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.

The Keystone Trait of Prudent and Profitable Banking

The more you study banking, the more you realize that succeeding in the industry boils down to a handful of factors, the most important of which is efficiency.

This seems obvious, but it’s worth exploring exactly why efficiency is so critical.

A bank, at its core, is a highly leveraged fund, with the typical bank borrowing $10 for every $1 worth of capital. This makes banks profitable. However, it also means that banks, by design, are incredibly fragile institutions, using three times as much debt as the typical company.

Warren Buffett wrote about this in his 1990 letter to shareholders:

The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity — a common ratio in this industry — mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks.

The primary source of mistakes in banking, Buffett noted, is what he refers to as the institutional imperative, “the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.”

Buffett was writing about a commercial real estate crisis in the early 1990s that was laying waste to the banking industry. As competition for commercial loans heated up, banks cut rates and eased terms in order to win business. When real estate prices crashed, banks paid the price for doing so.

It was during that time, for instance, that Security Pacific Corp., one of the great California banking dynasties, sold itself to BankAmerica Corp. to stave off insolvency.

These pressures — the fear of missing out, if you will — have not gone away. They factored into the financial crisis, causing lenders to move down the credit ladder in order to make subprime loans. And the word on the street is that these same pressures are causing some banks to cut rates and ease lending terms today.

The key is to insulate yourself from these pressures.

Part of this is psychological — understanding how emotions, particularly fear and greed, play into decision making. And part of it is practical — operating so efficiently that it eliminates the temptation to boost profitability by easing credit standards.

The direct role of efficiency in a bank’s operations is obvious: The less revenue a bank spends on expenses, the more that’s left over to fall to the bottom line.

But the indirect role of efficiency is even more important: A bank that operates efficiently can relinquish some of its margin to attract the highest-quality credits. It also eliminates the need to stretch on credit quality in order to earn one’s cost of capital — a return on equity of between 10% and 12%.

“Being a low-cost provider gives one a tremendous strategic advantage,” Jerry Grundhofer, the former chairman and CEO of U.S. Bancorp, once told Bank Director’s Jack Milligan. “It allows you to deal with challenges, be competitive on the asset and liability sides of the balance sheet and take care of customers.”

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the most efficient banks when it comes to operations also tend to be the most prudent when it comes to risk management.

But not all efficiency is created equal. In banking, efficiency is expressed as a ratio of expenses to revenue. The key is to have the right mix of the two.

The temptation is to drive efficiency through cost control. The problem with doing so, however, is that a bank can only lower its costs so far before it begins to cannibalize its business.

The same isn’t true of revenue, which tends to be twice as large as expenses. Consequently, the most efficient banks through time generally are those with the highest revenue to assets, not the highest expenses to assets.

The archetype for a high-performing bank isn’t just one that operates efficiently, but one that drives its efficiency through revenue, the denominator in the efficiency ratio.

How Consolidation Changed Banking in Five Charts

Over the past 35 years, few secular trends have reshaped the U.S. banking industry more than consolidation. From over 18,000 banks in the mid-1980s, 5,300 remain today.

Consolidation has created some very large U.S. banks, including four that top $1 trillion in assets. The country’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., has $2.7 trillion in assets.

Historically, very large banks have been less profitable on performance metrics like return on average assets (ROAA) and return on average tangible common equity (ROTCE) than smaller banks. The standard theory is that banks benefit from economies of scale as they grow until they reach a certain size, at which point diseconomies of scale begin to drag down their performance.

This might be changing, according to interesting data offered Keefe, Bruyette & Woods CEO Thomas Michaud in the opening presentation at Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference. The rising profitability of large publicly traded banks and one of the underlying factors can be seen in five charts from Michaud’s presentation.

Profitability is High

Profitability
Banking has been highly profitable since the early 1990s — except, of course, for that big dip starting in 2006 when earnings nosedived during the financial crisis. The industry’s profitability reached a post-crisis high in the third quarter of 2018 when its ROAA hit 1.41%. Keep in mind, however, this chart looks at the entire industry and averages all 5,300 banks.

Banking 2016

Sweet Spot of Profitability
Banking is also highly differentiated by asset size: many very small institutions at the bottom of the stack,  four behemoths at the top. Michaud’s “sweet spot” in banking refers to a specific asset category that allows banks to maximize their profitability relative to other size categories. They have enough scale to be efficient but are still manageable enterprises. In 2016, this sweet spot was in the $5 billion to $10 billion asset category, where the banks’ pre-tax, pre-provision income was 2.32% of risk weighted assets.

