Are Bank Directors Worried Enough About Fair Lending?

Bank directors and executives, be warned: Federal regulators are focusing their lasers on fair lending. 

If your bank has not modernized its fairness practices, the old ways of doing fair lending compliance may no longer keep you safe. Here are three factors that make this moment in time uniquely risky for lenders when it comes to fairness.

1. The Regulatory Spotlight is Shining on Fair Lending.
Fair lending adherence tops the agendas for federal regulators. The Department of Justice is in the midst of a litigation surge to combat redlining. Meanwhile, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has published extensively on unfair lending practices, including a revision of its exam procedures to intensify reviews of discriminatory practices.

Collections is one area of fair lending risk that warrants more attention from banks. Given the current economic uncertainty, collections activities at your institution could increase; expect the CFPB and other regulators to closely examine the fairness of your collections programs. The CFPB issued an advisory opinion in May reminding lenders that “the Equal Credit Opportunity Act continues to protect borrowers after they have applied for and received credit,” which includes collections. The CFPB’s new exam procedures also call out the risk of “collection practices that lead to differential treatment or disproportionately adverse impacts on a discriminatory basis.”

2. Rising Interest Rates Have Increased Fair Lending Risks.
After years of interest rate stability, the Federal Reserve Board has issued several rate increases over the last three months to tamp down inflation, with more likely to come.

Why should banks worry about this? Interest rates are negatively correlated with fair lending risks. FairPlay recently did an analysis of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act database, which contains loan level data for every loan application in a given year going back to 1990. The database is massive: In 2021, HMDA logged over 23 million loan applications.

Our analysis found that fairness decreases markedly when interest rates rise. The charts below show Adverse Impact Ratios (AIRs) in different interest rate environments.

Under the AIR methodology, the loan approval rate of a specific protected status group is compared to that of a control group, typically white applicants. Any ratio below 0.80 is a cause for concern for banks. The charts above show that Black Americans have around an .80 AIR in a 3% interest rate environment, which plummets as interest rates increase. The downward slope of fairness for rising interest rates also holds true for American Indian or Alaska Natives. Bottom line: Interest rate increases can threaten fairness.

What does this result mean for your bank’s portfolio? Even if you conducted a fair lending risk analysis a few months ago, the interest rate rise has rendered your analysis out-of-date. Your bank may be presiding over a host of unfair decisions that you have yet to discover.

3. Penalties for Violations are Growing More Severe.
If your institution commits a fair lending violation, the consequences could be more severe than ever. It could derail a merger or acquisition and cause a serious reputational issue for your organization. Regulators may even hold bank leaders personally liable.

In a recent lecture, CFPB Director Rohit Chopra noted that senior leaders at financial institutions — including directors — can now be held personally accountable for egregious violations:

“Where individuals play a role in repeat offenses and order violations, it may be appropriate for regulatory agencies and law enforcers to charge these individuals and disqualify them. Dismissal of senior management and board directors, and lifetime occupational bans should also be more frequently deployed in enforcement actions involving large firms.”

He’s wasting no time in keeping this promise: the CFPB has since filed a lawsuit against a senior executive at credit bureau TransUnion, cementing this new form of enforcement.

How can banks manage the current era of fair lending and minimize their institutional and personal exposure? Start by recognizing that the surface area of fair lending risks has expanded. Executives need to evaluate more decisions for fairness, including marketing, fraud and loss mitigation decisions. Staff conducting largely manual reviews of underwriting and pricing won’t give company leadership the visibility it needs into fair lending risks. Instead, lenders should explore adopting technologies that evaluate and imbed fairness considerations at key parts of the customer journey and generate reporting that boards, executive teams, and regulators can understand and rely on. Commitments to initiatives like special purpose credit programs can also effectively demonstrate that your institution is committed to responsibly extending credit in communities where it is dearly needed.

No matter what actions you take, a winning strategy will be proactive, not reactive. The time to modernize is now, before the old systems fail your institution.

Using Embedded Finance to Grow Customers, Loans

Embedded finance is all around us, whether you know it or not.

Embedded finance is a type of transaction that a customer conducts without even realizing it — without any disruptions to their customer experience. Companies like Uber Technologies, Amazon.com, and Apple all leverage embedded finance in innovative ways to create impactful customer engagements. Today’s consumers are increasingly used to using embedded financial products to pay for a ride, buy large items and fill in cash-flow gaps.

But the explosion of embedded finance means that financial transactions that used to be the main focus of customer experiences are moving into the background in favor of more intuitive transactions. This is the whole point of embedded lending: creating a seamless customer experience centered around ease-of use, convenience and efficiency to enable other non-financial experiences.

