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 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.

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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.

This Is a Red Flag for Banks


yield-curve-7-5-19.pngThe yield curve has been in the news because its recent gyrations are seen as a harbinger of a coming recession.

The yield curve is the difference between short- and long-term bond yields. In a healthy economy, long-term bond yields are normally higher than short-term yields because investors take more risk with the longer duration.

In late June, however, the spread between the yield on the three-month Treasury bill and the 10-year Treasury note inverted—which is to say the 10-year yield was lower than the three-month yield.

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An inverted yield curve doesn’t cause a recession, but it signals a set of economic factors that are likely to result in one. It is a sign that investors lack confidence in the future of the economy. Or to put it another way, they have greater confidence in the economy’s long-term prospects than in its near-term outlook.

Long-term yields drop because investors want to lock in a higher return. This heightened demand for long-dated bonds allows the U.S. Department of the Treasury to offer lower yields. The historical average length of recessions is about 18 months, so a 10-year Treasury note takes investors well beyond that point.

Short-terms Treasury yields rise because investors are skittish about the economy’s near-term prospects, which requires the Treasury Department to entice them with higher yields.

It turns out that inverted yield curves have a pretty good track record of predicting recessions within the next 12 months. The last six recessions were preceded by inverted yield curves, although economists point out that inversions in 1995 and 1998 were not followed by subsequent downturns. And more than two years passed between an inversion in December 2005 and the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

Still, an inverted yield curve is an economic red flag for banks. The industry’s performance inevitably suffers in a recession, and even the most conservative institutions will experience higher loan losses when the credit cycle turns.

An inversion is a warning that banks should tighten their credit standards and rein in their competitive impulses. Some of the worst commercial loans are made 12 to 18 months prior to an economic downturn, and they are often the first loans to go bad.

Ironically, if banks tighten up too much, they risk contributing to a recession by cutting off the funding that businesses need to grow. Banks make these decisions individually, of course, but the industry’s herd instinct is alive and well.

It’s possible that the most recent inversion presages a recession in 2020. In its June survey, the National Association of Business Economics forecast the U.S. economy to grow 2.6 percent this year, with only a 15 percent chance of a recession. But they see slower growth in 2020, with the risk of a recession by year-end rising to 60 percent.

This has been an unprecedented time for the U.S. economy and we seem to be sailing through uncharted waters. On July 1, the economy’s current expansion became the longest on record, and gross domestic product grew at a 3.1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. Unemployment was just 3.6 percent in May—the lowest in 49 years—while inflation, which often rises when the economy reaches full employment because employers are forced to pay higher salaries to attract workers, remained under firm control.

These are historic anomalies, so maybe the old rules have changed.

The Federal Open Market Committee is widely expected to cut the fed funds rate in late July after raising it four times in 2018. That could both help and hurt bankers.

A rate cut helps if it keeps the economic expansion going. It hurts if it makes it more difficult for banks to charge higher rates for their loans. Many banks prospered last year because they were able raise their loan rates faster than their deposit rates, which helped expand their net interest margins. They may not benefit as much from repricing this year if the Fed ends up cutting interest rates.

Is an inverted yield curve a harbinger of a recession in 2020? This economy seems to shrug off all such concerns, but history says yes.

The Big Picture of Banking in Three Simple Charts


banking-3-22-19.pngOne thing that separates great bankers from their peers is a deep appreciation for the highly cyclical nature of the banking industry.

Every industry is cyclical, of course, thanks to the cyclical nature of the economy. Good times are followed by bad times, which are followed by good times. It’s always been that way, and there’s no reason to think it will change anytime soon.

Yet, banking is different.

The typical bank borrows $10 for every $1 in equity. On one hand, this leverage accelerates the economic growth of the communities a bank serves. But on the other, it makes banks uniquely sensitive to fluctuations in employment and asset prices.

Even a modest correction in the business cycle or a major asset class can send dozens of banks into receivership.

“It is in the nature of an industry whose structure is competitive and whose conduct is driven by supply to have cycles that only end badly,” wrote Barbara Stewart in “How Will This Underwriting Cycle End?,” a widely cited paper published in 1980 on the history of underwriting cycles.

Stewart was referring to the insurance industry, but her point is equally true in banking.

This is why bankers with a big-picture perspective have an advantage over bankers without a similarly deep and broad appreciation for the history of banking, combined with knowledge about the strengths and infirmities innate in a bank’s business model.

How does one go about gaining a big-picture perspective?

You can do it the hard way, by amassing personal experience. If you’ve seen enough cycles, then you know, as Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co., has said: “You don’t run a business hoping you don’t have a recession.”

