a consumer’s creditworthiness and to effectively manage credit risk.” The right fintech partner will apply big data solutions to assess creditworthiness using the OCC’s criteria and other factors.

Compliance Burdens
There’s no question short-term loan options have been heavily regulated over the past eight years. The CFPB placed predatory lending and payday loans under scrutiny. In 2013, the OCC and FDIC effectively ended banks’ payday loan alternative, the deposit advance. The CFPB cracked down even harder in October 2017 with their final payday lending rule, which had the potential to devastate the storefront payday loan industry, forcing consumers to seek alternative sources of quick liquidity.

The pressure is easing. The OCC was the first agency to encourage banks to make responsible and efficient small-dollar loans. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the other regulatory agencies likely will soon follow suit.

Concern About Cannibalizing Overdraft Revenue
Exclusive data collected by fintech firms experienced with overdraft management has shown there are two distinct groups of consumers managing their liquidity needs in different ways:

The Overdrafters
These are consumers that struggle with transaction timing and incur overdraft or NSF fees. A significant portion of this group might have irregular income streams, such as small business owners or commissioned salespeople. In many cases, these consumers are aware of their heavy overdraft activity, and will continue to overdraft, because for them, it makes financial sense.

The Loan-Seekers
A second group includes those consumers who simply lack the cash to promptly pay their bills, and either can’t obtain adequate overdraft limits or failed to opt-in to overdraft services. These consumers are actively seeking small-dollar loans to avoid the double whammy of hefty late fees and negative hits to their credit score for late payments.

Savvy financial institutions will ensure they have the programs in place to serve both groups of consumers, and fill the gap for the second category by using an automated small-dollar lending program with sound underwriting from a trusted fintech vendor.

Are the Ducks Quacking?


IPO-5-17-18.pngAn initial public offering isn’t the only path to listing your bank’s shares on the Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange, and gaining greater liquidity and more efficient access to capital via the public markets.

Business First Bancshares, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, opted for a direct listing on the Nasdaq exchange on April 9, over the more traditional IPO. Coincidentally, this was the same route taken a few days prior—with greater fanfare and media attention—by Swedish entertainment company Spotify. A direct listing forgoes the selling of shares, and provides an instant and public price for potential buyers and sellers of a company’s stock.

Business First’s direct listing could be seen as an IPO in slow motion. The $1.2 billion asset company registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in late 2014, ahead of its April 2015 acquisition of American Gateway Bank. Business First then completed a $66 million private capital raise in October—$60 million of which was raised from institutional investors—before acquiring MBL Bank in January. The institutional investors that invested in Business First last fall did so with the understanding that the bank would be listing soon. “We actually raised money from the same people as we would have in an IPO process,” says Chief Executive Officer Jude Melville.

Melville says his bank took this slow route so it could be flexible and take advantage of opportunities to acquire other banks, which is a part of the its long-term strategy. Also, bank stocks in 2015 and 2016 had not yet hit the peak levels the industry began to see in 2017. The number of banks that completed an IPO in 2017 more than doubled from the prior year, from eight to 19, according to data obtained from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

“The stars aligned in 2017” for bank stocks, says Jeff Davis, a managing director at Mercer Capital. The Federal Reserve continued increasing interest rates, which had a positive impact on margins for most banks. Bank M&A activity was expected to pick up, and the Trump administration has appointed regulators who are viewed as being friendlier to the industry. “There’s a saying on Wall Street: When the ducks are quacking, feed them, and institutional investors wanted bank stocks. One way to feed the ducks is to undergo an IPO,” Davis says. Bank stock valuations are still high, and so far, 2018 looks to be on track for another good year for new bank offerings, with four completed as of mid-April.

The more recent wave of bank IPOs, which had trailed off in 2015 and 2016, was largely a result of post-crisis private equity investors looking for an exit. As those investors sought liquidity, several banks opted for life as a public company rather than sell the bank. That backlog has cleared, says Davis. “It’s still a great environment for a bank to undergo an IPO,” he says. “Particularly for a bank with a good story as it relates to growth.”

The goals for Business First’s public listing are tied to the bank’s goals for growth via acquisition. Private banks can be at a disadvantage in M&A, having to rely on all-cash deals. A more liquid currency, in the form of an actively-traded stock, is attractive to potential sellers, and the markets offer better access to capital to fuel growth. Melville also believes that most potential employees would prefer to work for a public versus a private company. “Being publicly traded gives you a certain stability and credibility that I think the best employees find attractive,” he says.

Business First’s delayed listing was a result of leadership’s understanding of the seriousness of being a public bank, and the management team focused on integrating its acquisitions first to be better prepared for the listing.

“You really have to want to be a public company and make the sacrifices necessary to make that possible,” says Scott Studwell, managing director at the investment bank Stephens, who worked with Business First on its pre-public capital raise but not its direct listing. “There has to be a lot of support for doing so in the boardroom.” The direct preparation for an IPO takes four to six months, according to Studwell, but the typical bank will spend years getting its infrastructure, personnel, policies and procedures up to speed, says Lowell Harrison, a partner at Fenimore, Kay, Harrison & Ford. The law firm serves as legal counsel for Business First. Roadshows to talk up the IPO and tell the company’s story can have executives traveling across the country and even internationally.

And the bank will be subject to Wall Street’s more frequent assessment of its performance. If a bank hits a road bump, “it can be a rough go for management in terms of looking at the stock being graded by the Street every day, not to mention all the compliance costs that go with being an SEC registrant,” says Davis. All of this adds more to the management team’s plate.

Considering a public path is an important discussion for boards and management teams, and is ultimately a strategic decision that should be driven by the bank’s goals, says Harrison. “What is the problem you’re trying to solve? Do you need the capital? Are you trying to become a player in the acquisition market? Are you just simply trying to create some liquidity for your shares?” Filing an IPO, or opting for a direct listing, should check at least two of these boxes. If the bank just wants to provide liquidity to its shareholders, a listing on an over-the-counter market such as the OTCQX may achieve that goal without the additional burden on the institution.

In considering the bank’s capital needs, a private equity investor—which would allow the bank to remain private, at least in the near term—may suit the bank. Institutional investors favor short-term liquidity through the public markets, which is why Business First was able to obtain capital in that manner, given its near-term direct listing. Private equity investors are willing to invest for a longer period of time, though they will eventually seek liquidity. These investors are also more actively engaged, and may seek a board seat or rights to observe board meetings, says Studwell. But they can be a good option for a private bank that’s not ready for a public listing, or doesn’t see strategic value in it.

Though Business First’s less-common path to its public listing is one that could be replicated under the right circumstances, the majority of institutions that choose to go public are more likely to opt for a traditional IPO. “The reality is that direct listings are very rare, and it takes a unique set of circumstances for it to make sense for a company,” says Harrison. While a direct listing provides more liquidity than private ownership, be advised that the liquidity may not be as robust as seen in an IPO, which tends to capture the attention of institutional shareholders. “Usually, it’s the actual function of the IPO that helps kickstart your public market activity,” he adds. And if the bank needs an injection of capital—and determines that a public listing is the way to do it—then an IPO is the best strategic choice.

Creating Liquidity: Alternatives To Selling The Bank



Executives and boards of private banks have to think outside the box if they want to create a path to liquidity for shareholders that doesn’t require selling the bank. In this video, Eric Corrigan of Commerce Street Capital outlines three liquidity alternatives to consider, and shares why a proactive approach can help a bank control its own destiny.

  • Challenges in Creating Liquidity
  • Three Liquidity Alternatives
  • Benefits and Drawbacks to Each Solution
  • Questions Boards Should Be Asking