A Look at the Great Loan Modification Experiment

After almost a year, Congress’ decision to suspend loan modifications rules was an unprecedented, unorthodox and, ultimately, effective way to aid banks and borrowers.

The banking industry is going on four quarters of suspended requirements for coronavirus loan modifications. Suspending the reporting rules around loan modifications was a creative way for regulators and lawmakers to encourage banks in the spring of 2020 to work with borrowers facing coronavirus-related hardships. The result is that the industry, and economy, had more time to reassess the rapidly uncertain environment before needing to process troubled credits.

“Standing here today, having completed most of my year in audit and having a pretty good idea of how things are panning out — I would call it a raging success,” says Mandi Simpson, a partner in Crowe’s audit group. She adds that the decision to pause loan payments may have helped avoid a number of business closures and foreclosures, which will help the economy stabilize and recover long-term.

Ordinarily, these modifications, like no payments or interest-only payments for a period of time before restarting payments and catching up, would have been categorized as troubled debt restructurings, or TDRs, under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.

TDRs occur after a bank offers a concession on a credit that it wouldn’t otherwise make to a borrower experiencing financial difficulties or hardship. The CARES Act suspended the determination that a loan modified because of the coronavirus would count as a TDR, “including impairment for accounting purposes.” Banks could now offer deferments and modifications to borrowers impacted by the coronavirus without needing to record them as TDRs.

The suspension came as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020, or CARES Act, and was extended in the stimulus bill passed before the end of the year. The move was supported by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Financial Accounting Standards Board and bank regulators, who had encouraged banks to work with borrowers prior to the suspension. It is scheduled to be in effect through until Jan. 1, 2022, or 60 days after the termination of the national emergency, whichever is earlier.

“The regulatory community gets a high-five for that, in my opinion,” says Christopher Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott. “Think about the accounting change in TDRs as another form of stimulus … For the companies and the clients that received deferrals – this pandemic is not their fault. … There was a recognition that this gave people a way to buy time. The one variable you can’t quantify in a crisis is time.”

The widespread forbearance allowed borrowers to adapt their businesses, get a handle on their finances or apply for Paycheck Protection Program funding from the Small Business Administration. It also gave banks a chance to reassess their borrowers’ evolving risk and offer new loan terms, if needed.

Reported Bank Deferral Data for 2020

Quarter Loans in deferral, median Low range High range Number of banks reporting
Q1’2020 11.1% 0.3% 38% 224
Q2’2020 15.3% 1.2% 46.4% 234
Q3’2020 3% 0% 21.5% 240
Q4’2020 1.4% 0% 14.5% 238

Source: Reports authored by Brad Milsaps, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co.

A number of institutions took advantage of the suspension to offer borrowers relief. Simpson remembers that many banks freely offered short-term forbearance in the second quarter, and panicked borrowers accepted. When those forbearance periods expired in the third quarter, borrowers had a better sense of their financial condition — aided by the PPP — and banks were better prepared to work with customers under continued pressure.

By the end of the second quarter, most banks “expressed optimism” about the direction of deferrals and reported “minimal” second requests, mostly related to restaurant and hotel borrowers, wrote Brad Milsaps, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co.

He expected deferrals to become “less of a focus going forward,” as those loans’ performance normalized or banks felt confident in marking them as nonaccruals. To that end, the median ratio of criticized loans to total loans, excluding Paycheck Protection Program loans, increased to 3.6% at the end of the third quarter, from 2.9% in the second quarter.

“Deferrals were an impactful tool utilized at the beginning of the pandemic, but have fallen to a very minimal level given the impact of PPP, the CARES Act, and improvement in the economy,” he wrote in a February 2021 report. “Although deferral data continues to be disclosed by most banks, the investment community has mostly moved on from deferrals as an area of primary focus.”

But the suspension of TDR guidance is not a green light for banks to wholly ignore changing credit risk. If anything, the year of deferrals gave banks a better sense of which customers faced outsized challenges to their businesses and whether they could reasonably and soundly continue supporting the relationship. Marinac points out that many banks have risk-rated loans that received modifications, set aside reserves for potential losses and migrated those that continued to have stress over time.

And as documented in Milsaps’ reports, a number of banks decided to share their modification activity with the broader public, with many including geography, industry and sometimes even the type of modification offered. These disclosures weren’t required by regulators but demonstrated the credit strength at many banks and reassured investors that banks had a handle on their credit risk.

The suspension of TDR reporting requirements through the end of 2021 gives the industry and stakeholders like FASB, the accounting board FASB, to consider the usefulness of the existing TDR guidance.