Or you can do it the easy way, by accruing experience by proxy—that is, by learning how things unfolded in the past. If you know that nine out of the last nine recessions were all precipitated by rising interest rates, for instance, then you’re likely to be more cautious with your loan portfolio in a rising rate environment.

You can see this in the chart below, sourced from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ popular FRED database. The graph traces the effective federal funds rate since 1954, with the vertical shaded portions representing recessions.

Fed-Funds-Rate.png

A second chart offering additional perspective on the cyclical nature of banking traces bank failures since the Civil War, when the modern American banking industry first took shape.

This might seem macabre—who wants to obsess over bank failures?—but this is an inseparable aspect of banking that is ignored at one’s peril. Good bankers respect and appreciate this, which is one reason their institutions avoid failure.

Failures.png

Not surprisingly, the incidence of bank failures closely tracks the business cycle. The big spike in the 1930s corresponds to the Great Depression. The spike in the 1980s and 1990s marks the savings and loan crisis. And the smaller recent surge corresponds to the financial crisis.

All told, a total of 17,365 banks have failed since 1865. A useful analog through which to think about banking, in other words, is that it’s a war of attrition, much like the conflict that spawned the modern American banking industry.

A third chart offering insight into how the banking industry has evolved in recent decades illustrates historical acquisition activity.

Acquisitions.png

Approximately 4 percent of banks consolidate on an annual basis, equating to about 200 a year nowadays. But this is an average. The actual number has fluctuated widely over time. Twitter_Logo_Blue.png

From 1940 through the mid-1970s, when interstate and branch banking were prohibited in most states, there were closer to 100 bank acquisitions a year. But then, as these regulatory barriers came down in the 1980s and 1990s, deal activity surged.

The point being, while banking is a rapidly consolidating industry, the most recent pace of consolidation has decelerated. This is relevant to anyone who may be thinking of buying or selling a bank. It’s also relevant to banks that aren’t in the market to do a deal, as customer attrition in the wake of a competitors’ sale has often been a source of organic growth.

In short, it’s easy to dismiss history as a topic of interest only to professors and armchair historians. But the experience one gains by proxy from looking to the past can help bankers better position their institutions for the present and the future.

Take it from investor Charlie Munger: “There’s no better teacher than history in determining the future.”

The Perfect Storm


Timing is everything. In his short video, Joe Evans, Chairman and CEO of State Bank Financial Corp, shares how he predicted the recession and how his board was ready with a plan.

Over his 30 year career, Joe Evans has run some of Georgia’s beset community banks. In December 2006, Joe Evans sold Atlanta-based Flag Financial Corp. to the U.S. arm of Royal Bank of Canada for $456 million. Since starting State Bank, Evans and his team have acquired several failed banks in the Metro Atlanta area.

In 2011, State Bank was named the top performing bank in the United States by Bank Director magazine in our 2011 Bank Performance Scorecard, a ranking of the 120 largest U.S. publicly traded banks and thrifts.

Watch the below video filmed during Bank Director and NASDAQOMX’s inaugural Boardroom Forum on Lending held last December in New York City.


Has Lending Turned a Corner?


One of the more depressing aspects of this long-running post-recession malaise has been the continued shrinkage of bank loan portfolios. Consumers and business aren’t asking for many loans, and many of the people who do ask aren’t getting any. That impacts the economy’s ability to grow, if businesses aren’t investing and consumers aren’t spending.

But loan growth seemed to turn a corner in the second quarter, and interestingly, small and mid-sized banks are leading the way, according to an analysis by investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.

Total loans and leases increased 0.9 percent in the second quarter, or by $64.4 billion, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), the first actual growth in three years. The government’s statistics include all FDIC-insured institutions, both public and private. Commercial and industrial loans (C&I) increased for the fourth consecutive quarter, by 2.8 percent, while auto loans rose 3.4 percent, the FDIC said. Credit card balances rose by 0.8 percent and first lien residential mortgages rose by 0.2 percent.  Loans for construction fell for the 13th consecutive quarter, this time by 7 percent.

A deeper look from KBW of publicly traded banks shows that mid-cap banks had the largest growth in loan portfolios. Large-cap banks saw total loan balances decline by 0.2 percent during the second quarter, while mid-cap and small-cap banks grew their total loans by 5.9 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively.