Embedded lending extends embedded finance a step further. Embedded lending’s invisibility occurs through contextual placements within a product or platform that small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) already use and trust. Because of embedded experiences, SMBs can get easier, faster access to capital.

All of this could put banks at a disadvantage when it comes to increasing their reach and identifying more and more qualified, high-intent SMBs seeking capital. But banks still have compelling options to capitalize on this innovative trend, such as:

  • Joining embedded lending marketplaces. Banks can capitalize on embedded lending’s ability to open up new distribution channels across their product lines. Banks can not only protect their services but grow core products, like payments and loans, by finding distribution opportunities through embedded lending partners that match businesses looking for credit products and lenders on a marketplace.

Banks can take advantage of this strategy and generate sustained growth by using platforms, like Lendflow, that bring untapped distribution opportunities into the fold. This allows them to easily reach qualified, high-intent businesses seeking capital. Even better, their applications for credit occur at their point of need, which increases the likelihood they’ll qualify and accept the loan.

  • Doubling down on traditional distribution channels. Another viable growth strategy for banks is to double down on providing better financial services and advice through traditional channels. Banks possess the inherent advantage of being in a position to not only supply products and services, but also provide ongoing advice as a trusted financial partner. Incorporating additional data points, such as payroll and cash flow data or social scoring, into their underwriting processes allows banks to leverage their unique position to develop more personalized products, improve customer experience and better support customers.

Embedded lending platforms can aggregate and normalize traditional and alternative data to help banks improve their credit decisioning workflows and innovate their underwriting processes.

  • Reverse engineering on digital banking platforms. Banks can replicate this approach by embedding fintech products into their existing mobile app or digital banking platforms. Consider a bank that decides to provide shopping access through their online portals. In a case like this, a customer may apply for a car loan through the digital bank portal. The bank can then connect that customer to a local car dealership with whom they have a partnership — and potentially maintain revenue share arrangements with — to complete the transaction.

Lenders’ Crossroads Choice
Embedded finance’s effective invisibility of its services and products poses the biggest threat — or opportunity — to banks and traditional lenders. The convenience and ease of access of embedded financial products through platforms that customers already know and trust is an ongoing challenge traditional financial services providers. Yet embedded lending doesn’t have to be a threat for banks. Instead, banks should think of embedded lending as an opportunity to innovate their product lines and expand their reach to identify underserved small and medium-sized businesses in highly profitable industries.

Embedded lending opens a new world of underwriting possibilities because it relies on smarter data use. Platforms can pull data from multiple third-party sources, so lenders can efficiently determine whether or not a customer is qualified. With better data and smarter data use, fewer qualified customers get turned away, saving lenders time, cutting down underwriting costs and increasing conversion rates.

3 Reasons to Add SBA Lending

There were nearly 32 million small businesses in the United States at the end of the third quarter in 2020, according to the Small Business Administration.

That means 99% of all businesses in this country are small businesses, which is defined by the agency as 500 employees or fewer. They employ nearly 50% of all private sector employees and account for 65% of net new jobs between 2000 and 2019.

Many of the nation’s newest businesses are concentrated in industries like food and restaurant, retail, business services, healthy, beauty and fitness, and resident and commercial services. This is a potentially huge opportunity for your bank, if it’s ready and equipped for when these entrepreneurs come to you for financing. But if your bank is not prepared, it may be leaving serious money on the table that could otherwise provide a steady stream of valuable loan income.

That’s because these are the ideal customers for a SBA loan. If that’s not something your bank offers yet, here are three reasons to consider adding SBA lending to the loan portfolio this year.

1. New Avenue for Long-Term Customers
Small business customers often provide the longest-term value to their banks, both in terms of fee income generated and in dollars deposited. But not having the right loan solution to help new businesses launch or scale means missing out on a significant and lucrative wave of entrepreneurial activity. That’s where SBA lending comes in.

SBA loans provide the right solution to small businesses, at the right time. It’s an ideal conversation starter and tool for your bank team to turn to again and again and a way to kick off relationships with businesses that, in the long run, could bring your bank big returns. It’s also a great option to provide to current small business customers who may only have a deposit relationship.

2. Fee Income With Little Hassle
In addition to deeper relationships with your customers, SBA lending is an avenue to grow fee income through the opportunity for businesses to refinance their existing SBA loans with your bank. It broadens your portfolio with very little hassle.

And when banks choose to outsource their SBA lending, they not only get the benefit of fee income, but incur no overhead, start up or staffing costs. The SBA lender service provider acts as the go-between for the bank and the SBA, and they handle closing and servicing.