The reporting involved with TDRs involves an individual discounted cash flow analysis, which makes the accounting complicated and tedious. TDRs also can carry negative connotations that are impossible to shake: A modified TDR, even if it’s performing, is always recorded as a TDR. Simpson points out that the loan modification disclosures banks made in lieu of reporting TDRs was, in many cases, more useful and insightful than if the banks had just treated all modified loans as TDRs. And while mass loan modifications may have been a lot of work for banks in the midst of the pandemic’s most uncertain days, it would have been exponentially more complicated to do mass restructuring recordings and discount cash flow analyses over those four quarters.

“If you aren’t going to do TDR reporting at the time when — in theory — it would be the most valuable, doesn’t that call into question whether TDR identification is really that useful after all?” Simpson asks. “The standard-setters are doing some outreach and taking a second look with exactly that in mind.”

When All The Examiners Left

What would happen if all the bank examiners left?

In 1983, the ninth district of the Federal Home Loan Bank lost almost all of its examiners when the office hastily relocated from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Dallas. The move was the culmination of a campaign from congressional and business efforts beginning in the 1950s, the efforts of which had previously been staved off by Arkansas’ representatives.

In response, 37 of 48 employees in the department of supervision chose not to relocate and left, according to Washington Post archival articles; the remaining 11 were mostly low-level administrators. The two remaining field agents split monitoring almost 500 savings and loans across a 550,000 square-mile area.

The move was capricious, political, expensive and, ultimately, disastrous.

The result was a rare natural experiment that explores the importance that bank supervision plays in regulation and enforcement, according to a recent fascinating paper published by Federal Reserve Bank economists John Kandrac and Bernd Schlusche.

The situation became so bad that the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in Washington implemented a supervision blitz in 1986, sending 250 supervisory and examination staffers from across the country to conduct intensive exams in the region. The number of exams conducted during the six weeks was more than three times the number performed in 1985; for many institutions, it was their first comprehensive exam in two or three years.

Here are several takeaways from the paper.

Major Setback to Supervision
The dramatic loss of expertise within the supervision division plagued the FHLB’s ninth district for at least two years. Even though Dallas is the region’s financial capital, it would take years to tutor supervision trainees to the level of the departed senior examiners. The other option the bank had was trying to poach examiners from another region or agency, which creates deficiencies of its own.

When the Cat’s Away, the Mice Will Play
The paper finds that less intensive supervision and less frequent supervision comes with some risk to the stability of institutions.

Unsupervised thrifts increased their risk-taking behaviors and appetites compared to both thrifts outside the region receiving regular examinations and commercial banks in the region. They grew “much more rapidly” by entering newly deregulated and riskier lending spaces, funded the growth with funds like brokered deposits and “readily engaged in accounting gimmicks to inflate their reported capital ratios.”

“[A]ffected institutions increased their risky real estate investments as a share of assets by about 7 percentage points. The size of the treatment effect is economically large,” the paper finds, adding later: “Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that risk taking is a function of supervisory attention.”

Some of this risk-taking led to insolvency. The paper found that the lack of supervision activity led to about 24 additional failures, which cost the insurance fund about $5.4 billion — over $10 billion in 2018 dollars.

Someone Needs to Enforce the Rules
Rules alone were insufficient for these institutions to manage their risk. The paper stresses the role that examiners play in effective enforcement of regulation — an issue that has taken on renewed relevancy given both a lengthening of the examination cycle to 18 months for some community banks and the changes in in-person visits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bank supervisors have many tools — formal and informal — by which they can influence a bank’s behavior. The paper notes how regular interactions and conversations, coupled with power of bank regulation itself, seem to be more effective at curbing or correcting risky behavior at banks than self-regulation alone. The six-week supervision blitz in 1986 led to a 76% increase in enforcement actions compared to the year prior, as well as management replacement actions, liquidation requests and 500 criminal referrals to the Department of Justice.

“[S]upervision and examination matter even for what many considered to be the most ineffectual supervisor in the United States. Therefore, even if the importance of supervision has diminished over time on average, we should still expect modern supervisors to meaningfully limit bank risk taking,” the paper reads.

The Trouble That Johnny Allison Sees

Johnny Allison, chairman and chief executive officer at Home Bancshares in Conway, Arkansas, prides himself on running a very conservative institution with a strong credit culture. And Allison has not liked some of the behavior he has witnessed in other bankers, who are slashing their loan rates and loosening terms and conditions to win business in a highly competitive commercial loan market.

Allison says those chickens will come home to roost when the market eventually turns, and many of those underpriced and poorly structured loans go bad.

“Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time because our people want to match what somebody else did,” said Allison during an extensive interview with Bank Director Editor in Chief Jack Milligan for a profile in the 1st quarter issue of Bank Director magazine. (You can read the story, “Will Opportunity Strike Again for Johnny Allison?” by clicking here.)

Allison feels strongly enough about the credit quality at $15 billion asset Home that he’s willing to sacrifice loan growth, even if it hurts his stock price. In the following excerpt, Allison — whose blunt and colorful talk has become his trademark — opens up about the challenge of maintaining underwriting discipline in a highly competitive market.

The Q&A has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: You said some very powerful things in your third quarter earnings call. And you said it in sort of the Johnny Allison way, which makes it fun and entertaining. But you were fairly blunt about the fact that you see stupid people doing stupid things. That has to have an impact on your performance in 2019. You’re letting certain kinds of loans run off because you don’t like the terms and conditions and the pricing. That impacts your growth, which then impacts your stock price. That has to be a difficult choice to make.
JA: It’s extremely tough, because my people in the field are seeing dumb stuff being done. “Well, so and so did this, or so and so did that, and, Johnny, they gave him three-and-a-half fixed for 10 [years], and interest only, and nonrecourse.” I mean, there will be a day of reckoning on those kinds of bad decisions, in my opinion. Am I going to write at three and a quarter [percent] fixed for 10 to 15 years? I’m not going to do that. Do I not think I’ll have a better opportunity coming next year to where I haven’t spent that money, and I spend it next year? So, my attitude is [to] take what they give us. Stay close to your customers, support your customers. It is extremely tough. It is one tough job keeping the company disciplined. Don’t let it get off the tracks. We’re known as a company that runs a good net interest margin. We’re known as a company that has good asset quality, that runs a good ship.

BD: If you were more aggressive on loan growth, if you were willing to play the same game that other banks were playing and not worry about the future so much, would your stock price be higher today?
JA: We don’t believe that. If I loan you $100 and I charge you 6%, or I loan you $100 and I charge you 3%, you’ve got to do twice as many loans just to keep up with me. And there’s a limit to how much you can loan, right? We got $11 billion worth of loans. We’re about 97% loan-to-deposit [ratio]. Could we go up to 100%? Sure. We were at [100%] over six years ago. The examiners fuss at you a little bit. But we’ve got lots of capital. So, we kind of run in those areas close to 100% loan to deposit. But we’ve got $2.7 billion worth of capital, so we can rely on that. Plus, the company makes a lot of money.

BD: You said in the earnings call that you were building up the bank’s capital because you didn’t quite know where the world was going, or you weren’t quite certain about the future. So, how do you see the future?
JA: I’m very positive with the future, except the fact I keep hearing these naysayers on and on. We’re optimistic people. I’m rocking with the profitability of this company, and [people] tell me the world’s coming to an end. Then the [bank’s] examiner came in during [the] third quarter and said, “The world’s coming to an end, Johnny. Get ready. Be prepared. Get your reserves [up].” We didn’t ever see it. It didn’t happen. Could somebody be right? Could there be a hiccup coming? Let me say this, and I said it on the call, banks are in the best financial condition that they’ve ever been in.

Someone said, “Boy, you give the regulators credit for that.” I said, “Regulators had nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing to do with it.” What did it was [the financial crisis in] ’08, ’09, and those people who wanted to survive, and those people who wanted to keep their companies and don’t want to cycle through that again. What’s happening is, the shadow banking system is coming into the [market], and they’re taking our loans. How many [loan] funds are out there? They all think they’re lenders. Every one of them think they’re lenders. And they’re coming into the bank space. Where we’re at 57% loan to value, they’re going to 95% loan to value.

There’s the next blow up, and that’ll hurt us. We’re going to get splashed with it. We’re not going to get all the paint, but we’re going to get splashed with that.

That’s the next problem coming, these shadow bankers, the people chasing yield. REITs. Oh, God. REITs. I’m in at $150,000 a key in Key West, Florida, with a guest house owner who is a fabulous operator. We financed her for years and years, and she’s built this great program with these guest houses. She sold it to an REIT for $500,000 a key. Now, let me tell you something, you can’t have an airplane late getting into Key West. There can never be a wreck on [U.S. Highway 1]. And there can never be another hurricane. Everything has to be hitting on all cylinders and be perfect to make that work. That’s kind of scary to me. We’ve seen several of these REITs coming [in with] so much money. They won’t give any money back to the investors. They won’t say, “We failed.” Instead, they’ll go invest that money. And they’re just stretching that damn rubber band as far as they can stretch it, and I think some of those rubber bands are going to pop.

