One Bank Reworks a Key Metric for the Pandemic Era

One of the most efficient banks in the country is measuring its performance using a new metric that captures how the pandemic has changed the operating landscape.

Johnny Allison, chairman and CEO of Conway, Arkansas-based Home BancShares, debuted a new metric during bank unit Centennial Bank’s third-quarter 2020 earnings announcement that measures the bank’s performance and earnings power. The metric provides insight into how well a bank is able to convert revenue into profits; it comes at a time when bank provisions and allowances remain elevated, and generally staid earnings results are lumpier and noisier than ever.

“I love the numbers and I love to play with them,” Allison says in an interview, describing how he came up with the approach. He was looking at the third-quarter earnings table for the $16.4 billion bank and saw total revenue and pre-tax, pre-provision net revenue listed near each other.

“When I looked at those, I thought ‘[Wow], look how much we brought down pre-tax pre-provision out of the total revenue of this corporation,” he says. “That got my attention. I thought ‘I wonder what the percentage that is?’”

The non-GAAP metric is derived from two items in the earnings statement: pre-tax net income, excluding provision for credit losses and unfunded commitment expense, or PPNR, divided by total net revenue. Allison calls it “P5NR” or “profit percentage.” An efficient operator, Home BancShares converted 59.28% of its net revenue into profits before taxes and provision expense in the third quarter of 2020. It was 59.19% in the fourth quarter.

The metric has its fans.

“[P5NR] measures how much of a bank’s revenue turns into profits before taxes and provision expense,” wrote Christopher Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott, in an October 2020 report. “We favor this new metric since it shows [how] much $1 of revenue is turned into core profits — the higher, the better.”

P5NR is related to another popular metric on the earnings report: the efficiency ratio. The ratio measures how effectively a bank spends money; the lower the ratio, the more efficient a bank is. Banks can achieve a low efficiency ratio either through keeping costs low or increasing revenue, known as positive operating leverage. Home’s third-quarter 2020 efficiency ratio was 39.56%; it was 39.64% in the fourth quarter.

Allison calls P5NR the “reverse” of the efficiency ratio because a higher number is better, but ties the figure to positive operating leverage. He says Donna Townsell, now director of investor relations, did much of the work starting in 2008 that made the bank more efficient. While the efficiency ratio is still useful, PPNR and P5NR show how much revenue a bank converts to profits, especially in an environment with high credit costs.

P5NR also speaks to the industry’s focus on bank PPNR, which the Federal Reserve defines as “net interest income plus noninterest income minus noninterest expense.” In an interview, Marinac says the metric came into focus as part of the annual stress test exercise that big banks must complete — capturing the earnings at a bank before it deducts credit costs. It’s not surprising the metric has been popular with analysts trying to look past the lumpiness of quarterly results to the underlying earnings power of a bank. Building up reserves subtracts from earnings, and releasing them can pump up earnings — both activities that can make it hard to assess the underlying revenue and profits of a bank.

Home included the figure for third and fourth quarter 2020 earnings, along with backdated calculations for previous quarters, but is cautious about leading with it. Like many bank-specific metrics, it is non-GAAP — a profit calculation that doesn’t follow a standard, required calculation for companies to disclose under generally accepted accounting principles. Allison says Home also includes the number in its monthly profit and loss statement and plans to include it in future earnings reports.

Not surprisingly, Home BancShares is touting a metric that makes the bank look good. Marinac’s report pointed out that Home Bancshares had the best P5NR of all banks early reporting during the third quarter of 2020, but says the metric still has application for other banks.

“It’s not hard to do the math. When Johnny said it, it made a ton of sense,” he says. “It makes our job easy, and it’s a simple concept that everyone should follow.”

Using Profitability to Drive Banker Behavior

There used to be a perception that bankers found it tough to innovate because they are largely left-brained, meaning they tend to be more analytical and orderly than creative right brainers. While this may have been true for the founding fathers of this industry, there’s no question that bankers have been forced into creativity to remain competitive.

It could have been happenstance, natural evolution, or the global financial crisis of 2008 — it doesn’t matter. Today’s bankers are both analytical and creative because they have had to find new, more convenient pathways to profitability and use those insights for continuous coaching.

