The Big Banks Are Back


banks-1-28-19.pngIs it now a big bank world that the rest of the industry is just living in?

One could justifiably come to that conclusion based on comments by Tom Michaud, president and chief executive officer at the investment bank Keefe Bruyette & Woods during a presentation on the opening day of Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired conference Sunday in Phoenix.

Approximately 1,300 people are attending the 25th anniversary of Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired event at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge resort, which will run through Tuesday.

It’s no secret the four largest U.S. banks—JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup—hold dominant positions in the country’s banking market. These four megabanks control approximately 45 percent of the U.S. deposits. But historically, large institutions have been less profitable than much smaller ones in part because their size and complexity have made them more difficult to manage.

That is now changing, according to Michaud.

Bank of America, for example, posted a return on tangible common equity (ROTCE) in 2017 of 10.8 percent. The bank’s ROTCE rose to 15.4 percent in 2018 and is projected to hit 15.9 and 16.5 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Similar ROTCE increases are forecasted for JPMorgan, Wells and Citi through 2020.

The reason these banks are now operating at a much higher level of profitability is in part because their management teams have figured out how to turn their enormous size into an advantage. Although analysts, consultants and the banks themselves have often touted the advantage of size, it has had an averaging effect on their financial performance as they have grown increasingly larger in recent years.

“It seems now that the scale argument has a lot more traction,” said Michaud.

Just three years ago, the most profitable U.S. banks based on their performance metrics were in the $5 billion to $10 billion asset category—just large enough to gain some benefits from scale but still small enough to escape the averaging effect. This so-called “sweet spot” shifted in 2017 to banks with assets greater than $40 billion, and Michaud expects these large institutions to again claim the sweet spot in 2018 by an even wider margin once the industry’s profitability data are finalized.

One important place large banks have been able to use scale to their advantage is in technology. The U.S. economy is in the midst of a digital revolution, and the banking industry is being forced to embrace digital distribution of consumer products like checking accounts and mortgages. “Consumers really like the digital delivery of retail banking services,” Michaud said.

And it’s the national and super-regional banks that are capturing the greatest share of “switchers”—consumers who are leaving their current bank for another institution that offers a better digital experience. Michaud cited data from the consulting firm AT Kearney showing that national banks are capturing about 41 percent of the digital switchers, with super-regionals taking 28 percent. Even direct banks at 11 percent have been gaining a larger share of switchers than regional banks, local banks and credit unions.

The advantage of scale becomes most apparent when you look at the amount of money large banks are able to invest to upgrade their digital capabilities. Each of the big four banks are expected to invest a minimum of $3 billion a year over the next few years in technology—and some of them will invest significantly more. For instance, JPMorgan’s annual technology spend is expected to average around $10.8 billion.

While not all of that will be invested in digital distribution, the country’s largest bank is investing heavily to build a digital banking capability capable of penetrating any consumer market anywhere in the country.

Building Trust With Customers Starts Inside The Bank


customer-11-27-18.pngRecovery of trust from customers after the financial crisis is beginning to stall due to a number of recent risk- and fraud-related incidents. Following news of a leading bank’s employees’ fraudulent account activity, customer advocacy scores in a recent Forrester survey dropped six points from 2016 to 2017—a trend Forrester correlates to decreased customer loyalty. As banks seek to restore the trust with customers and loyalty, they may be overlooking the role employees play in building trust and keeping risks at bay.

Employees play a key role in the customer experience (CX) as the group that directly interacts with customers about credit card disputes, investments, and financial advice. While a dissatisfied employee can be a weak link, one that is engaged, trusting, and trusted can set the stage for higher business performance.

The potential payoff in building an employee experience that increases trust is monumental. In fact, 20 years of research by the Great Place to Work Institute, which produces the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” found that trust between managers and their reports is the primary defining characteristic of the best workplaces. This trust drives bottom-line performance, with the advocacy group Trust Across America reporting the most trustworthy companies consistently outperform the S&P 500.

Banking leaders may be challenged in building employee trust in part due to the risk management practices that pervade the industry. Practices put in place to limit risk often hamper employees’ creativity, ingenuity and effectiveness. By finding a balance between risk management and a culture of trust internally—in which employees are empowered to act in the best interest of the organization and customer—firms can build trust externally with customers.