3. Add Value, Subtract Risk
SBA loans can add value to any bank, both in income and in relationship building. In addition, the SBA guarantees 75% to 85% of each loan, which can then be sold on the secondary market for additional revenue.

As with any product addition, your bank is probably conscientious of the risks. But when you offer the option to refinance SBA loans, your bank quickly reduces exposure to any one borrower. With the government’s guarantee of a significant portion, banks have lots to gain but little to lose.

3 Ways to Drive Radical Efficiency in Business Lending

Community banks find themselves in a high-pressure lending environment, as businesses rebound from the depths of the pandemic and grapple with inflation levels that have not been seen for 40 years.

This economic landscape has created ample opportunity for growth among business lenders, but the rising demand for capital has also invited stiffer competition. In a crowded market, tech-savvy, radically efficient lenders — be they traditional financial institutions or alternative lenders — will outperform their counterparts to win more relationships in an increasingly digitizing industry. Banks can achieve this efficiency by modernizing three important areas of lending: Small Business Administration programs, small credits and self-service lending.

Enhancing SBA Lending
After successfully issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans, many financial institutions are considering offering other types of SBA loans to their business customers. Unfortunately, many balk at the risk associated with issuing government-backed loans and the overhead that goes along with them. But the right technology can create digital guardrails that help banks ensure that loans are documented correctly and that the collected data is accurate — ultimately reducing work by more than 75%.

When looking for tools that drive efficiency in SBA lending, bank executives should prioritize features like guided application experiences that enforce SBA policies, rules engines that recommend offers based on SBA eligibility and platforms that automatically generate execution-ready documents.

Small Credits Efficiencies
Most of the demand for small business loans are for credits under $100,000; more than half of such loans are originated by just five national lenders. The one thing all five of these lenders have in common is the ability to originate business loans online.

Loans that are less than $100,000 are customer acquisition opportunities for banks and can help grow small business portfolios. They’re also a key piece of creating long-term relationships that financial institutions covet. But to compete in this space, community institutions need to combine their strength in local markets with digital tools that deliver a winning experience.

Omnichannel support here is crucial. Providing borrowers with a choice of in person, online or over-the-phone service creates a competitive advantage that alternative lenders can’t replicate with an online-only business model.

A best-in-class customer experience is equally critical. Business customers’ expectations of convenience and service are often shaped by their experiences as consumers. They need a lending experience that is efficient and easy to navigate from beginning to end.

It will be difficult for banks to drive efficiency in small credits without transforming their sales processes. Many lenders began their digital transformations during the pandemic, but there is still significant room for continued innovation. To maximize customer interactions, every relationship manager, retail banker, and call center employee should be able to begin the process of applying for a small business loan. Banks need to ensure their application process is simple enough to enable this service across their organization.

Self-Service Experiences
From credit cards to auto financing to mortgages, a loan or line of credit is usually only a few clicks away for consumers. Business owners who are seeking a new loan or line of credit, however, have fewer options available to them and can likely expect a more arduous process. That’s because business banking products are more complicated to sell and require more interactions between business owners and their lending partners before closing documents can be signed.

This means there are many opportunities for banks to find efficiency within this process; the right technology can even allow institutions to offer self-service business loans.

The appetite for self-service business loans exists: Two years of an expectation-shifting pandemic led many business borrowers to prioritize speed, efficiency and ease of use for all their customer experiences — business banking included. Digitizing the front end for borrowers provides a modern experience that accelerates data gathering and risk review, without requiring an institution to compromise or modify their existing underwriting workflow.

In the crowded market of small business lending, efficiency is an absolute must for success. Many banks have plenty of opportunities to improve their efficiency in the small business lending process using a number of tools available today. Regardless of tech choice, community banks will find their best and greatest return on investment by focusing on gains in SBA lending, small credits and self-service lending.

Smart Ways to Find Loan Growth

In a long career focused on credit risk, I’ve never found myself saying that the industry’s biggest lending challenge is finding loans to make.

But no one can ignore the lackluster and even declining demand for new loans pervading most of the industry, a phenomenon recently confirmed by the QwickAnalytics® National Performance Report, a quarterly report of performance metrics and trends based on the QwickAnalytics Community Bank Index.

For its second quarter 2021 report, QwickAnalytics computed call report data from commercial banks $10 billion in assets and below. The analysis put the banks’ average 12-month loan growth at negative -0.43 basis points nationally, with many states showing declines of more than 100 basis points. If not reversed soon, this situation will bring more troubling implications to already thin net interest margins and stressed growth strategies.

The question is: How will banks put their pandemic-induced liquidity to work in the typical, most optimal way — which, of course, is making loans?

Before we look for solutions, let’s take an inventory of some unique and numerous challenges to what we typically regard as opportunities for loan growth.