The current economic landscape may require U.S. banks to provision for up to $318 billion in net loan losses from 2020 to 2022, the Deloitte Center for Financial Services estimates. These losses are expected to be booked in several lending categories, mainly driven by the pandemic’s domino effect on small businesses, income inequality and the astounding impact of women leaving the workforce pushing millions into extreme poverty. Additionally, net interest margins are at an all-time low. Deloitte forecasts that U.S. commercial banks won’t see revenues or net income reach pre-pandemic levels until 2022.

In the interim, bankers are still under pressure to perform and increase profitability. Strong performance is possible — economic “doom and gloom” isn’t the whole story. In fact, the second-largest bank in America is projecting loan growth in 2021, of all years, after six years of decline. These industry challenges won’t last forever. so preparation is key. One of the first steps in understanding profitability is establishing if your bank’s business model is transactional, relational or a mix of the two, then answering these questions:

  • How much does a loan pay for the use of funds? How much does a deposit receive for the use of funds?
  • How much does a loan pay for the current period and identified level of credit risk?
  • How much capital does the bank need to assign to the loan or deposit?
  • What are the appropriate fees for accounts and services used by our clients?
  • What expenses are allocated to a product to determine its profitability?

There should never be a question about why loans need to pay for funds. The cash a bank provides for a loan comes from one of three sources: capital investments, debt and borrowing or client deposits.

From there, bankers have shown incredible creativity and innovation in adopting simpler, faster ways to better understand their bank’s profitability, especially through sophisticated technologies that can break down silos by including all clients, products and transactions in a single database. By comparison, legacy databases can leave digital assets languishing in inaccessible and expensive silos. Bankers must view an entire client relationship to most accurately price the relationship.

This requires a mindset shift. Instead of thinking about credit structure — the common approach in the industry – to determine relationship pricing, think instead about the client relationship holistically and leave room to augment as necessary. Pricing models should reflect your bank’s profitability calculations, not adjusted industry average models. And clients will need a primary and secondary owner to break down silos and ensure they receive the best experience.

How does any of this drive optimal banker behavior? A cohesive, structurally sound system that allows bankers to better understand profitability via one source of the truth allows them to review deal performance every six months to improve performance. Further, a centralized database allows C-suite executives to literally see everything, forging connections between their initiatives to banker’s day-to-day actions. It creates an environment where bankers can realize opportunities through execution, accountability and coaching, when necessary.

The Three C’s of Indirect Swaps

Twenty years ago, there were 8,000+ banks; today there are less than 5,000, but competition hasn’t slowed.

Not only are banks competing with other banks for loans, they are also competing for investor dollars. There’s pressure to grow and to do so profitably. It is more important than ever that banks compete for, and win, loans.

Competing for the most profitable relationships requires banks to meet borrower demand for long-term, fixed-rate debt. But that structure and term invites interest rate risk. What can banks do? What are their competitors doing?

Banks commonly use derivatives to meet customer demand for fixed-rate loans, but opt for different approaches. The majority of banks choose a traditional solution of offering swaps directly to borrowers; however, some community banks choose to work with correspondent banks that offer indirect swaps to their borrowers.

With indirect swaps, the correspondent bank enters an interest rate swap with the borrower — sometimes called a rate protection agreement. The borrower is party to a derivative transaction with the correspondent bank; the community bank is not a direct party to the swap.

Indirect swaps are presented as a simple solution for meeting customer demand for long-term fixed-rates, but community bankers should consider the three C’s of indirect swaps before using this type of product: credit, cost and customer.

Credit
A swap is a credit instrument that can be an asset or liability to the borrower, which means the correspondent bank requires security. The correspondent bank accomplishes this by requiring a senior position in the loan credit. In a borrower default, the correspondent bank has the first lien on the loan collateral.

In practice, the community bank makes the correspondent bank whole for the borrower’s swap liability. This means the community bank has an unrecognized contingent liability for each indirect swap.

Additionally, due to the credit nature of swaps, the correspondent bank must agree to the amount of proceeds, or the loan-to-value at which the bank lends. This has real-world implications for banks as they compete for loans.

Cost
While there are no out-of-pocket costs associated with putting the borrower into a swap with a correspondent bank, there are costs embedded in the swap rate that drives up the cost for the borrower and could potentially make the bank uncompetitive. These costs are often opaque — and can be significant.

Customer
A colleague of mine refers to indirect swaps as “swaps on a blind date.” It’s a funny but apt way of putting it. The borrower enters into a derivative with a correspondent bank that they have no relationship. And the borrower is accepting unsecured exposure as well: if the correspondent bank defaults and owes the borrower on the swap, they have no recourse except as an unsecured creditor.