[Editor’s note: An REIT, or real estate investment trust, owns and often operates income-generating real estate.]

So, I think that’s the danger. I don’t think it’s the normal course of business. I think those things are the danger. And when it slows down a little bit like it did, these bankers panic. They just panic. “What can we do to keep your business? What can we do?” They just lay down and play dead. “What can I do? What can I do? Two and a half? Okay, okay, okay. We’ll do [loans at] two and a half [percent].” We just got back from a conference, and they’re talking in the twos. Bankers are talking in the twos. I don’t even know what a three looks like, and I sure don’t know what a two looks like. So, I can’t imagine that kind of stupidity.

BD: So, where are we in the credit cycle?
JA: Well, two schools of thought. One, that we’re in a ten-year cycle, and it’s time for a downturn.

BD: Just because it’s time.
JA: Just because it’s time. Johnny’s thought is that we were in an eight-year cycle with [President Barack] Obama, and he didn’t do one thing to help business. Absolutely zero things to help any kind of business at all. Didn’t know what he was doing. Nice guy. Be a great guy to drink beer with. Had no clue. And then here comes [President Donald] Trump. So, did the cycle die with Obama and start with Trump? That’s my theory. My theory is that [the Obama] cycle died, and we’re in the Trump cycle. Now, if we have a downturn, if something happens somewhere, he’s going to do everything he can to get reelected, right? So, he’s going to try to keep this economy rolling. But if we have a downturn, it’s not going to be anything like ’08, ’09.

The regulators blame construction for the [financial crisis]. It wasn’t construction that caused the crash. It was the lenders and the developers that caused the crash, because nobody put any money in a deal. Nobody had any equity in a deal. I remember many times, my CEO, I’d say, “See if you can get us 10%.” No. [The customer] got it done for 100% financing. If you want the deal, they give it to you. But it’s 100% financing. There wasn’t any money in the deal. There was no money in those deals, and when the music stopped, they just pitched the keys to the bankers, and here went the liquidation process. I was involved in it, too. I did some of it myself. So, I’m not the brilliant banker that skated that. I was involved in it. Not proud of that, but I learned from that lesson. I learned from that lesson.

Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time, because our people want to match what somebody else did. That’s my toughest job. And a lot of them think I’m an ass because I hold so tight to that. Now, let me tell you. This is my largest asset. This is my baby in lots of respects. I have lots of my employees that are vested in this company. I have lots of shareholders, local Arkansas shareholders that are vested. We have created more millionaires in Arkansas than J.B. Hunt [Transport Services], or Walmart, or Tyson Foods. Individual millionaires, because they believed in us and invested with us, and I am very proud of that.

The Year Ahead in Banking Regulation

Although it is difficult to predict whether Congress or the federal banking agencies would be willing to address in a meaningful way any banking issues in an election year, the following are some of the areas to watch for in 2020.

Community Reinvestment Act. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. issued a proposed rule in December 2019 to revise and modernize the Community Reinvestment Act. The rule would change what qualifies for CRA credit, what areas count for CRA purposes, how to measure CRA activity and how to report CRA data. While the analysis of the practical impact on stakeholders is ongoing and could require consideration of facts and circumstances of individual institutions, the proposed rule may warrant particular attention from two groups of stakeholders as it becomes finalized: small banks and de novo applicants.

First, for national and state nonmember banks under $500 million, the proposed rule offers the option of staying with the current CRA regime or opting into the new one. The Federal Reserve Board did not join the OCC and the FDIC in the proposed rule, so CRA changes would not affect state member banks as proposed. As small banks weigh the costs and benefits of opting in, the calculus may be further complicated by political factors beyond the four corners of the rule itself.

Second, a number of changes in the proposed rule could impact deposit insurance applicants seeking de novo bank or ILC charters, including those related to assessment areas and strategic plans.

Brokered Deposits. The FDIC issued a proposed rule in December 2019 to revise brokered deposits regulations. While the proposed rule does not represent a wholesale revamp of the regulatory framework for brokered deposits — which would likely require statutory changes — some of the changes could expand the primary purpose exception in the definition of deposit broker and establish an administrative process for obtaining FDIC determination that the primary purpose exception applies in a particular case. Also, the new administrative process could offer clarity to banks that are unsure about whether to classify certain deposits as brokered.

LIBOR Transition. The London Interbank Offered Rate, a reference rate used throughout the financial system that proved vulnerable to manipulation, may no longer be available after 2021. The U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority announced in 2017 its intention to no longer compel panel banks to contribute to the determination of LIBOR beyond 2021. In the U.S., the Financial Stability Oversight Council has flagged LIBOR as an issue in its annual Congressional report every year since 2012. Its members stepped up their rhetoric in 2019 to pressure the financial services industry to prepare for transition away from LIBOR to a new reference rate, one of which is the Secured Overnight Financing Rate, or SOFR, that was selected by the Alternative Reference Rates Committee.