The benefits to the bottom-line are also substantial. For example, work teams performing in the top quartile for employee engagement outperform those in the bottom quartile by 10 percent in customer satisfaction and 22 percent in profitability.

To solve this challenge, bank leaders should encourage those with accountability for customer interactions to look inward at how interactions, processes, and tools create a culture of trust where employees are trusted and empowered to act on behalf of customers, collaborate, decrease fraud and—ultimately—mitigate risk throughout the organization. Ask yourself these questions:

Are employees limited in how they can serve customers? Though these limitations are often viewed as a way to mitigate risk, in reality, they increase the chance customers will lose trust in your bank. Ensure your staff are experts on the lifecycle of the products they work with, and use their expertise to meet customers’ needs. Also, consider revisiting your organization’s risk assessment to identify opportunities to service customers where it doesn’t weaken your organization on the regulatory front. This empowers your bank to strike a balance between customer and risk management needs.

What silos exist in your company? Consider how your products and services are organized and how they may prevent employees from having and creating positive customer interactions. Multiple groups may be working on customer-facing solutions simultaneously or solving customer challenges inefficiently due to a lack of internal visibility. Eliminating the functional mazes they must navigate to do their work supports meeting customer needs, which, in turn, builds trust.

Are you making it easier for employees to work for your bank? The employee experience must be designed and developed holistically to empower success, supported by training that equips them to navigate challenging or unforeseen situations. Take a comprehensive view of employee technology, tools and processes. For example, transactional training may not be enough to help staff understand their role and the bank’s culture – and how they come together to impact the customer experience. Put simply, banks should invest in their employees, focusing on long-term learning experiences.

Are you building in risk abatement throughout your organization? Risk management shouldn’t only happen at the last possible opportunity – at the point of customer interaction. Rather, it should be built into every step. Give staff the autonomy to solve problems to create a culture in which employees trust leadership and each other. They will be more likely to repay you by preventing risk incidents, as they feel empowered to do the right thing by the customer and the organization.

Your bank can produce more powerful customer experiences, and ultimately mitigate risk, by removing the unnecessary steps employees must take to successfully complete their work. Creating a culture of trust with employees who are empowered to meet customer needs can help banks, in turn, reestablish trust with their customers.

This article is the second in a series on building trust in financial services from North Highland consulting. Read the first article on building customer trust through experience design and the role that digital design plays in strengthening your business model.

Three Lessons for Bankers From Warren Buffett


strategy-11-16-18.pngIt’s reasonable to argue that the greatest banker in the United States today isn’t a banker at all—he’s an insurance guy.

You might have heard of him.

Warren Buffett.

As the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, an insurance-focused conglomerate based in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffett oversees one of the largest portfolios of bank investments in the country.

Berkshire owns major stakes in a Who’s Who list of historically high-performing banks:

  • 9.9 percent of Wells Fargo & Co. 
  • 6.8 percent of Bank of America Corp.
  • 6.3 percent of U.S. Bancorp
  • 5.3 percent of The Bank of New York Mellon Corporation
  • 3.7 percent of M&T Bank Corp.

That Buffett made such substantial investments in banks isn’t a coincidence.

If there are two things he appreciates at a visceral level, owing to his experience in insurance, it’s leverage and cycles—the same two qualities that make banking so unique.

This is why it’s worth listening to Buffett when he opines on banking, as he often does in his annual letters and media interviews.

This is from his 1991 shareholder letter:

“When assets are 20 times equity—a common ratio in [the bank] 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. Most have resulted from a managerial failing that we described last year when discussing 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 is referring to the havoc wreaked on banks during a pronounced downturn in commercial real estate in the early 1990s, when Berkshire bought 10 percent of Wells Fargo.

His point is that it’s critical for bankers to maintain discipline, especially when all of those around you are not.

Another thing Buffett talks about a lot is competitive advantage.

Here he is in a 2009 interview with Fortune:

“If you’re the low-cost producer in any business—and money is your raw material in banking—you’ve got a hell of an edge. If you have a half-point edge . . . half a point on $1 trillion is $5 billion a year.”