  • Due to the massive government largess and 2020’s regulatory relief, the coronavirus pandemic has given the industry a complacent sense of comfort regarding credit quality. Most bankers agree with regulators that there is pervasive uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s ultimate effects on credit. Covid-19’s impact on the economy is not over yet.
  • We may be experiencing the greatest economic churn since the advent of the internet itself. The pandemic heavily exacerbated issues including the e-commerce effect, the office space paradigm, struggles of nonprofits (already punished by the tax code’s charitable-giving disincentives), plus the setbacks of every company in the in-person services and the hospitality sectors. As Riverside, California-based The Bank of Hemet CEO Kevin Farrenkopf asks his lenders, “Is it Amazonable?” If so, that’s a market hurdle bankers now must consider.
  • The commercial banking industry is approaching the tipping point where most of the U.S. economy’s credit needs are being met by nonbank lenders or other, much-less regulated entites, offering attractive alternative financing.

So how do banks grow their portfolios in this environment without taking on inordinate risk?

  • Let go of any reluctance to embrace government-guaranteed lending programs from agencies including the Small Business Administration or Farmers Home Administration. While lenders must adhere to their respective protocols, these programs ensure loan growth and fee generation. But perhaps most appealing? When properly documented and serviced, the guaranties offer credit mitigants to loan prospects who, because of Covid-19, are at approval levels below banks’ traditional standards.
  • Given ever-present perils of concentrations, choose a lending niche where your bank has both a firm grasp of the market and the talent and reserves required to manage the risks. Some banks develop these capabilities in disparate industries, ranging from hospitality venues to veterinarian practices. One of the growing challenges for community banks is the impulse to be all things to all prospective borrowers. Know your own bank’s strengths — and weaknesses.
  • Actively pursue purchased loan participations through resources such as correspondent bank networks for bankers, state trade groups and trusted peers.
  • Look for prospects that previously have been less traditional, such as creditworthy providers of services or products that cannot be obtained online.
  • Remember that as society and technology change, new products and services will emerge. Banks must embrace new lending opportunities that accompany these developments, even if they may have been perceived as rooted in alternative lifestyles.
  • In robust growth markets, shed the reluctance to provide — selectively and sanely — some construction lending to help right the out-of-balance supply and demand currently affecting 1 to 4 family housing. No one suggests repeating the excesses of a decade ago. However, limited supply and avoidance of any speculative lending in this segment have created a huge value inflation that is excluding bankers from legitimate lending opportunities at a time when these would be welcomed.

Bankers must remember the lesson from the last banking crisis: Chasing growth using loans made during a competitive environment of lower credit standards always leads to eventual problems when economic stress increases. This is the “lesson on vintages” truism. A July 2019 study from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on failed banks during the Great Recession revealed that loans made under these circumstances were critical contributors to insolvency. Whatever strategies the industry uses to reverse declining loan demand must be matched by vigilant risk management techniques, utilizing the best technology to highlight early warnings within the new subsets of the loan portfolio, a more effective syncing of portfolio analytics, stress testing and even loan review.

Motivation for Mergers Will Grow as Interest Rates, Loan Growth Stay Low

The pace of announced mergers among rated U.S. banks has accelerated and is likely to gain steam.

The limited prospect of material loan growth makes asset growth via mergers and acquisitions increasingly attractive. And as we anticipated, more banks are favoring large transformational deals. We expect the industry will continue to consolidate in the second half of 2021. Greater size and efficiency will remain primary drivers of consolidation in the face of continued low interest rates, as will the imperative to invest in new technologies at scale.

  • There was a substantial jump in transformational M&A activity during the second quarter. Four sizable deals were announced in the period, and each envisions an enlarged entity that benefits from greater diversification and economies of scale. All four transactions promise eventual benefits for creditors, but each presents significant execution risk that is an immediate credit negative.
  • The main drivers of consolidation will continue for the next 12 to 18 months. Interest rates are unlikely to rise until 2023, increasing the likelihood of a jump in M&A activity. Technology upgrades will require substantial investment, which prospective cost savings from acquisitions can help fund. And loan growth will remain subdued because of the massive deposit holdings of U.S. companies and households.
  • Difficulty forecasting business activity and loan growth, as well as rising bank share prices, may have held back some deals. The value of an acquisition target is harder to gauge in an uncertain economic and market environment, which likely helped slow overall sector consolidation in 2020 and first quarter 2021, but nonetheless did not prevent the prominent deals we highlight in this report.

Banks, Fintechs Uniting for Bottom-Line Wins

Banks have been losing consumer market share to fintechs for more than a decade. But in the middle of a pandemic, their focus has shifted to expediting consumer loan opportunities for balance sheet and bottom line wins. Why?