Banking 2019

Sweet Spot Shifts
It’s a different story three years later. In 2019, the category of banks with $50 billion in assets and above captured the profitability sweet spot, with pre-tax, pre-provision income of 2.43% of risk weighted assets. What’s especially interesting about this shift is that, by my count, there are just 31 U.S. domiciled banks in this size category. (I excluded the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign banks, but included The Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley.) Of course, these 31 banks control an overwhelming percentage of the industry’s assets and deposits, so they wield disproportionate power to their actual numbers. But what I find most interesting is that as a group, the biggest banks are now the most profitable.

Big Banks

Big Bank Profitability
Even the behemoths have stepped up their game. You can see from the chart that KBW expects five of the six big banks — Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan, Wells Fargo & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — to post ROTCEs of 12% or better for 2019. And some, like JPMorgan and Bank of America, are expected to perform significantly better. KBW expects this trend to continue through 2021, for the most part. What’s behind this improved performance? Buying back stock is one explanation. For example, between 2017 and 2021, KBW expects Bank of America to have repurchased 27.6% of its outstanding stock at 2017 levels. But there is more to the story than that.

bank share

Taking Market Share
The 20 largest U.S. banks have aggressively grown their national deposit market share – a trend that seems to be accelerating. Beginning during the financial crisis in 2008, the top 20 began gaining market share at a faster rate than the rest of the industry. The differential continues to widen through at least the third quarter of last year. But the financial crisis ended over a decade ago, so a flight to safety can no longer explain this trend. Something else is clearly going on.

Consumers across the board are increasingly doing their banking through digital channels. Digital banking requires a significant investment in technology, and this is where the biggest banks have a clear advantage. Digital has essentially aggregated local deposit markets into a single national deposit market, and the largest banks’ ability to tap this market through technology gives them a significant competitive advantage that is beginning to drive their profitability.

Having too much scale was once a disadvantage in terms of performance — that may no longer be the case. Banking increasingly is becoming a technology-driven business and the ability to fund ambitious innovation programs is quickly becoming table stakes.

The Powerful Force Driving Bank Consolidation


margins-8-16-19.pngA decades-old trend that has helped drive consolidation in the banking industry can be summarized in a single chart.

In 1995, the industry’s net interest margin, or NIM, was 4.25%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (NIM reflects the difference between a bank’s cost of funds and what it earns on its assets, primarily loans.) Twenty years later, the margin dropped to a historic low of 2.98%, before gradually recovering to 3.30% last year.

NIM-chart.png

The vast majority of banks in this county are spread lenders, making most of their money off the difference between what they pay for deposits and what they charge for loans. When this spread narrows, as it has since the mid-1990s, it pinches their profitability.

The decision by the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate by 25 basis points in August will likely exacerbate this by reducing the rates that banks can charge on loans.

“For most banks, net interest income [accounts for] the majority of their revenue,” says Allen Tischler, senior vice president at Moody’s Investor Service. “A reduction in [it] obviously undermines their ability to generate incremental earnings.”

There have been two recessions since the mid-1990s: a brief one in 2001 and the Great Recession in 2007 to 2009. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates in both instances. (Over time, lower rates depress margins, although banks may initially benefit if their deposit costs drop faster that their loan pricing.)

Inflation has also remained low since the mid-1990s — particularly since 2012, when it never rose above 2.4%. This is why the Fed has been able to keep rates so low.

Other factors contributing to the sustained decline in NIMs include intermittent periods of intense competition and rate cutting between banks, as well as the emergence of fintech lenders. Changes over time in a bank’s the mix of loans and securities, and among different loan categories, can impact NIMs, too.

The Dodd-Frank Act has exacerbated the downward trend in NIMs by requiring large banks to carry a higher share of low-yielding liquid assets on their balance sheets, which depresses their margins. This is why large banks have contributed disproportionally to the industry’s declining average margin – though, these institutions can more easily offset the compression because upwards of half their net revenue comes from fees.

Community banks haven’t experienced as much compression because they allocate a larger portion of their balance sheets to loans and do most of their lending in less-competitive markets. But smaller institutions are also less equipped to combat the compression, since fees make up only 11% of the net operating revenue at banks with less than $1 billion in assets, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

The industry’s profitability has nevertheless held up, in part, because of improvements to operating efficiency, particularly at large banks. The corporate tax cut that went into effect in 2018 plays into this as well.