And here‘s a selection from his 1987 shareholder letter flushing out the idea more fully, though in the context of the insurance industry, which faces nearly identical competitive dynamics to banking:

“The insurance industry is cursed with a set of dismal economic characteristics that make for a poor long-term outlook: hundreds of competitors, ease of entry, and a product that cannot be differentiated in any meaningful way. In such a commodity-like business, only a very low-cost operator or someone operating in a protected, and usually small, niche can sustain high profitability levels.”

One nuance about efficiency in banking is it doesn’t just boost profitability directly by freeing up more revenue to fall to the bottom line; equally important is its indirect effect.

This is a point U.S. Bancorp’s chairman and CEO Andy Cecere made in a recent, albeit unrelated, interview about the bank with Bank Director.

Efficient banks needn’t stretch on credit quality to generate satisfactory returns, which reduces loan losses at the bottom of the credit cycle, Cecere says. And as a corollary, efficient banks can compete more aggressively for the most creditworthy customers, further limiting credit losses in tough times.

It isn’t a coincidence, in turn, that U.S. Bancorp has consistently been one of the industry’s most efficient banks and disciplined underwriters since its transformative merger nearly two decades ago.

And while neither Buffett nor his philosophy came up during the interview with Cecere, Berkshire Hathaway is one of U.S. Bancorp’s biggest shareholders.

A final lesson about banking that can be gleaned from Buffett involves his approach to mergers and acquisitions.

Buffett has said repeatedly in the past that he’d rather pay a fair price for a wonderful company than a wonderful price for a fair company. Also, all things being equal, Buffett has always preferred for existing management to stay and continue on their path of success.

“Because leverage of 20:1 magnifies the effects of managerial strengths and weaknesses, we have no interest in purchasing shares of a poorly-managed bank at a ‘cheap’ price. Instead, our only interest is in buying into well-managed banks at fair prices.”

It’s a style reminiscent of the uncommon partnership approach to mergers and acquisitions used by John B. McCoy, who dined annually with Buffett, to transform the former Bank One from the third largest bank in Columbus, Ohio, into the sixth largest bank in the country, before later merging into JPMorgan Chase & Co.

In short, although it’s true that most people don’t think of Buffett as a banker, that doesn’t mean bankers can’t learn a lot from his observations on the industry.

Compensation Plans Should Be As Strategic As They Are Attractive


strategy-10-30-18.pngHuman capital is likely the most expensive resource a bank has, and we all know our people are important in a customer-facing business, so why not be strategic with it? Almost every business has a written strategic plan that states profitability goals, growth goals, three-year plans, etc. However, when it comes to compensation, fewer than four in 10 banks (38 percent of the 103 banks surveyed in our 2016 Compensation Trends Survey) have a formal, written compensation philosophy.

The Compensation Philosophy
Most organizations start the strategic compensation discussion with the development of a compensation philosophy. This document, often only a page or two, primarily identifies a few key items, including what the bank is trying to accomplish with its compensation programs; what compensation programs does the bank have available to our employees; who qualifies for these programs and why; and where does the bank want to position ourselves versus market? The compensation philosophy statement should be a living document that is reviewed annually and is adjusted as necessary to support business strategy changes.

Strategic Salary Planning
Banks that are strategic with compensation will also generally have a clearly defined salary grade structure, accurate and up-to-date job descriptions, utilize external market data for position benchmarking, and a salary increase matrix for annual adjustments. The annual salary increase process should be strategic, based on individual performance, foster internal equity, and fit within the overall budget of the organization. Many banks utilize a salary increase matrix to assist with determining annual raises. The matrix focuses on providing the largest increases to employees who are exceeding expectations and are positioned low in their salary grade. The days of giving everyone the same percent of salary raise are gone.

Performance-Based Incentives
Once you have the salary component figured out, the next step is incentive-based pay. This can take the form of annual cash incentives and/or equity-based incentives. The type of incentive a bank utilizes will often vary depending on the company structure—like whether it is public or private—and position level. As an example, executives may be eligible for a cash and equity incentive plan, but staff may only be eligible for cash incentives. The key to using strategic compensation is to make sure your incentive plans are based on performance and are motivating and rewarding key positions.