For one thing, deposit growth is well outpacing loan growth this year, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s Quarterly Banking Profile. At the same time, tech companies like Apple and Amazon.com are dipping their big toes into the consumer finance industry. With less of a need to focus on growing bank deposits and an ever-growing list of competitors entering the lending market, banks should take — and are taking — more-calculated risks to maintain their relevance with digitally savvy customers at their points of financial need. To connect with prospective customers where they want to be reached, banks will need to rely on partners that can help them scale their offerings in a fast, frictionless and secure manner.

The easiest way for banks to lower customer acquisition costs and reach more prospective customers with loan opportunities is to use relevant plug-and-play technologies from fintechs. It’s hardly a new concept at this point; most leading banks have already adopted this methodology as the way to unlock more revenue. Per the Global Fintech Report, 94% of financial services companies said they were confident that fintechs would help grow their company’s revenue over the next two years; 95% of technology companies said the same.

The banks struggling to justify the need to partner are missing the big picture: growth opportunities and low-hanging fruit. Take business clients as an example. Far too many banks wait for a business to become frustrated at competitors before competing to win their business. A fintech partnership can help banks go on the offensive and create a strategy that positions businesses as the face of financing by offering point-of-need lending to consumers, driving revenue for the business and improving the bottom line at the bank.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – American industrial and business magnate Henry Ford

Being open-minded about fintech partnerships allows banks to offer valuable and attractive services to business clients and consumers, especially at a time when both are faced with a life-altering pandemic and natural disasters. Consumers need quick access to credit at reasonable rates; in the face of excess liquidity from deposits and a continued low-rate environment, banks should be look to provide better loans for their customers than their online finance competitors.

Banks that choose not to use fintechs partners may find themselves lacking the ability to get embedded into consumer loan deals and unable to offer consumers a frictionless experience during the process. They can’t leverage alternative data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to get a more-accurate portrayal of a consumer’s creditworthiness outside of their FICO credit scores. Accessing value-add technology and creative solutions allows banks to innovate rapidly to improve efficiencies and meet the future needs of businesses and consumers.

Fintechs have demonstrated their ability to meet banks’ third-party standards. Banks sitting on the partnership sidelines are cautioned to set aside their “sword and shield” mentality in favor of an approach that’s more inviting and open to collaborative innovation. Today’s current economic environment can act as a catalyst for this change.

Banks have proven they are capable of being highly responsive to meet business and consumer needs during recent challenges. This is an opportunity for them to think differently and invest in partnerships to quickly offer new experiences as demand for financial products and services increases.

The Trouble That Johnny Allison Sees

Johnny Allison, chairman and chief executive officer at Home Bancshares in Conway, Arkansas, prides himself on running a very conservative institution with a strong credit culture. And Allison has not liked some of the behavior he has witnessed in other bankers, who are slashing their loan rates and loosening terms and conditions to win business in a highly competitive commercial loan market.

Allison says those chickens will come home to roost when the market eventually turns, and many of those underpriced and poorly structured loans go bad.

“Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time because our people want to match what somebody else did,” said Allison during an extensive interview with Bank Director Editor in Chief Jack Milligan for a profile in the 1st quarter issue of Bank Director magazine. (You can read the story, “Will Opportunity Strike Again for Johnny Allison?” by clicking here.)

Allison feels strongly enough about the credit quality at $15 billion asset Home that he’s willing to sacrifice loan growth, even if it hurts his stock price. In the following excerpt, Allison — whose blunt and colorful talk has become his trademark — opens up about the challenge of maintaining underwriting discipline in a highly competitive market.

The Q&A has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: You said some very powerful things in your third quarter earnings call. And you said it in sort of the Johnny Allison way, which makes it fun and entertaining. But you were fairly blunt about the fact that you see stupid people doing stupid things. That has to have an impact on your performance in 2019. You’re letting certain kinds of loans run off because you don’t like the terms and conditions and the pricing. That impacts your growth, which then impacts your stock price. That has to be a difficult choice to make.
JA: It’s extremely tough, because my people in the field are seeing dumb stuff being done. “Well, so and so did this, or so and so did that, and, Johnny, they gave him three-and-a-half fixed for 10 [years], and interest only, and nonrecourse.” I mean, there will be a day of reckoning on those kinds of bad decisions, in my opinion. Am I going to write at three and a quarter [percent] fixed for 10 to 15 years? I’m not going to do that. Do I not think I’ll have a better opportunity coming next year to where I haven’t spent that money, and I spend it next year? So, my attitude is [to] take what they give us. Stay close to your customers, support your customers. It is extremely tough. It is one tough job keeping the company disciplined. Don’t let it get off the tracks. We’re known as a company that runs a good net interest margin. We’re known as a company that has good asset quality, that runs a good ship.