For banks in 2020, it is likely that federal bank examiners, whose agency heads are all members of the FSOC, will increasingly incorporate LIBOR preparedness into exams if they have not done so already. In addition, regulators in New York are requiring submission of LIBOR transition plans by March 23, 2020.

The scope of work to effectuate a smooth transition could be significant, depending on the size and complexity of an institution. It ranges from an accurate inventory of all contracts that reference LIBOR to devising a plan and adopting fallback language for different types of obligations (such as bilateral loans, syndicated loans, floating rate notes, derivatives and retail products), not to mention developing strategies to mitigate litigation risk. Despite some concerns about the suitability of SOFR as a LIBOR replacement, including a possible need for a credit spread adjustment as well as developing a term SOFR, which is in progress, LIBOR transition will be an area of regulatory focus in 2020.

Avoid the Risk of Complacency


growth-5-10-19.pngBank directors have a golden opportunity to position their banks for future growth and prepare them for change—if they can resist the lull of complacency, according to speakers at the opening day of Bank Director’s 2019 Bank Board Training Forum on May 9.

The current economic environment remains benign, as regulators have paused interest rate increases and credit quality remains pristine, says Joseph Fenech, managing principal and head of research at Hovde Group. Further, he argues that banks today are better equipped to withstand a future economic downturn.

But speakers throughout the day say the risk is that board members may feel lulled by their banks’ current performance and miss their chance to position these institutions for future growth.

“We’re going through the good years in banking. I would argue your biggest competitor is complacency,” says Don MacDonald, chief marketing officer at MX Technologies. He adds that bank boards needs to be asking hard questions about the future despite today’s positive operating environment.

Banks are grappling with the rapid pace of change and technology, shifting customer demographics and skills gaps at the executive and board levels. Speakers during the conference provided a variety of ways that directors can address these concerns with an eye toward future growth.

One way is to redefine how community banks think about their products and their markets, according to Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors. Shevlin says many community banks face competition from firms outside of their geographic marketplace. In response, some community banks are moving away from a geographic community and toward affinity, or common bond, groups. These firms have identified products or loans they excel at and have expanded their reach to those affinity customers. He also advises banks to examine how their products stack up to competing products. He uses the example of checking accounts, pointing out that large banks and financial technology firms sometimes offer rewards or personal financial management advice for these accounts.

“Everyone talks about customer experience, but fixing the customer experience of an obsolete product is a complete waste of money,” he says.

Another challenge for boards is the makeup of the board itself. Directors need to have a skill set that is relevant to the challenges and opportunities a bank faces. Today, directors are concerned about how the bank will respond to technology, increase the diversity of their boards and remain relevant to the next generation of bank customers, says J. Scott Petty, managing partner of financial services at Chartwell Partners, an executive search firm.

He challenges directors to consider the skills and experiences they will need in a few years, as well as how confident they are that they have the right board and leadership to run the bank.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight. It has to be planned for,” he says. “Board composition should reflect the goals of the financial institution.”

Banks can resist complacency with their culture, according to Robert Hill, Jr., CEO of South State Corp. Hill says there is never a point in time when “you’ve got it made and your bank is cruising.” Various headwinds come and go, but the overarching theme behind the bank’s challenges is that pace of change, need for customer engagement and competition are all increasing.

In response, Hill says the bank is very selective about who they hire, and looks for passion, values and engagement as well as specific skills. South State prioritizes soundness, profitability and growth—in that order—and wraps its cultural fabric around and throughout the company. A large part of that is accomplished through leadership, and the accountability that goes with it.

“If the culture is not strong and foundation is not strong, it will be much harder for a company to evolve,” he says.

Will More Banks Form this Uncommon Board Committee?


committee-2-22-19.pngIt wasn’t in response to a cybersecurity event or a nudge from regulators that prompted Huntington Bancshares’ board to create a Significant Events Committee in early 2018.

Instead, says Dave Porteous, lead director at the $108 billion bank based in Columbus, Ohio, it was old-fashioned governance principles that drove Huntington’s board to establish the ad hoc committee responsible for responding to the biggest risk faced by banks today: cybersecurity threats.

“Particularly over the last 10 years, the world is changing so quickly it has really become incumbent upon all boards, in my view, to continually be evaluating their governance structure and whether or not they need to make adjustments … to how the world is changing,” Porteous says.