“If you recall how banking was done in 1995 versus today … there’s just [greater] efficiency across the board, when you think about what computer technology in particular has done in all service industries, not just banking,” says Norm Williams, deputy comptroller for economic and policy analysis at the OCC.

The Fed’s latest rate cut, combined with concerns about additional cuts if the escalating trade war with China weakens the U.S. economy, raises the specter that the industry’s margin could nosedive yet again.

Tischler at Moody’s believes that sustained margin pressure has been a factor in the industry’s consolidation since the mid-1990s. “That downward trend does undermine its profitability, and is part of the reason why the industry has consolidated as much as it has,” he says.

If the industry’s margin takes another plunge, it could drive further consolidation. “The industry has been consolidating for decades … and there’s no reason why that won’t continue,” says Tischler. “This just adds to the pressure.”

There were 11,971 U.S. banks and thrifts in 1995. Today there are 5,362. Given the direction of NIMs, it seems like we may still have too many.

A Common Trait Shared by Elite Bankers


investment-8-2-19.pngIf you talk to enough executives at top-performing banks, one thing you may notice is that not all of them see themselves as bankers. Many of them identify instead as investors who run banks.

It’s a subtle nuance. But it’s an important one that may help explain the extraordinary success of their institutions.

This came up in a conversation I had last week with the president and chief operating officer of a $2.6 billion asset bank based in New England. (I’d share the bank’s name, but they prefer to keep a low profile.)

His bank is among the most profitable in the country and is a regular fixture atop industry rankings, including our latest Bank Performance Scorecard.

Its profitability and earnings growth are consistently at the top of its peer group each year. More importantly, its total shareholder return (dividends plus share price appreciation) ranks in the top 3% of all publicly traded banks since the current leadership team gained control in 1993.

The distinction between investors and bankers seems to lay in how they prioritize operations and capital allocation.

For many bankers, capital allocation plays a supporting role to operations. It’s a pressure release valve that purges a bank’s balance sheet of the excess capital generated by operations. As capital builds up on the balance sheet, it impairs return on equity, which can foster the illusion that a bank isn’t earning its cost of capital.

To investors, the relationship between operating a bank and allocating its capital is inverted: The operations are the source of capital, while the efficient allocation of that capital is the ultimate objective.

Bankers who identify as investors also tend to be agnostic about banking. If a different industry offered better returns on their capital, they’d go elsewhere. They’ve gravitated to banking only because it’s a peculiarly profitable endeavor. In no other industry are businesses leveraged by a factor of 10 to 1 and financed with government-insured funds.

There are plenty of other bankers that fall into this categorization. The recently retired chairman of Citigroup, Michael O’Neill, is one of them. He said this when I interviewed him recently for a profile to be published in the upcoming issue of Bank Director magazine.

O’Neill’s time as chairman and CEO of Bank of Hawaii bears this out. A major objective of his, after refocusing its geographic footprint, was reducing the bank’s outstanding share count.

Bank of Hawaii had 80 million shares outstanding when O’Neill became CEO in 2000. When he left 4 years later, that had declined by 38% to only 55 million outstanding shares. This helped the bank’s stock price more than triple over the same stretch.

Another example is the Turner family, which has run Great Southern Bancorp for almost half a century. Since going public in 1991, Great Southern has repurchased nearly 40% of its original outstanding share count. A $2 million investment during the initial public offering would have been worth $140 million last year.

The Turners never said this when I talked with them last year, but it seems safe to infer that they view banking in a similar way. They’re not trying to build a banking empire for the sake of running a big bank. Instead, they’re focused on creating superior long-term value.

This philosophical approach coupled with meaningful skin in the game insulates a bank’s executives from external pressures to chase short-term growth and profitability at the expense of long-term solvency and performance.

“Having a big investment in the company … gives you credibility with institutional investors,” Great Southern CEO Joe Turner told me last year. “When we tell them we’re thinking long term, they believe us. We never meet with an investor that our family doesn’t own at least twice as much stock in the bank as they do.”

M&T Bank Corp. offers yet another textbook example of this. Of the largest 100 banks operating in 1983, when its current leadership team took over, only 23 remain today. Among those, M&T ranks first when it comes to stock price growth

I once asked its chairman and CEO René Jones what has enabled the bank to create so much value. One of the main reasons, he told me, was that they could gather 60% of the voting interests in the bank around the coffee table in his predecessor’s office.