In today’s banking world, there is a lot of talk about incentive plans being “risky” and maybe even “evil” (example: Wells Fargo retail incentives). We disagree with this sentiment. Banks are still in the business of being profitable, and incentive plans have their place to help drive behaviors and reward performance. The key is to have a balanced approach between profitability and strategic goals.

Benefits and Perquisites
Benefits and perquisites are total compensation components that often apply primarily to executives. The broad-based benefit programs like 401(k) plans and health insurance programs have not experienced unique banking-focused changes in recent years. However, executive benefits such as salary continuation plans, change-in-control/severance plans, employment agreements and perquisites (auto allowances, country clubs, etc.) have seen reductions. These programs are still prevalent but there has been an increased focus on the business reasoning and validation behind such programs.

Executive benefits can provide some of the best retention vehicles in compensation if you have an executive leadership team you want to keep in place long-term. It is critical to ensure the benefit or perquisite is serving an appropriate business purpose.

The most successful banks are those who can appropriately balance their profitability needs with good culture, communication, and strategic compensation programs. Banks need to be financially successful to help the communities they serve. Ensuring that your compensation programs are strategically supporting the overall goals of your organization and linked to performance is essential. Make sure you are getting your “bang for the buck” with your compensation dollars being spent.

Why Investors Are Still Hungry for New Bank Equity


capital-10-12-18.pngThe U.S. economy is riding high. Bank stocks, while their valuations are down somewhat from their highs at the beginning of the year, are still enjoying a nice run. For most banks that want to raise new equity capital, the window is still open.

The banking industry is already well capitalized and bank profitability remains strong. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the industry earned $60.2 billion in the second quarter of this year, a 25 percent gain over the same period last year, thanks in no small part to the Trump tax cut, which has also helped prop up bank stock valuations. The truth is, in the current environment, banks don’t need to raise new equity just to increase their capital base—they can do that through retained earnings. The industry is awash with capital and most banks don’t necessarily need even more of it.

“The industry overall is enjoying capital accretion,” says Bill Hickey, a principal and co-head of investment banking at Sandler O’Neill + Partners. “Capital ratios industry-wide have continued to increase as banks have earned money and obviously enjoyed the benefits of tax reform. … I think the need for equity capital has lessened slightly as a result of capital ratios continuing to increase.”

Over the last few years, banks have clearly taken advantage of the opportunity to repair their balance sheets, which were ravaged during the financial crisis. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, there were 123 bank equity offerings in 2016, which raised nearly $6 billion in capital at a median offering price that was 125 percent of tangible book value (TBV) and 52.8 percent of the most recent quarter’s earnings per share (MRQ EPS). There were 146 equity offerings in 2017 that raised nearly $7.5 billion, with offering price medians of 66.3 percent of TBV and 16.6 percent of MRQ EPS. (The industry was much less profitable in 2016 than in 2017, which explains the wide disparity between the median values for the two years.) And through Sept. 26, 2018, there were just in 66 offerings—but they have raised $7.6 billion in equity capital, with a median offering price that was 175 percent of TBV and 13.3 percent of MRQ EPS.

As the median offering prices as a percentage of TBV have gone up over the last two and a half years, while also declining as a percentage of the most recent quarter’s earnings per share—which means that institutional investors are in effect paying more and getting less from a valuation perspective—you might think investor appetite for bank equity would begin to wane. But according to Hickey, you would be wrong.

“There is a lot of money out there looking to be deployed in financial services and banks,” he says. “So there are folks who need to deploy capital—pension funds, funds specifically focused on investing in financial institutions. They have cash positions they need to deploy into investments. So there is a great demand for equity, particularly bank equity at the current time.”

Hickey says most of this new equity was raised to fuel growth, either organic growth or acquisitions. But any bank considering doing so needs to provide investors with a detailed plan for how they intend to use it. “You have to be able to articulate a strategy for the use of the capital you intend to raise,” says Hickey. “That seems obvious, but it needs to be explained quite well to the investment community so they understand how the capital is going to be deployed and have a sense of what their return possibilities are.”

And if you’re going to tap the equity market to support your strategic growth plan, make sure you raise enough the first time around. “Arguably, a company [should] raise enough money that will allow it to fund their growth for at least 18 to 24 months,” Hickey explains. “Investors don’t like it when they’re investing today and then 12 months later the same company comes back looking for more capital. Investors would [prefer] to minimize the number of offerings so they’re not diluted in the out years.”