Ask any bank executive or director right now to name the things that cause them to lose sleep at night and cybersecurity will almost invariably be at the top of the list.

Millions of personal records have already been compromised globally, and it can cost even a small bank millions of dollars to rectify a single cyber event. Yet, while it is a common topic in boardrooms, it hasn’t yielded widespread governance restructuring at banks across the United States.

Bank Director’s 2018 Technology Survey found that 93 percent of the 161 chief bank executives, senior technology officers and directors said cybersecurity is an issue of focus by their board.

But a 2018 analysis by Harvard Law School found that just 7 percent of all S&P 500 companies have separate technology committees, though 29 percent of large public bank holding companies above $10 billion in assets have set up just such a thing. This is significant because, as the study noted, cybersecurity is often the responsibility of the technology committee.

Significant events have over time produced mandated changes in corporate structure, like the requirement in Dodd-Frank requiring banks above $10 billion in assets to have a separate risk committee, or the requirement in Sarbanes-Oxley that an audit committee oversee a bank’s independent auditor.

But Porteous argues that banks should not wait for changes in the law to force them into structural changes. The changes should emerge instead from ongoing conversations at institutions about new trends and threats.

“To me the critical thing is constantly be assessing and challenging yourself as a board on the way in which you govern and not to be afraid to make adjustments,” Porteous says. “In other words, create committees to address the current or upcoming issues that enhance the focus (of the board).”

For Huntington, the establishment of the Significant Events Committee was years in the making, but finally came after the board realized it was having similar discussions about the same topic at the board level and in separate committees.

It was a natural thing for us to take these discussions we were having, both at the board meeting and various committee-level meetings, and then decide that we were spending a significant amount of time in those discussions that it was going to be critically important,” Porteous says.

When formed, the committee included Huntington CEO Stephen Steinour, who chaired the committee; the lead director; the chairs of the technology, risk and audit committees and the “lead cyber director,” the 2018 company proxy said. The committee has since been folded into the broader Technology Committee because of overlapping skill sets, Porteous says, but the bank can reestablish it or other ad hoc committees as necessary.

One such committee was Huntington’s Integration Committee, created when the bank acquired FirstMerit Corp. in 2016. The committee met three times in 2017 after the acquisition and was later dissolved.

But it’s not just cybersecurity or M&A that should qualify as a significant event worthy of a board’s attention. Recurring natural disasters, for instance, including hurricanes in the Southeast and wildfires in the West are examples that might merit a similar response.

Whatever the issue, Porteous suggests boards continually assess their governance structure through annual board-level assessments or just paying attention to what’s in the newspaper every day.

“It’s critical to make those adjustments or adapt to the changing world,” Porteous says.

A Regulator’s Advice on Vetting Tech Companies


regulator-12-13-18.pngAs a microcosm of the banking sector and the broader economy, North Carolina provides an interesting glimpse at some of the trends and issues impacting banks nationwide.

“North Carolina’s banks are strong and benefiting from a robust economy,” says Ray Grace, who has served as the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks since 2013. “A sign of the good times for banking here is the interest we’ve seen in this cycle from out-of-state banks buying their way into North Carolina markets.”

Out-of-state banks making recent acquisitions in North Carolina include Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based F.N.B. Corp., and two Tennessee banks: Pinnacle Financial Partners, in Nashville, and First Horizon National Corp., in Memphis.

As the state’s banks consolidate, there is interest in opening new banks—the first since the financial crisis.

North Carolina also boasts a burgeoning technology sector, including the bank operating system nCino, based in Wilmington, and payment solutions provider AvidXchange, digital banking provider Zenmonics and IT consulting firm Levvel—all based in Charlotte.

In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Grace explains why he’s seeing more interest in opening de novo banks in the state, shares his advice for banks exploring fintech partnerships and weighs in on prospective challenges for the industry.

BD: North Carolina just chartered its first de novo bank in a decade, with American Bank & Trust in Monroe, North Carolina. The Charlotte Observer reported you believe there’s more interest in opening new banks in your state. What’s driving that interest, and do you expect more activity to result from that interest?

RG: During the so-called Great Recession, the traditional economic drivers for bank formations disappeared. The economic downturn increased credit risks from borrowers, monetary policy wrung the margins out of lending, and the predictable tightening of the regulatory screws increased both the cost and the complexity of banking. Normally, we would have seen a faster return of de novo activity, but this was of course no normal recession, and fittingly, it was no normal recovery. Rather than the “V-shaped” recovery we had seen following previous downturns, this was the dreaded “L-shaped” variety, prolonging the drought.