And the bank in New England that I mentioned at the top of this article is the same way. The family that runs it, along with its directors, collectively hold 40% of the bank’s stock.

The moral of the story is that it’s tempting to think that capital allocation should play second fiddle to a bank’s operations. But many of the country’s best bankers see things the other way around.

Getting a Return on Relationship Profitability


profitability-7-8-19.pngHow profitable are your bank’s commercial relationships?

That may seem like a strange question, given that banks are in the relationship business. But relationship profitability is a complex issue that many banks struggle to master. A bank’s ability to accurately measure the profitability of its relationships may determine whether it’s a market leader or a stagnant institution just trying to survive. In my experience, the market leaders use the right profitability metrics, measure it at the right time and distribute that information to the right people.

Should Your Bank Use ROE or ROA? Yes.
Many banks use return on assets, or ROA, to measure their portfolio’s overall profitability. It’s a great way to compare a bank’s performance relative to others, but it can disguise credit issues hidden within the portfolio. To address that concern, the best-performing banks combine an ROA review with a more precise discussion on return on equity, or ROE. While ROA gives executives a view from above, ROE helps banks understand the value, and risk, associated with each deal.

ROA and ROE both begin with the same numerator: net income. But the denominator for ROA is the average balance; ROE considers the equity, or capital that is employed by the loan.

If your bank applies an average equity position to every booked loan, then this approach may not be for you. But banks that strive to apply a true risk-based approach that allocates more capital for riskier deals and less capital for stronger credits should consider how they could use this approach to help them calculate relationship profitability.

Take a $500,000 interest-only loan that will generate $5,000 of net income. The ROA on this deal will be 1 percent [$5,000 of net income divided by the $500,000 average balance]. The interest-only repayment helps simplify the outstanding balance discussion and replicates the same principles in amortizing deals.

You can assume there is a personal guarantee that can be added. It’s not enough to change the risk rating of the deal, but that additional coverage is always desirable. The addition of the guarantee does not reduce the outstanding balance, so the ROA calculation remains unchanged. The math says there is no value that comes from adding the additional protection.

That changes when a bank uses ROE.

Let’s say a bank initially allocated $50,000 of capital to support this deal, generating a 10 percent ROE [$5,000 of net income divided by the $50,000 capital].

The new guarantee changes the potential loss given default. A $1,000 reduction in the capital required to support this deal, because of the guarantee, increases ROE 20 basis points, to 10.20 percent [$5,000 of net income divided by the $49,000 of capital]. The additional guarantee reduced risk and improved returns on equity.

The ROA calculation is unchanged by a reduction in risk; ROE paints a more accurate picture of the deal’s profitability.

The Case for Strategic Value
Assume your bank won that deal and three years have now passed. When calculating that relationship’s profitability, knowing what you’ve earned to-date has a purpose; however, your competitors care only about what that deal looks like today and if they can win away that customer and all those future payments.

That’s why the best-performing banks consider what’s in front of them to lose, not what has been earned up to this point. This is called the relationship’s “strategic value.” It’s the value your competition understands.

When assessing a relationship’s strategic value, banks may identify vulnerable deals that they preemptively reprice on terms that are more favorable to the customer. That sounds heretical, but if your bank’s not making that offer, rest assured your competitors will.

The Right Information, to the Right People, at the Right Time
Once your bank has decided how it will measure profitability, you then need to consider who should get that information—and when. Banks often have good discussions about pricing tactics during exception request reviews, but by then the terms of the deal are usually set. It can be difficult to go back to ask for more.

The best-positioned banks use technology systems that can provide easily digestible profitability data to their relationship managers in a timely fashion. Relationship managers receive these insights as they negotiate the terms of the deal, not after they’ve asked for an exception.

Arming relationship managers with a clear understanding of both the loan and relationship profitability allows them to better price, and win, a deal that provides genuine value for the bank.

Then you can start answering other questions, like “What’s the secret to your bank’s success?”

The Secret to a Low Efficiency Ratio


efficiency-5-31-19.pngOne of the most important metrics in banking is the efficiency ratio, which is generally viewed as a measurement of how carefully a bank spends money. Following this definition to its logical conclusion, the more parsimonious the bank, the lower its efficiency ratio should be.