Four New Revenue Streams for Banks


revenue-10-10-18.pngCreating a healthy bottom line is the biggest goal for most financial institutions. If your bank can’t consistently turn a profit, you’ll quickly be out of business.

Maintaining a profitable bottom line requires a consistent flow of revenue. This can be difficult, especially for financial institutions that rely on both retail banking and enterprise customers to generate revenue.

Why is that? Because 40 to 60 percent of all retail banking customers are not profitable, according to a report by Zafin. Combined with the fact enterprise customers are consistently asking for a more robust product suite with high-tech payment options, turning a profit becomes difficult. Banks can alleviate the pressure by finding new ways of generating revenue that will improve the organization’s profitability.

Here are four ways you can create new revenue streams:

1. Reloadable Cards
If revenue has stagnated, it may be time to reinvigorate your product offerings. A good place to start for retail customers is reloadable cards. A report published by Allied Market Research, titled, “Prepaid Card Market – Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2014 – 2022” predicts the global market for reloadable cards will reach $3.6 billion in 2022.

The benefits customers receive from reloadable cards are exceptional—fraud protection, no credit risk, and spending limits—and the profits financial institutions can reap are even better.

With reloadable cards, financial institutions can charge customers a variety of fees, including a fee to purchase and use the card, and a fee to withdraw funds for PIN-based transactions. Reloadable cards can also provide depository income.

2. White Labeling
White labeling can be a great way to generate new revenue streams by letting bank treasury departments resell funds disbursement platforms to their business customers. This makes payments more convenient for customers by speeding up and streamlining the process.

By reselling the right platform, banks can gain a competitive advantage by offering multiple emerging payment methods, such as virtual cards and real-time payments, to business customers. These high-tech payment methods are becoming more and more popular, helping financial institutions win new customers and retain established accounts.

3. Mobile Device Payments
The demand for mobile payment capability has been steadily growing since early 2000. Now, with digital natives like Gen Z entering the workforce, financial institutions have an opportunity to create mobile payment strategies that focus on customer satisfaction and retention.

This is a still an emerging space, but one that holds many possibilities for delivering products and services customers want and need. White labeling and reselling a funds disbursement platform, including mobile payment options, can help treasury clients in this area.

4. Improve Data Analytics
While not a revenue stream per se, analyzing data more effectively can help you identify new ways of increasing revenue unique to your business. For instance, if your analytics reveal many of your customers are small businesses struggling with treasury management, consider launching products and services that help.

The more you know about your consumers and the way they interact with your organization, the better equipped you’ll be to address their needs. Advanced customer data analytics will allow you to improve performance and add products in multiple areas of your financial institution, including:

  • Credit revolvers
  • Credit cards
  • Lending programs

Thoroughly analyzing customer data can also improve your ability to target new services and products to customers who want them.

Find New Products and Services that Appeal to Your Customers
Use your data and experiences with current customers to find areas where they’re struggling. Can you step in with a new offer that solves their problems? Options for improvement with existing customer accounts are the best new revenue streams for your financial institutions.

We’ve seen many banks succeed specifically by optimizing fee collections, delivering white-labeled products to improve customer convenience, and taking advantage of emerging payments technology. Use these revenue streams as a starting point, customizing them for what’s right for you and your customers.

How One Top-Performing Bank Explains Its Remarkable Success


strategy-10-5-18.pngThe closer you look at U.S. Bancorp’s performance over the past decade, the more you’re left wondering how the nation’s fifth biggest commercial bank by assets has achieved its remarkable success.

Here are some highlights:

  • It was the most profitable bank on the KBW Bank Index for seven consecutive years after the financial crisis.
  • It emerged from the crisis with the highest debt rating among major banks.
  • Its employee engagement scores are consistently at the top of the industry.
  • It has been named one of the most ethical companies in the world for four consecutive years by the Ethisphere Institute.

How has the $461 billion bank based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, accomplished all this?

If you ask Kate Quinn, the bank’s vice chairman and chief administrative officer, the answer lies in its culture.

“There’s a reason that sayings like ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’ are stitched into pillows,” says Quinn.

