Net interest margin lies at the very core of banking and is under substantial and unusual pressures that threaten to erode profitability and interest income for quarters to come. Community banks that can’t grow loans or defend their margins will face a number of complicated and difficult choices as they decide how to respond.
I chatted recently with Curtis Carpenter, senior managing director at the investment bank Hovde Group, ahead of his main stage session at Bank Director’s in-person Bank Board Training Forum today at the JW Marriott Nashville. He struck a concerned tone for the industry in our call. He says he has numerous questions about the long-term outlook of the industry, but most of them boil down to one fundamental one: How can banks defend their margins in this low rate, low loan growth environment?
Defending the margin will dominate boardroom and C-suite discussions for at least eight quarters, he predicts, and may drive a number of banks to consider deals to offset the decline. That fundamental challenge to bank profitability joins a number of persistent challenges that boards face, including attracting and retaining talent, finding the right fintech partners, defending customers from competitors and increasing shareholder value.
The trend of compressing margins has been a concern for banks even before the Federal Open Market Committee dropped rates to near zero in March 2020 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, but it has become an increasingly urgent issue, Carpenter says. That’s because for more than a year, bank profitability was buffeted by mitigating factors like the rapid build-up in loan loss provisions and the subsequent drawdowns, noise from the Paycheck Protection Program, high demand for mortgages and refinancing, stimulus funds and enhanced unemployment benefits. Those have slowly ebbed away, leaving banks to face the reality: interest rates are at historic lows, their balance sheets are swollen with deposits and loan demand is tepid at best.
Complicating that further is that the Covid-19 pandemic, aided by the delta variant, stubbornly persists and could make a future economic rebound considerably lumpier. The Sept. 8 Beige Book from the Federal Reserve Board found that economic growth “downshifted slightly to a moderate pace” between early July and August. Growth slowed because of supply chain disruption, labor shortages and consumers pulling back on “dining out, travel, and tourism… reflecting safety concerns due to the rise of the Delta variant.”
“It’s true that the net interest margin is always a focus, but this is an unusual interest rate environment,” Carpenter says. “For banks that are in rural areas that have lower loan demand, it’s an especially big threat. They have fewer options compared to banks in a more robust growth area.”
The cracks are already starting to form, according to the Quarterly Banking Profile of the second quarter from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The average net interest margin for the nearly 5,000 insured banks shrank to 2.5% — the lowest level on record, according to the regulator, and down 31 basis points from a year ago. At community banks, as defined by the FDIC, net interest margin fell 26 basis points, to 3.25%. Net interest income fell by 1.7%, which totaled $2.2 billion in the second quarter, driven by the largest banks; three-fifths of all banks reported higher net interest income compared to a year ago. Carpenter believes that when it comes to net interest margin compression, the worst is yet to come.
“The full effect of the net interest margin squeeze is going to be seen in coming quarters,” he says, calling the pressure “profound.”
On the asset side, intense competition for scarce loan demand is driving down yields. Total loans grew only 0.3% from the first quarter, due to an increase in credit card balances and auto loans. Community banks saw a 0.5% decrease in loan balances from the first quarter, driven by PPP loan forgiveness and payoffs in commercial and industrial loans.
On the funding side, banks are hitting the floors on their cost of funds, no longer able to keep pace with the decline on earning assets. The continued pace of earning asset yield declines means that net interest margin compression may actually accelerate, Carpenter says.
Directors know that margin compression will define strategic planning and bank profitability over the next eight quarters, he says. They also know that without a rate increase, they have only a few options to combat those pressures outside of finding and growing loans organically.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Carpenter, a long-time investment banker, sees mergers and acquisitions as an answer to the fundamental question of how to handle net interest margin compression. Of course, the choice to engage in M&A or decide to sell an institution is a major decision for boards, but some may find it the only way to meaningfully combat the forces facing their bank.
Banks in growth markets or that have built niche lending or fee business lines enjoy “real premiums” when it comes to potential partners, he adds. And conversations around mergers-of-equals, or MOEs, at larger banks are especially fluid and active — even more so than traditional buyer-seller discussions. So far, there have been 132 deals announced year-to-date through August, compared to 103 for all of 2020, according to a new analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence.
For the time being, Carpenter recommends directors keep abreast of trends that could impact bank profitability and watch the value of their bank, especially if their prospects are dimmed over the next eight quarters.
“It seems like everybody’s talking to everybody these days,” he says.