On the heels of an epic consolidation trend, many North Carolina markets, including some that had been historically very supportive of community banks, lost those banks. As with previous consolidation episodes, this has left voids in these markets, particularly in rural areas. At the same time, we have seen a strong, decisive uptick in the economy through much of the state, a gradual return to normalizing interest rates, and, mirabile dictu, the beginnings of a swing of the regulatory pendulum toward a somewhat less restrictive environment. All these factors have contributed to the return of industry profitability and made the banking model attractive once again.

BD: Banks have been increasingly working with fintech firms to better expand and improve their own products and services, but properly vetting younger tech companies can be tricky. Do you have any advice for banks exploring fintech partnerships?

RG: Banks will need to embrace new technologies if they are to remain viable. That said, they need to focus on being cutting edge, but not bleeding edge. There is a dizzying array of gee-whiz products being introduced now, and it’s important to be careful in what you choose to implement.

Like a lot of advice, mine is more easily given than followed, but start with the fundamentals. What [or] who are your markets? What are you offering those markets and customers in the way of products and services, and why? What is trending, and in what directions? How does all this fit in with your business plan? Does your business plan still make sense? If not, change it.

In light of the foregoing, is your management team and board adequate to your bank’s current and future needs? For example, do you have a chief technology officer? A tech-savvy director or two?

Know what is available, [and] study and carefully assess the alternatives that fit the needs of your business plan. Discard applications or products that do not enhance customer value and the quality of their experience—while not breaking the bank.

What existing bank systems must be accessed by the new application? What firewalls or other protections are provided for access, data and systems security?

What is the financial strength of the company you are contracting with? What is their capacity to support the application? Do they have a track record with other banks? What would be the consequences to your operations in the event of failure of the vendor? Who owns the code in that event, and who could take over support?

Not long ago, there were any number of fintech startups with interesting offerings but limited resources and infrastructure, which made them risky to engage with. The good news is that’s changing, and clearly it is better to deal with companies that have some legs, financially and organizationally.

BD: Is there anything else you think is important that boards be aware of heading into 2019?

RG: Change, or the failure to meet its challenges, is the single greatest existential risk to banking as we know it. However, boards cannot afford to lose focus on more traditional risks. There is an old banking axiom that the worst of loans are made in the best of times. These are some pretty good times, and we are beginning to see some troubling signs that memories are short. Among those I would cite are the rising prevalence of “covenant light” loans and other structural concessions on the commercial side, and 100 percent financing in both the commercial and mortgage lending spaces. Some in Washington are again talking about the need to increase access to affordable housing. Déjà vu all over again?

Interest rates are likely to continue to rise, albeit at a modest rate. I think this is a good thing for the industry and the economy, but it will require an increased emphasis on sound funds management policies and practices on both sides of the balance sheet.

Our banking industry has always faced challenges: the Great Depression, disintermediation and the thrift crisis of the 80s, the repeal of Regulation Q, the Great Recession and resultant Dodd Frank Act, and a host of others. Yet, the industry has survived and reinvented itself time and again. Unfortunately, banks have also been the target of damaging criticism from Washington, sometimes for good reason but too often for political motivation. Restoring the public trust tarnished by this criticism will play a critical role in ensuring the industry’s future. We need to be reminded that banks are special. That they are the only industry that “creates” money. And that they are the place where people have traditionally gone when they wanted to buy a home or a car, or start a business. In a very real sense, banks are where people go to make their dreams come true. That’s a powerful story. It’s up to banks to tell it and to make it so.

Should You Buy, Sell Or Do Neither?


acquire-10-23-18.pngShould you acquire or be acquired? Some community banks are electing to do neither, and instead are attempting to forge a different path – pursuing niche business models. Each of these business models comes with its own execution and business risks. All of them, however, come with the same regulatory risk – whether the bank’s regulators will challenge or be supportive of the changes in the business model.

Some community banks are developing partnerships with non-bank financial services, or fintech, companies – companies that may have created an innovative financial product or delivery method but need a bank partner to avoid spending millions of dollars and years of time to comply with state licensing requirements. These partnerships not only drive revenue for the bank, but can also – if properly structured – drive customers as well. WebBank is a prime example of the change this model can bring. As of the close of 2007, WebBank had only $23 million in assets and $1 million in annual net income. Ten years later, WebBank had grown to $628 million in assets and $27.5 million in annual net income, a 39 percent annualized growth in both metrics.