BD: If you were more aggressive on loan growth, if you were willing to play the same game that other banks were playing and not worry about the future so much, would your stock price be higher today?
JA: We don’t believe that. If I loan you $100 and I charge you 6%, or I loan you $100 and I charge you 3%, you’ve got to do twice as many loans just to keep up with me. And there’s a limit to how much you can loan, right? We got $11 billion worth of loans. We’re about 97% loan-to-deposit [ratio]. Could we go up to 100%? Sure. We were at [100%] over six years ago. The examiners fuss at you a little bit. But we’ve got lots of capital. So, we kind of run in those areas close to 100% loan to deposit. But we’ve got $2.7 billion worth of capital, so we can rely on that. Plus, the company makes a lot of money.

BD: You said in the earnings call that you were building up the bank’s capital because you didn’t quite know where the world was going, or you weren’t quite certain about the future. So, how do you see the future?
JA: I’m very positive with the future, except the fact I keep hearing these naysayers on and on. We’re optimistic people. I’m rocking with the profitability of this company, and [people] tell me the world’s coming to an end. Then the [bank’s] examiner came in during [the] third quarter and said, “The world’s coming to an end, Johnny. Get ready. Be prepared. Get your reserves [up].” We didn’t ever see it. It didn’t happen. Could somebody be right? Could there be a hiccup coming? Let me say this, and I said it on the call, banks are in the best financial condition that they’ve ever been in.

Someone said, “Boy, you give the regulators credit for that.” I said, “Regulators had nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing to do with it.” What did it was [the financial crisis in] ’08, ’09, and those people who wanted to survive, and those people who wanted to keep their companies and don’t want to cycle through that again. What’s happening is, the shadow banking system is coming into the [market], and they’re taking our loans. How many [loan] funds are out there? They all think they’re lenders. Every one of them think they’re lenders. And they’re coming into the bank space. Where we’re at 57% loan to value, they’re going to 95% loan to value.

There’s the next blow up, and that’ll hurt us. We’re going to get splashed with it. We’re not going to get all the paint, but we’re going to get splashed with that.

That’s the next problem coming, these shadow bankers, the people chasing yield. REITs. Oh, God. REITs. I’m in at $150,000 a key in Key West, Florida, with a guest house owner who is a fabulous operator. We financed her for years and years, and she’s built this great program with these guest houses. She sold it to an REIT for $500,000 a key. Now, let me tell you something, you can’t have an airplane late getting into Key West. There can never be a wreck on [U.S. Highway 1]. And there can never be another hurricane. Everything has to be hitting on all cylinders and be perfect to make that work. That’s kind of scary to me. We’ve seen several of these REITs coming [in with] so much money. They won’t give any money back to the investors. They won’t say, “We failed.” Instead, they’ll go invest that money. And they’re just stretching that damn rubber band as far as they can stretch it, and I think some of those rubber bands are going to pop.

[Editor’s note: An REIT, or real estate investment trust, owns and often operates income-generating real estate.]

So, I think that’s the danger. I don’t think it’s the normal course of business. I think those things are the danger. And when it slows down a little bit like it did, these bankers panic. They just panic. “What can we do to keep your business? What can we do?” They just lay down and play dead. “What can I do? What can I do? Two and a half? Okay, okay, okay. We’ll do [loans at] two and a half [percent].” We just got back from a conference, and they’re talking in the twos. Bankers are talking in the twos. I don’t even know what a three looks like, and I sure don’t know what a two looks like. So, I can’t imagine that kind of stupidity.

BD: So, where are we in the credit cycle?
JA: Well, two schools of thought. One, that we’re in a ten-year cycle, and it’s time for a downturn.

BD: Just because it’s time.
JA: Just because it’s time. Johnny’s thought is that we were in an eight-year cycle with [President Barack] Obama, and he didn’t do one thing to help business. Absolutely zero things to help any kind of business at all. Didn’t know what he was doing. Nice guy. Be a great guy to drink beer with. Had no clue. And then here comes [President Donald] Trump. So, did the cycle die with Obama and start with Trump? That’s my theory. My theory is that [the Obama] cycle died, and we’re in the Trump cycle. Now, if we have a downturn, if something happens somewhere, he’s going to do everything he can to get reelected, right? So, he’s going to try to keep this economy rolling. But if we have a downturn, it’s not going to be anything like ’08, ’09.