A common theme of the three C’s is control. With indirect swaps, the community bank cedes control of the credit, they cede control of the cost of the swap and they cede control of the relationship with their customer. That’s why the majority of banks choose to offer swaps directly to their customers. Doing so allows them to manage the credit, including loan proceeds, and doesn’t subordinate the bank’s credit to a third party in the case of a workout. It allows the bank to own the pricing decision and control the cost of the swap to the borrower, making the bank’s loan pricing more competitive. It allows the bank to keep all aspects of the customer relationship within the institution.

Offering swaps to borrowers also opens the door for banks to use swaps as a balance sheet risk management tool. In this context, derivatives are an additional tool for the bank to manage interest rate risk holistically.

But what about the complexity of derivatives? How does an executive with little or no experience in derivatives educate the board and equip his/her team? How will swaps be managed? The majority of banks choose to partner with an independent third party to do the heavy lifting of educating, equipping, and managing a customer swaps program. A good partner will serve as an advisor and advocate, ensuring that the bank is fully compliant and utilizing best practices.

Indirect swaps may be simple — but a traditional solution of offering swaps directly to borrowers is a better way to meet customer demand for long-term fixed-rate loans.

Adding Value With Merchant Services

Leading with merchant services can help a bank acquire new customers, according to a recent Accenture study commissioned by Fiserv. On average, these accounts are more profitable: Compared to other business accounts, merchant account holders generate 2.6 times more revenue. In this video, Michael Rogers of Fiserv explains how these accounts help banks grow and offers considerations for how bank leaders can enrich this valuable product.

  • Leading With Payments
  • Building Relationships
  • Strengthening Your Offering

To access Fiserv’s study, “From Revenue to Retention: Growing Your Deposits With Merchant Services,” click HERE.

2021 Bank M&A Survey Results: Uncertainty Stalls Growth Plans

Will bank M&A activity thaw out in 2021?

Bank deals have been in deep freeze due to Covid-19 and the related economic downturn, but most of the executives and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2021 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, say their bank remains open to doing deals.

More than one-third say their institution is likely to purchase a bank by the end of 2021; this represents a significant decline compared to last year’s survey, when 44% believed an acquisition likely in 2020. Branch and loan portfolio acquisitions also look slightly less attractive compared to a year ago.

The barriers to dealmaking may prove difficult to surmount in today’s uncertain economic and political environment.

With pressures on small businesses and the commercial real estate market exacerbated by remote work and social distancing measures, the recovery of the U.S. economy — and bank M&A — may hinge on conquering the coronavirus. In response, bank leaders are focused on credit quality: 63% point to concerns about the quality of a potential target’s loan book as a top barrier to making an acquisition, up significantly from last year’s survey (36%).

Despite concerns about credit quality and profitability, 85% say their bank is no more likely to sell due to Covid-19, and just 7% regret that they didn’t sell before the current downturn, when target banks could expect to command a higher price.

This willingness to carry on and weather these challenges may find its foundation in respondents’ long-term expectations. More than half anticipate a slow rebound for the U.S. economy. Twenty-eight percent don’t expect to return to pre-crisis levels in 2021, and 7% believe the recession will deepen.

Still, half believe that when the crisis abates, their bank will be just as strong as it was earlier this year. Forty-four percent express even greater optimism, believing they’ll emerge even stronger.

Key Findings

Loan Losses
More than half (57%) believe their bank’s loan loss allowance will be sufficient to cover expected losses over the next 12 months. Two-thirds say that less than 5% of residential mortgages will default and 64% that less than 5% of commercial loans will default.

Willing to Pay for Quality
When describing their bank’s acquisition strategy, 44% indicate that they seek strategic acquisitions, regardless of price. One-quarter look for low-priced acquisitions of historically well-run banks; 27% are comfortable paying a premium for well-managed banks.

Tech Acquisitions Rare
Just 11% believe they’ll purchase a technology company. Of these, 63% express interest in buying a business or commercial lending platform; 63% are open to acquiring a consumer deposit-gathering platform. Almost half seek data analytics capabilities.

Price Remains a Barrier
Potential acquirers’ concerns about pricing as a barrier to dealmaking have dropped significantly — from 72% last year to 60% in this year’s survey. However, more respondents express concern about their ability to use stock as currency in a deal, as well as demands on their capital should they acquire.