The investment bank and research firm reported:

  • Among the loan categories at mid-cap banks, C&I loans posted the largest quartertoquarter increase, gaining 13.9 percent.
  • Large-cap banks posted quarter-to-quarter loan shrinkage across all loan categories except C&I, which increased 2.0 percent.
  • Only Puerto Rico and the Southwest saw aggregate quarter-to-quarter loan shrinkage. Total loans fell 4.9 percent sequentially for Puerto Rico, and 1.6 percent for the Southwest.
  • The Midwestern and Southeastern regions posted the strongest quarter-to-quarter loan growth as total loans increased 9.5 percent for the Midwest and 6.1 percent for the Southeast.
  • Loan portfolios still are down from a year ago. On a year-over-year basis, total loans (excluding consumer loans) have declined annually for seven consecutive quarters, most recently falling 0.5 percent in the second quarter, according to KBW.
  • The commercial and industrial loan category, which accounts for 18 percent of total loans, is the only loan category to post both quarteroverquarter and yearoveryear loan growth of 2.7 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively.

Commercial and industrial loans to businesses clearly remain a source of strength, even as real estate is soft. The growth in loan portfolios among small and mid-sized banks is a welcome sign, even though large-cap banks account for 90 percent of aggregate loans, according to KBW. Banks have been giving investors something to be happy about: Higher profits, better loan credit quality and even some loan growth during the second quarter. But with the wild swings in the market and plummeting bank stocks lately, it may be that investors still are too worried about the economy to care.

What Falling Home Prices Mean for Banks


skydive.jpgThe most recent S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices declined 4.2 percent in the first quarter of 2011 on top of an earlier 3.6 percent drop in the fourth quarter of 2010. “Nationally, home prices are back to their mid-2002 levels,” according to the report.

If you are a connoisseur of home price data—and the countless expert predictions since the market’s collapse in 2007—you know that the housing market should have bottomed out by now and been well into its long awaited recovery. There was a slight rebound in housing prices in 2009 and 2010 due to the Federal Housing Tax Credit for first-time homebuyers, but that rally pretty much died when the program expired on Dec. 31, 2009. Now, housing prices are falling again like a skydiver without a parachute.

Recently I called Ed Seifried, Ph.D., who is professor emeritus of economics and business at Lafayette College and a partner in the consulting firm Seifried & Brew LLC in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to talk about the depressed housing market and its impact on the banking industry. Seifried is well known in banking circles and was a keynote speaker a few years ago at our Acquire or Be Acquired conference.

“We’re pretty close to a structural change in housing,” Seifried says. You, me and just about everyone else (including, apparently, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan) was taught that home prices always go up—sometimes by the rate of inflation, sometimes more—which made it a pretty safe investment. “That dream has pretty much been shattered,” Seifried continues. “The Twitter generation is looking at the European (housing) model, which is smaller and more efficient. Your home shouldn’t be a statement of your wealth.”

A broad shift in housing preferences could have important long-term implications for the U.S. economy, since housing has been one of our economy’s engines of growth for decades. What is absolutely certain today is that a depressed housing market is hurting the economy’s recovery after the Great Recession, and that has broad implications for the banking industry.

A depressed housing market translates into a depressed mortgage origination industry, which has significant implications for the country’s four largest banks—Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo—which have built giant origination platforms that might never again churn out the outsized profits they once did. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see one or two of them get out of the home mortgage business if Seifried’s structural change thesis is correct.

Community banks that lent heavily to the home construction industry during the housing boom are either out of business or linger on life support. But even those institutions that did not originate a lot of home mortgages, or lent heavily to home builders or bought lots of mortgage-backed securities are being hurt because housing’s problems have become the economy’s problems.

In a recent article, Seifried points out that for the last 50 years housing has contributed between 4 and 5 percent of the nation’s GNP. In the 2004-2006 period, that contribution rose to 6.1 percent.  In 2010, housing accounted for just 2.2 percent of GDP—and dropped to 2.2 percent in the early part of 2011. Seifried also estimates that the housing market accounts for 15-20 percent of all U.S. jobs when “construction and its peripheral impacts are weighed.”

“It’s difficult to imagine an overall economic recovery that can generate sufficient jobs to return the U.S. economy to full employment without a return of housing to its historical share of GDP,” he writes.

In our interview, Seifried told me of a recent conversation he had with a bank CEO who thought his institution was reasonably well insulated from the housing market’s collapse because it had made relatively few construction loans. But that bank still experienced higher than expected loan losses because of all the other businesses it had lent to that ended by being hurt by the housing downturn.

Indeed, virtually no bank in the country is immune to the housing woes because banks—even very good and very careful ones—require a healthy economy to thrive. The U.S. economy needs a strong and growing housing market to thrive, and that doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the horizon.