The regulators blame construction for the [financial crisis]. It wasn’t construction that caused the crash. It was the lenders and the developers that caused the crash, because nobody put any money in a deal. Nobody had any equity in a deal. I remember many times, my CEO, I’d say, “See if you can get us 10%.” No. [The customer] got it done for 100% financing. If you want the deal, they give it to you. But it’s 100% financing. There wasn’t any money in the deal. There was no money in those deals, and when the music stopped, they just pitched the keys to the bankers, and here went the liquidation process. I was involved in it, too. I did some of it myself. So, I’m not the brilliant banker that skated that. I was involved in it. Not proud of that, but I learned from that lesson. I learned from that lesson.

Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time, because our people want to match what somebody else did. That’s my toughest job. And a lot of them think I’m an ass because I hold so tight to that. Now, let me tell you. This is my largest asset. This is my baby in lots of respects. I have lots of my employees that are vested in this company. I have lots of shareholders, local Arkansas shareholders that are vested. We have created more millionaires in Arkansas than J.B. Hunt [Transport Services], or Walmart, or Tyson Foods. Individual millionaires, because they believed in us and invested with us, and I am very proud of that.

When the Earnings Get Tough, the Mergers Get ‘Strategic’

Pressure on earnings and a continued evolution in bank operations could give rise to more “strategic mergers,” according to presenters during the first two days of Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference.

Deal activity, specifically “strategic mergers,” could accelerate in 2020 because of slowing growth and continued momentum in the space, say presenters ranging from the heads of investment banks to CEOs who had undertaken or announced their own transformational mergers. Factors like declining interest rates and a decreasing number of potential partners could motivate executives to look to acquisitions to leverage capital, add growth or find scale and efficiencies.

Community banks across the country are grappling with the realization that superregionals like BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks decided last year to combine to form Truist Financial in a bid for scale — and what those decisions mean for their own prospects, says Gary Bronstein, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. In a nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during one session, 48% of respondents believe their bank will be an acquirer during the year, with a plurality seeking to either acquire core deposits or gain scale.

One reason could be that loan growth among small and mid-cap banks has been slowing since 2015, says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud. His firm is modeling no earnings per share growth for these banks in 2020 because of net interest margin compression. At the same time, banks’ net income has been bolstered by share repurchases: excluding buybacks, earnings per share would be lower by 6% in 2020, and log no growth in 2021.

Bigger banks have been thinking about how to achieve meaningful, strategic change that can jumpstart internal transformation and external results. Enter the “strategic merger,” Michaud says, which his firm defines as transactions where the target owns 25% or more of the pro-forma company. Many of these recent deals have been among regionals and were structured as mergers-of-equals, which helped define M&A activity in 2019.

The MOEs are back. That was a popular method of consolidation in 2019, and I believe we’re going to see more of it,” he says. “It is the major theme as to how this industry is consolidating.”

Indeed, for the second year in a row, the conference coincided with an MOE announcement — this time, between Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp and Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. to form a Southeastern institution with $34 billion in assets.

The financial attractiveness of these deals is undeniable, say investment bankers and executives: the no-premium deals carry low dilution and quick tangible book value earn-back periods as well as double-digit earnings per share accretion and enviable returns on tangible common equity. The logic seemed to resonate with attendees: 61% of respondents during the nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during a session indicated they would consider an MOE during the year.

“These deals are being structured to make these companies more profitable … and to build better companies,” he says.

Michaud wasn’t the only presenter convinced that MOE interest and momentum will continue this year. Joe Berry, managing director and co-head of depositories investment banking at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, points out the potential stock outperformance of certain MOEs and other strategic mergers, especially after they announce capital actions.

But recording the eye-popping results from a strategic merger only comes about after the “soft issues” are hammered out, Berry says. The MOE announcement between TCF Financial Corp. and Chemical Financial Corp., which occurred during the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, was motivated partially by a desire to achieve scale to serve larger credits, says David Provost, executive chairman at TCF Bank. The bank is now based in Detroit and has $45.7 billion post-merger. But first, executives needed to negotiate a “reverse divorce” to determine the new name and headquarters location.

It then comes down to who gets the dog, and you both love the dog. That’s the CEO title,” he says. Deal filings indicated that Provost “was going take the dog for 18 months and then [President and CEO Craig Dahl] was going to take the dog. In the end, I decided to give up the dog and create $1 billion in value for shareholders.”

The MOE catalyst has not been limited to regional banks. Randy Greene, president and CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Bay Banks of Virginia, says an MOE transformed his bank. The 2016 deal allowed two more-rural based banks to combine and move to a more-urban area; Bay Banks now has $1.1 billion in assets.