Effects on Capital
Most believe their bank’s capital levels are sufficient to weather the economic downturn, assuming a rapid (98%) or slow (98%) recovery in 2021, or mild recession (97%). Eighty-one percent believe they can weather a deeper recession. Just one-quarter plan to raise capital over the next six months.

High Marks for Trump
An overwhelming majority award President Trump’s administration positive marks for the rollout of Paycheck Protection Program loans (90%) and stimulus payments (91%), and its support of the U.S. economy (88%). Two-thirds believe the administration has effectively responded to the pandemic.

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

Embracing Gender Diversity as a Pathway to Success

A prolonged flat yield curve, economic contraction, increasing compliance and technology costs, not to mention the pandemic-induced pressure on stock valuations, have left banks in a difficult operating environment with limited opportunities for profitability.

Yet, there is an untapped opportunity for banks to capitalize on a strong and growing talent pool and profitable customer base: women. Research repeatedly shows that increasing gender diversity on bank boards and in C-suites drives better performance. Forward-thinking banks should look to women in their communities for growth inside and outside the institution.

Women now receive nearly 60% of all degrees, make up 50% of the workforce and, prior to the pandemic, held more jobs in the U.S. than men. They are the primary breadwinner in over 40% of U.S. households and comprise more than 50% of stock owners. A McKinsey & Co. report found that U.S. women currently control $10.9 trillion in assets; by 2030, that could grow to as much as $30 trillion in assets. Women also started 1,821 net new businesses a day in 2017 and 2018, employing 9.2 million in 2018 and recording $1.8 trillion in revenues. Startups founded by women pulled in $18.6 billion in investments across 2,304 deals in 2019 — still, lack of capital is the greatest challenge reported by female small business owners.

Broadly, research also supports a positive correlation between a critical mass of gender diversity in leadership and performance.

A study of tech and financial services stocks found a 20% increase in stock price momentum within 24 months of appointing a female CEO, a 6% increase in profitability and 8% larger stock returns with a female CFO. And they may achieve better execution on deals. In a review of 16,763 publicly announced M&A transactions globally over the last 20 years, boards that were more than 30% female performed better in terms of stock price and operational metrics than all-male boards.


Note: Performance metrics are market-adjusted
Source: M&A Research Centre at Cass Business School, University of London and SS&C Intralinks: “Gender Diversity and M&A Outcomes; How Female Board-Level Representation Affects Corporate Dealmaking” (February 2020)

But as of 2018, women held just 40 CEO positions at U.S. public banks, or 4.31%. Nearly 20% of banks have no women board members; the median is just over 16%. Banks should start by gender diversifying their boards; gender-diverse boards lead to gender-diverse C-suites.

Usually, boards feature an “accidental” composition that results from social norms: board members source new directors from their social and immediate networks. An intentional board, by comparison, is deliberate in composing a governance structure that is best equipped to evaluate and address current demands and future challenges. Boards can address this in three ways.

  1. Expand your networks. The median male board member has social connections to 62% of other men on their boards but no social connections to women on their boards. Broaden the traditional recruitment channels to ensure a more qualified, diverse slate.
  2. Seek diverse skill sets. Qualified female candidates may emerge through indirect career paths, other sectors of the financial industry or are in finance but outside of financial services. Women with nonprofit experience and small business owners can bring local market knowledge and relevant experience to bank boards.
  3. Insist on gender diverse slates. A diverse slate of candidates negates tokenism, while a diverse interviewer slate demonstrates to candidates that your bank is diverse.

But diversity in recruiting and hiring alone won’t improve a bank’s performance. To be effective, a diverse board must intentionally engage all members. Boards can address this in three ways.

  1. Ensure buy-in. Support from key board members when it comes to diversifying your board is critical to success. Provide coaching for inclusive leadership.
  2. Review director on-boarding and ongoing engagement. Make sure it’s welcoming to people with different connections or social backgrounds, builds trust and facilitates open communication.
  3. Thoughtful composition of board committees. Integrate new directors into the board’s culture and make corporate governance more inclusive and effective.

The long-term performance benefits of a gender diverse board and c-suite are compelling, especially in the current challenging operating environment for banks. Over time, an intentional board and C-suite that mirrors the gender diversity of your bank’s key constituents — your customer base, your employee base and your shareholder base — will out-perform banks that do not adapt.