Quinn doesn’t talk about U.S. Bancorp’s culture from a distance; since joining the bank in 2013 to oversee its rebranding campaign, she has led the charge on articulating and capturing the bank’s culture in a series of value and purpose statements.

“When I was starting to do the work of building the brand, I looked into the history of the company, its genealogy, to figure out our core attributes—the attributes our customers and employees associate with us,” says Quinn. “What I found was this unique thing about us. Any company can say ‘we bring our minds to our customers,’ but there aren’t many companies that can credibly say ‘we bring our hearts to our customers,’ and we can say that. It is real.”

Given that executives at all companies will tell you the same thing, the challenge is to differentiate between companies that pay lip service to these ideals and those that genuinely embrace them.

“The real insight you get about a banker is how they bank,” Warren Buffett has said in the past. “Their speeches don’t make any difference. It’s what they do and what they don’t do [that defines their greatness].”

One way to gauge what a bank does and doesn’t do is to look at its financial performance over an extended period of time. It’s an imperfect proxy, admittedly, but a revealing one nonetheless, as businesses built on unethical or immoral foundations simply aren’t sustainable. At one point or another, the chickens always come home to roost—just ask Wells Fargo & Co.

This is why U.S. Bancorp’s performance, since its current leadership took control of Cincinnati-based Star Banc in 1993, is so significant. It didn’t commit mishaps that caused it to fall prey to a larger competitor in the consolidation cycle of the 1990s. A decade later, it sidestepped the accounting scandals surrounding Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and others that tarnished the images of so many bigger banks. And it steered clear of the worst excesses in the mortgage and securities markets in the lead-up to the financial crisis.

Anyone who knows U.S. Bancorp’s former chairman and CEO Richard Davis will tell you that he embodied principled leadership, adopting an approach that wasn’t only ethical and rational, but also one that embraced balance. He never sent emails to his employees at night, for instance, because he didn’t want to interfere with their home lives. He was also known to call his employees’ parents on their birthdays.

When it came to bottling U.S. Bancorp’s culture, then, one of Quinn’s objectives was to capture Davis’ approach.

“As I was getting my head around what do we do and what are we trying to do, I realized that it isn’t about the products and services,” says Quinn. “When you think about what a bank does—and this came from Richard—it’s really about powering human potential. I told him that I wanted to build his DNA into the company—the culture, the purpose, the core values. That is the part of Richard that has become the fabric of this company.”

But Davis’ influence is just one element of U.S. Bancorp’s broader culture. Other elements come from Davis’ predecessor and successor.

His predecessor, Jerry Grundhofer, was a tactical operator with few equals. He was the dean of efficiency, one of the valedictorians of banking throughout the 1990s.

“Jerry brought a set of values and capabilities to the company that was needed—scrappiness, cut to the chase, financial discipline,” says Quinn. “When Richard came in, he didn’t change that piece of it, he built on top of what Jerry did by adding the human dimension. Jerry had always put the shareholders first. Richard came in and put the employees at the top.”

The same is true of Davis’ successor, the bank’s current chairman and CEO, Andy Cecere, who adds another element into the mix. Cecere’s reputation is that of a practical innovator who’s pushing the bank to focus on change, innovation and technology. His favorite presentation slides, for example, compare the Old Western TV series Bonanza to the Jetsons.

Again, things like this are easy to dismiss as vacuous corporate-speak. But one lesson you learn after spending enough time with top-performing bank CEOs is that just because something sounds trite doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Quinn understands that. It’s why she’s writing these cultural attributes into U.S. Bancorp’s DNA with revamped value and purpose statements. Facile notions of efficiency and operating leverage may excite analysts on quarterly conference calls, but the true source of U.S. Bancorp’s competitive advantage lies in its commitment to doing what’s right.

Three Important Things Jerome Powell Said To Congress


strategy-8-9-18.pngJerome Powell’s semi-annual appearance before Congress was perhaps a bit more newsworthy than it has been for past chairmen of the Federal Reserve, and his core message signals a few key moves that will certainly impact how banks manage themselves over the next several months.

Powell’s appearance was overshadowed with questions about trade policy and what was happening further down Pennsylvania Avenue, but the core message from Powell, who has been on the job for less than a year, was that the central bank is continuing on a path toward normalization of interest rates, a place the U.S. economy hasn’t seen in a decade or longer.