But this common understanding fails to capture the true nature of what the efficiency ratio actually measures. It is in reality a fraction that expresses the interrelationship between the two most dynamic forces within any business organization: the growth of revenue and expenses.

Looked at this way, the efficiency ratio is actually a measurement of effective spending—how much revenue does every dollar of spending produce. And embedded within the efficiency ratio is a simple but extraordinarily important concept that is the key to high profitability—positive operating leverage.

But first, let’s look at how the efficiency ratio works. It’s an easy calculation. The numerator, which is the top half of the fraction, is expenses. And the denominator, which sits below it, is revenue. A bank that reports $50 of expenses and $100 of revenue in a quarter has an efficiency ratio of 50 percent, which is the benchmark for most banks (although most fall short).

However, not all 50 percent efficiency ratios are created equal.

Consider two examples. Bank Cheapskate reports $40 of expenses and $100 of revenue in its most recent quarter, for an efficiency ratio of 40 percent. Coming in 10 percentage points under the benchmark rate of 50 percent, Bank Cheapskate performs admirably.

Bank Topline reports $50 in expenses and $125 in revenue in its most recent quarter. This performance also results in an efficiency ratio of 40 percent, equivalent to Bank Cheapskate’s ratio. Again, an impressive performance.

While the two ratios are the same, it is unlikely that most institutional investors will value them equally. The important distinction is how they got there.

The argument in favor of Bank Cheapskate’s approach is simple and compelling. Being a low-cost producer is a tremendous competitive advantage in an industry like banking, which has seen a long-term decline in its net interest margin. It allows to a bank to keep deposits costs low in a tight funding market, or back away from an underpriced and poorly structured credit in a competitive loan market. It gives the bank’s management team optionality.

The case for Bank Topline’s approach is probably more appealing. Investors appreciate the efficiency of a low-cost producer, but I think they would place greater value on the business development skills of a growth bank. In my experience, most investors prefer a growth story over an expense story. Bank Topline spends more money than Bank Cheapskate, but it delivers more of what investors value most—revenue growth.

To be clear, the choice between revenue and expenses isn’t binary—this is where positive operating leverage comes in.

Positive operating leverage occurs when revenue growth exceeds expense growth. Costs increase, but revenue increases at a faster rate. This is the secret to profitability in banking, and the best management teams practice it.

A real-life example is Phoenix-based Western Alliance Bancorp. The bank’s operating efficiency ratio in 2018 was an exemplary 41.9 percent. The management team there places great importance on efficiency, although the bank’s expenses did rise last year. But this increase was more than offset by strong revenue growth, which exceeded expense growth by approximately 250 percent. This is a good example of positive operating leverage and it’s the real story behind the bank’s low efficiency ratio.

The greater the operating leverage, the lower the efficiency ratio because the ratio is relational. It is not solely a cost-driven metric. At Western Alliance and other banks that focus on creating positive operating leverage, it’s not just how much you spend—it’s how many dollars of revenue each dollar of expense creates.

To understand the real significance of a bank’s efficiency ratio, you have to look at the story behind the numbers.

Are These the Best of Times for Bank Directors?


strategy-5-13-19.pngFor someone who has covered the banking industry as long as I have (hint: I wrote my first banking story in 1986), these are among the best days to be a banker—or director of a bank—that I can remember. Profitability is high, as is capitalization, and the industry is gliding on the updraft of a strong economy and lower taxes.

The current health of the industry was apparent from what we did not talk about at Bank Director’s Bank Board Training Forum, which took place on May 9-10 in Nashville. There were no sessions about deteriorating loan quality, or the best way to structure a loan workout program, or the need to raise capital. Indeed, our managing editor, Kiah Lau Haslett, wrote a story that published Friday on this website warning against the perils of complacency.

When your biggest challenge is guarding against complacency, you’ve definitely found yourself in tall cotton.

It’s worth drilling down a little bit into the industry’s strong fundamentals. In addition to the continuation of a strong U.S. economy, which will be a record expansion if it continues much longer, banks have also benefited—more than any other industry—from last year’s steep cut in corporate tax rates, as well as a modest rollback of regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act.

Joseph Fenech, managing principal and head of research at the investment banking firm Hovde Group, explained during a presentation that thanks to the tax cut, both return on average assets and return on average tangible common equity jumped to levels last seen prior to the Great Recession. And not only has deregulation had a measurably positive impact on the industry’s profitability, according to Fenech, it has also brought new investors into the sector.

“It’s really driving change in how investors think about banks,” he says.