Helping Customers When They Need It Most

Orvin Kimbrough intimately understands the struggles shared by low-to-moderate income consumers. Raised in low-income communities and the foster care system, he also worked at the United Way of Greater St. Louis for over a decade before joining $2.1 billion Midwest BankCentre as CEO in January 2019. “[Poverty costs] more for working people,” he says. “It’s not just the financial cost; it’s the psychological cost of signing over … the one family asset you have to the pawn shop.”

His experiences led him to challenge his team to develop a payday loan alternative that wouldn’t trap people in a never-ending debt cycle. The interest rate ranges from 18.99% to 24.99%, based on the term, amount borrowed (from $100 to $1,000) and the applicant’s credit score. Rates for a payday loan, by comparison, range in the triple digits.

The application process isn’t overly high-tech, as applicants can apply online or over the phone. The St. Louis-based bank examines the customer’s credit score and income in making the loan decision; those with a credit score below 620 must enroll in a financial education class provided by the bank.

Industry research consistently finds that many Americans don’t have money saved for an emergency — a health crisis or home repair, for example. When these small personal crises occur, cash-strapped consumers have limited options. Few banks offer small-dollar loans, dissuaded by profitability and regulatory constraints following the 2008-09 financial crisis.

If the current recession deepens, more consumers could be looking for payday loan alternatives. Regulators recently encouraged financial institutions to offer these products, issuing interagency small-dollar lending principles in May that emphasize consumers’ ability to repay. 

Everybody needs to belong to a financial institution if you’re going to be financially healthy and achieve your financial aspirations,” says Ben Morales, CEO of QCash Financial, a lending platform that helps financial institutions automate the underwriting process for small-dollar loans.

QCash connects to a bank’s core systems to automate the lending process, using data-driven models to efficiently deliver small-dollar loans. The whole process takes “six clicks and 60 seconds, and nobody has to touch it,” Morales says. QCash uses the bank’s customer data to predict ability to repay and incorporates numerous factors — including cash-flow data — into the predictive models it developed with data scientists. It doesn’t pull credit reports.

Credit bureau data doesn’t provide a full picture of the customer, says Kelly Thompson Cochran, deputy director of FinRegLab and a former regulator with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Roughly a fifth of U.S. consumers lack credit history data, she says, which focuses on certain types of credit and expenses. The data is also a lagging indicator since it’s focused on the customer’s financial history.

In contrast, cash flow data can provide tremendous value to the underwriting process. “A transaction account is giving you both a sense of inflows and outflows, and the full spectrum of the kind of recurring expenses that a consumer has,” says Cochran.

U.S. Bancorp blends cash flow data with the applicant’s credit score to underwrite its “Simple Loan” — the only small-dollar loan offered by a major U.S. bank. The entire process occurs through the bank’s online or mobile channels, and takes just seven minutes, according to Mike Shepard, U.S. Bank’s senior vice president, consumer lending product and risk strategy. Applicants need to have a checking account with the bank for at least three months, with recurring deposits, so the bank can establish a relationship and understand the customer’s spending behavior.

“We know that our customers, at any point in time, could be facing short-term, cash-flow liquidity challenges,” says Shepard. U.S. Bank wanted to create a product that was simple to understand, with a clear pricing structure and guidelines. Customers can borrow in $100 increments, from $100 to $1,000, and pay a $6 fee for every $100 borrowed. U.S. Bank lowered the fee in March to better assist customers impacted by the pandemic; prior to that the fee ranged from $12 to $15.

Since the loan is a digital product, it’s convenient for the customer and efficient for the bank.

Ultimately, the Simple Loan places U.S. Bank at the center of its customers’ financial lives, says Shepard. By offering a responsible, transparent solution, customers “have a greater perception of U.S. Bank as a result of the fact that we were able to help them out in that time of need.”

The Illusive Hunt for Revenue

Fintel.pngThe operating environment for banks is becoming increasingly inhospitable. Rising credit costs and falling interest rates threaten to squeeze profitability in a vice grip unless banks find new revenue sources.

This is why Bank Director’s second annual Experience FinXTech event and awards, hosted virtually at the beginning of May, highlighted fintech companies that are helping banks grow their top lines.

The event brought together bankers and technologists for demonstrations and conversations about the present and future of banking.

As a part of the event, Bank Director crowned fintech winners in seven categories, including Best Solution for Customer Experience, Best Solution for Loan Growth and Best Solution for Revenue Growth.

Fintel Connect won the final category: Best Solution for Revenue Growth.