But bankers contemplating an MOE must also ensure that internal expansion doesn’t erode the strategic financial gains of the deal. BJ Losch, CFO at $43.3 billion First Horizon National Corp., says the bank is trying to “become bigger without becoming big” as part of its MOE with Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.

An MOE allows a bank to “build Star Wars from an IT perspective, but then you become big —like the bigger banks that you want to be more nimble than,” he says.

The MOE spared Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon and IBERIA from needing an “upstream” buyer, says fellow panelist Daryl Byrd, IBERIA’s current president and CEO, who will serve as the pro forma bank’s executive chairman. The dearth of potential buyers has emerged as a competitive dynamic for institutions of all sizes, including the $31.7 billion bank.

“It’s a musical chair game and you don’t want to be left without a chair. And we recently lost two very big chairs,” he says.

Michaud points out that many of the companies involved in these strategic mergers are “really good banks in their own right,” deserving of their independence. These executives do not need to find a merger partner but believe the transactions’ defensive attributes will allow them to keep up with digital transformations and changes in the bank space down the road.

He says executives are asking, “‘If we don’t do this, what’s the industry going to look like in three to five years? How relevant are we going to be and how much are we going to … make sure our shareholders have a long-term play here?’”

The Secret To Mortgage Lending To First-Time Buyers

mortgage-2-11-19.pngMarket volatility and interest rate hikes have created uncertainty for the entire mortgage industry. Lending portfolio growth has also met pressure from the tight housing supply and the influence of fintech on the mortgage process.
One bright spot in the coming years will undoubtedly be the first-time homebuyer market, but banks must adapt traditional lending practices to capitalize and compete successfully.

First-time home purchasers are now 33 percent of potential buyers. Some surveys have indicated millennials–the largest future housing buyer population–are starting to embrace home ownership. Crafting effective loan options for this demographic can provide opportunity for mortgage and home equity portfolio growth, achieve consumers’ home ownership goals and deliver beneficial partnerships between banks and borrowers for years.

Banks must address the following concerns with the first-time buyer:

  • Affordability: They are more likely to seek popular urban and so-called “surban” (new or redeveloped areas with an urban feel) environments to live. Today’s first-time buyers are enticed by alternative housing choices that typically have higher-priced entry points. Traditional builders have not focused on this sector due to profitability pressures from increased labor and materials costs, leading to a limited supply of entry-level housing. Rising interest rates further stress affordability factors for the first-time buyer and limit the options available for mortgage funding. 
  • Debt and Lack of Savings: More than 50 percent of millennials carry a rising amount of debt, with the average 2016 graduate holding more than $37,000 in student loans compared to $18,000 for the average 2003 graduate, according to Forbes. The pressure of this debt load means would-be buyers have little or no savings available for the traditional 20 percent down payment. Rate increases, especially on adjustable student loans, can exacerbate this issue for the first-time buyer though Redfin predicts a competitive labor market should bring higher wages in 2019.
  • Income and Alternative Purchase Structures: The rise of the “gig economy” has led to a high number of independent contractors in this cohort, according to Forbes. Emerging first-time buyers have also shown interest in purchasing homes to create opportunities for rental income and nontraditional co-borrowers.

Lenders can differentiate their approval process from competitors by empowering loan underwriters with structures and guidelines that address the unique challenges of the first-time borrower. Revising mortgage guidelines and devising strategies for affordable home ownership will create valuable long-term relationships with first-time homebuyers. Just a few approaches to consider are:

  • Rethinking Loan Parameters: Mixed-use properties and home-improvement loans are typically excluded from the primary mortgage process. Banks incorporating alternative building structure options and creating allowances for home renovations in the initial mortgage parameters can substantially increase the pool of homes available to buyers. 
  • Differentiating Loan Structures: Traditional mortgages may be out of reach for many first-time buyers and may not address alternative housing solutions. While options with a higher loan-to-value ratio exist, most require mortgage insurance and are subject to increased scrutiny. Pairing conforming first mortgages with home equity loans and lines offer affordable loan structures at higher loan-to-value ratios and create long-term relationships. With proper planning, including the possible use of portfolio protection products, these structures can be offered without adding risk to the bank’s loan portfolio. 
  • Diversifying Income and Debt Guidelines: Considering tenant income and/or co-borrowers may be the only option for a potential buyer to enter the housing market. In addition, banks may also need to expand guidelines to allow for alternate sources of income, such as independent contracting income, in the underwriting decision process. 

Even with numerous obstacles, first-time home buyers offer opportunity in the mortgage origination market. Addressing the needs of this sector while avoiding the risks, lenders can create profitable mortgage and home equity portfolios, which may be the best way to mitigate the uncertainty of traditional lending in the future.

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