Despite the tangents that media-savvy politicians tried to take Powell down, his core messages as it applies to bankers is important and provides signals as to how the Fed will manage the economy over the next several months.

Here’s some takeaways:

Bank profitability likely to remain high. Powell’s comments about the overall tax climate and overall business environment point to good things on the horizon for banks, which have reported strong earnings since the end of last year when tax reforms were passed.

Said Powell: “Our financial system is much stronger than before the crisis and is in a good position to meet the credit needs of households and businesses … Federal tax and spending policies likely will continue to support the expansion.”
Second-quarter results have illustrated that, with some banks reporting quarterly earnings per share around 40 percent above last year.

Fed getting back to “normal.” For several years since the crisis, the Fed bought large quantities of U.S. Treasury bonds—known as quantitative easing—to pump cash into the market and boost the economy. With plenty of indicators that the economy is now humming, Powell said the Fed has begun allowing those securities to mature, bringing that practice to an end.

“Our policies reflect the strong performance of the economy and are intended to help make sure that this trend continues,” Powell said.

“The payment of interest on balances held by banks in their accounts at the Federal Reserve has played a key role in carrying out these policies … Payment of interest on these balances is our principal tool for keeping the federal funds rate in the FOMC’s target range. This tool has made it possible for us to gradually return interest rates to a more normal level without disrupting financial markets and the economy.”

Cybersecurity tops list of risks. In his appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Powell said cybersecurity, and the unexpected threats therein, is what keeps him up at night, aside from what he called “elevated” asset prices that would fall under more traditional concerns, like commercial real estate.

Preparing for the worst-case cybersecurity scenario is top-of-mind, he said, even more than traditional risks. Preventing and preparing should be the focus, he said.

“(Do) as much as possible, and then double it,” he said, a signal of how serious the Fed views the issue.
He then tamped that statement down, and said the Fed “does a great deal” with its supervision of banks, and advised them to continually maintain “basic cyber hygiene” by keeping up to date on emerging trends and threats.

“We do everything we can to prevent failure, but then we have to ask what would we do if there were a successful cyberattack,” he said. “We have to have a plan for that too.”

Three Themes Are at the Top of Bankers’ Minds Right Now


risk-6-14-18.pngIf one looks at the bank industry as a whole, it’s easy to agree with Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank by assets, that we are in the midst of a “golden age of banking.”

This is true on multiple fronts. Dimon’s comments were directed specifically at the easing of the regulatory burden on banks, an evolution that has been going on since the change in administration at the beginning of last year. The lighter touch is most evident at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has taken a more passive approach to enforcement actions under its current acting director, Mick Mulvaney. The broadest base of regulatory relief culminated last month, when federal legislation was signed into law that eased the compliance burden on smaller banks in particular.

Banks are also reaping benefits from the cut last year in the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent down to 21 percent. The change led to a surge in profits and profitability.

These events highlight a trio of themes that emerged from this year’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference hosted by Bank Director in Chicago. Each theme is unique, but the common denominator is that bank boards face an evolving landscape when it comes to the macroeconomic environment, cyber security threats and the means through which a bank can navigate this landscape.

Profitability is a point that Steve Hovde, chairman and CEO of Hovde Group, stressed in a presentation on the current and future state of banking. Banks earned a record $56 billion in the first quarter of the year, which amounted to 28 percent growth over the same quarter of 2017. And while the industry has yet to report a return on assets above 1 percent on an annual basis since the financial crisis a decade ago, the average bank eclipsed that figure in the first three months of the year.

And banks aren’t just more profitable, they’re also arguably safer, former Comptroller of the Currency Thomas Curry noted in a conversation with Bank Director magazine Editor in Chief Jack Milligan. Curry pointed to the fact that banks have more capital than they’ve had in decades.

Yet, as Hovde noted, many of these positive performance trends are not being experienced equally across the industry, with the lion’s share going to the biggest banks. The return on average assets of banks with between $10 billion and $50 billion in assets is 1.27 percent compared to 0.72 percent for banks with less than $1 billion in assets. This is also reflected in bank valuations, with big banks trading on average for more than two times tangible book value compared to 1.4 percent for smaller banks.