The Canada-based company amplifies a bank’s marketing campaigns by leveraging an affiliate network of publishers and social influencers, as we explain on our FinXTech Connect platform, which profiles hundreds of tried-and-true technology companies serving the banking industry.

A selling point is that, instead of paying for clicks or impressions, customers of Fintel Connect only pay once a lead converts into an actual customer.

Canada’s EQ Bank has been working with Fintel Connect for years, using it to manage media affiliates — bloggers, interest rate aggregators, etc. EQ attributes the service with boosting customer acquisition “fairly substantially,” with between 5% and 10% of EQ’s new customers now coming through it.

Nest Egg was a runner-up in the category of Best Solution for Revenue Growth. The Philadelphia-based company enables banks to offer high-quality, fully digital investment services in order to increase customer affinity.

OceanFirst Financial Corp., a $10.5 billion bank based in Red Bank, New Jersey, liked Nest Egg so much that it invested in the company.

OceanFirst has recommended Nest Egg’s semi-automated money management tool to retail clients for about a year, with assets under management growing from $0 to $43 million over that time. The service is already cash flow positive for OceanFirst.

The last finalist for this category was Flybits, a fintech company based in Toronto.

Mastercard has been working with Flybits for a year now. They’re still in the early stages of implementing its product, which helps provide contextualized offers to end users of their cards for the purpose of driving usage.

The trajectory has been a positive one for Mastercard, leaving the company optimistic that working with Flybits will help their clients — mainly banks — increase card usage and associated fee income.

One reason Mastercard chose to work with Flybits is because of the way it deals with data. All data is tokenized, with Flybits only selectively accessing the data it needs. There are any number of ways for banks to grow revenue. These are three of the best, according to experienced panel of judges convened to choose the winners at Bank Director’s 2020 Experience FinXTech.

How One Bank CEO is Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic

Like most of his peers throughout the banking industry, Dennis Shaffer, the CEO at Sandusky, Ohio-based Civista Bancshares, is confronting challenges unlike anything he has faced in his long career.

The Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the U.S. economy, leading to the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression and a likely recession of unknown depth and duration. That is forcing CEOs like Shaffer to make decisions about sustainability and workforce deployment that were unimaginable six months ago.

The $2.5 billion bank serves a three-state area that spans big chunks of Ohio as well as southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Civista’s profitability has already been impacted by the pandemic: Net income in the first quarter was down nearly 18%, to $7.8 million year over year.

But Shaffer says the bank’s mortgage loan originations are at record levels and several construction projects that it financed prior to the pandemic are still going forward. The bank processed 2,141 loans under the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, totaling $262 million. Shaffer estimates that over 300 of those loans were to new and very grateful customers that could lead to expanded business relationships in the future.

Civista has also reached out to borrowers that have been hard hit by the downturn and offered them 90-day loan modifications. In the first quarter, the bank modified 66 loans totaling $39.9 million, according to its first quarter earnings report. These were primarily deferral of principal and/or interest payments. Since March 31, it has received requests to modify an additional 727 loans totaling $410 million.

“The bank’s doing fine,” he says. “Our main emphasis has been keeping our customers and employees healthy and also continue to do business as normal as possible for our customers.”

The biggest challenge that Shaffer and other bank CEOs face today is economic uncertainty. If he knew how deep and long the recession will be, Shaffer could better estimate the impact that will have on Civista’s balance sheet.

This is my 35th year in banking and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “We’ve gone through recessions where a business goes from making $1 to maybe 70 cents. Well here, they’ve gone from $1 to some of these businesses making nothing.”

Shaffer faced up to that challenge by taking a hard look at the bank’s capital structure and factoring in nightmarish projections.

He started with evaluating whether Civista had enough capital to sustain losses that could be at “historical levels.” During the last recession, the bank sustained $54 million in losses over a four-year period. In his analysis, Shaffer decided to double that — and compress four years to two. He also assumed the bank would continue paying its dividend and wouldn’t lay off employees.

After they factored in all those assumptions, “we were still above 8% on a Tier 1 [capital] basis, so we feel pretty good about that,” he says. The mandated regulatory minimum is 6%, which would give the bank the capacity to absorb even more losses, although Shaffer hopes to avoid falling that low. That analysis gave Shaffer confidence that Civista could take a hard punch in the recession and still carry on. It also answered the question of whether the bank need to raise additional capital.

“We felt we didn’t need to,” he says. “We think we’re really strongly capitalized. I think our stress testing has proved that.”