The only bad news Fenech offered was his assessment that bank M&A pricing has peaked. From 2008 to 2016, stocks of the most active acquirers traded at a premium to book value while many distressed targets traded at a discount, which translated to favorable “deal math” for buyers, according to Fenech. Deal pricing began to edge up from 2016 to 2018 as more acquirers came into the market. Many transactions had to be priced at a premium to book value, which began to make the deal math less favorable for the buyer.

Generally, the higher the deal premium, the longer it takes for it to be accretive. Since the beginning of this year, says Fenech, many investors have become wary of deals with high premiums unless they are clearly accretive to earnings in a reasonable period of time. Undisciplined acquirers that overpay for deals will see their stocks shunned by many investors.

This new dynamic in bank M&A also impacts sellers, who now may receive a lower premium for their franchise.

“I think the peak pricing in bank M&A was last year,” says Fenech.

An important theme during the entire conference was the increased attention that board diversity is getting throughout the industry. Bank Director President Mika Moser moderated a general session panel discussion on board diversity, but the topic popped up in various breakout sessions as well. This is not always a comfortable discussion for bank boards since—let’s face it—most bank boards are comprised overwhelming of older white males.

For many proponents, the push for greater board diversity is not simply to accomplish a progressive social policy. Diverse groups usually offer a diversity of thought—and that makes good business sense. Academic research shows that diverse groups or teams make better business decisions than more homogenious groups, where the members are more inclined to affirm each other’s biases and perspectives than challenge them. Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of Blackrock—the world’s largest asset manager—believes that diverse boards are less likely to succumb to groupthink or miss emerging threats to a company’s business model, and are better able to identify opportunities that promote long-term growth.

The banking industry still has a lot of work to do in terms of embracing diversity in the boardroom and among the senior management team, but I get the sense that directors are more sensitive—and more open to making substantive changes—than just a few years ago.

The Bank Board Training Forum is, at its core, a corporate governance conference. While we cover a variety of issues, it’s always through the perspective of the outside director. James McAlpin, Jr., a partner and leader of the financial services client services group at the law firm Bryan Cave, gave an insightful presentation on corporate governance. But sometimes the simplest truth can be the most galvanizing.

“The responsibilities of directors can be boiled down to one simple goal—the creation of sustainable long-term value for shareholders,” he says. There are many decisions that bank boards must make over the course of a year, but all of them must be made through that prism.

Drafting a Data Strategy


data-4-29-19.pngBanks need to be aware of trends in data analytics that are driving decision-making and customer experience so they can draft an effective data plan. Doing so will allow them to compete with the biggest banks and non-bank technology competitors that are already using internal customer data to predict behavior and prescribe actions to grow those relationships. These approaches leverage concepts like machine learning and artificial intelligence — buzzwords that may seem intimidating but are processes and approaches that can leverage existing information to grow and deepen customer relationship and profitability.


analytics-4-29-19-tb.png10 Data and Analytics Trends Banks Should Consider
Current trends in analytics include focusing on the customer’s experience, using artificial intelligence and machine learning in analysis, and storing and organizing information in ways that reduce risk. Banks also need to know about threats like cybersecurity, long-term developments like leveraging blockchain, and how to build a governance program around the process. Knowing the trends can help companies make educated choices when implementing a data strategy.

datat-trends-4-29-19-tb.pngHow Banks Can Make Use of Data-Driven Customer Insight
Banks can use machine learning and artificial intelligence to gain insights into customer behavior and inform their decisions. These data-driven approaches can efficiently analyze the likeliness of future events, as well as suggest actions that would increase or decrease that likeliness. Many institutions recognize the need for new technical capabilities to improve their customer insight, but a significant percentage struggle to embrace or prioritize the technology among other priorities at their bank. These institutions have an opportunity to establish a data strategy, map out their internal information and establish appropriate governance that surrounds the process.

Retail Checking Realities



Forty percent of retail checking relationships are unprofitable, so crafting retail checking accounts that deepen customer relationships, drive deposit growth and enhance the bottom line is a challenge faced by most financial institutions. How can bank leaders tackle this issue? In this video, StrategyCorps’ Mike Branton shares two common mistakes banks make regarding their retail checking products. He also shares his thoughts on enhancing the appeal of checking products and explains technology’s role as a deposit driver.

  • Driving Deposit Growth
  • Why Big Banks are Winning Customers
  • Making Checking More Profitable