This gap is projected to grow with time, in part because of a second theme that coursed through conversations at this year’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference: trends in technology and cyber threats, which large banks have deeper pockets to address. Of all the things that concern bank officers and directors right now, especially those tasked with audit- and risk-related duties, the need to defend against cyber threats is at the top of the list.

There are approximately 20 million hostile cyber events every day, with an estimated 200,000 of these targeted at financial institutions, noted Alex Hernandez, vice president of DefenseStorm, a cybersecurity defense firm. Seventy-three percent are perpetrated by people outside the organization compared to 28 percent by insiders. It isn’t just criminals who pose a threat, as nation-state actors are behind 12 percent of hostile cyber events, with their timing tending to coincide with elections.

The solution, Hernandez notes, is to double down on the fundamentals of cyber defense. “The most effective way to address cyber threats isn’t to focus on the latest shiny object like artificial intelligence, it’s about educating your staff and securing your network.” To this point, most threats come through unsophisticated channels, be it an email phishing scheme or malware delivered by way of a thumb drive.

One challenge in addressing these threats is simply recruiting the right expertise—not only on the bank level, but also on the board. Finding and retaining the right talent in not only information security but elsewhere was also a recurring theme. Most board members in attendance acknowledge they don’t know enough about technology to ask the right questions. But recruiting people who do is easier said than done, especially for banks in rural communities, who often try to tap into nearby metro areas for talent, or offer creative compensation plans to mitigate risk and retain younger officers.

There are certainly reasons to suggest big banks are experiencing a golden age, but smaller and mid-size banks shouldn’t use this recent change in fortune as an excuse to rest on their laurels. It remains incumbent on bank officers and directors to stay vigilant against ever-evolving cybersecurity risks and focused on recruiting the talent and designing effective governance structures to address them.

Driving Profitability by Keeping Score


profitability-2-19-18.pngTwo thousand and seventeen proved to be a pretty good year for banks, and 2018 promises to be even better. While the economic environment of lower taxes, rising rates and promises of deregulation have driven up valuations, the secret sauce that produces results still eludes many. The answer lies deep within banks and can be realized by implementing balanced scorecards throughout that hold people accountable for performance and provide targets for success that drive the bottom line.

Developing benchmarks by individual business lines to enforce accountability can help them improve their staffing, processes and strategies, and often exposes low performers and manual processes that negatively impact profitability. Although this seems logical, in practice few banks have had success in figuring out these scorecards.

The following best practice tips will help in creating these metrics, setting appropriate goals and designing an effective overall performance management strategy.

Keep it Simple: Every department should be working with five to seven (not 20) easy-to-track metrics. Too much detail can cause confusion as well as create more work than it’s worth to calculate. For example, tracking the average time customers wait in line in branches is next to impossible and non-productive, but tracking call center hold times is much easier and most likely exists in a canned report today.

Take a Balanced Approach: A mixture of efficiency, quality and risk benchmarks provides a good balance. The following example of a balanced scorecard in mortgage lending illustrates risk metrics including approval rates, average credit score, client service metrics for turnaround times and efficiency metrics for production of loan officers, processors and underwriters.

metric-chart.pngFocus on the Outliers: Tracking performance is only the first step in developing a scorecard system. As the performance culture matures and as data trends become clearer, identifying outliers and improving performance in those areas is the key. Becoming a high performer sometimes means changing an underlying process or technology. But it can also come down to one or two individuals who are driving either high or low performance. Digging in to understand those variants can pay significant dividends. For example, in our sample scorecard, one loan officer was doing 15 loans per month while others were doing three to four.

While compensation structure can account for some of this variance, the opportunity cost to get those lower performers up to at least average can be significant. It turns out that the officer doing 15 loans per month had reached out to marketing for lists of clients new to the bank that had mortgages at other institutions and was cross-selling those in his market while the others had no idea the information was available.

When it comes to revenue generation, most banks have squeezed expenses and capitalized on the low-hanging fruit. The next step is to drive the bottom line through well-thought-out business line scorecards that produce actionable data to improve performance. The goal is to use these key performance indicators to drive better processes, strong customer service, less risk and higher returns to shareholders.