Shaffer believes the loan modifications and Paycheck Protection loans have bought many of Civista’s customers valuable time, but he won’t know yet for a couple of months how many of those businesses will sustain themselves through the pandemic. “Sales [won’t be] 100%, but are they going to be 90% or are they going to be 50%?” he says.

Another challenge Shaffer has encountered is running the bank with a distributed workforce. Seventy percent of Civista’s employees are working from home, most of them since early March. (Shaffer comes to the office every day because he feels he needs to be visible to the employees working there.) While he had some apprehensions at first, he’s pleased with the bank’s productivity.

Still, Shaffer has to decide when to bring most of those people back into the office. Ohio has already begun to reopen its economy, but he intends to normalize the bank’s operations more gradually. Civista’s branch lobbies have been closed since March ­— just the drive-through lanes are readily accessible — and Shaffer plans to maintain the status quo through May and perhaps extend it through June.

He also doesn’t see an immediate need to repatriate the majority of Civista’s office employees. “We’ll phase that in and probably do that gradually,” Shaffer says. As other businesses with more pressing needs bring their people back, the bank can afford to wait.

“I just think it benefits the greater community because it eliminates more people coming back into the workforce,” he says. “We can do our part there.”

Why This Crisis Is Different

The USS Economy is steaming into dangerous waters and the country’s banks are trapped aboard with the rest of the passengers.

A public health policy of social distancing and lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 virus is creating a devastating impact on the U.S. economy, which in recent years has been driven by consumer spending and a historically low unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. labor market added 273,000 jobs in February, while private sector wages grew 3%. Moody’s Investors Service also says that the U.S. economy grew 2.3% last year, with personal consumption expenditures contributing 77% of that growth.

That is changing very quickly. Brace yourself for the virus economy.

Wall Street firms are forecasting that the U.S. economy will contract sharply in the second quarter — with Goldman Sachs Group expecting a 24% decline in gross domestic product for the quarter.

“The sudden stop in U.S. economic activity in response to the virus is unprecedented, and the early data points over the last week strengthened our confidence that a dramatic slowdown is indeed already underway,” Goldman’s chief economist Jan Hatzius wrote in a March 20 research note.

My memory stretches back to the thrift crisis in the late 1980s, and there are others that have occurred since then. They’ve all been different, but they generally had one thing in common: They could be traced back to particular asset classes — commercial real estate, subprime mortgages or technology companies that were grossly overfunded, resulting in dangerous asset bubbles. When the bubbles burst, banks paid the price.

What’s different this time around is the nature of the underlying crisis.

The root cause of this crisis isn’t an asset bubble, but a public health emergency that is wreaking havoc on the entire U.S. economy. Enforced governmental policies like social distancing and sheltering in place have been especially hard on small businesses that employ 47.5% of the nation’s private workforce, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. It puts a lot of people out of work when those restaurants, bars, hardware stores and barber shops are forced to close. Economists expect the U.S. unemployment rate to soar well into double digits from its current rate of just 3.5%.   

Bank profitability will be under pressure for the remainder of the year. It began two weeks ago when the Federal Reserve Board began cutting interest rates practically to zero, which will put net interest margins in a vice grip. One bank CEO I spoke to recently told me that every 25-basis-point drop in interest rates clips 4 basis points off his bank’s margin — so the Fed’s 150 basis point rate cut reduced his margin by 20 basis points. Worse yet, he expects the low-rate environment to persist for the foreseeable future.

Making matters worse, banks can expect that loan losses will rise over time — perhaps precipitously, if we have a long and deep recession. Many banks are prepared to work with their cash-strapped borrowers on loan modifications to get them through the crisis; federal bank regulators have said lenders will not be forced to automatically categorize all COVID-19 related loan modifications as troubled debt restructurings, or TDRs.

Unfortunately, a prolonged recession is likely to outpace most banks’ abilities to temporarily forego principal and interest payments on their troubled loans. A sharp rise in loan losses will reduce bank profitability even more.

There is another way in which this crisis is different from previous crises that I have witnessed. The industry is much stronger this time around, with roughly twice the capital it had just 12 years ago at the onset of the subprime mortgage crisis.

Think of that as first responder capital.

During the subprime mortgage crisis, the federal government injected over $400 billion into the banking industry through the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The government eventually made a profit on its investment, but the program was unpopular with the public and many members of Congress. The full extent of this banking crisis remains to be seen, but hopefully this time the industry can finance its own recovery.