Following the recession, bank regulators have generally been supportive of community banks developing new business models, either on their own or through the use of third party technology. As the OCC notes, technological changes and rapidly evolving consumer preferences are reshaping the financial services industry at an unprecedented rate, creating new opportunities to provide customers with more access to new product options and services. The OCC has outlined the principles to prudently manage risks associated with offering new products and services, noting that banks are motivated to implement operational efficiencies and pursue innovations to grow income.

Even though the new business model may not involve an acquisition, the opening of a new branch, a change in control, or another action that requires formal regulatory approval, a bank should never forge ahead without consulting with its regulators well before launching, or even announcing, its plan. The last thing your board will want is a lawsuit from unhappy investors if regulators shut down or curb the projected growth contemplated by a new business model.

Before introducing new activities, management and the board need to understand the risks and costs and should establish policies, procedures and controls for mitigating these risks. They should address matters such as adequate protection of customer data and compliance with consumer protection, Bank Secrecy Act, and anti-money laundering laws. Unique risks exist when a bank engages in new activities through third-party relationships, and these risks may be elevated when using turnkey and white-label products or services designed for minimal involvement by the bank in administering the new activities.

The bank should implement “speed bumps” – early warning indicators to alert the board to issues before they become problems. These speed bumps – whether voluntary by the bank or involuntary at the prompting of regulators – may slow the bank’s growth. If the new business model requires additional capital, the bank should pay close attention to whether the projected growth necessary to attract the new investors can still be achieved with these speed bumps.

Bank management should never tell their examiners that they don’t understand the bank’s new business model. Regardless of how innovative the new business model may be, the FDIC and other bank regulators will still review the bank’s performance under their standard examination methods and metrics. The FDIC has noted that modifying these standards to account for a bank’s “unique” business plan would undermine supervisory consistency, concluding that if a bank effectively manages the strategic risks, the FDIC’s standard examination methods and metrics will properly reflect that result.

Banks also need to be particularly wary of using third-party products or services that have the effect of helping the bank to generate deposits. Even if the deposits are stable and low-cost, and even if the bank does not pay fees tied to the generation of the deposits, the FDIC may say they are brokered deposits. Although the FDIC plans to review its brokered deposit regulations, it interprets the current regulations very broadly. Under the current regulations, even minor actions taken by a third party that help connect customers to a bank which offers a product the customer wants can cause any deposits generated through that product to be deemed brokered deposits.

Community banks definitely can be successful without acquiring or being acquired. However, before choosing an innovative path a bank should know how its regulators will react, and the board should recognize that although regulators may generally be supportive, they do not like to be surprised.

Protecting Elderly Customers from Financial Abuse


regulation-2-28-18.pngRegulators across the financial services industry remain keenly focused on protecting the interests of an aging population, especially where there may be signs of diminished cognitive capacity. Banks should consider various operational and compliance measures to guard against elder financial exploitation. While bank staff are on the front lines in protecting elderly customers, bank directors play a pivotal, top-down role in emphasizing a culture of vigilance, and in defining policy and strategy to combat elder financial fraud.

Be Aware of the Problem
Frontline personnel in branches and call centers are the first and last lines of defense to prevent elder financial exploitation. These personnel are the most likely to interact with elderly clients, many of whom are more inclined to conduct their financial transactions in a branch or over the phone, rather than electronically. Conducting periodic training that highlights real-world scenarios will help personnel recognize the signs of elder financial exploitation. An additional training element that may prove beneficial, but that often goes overlooked, is educating personnel on the psychological and emotional aspects of elder fraud. A customer’s diminished cognitive capacity or potential confusion, fear or embarrassment may be central to a perpetrator’s ability to prey on an elderly client.

Empower Employees to Speak Up
Identifying signs of potential financial exploitation of elderly clients is a great start. However, it is critical that personnel escalate suspicious activity through the proper channels within the bank. Personnel may be reluctant to follow through with escalating an event that is not blatantly fraudulent, perhaps out of fear of delaying a transaction or potentially embarrassing or even angering a client. However, speaking up is prudent, even when in doubt.

Develop the Three Ps
Banks should develop policies, processes and procedures that are easy to understand and follow.

Policies: Clearly define your organization’s views, guidelines and stated mission with regard to elder financial fraud.

Processes: Identify the mechanisms in place to effectively carry out the bank’s stated policies. This may include pre-set withdrawal limits (either daily or monthly), disbursement waiting periods or communications with external sources, such as a trusted contact person for the client, local adult protective services (APS) or law enforcement.

Procedures: Describe the precise steps that personnel should follow to execute the identified processes. What must a teller do in the event that a withdrawal request exceeds an established limit? Who does a call center representative contact in the event of suspicious activity, and what information should be provided? What information should personnel provide to a trusted contact person? What reports must be filed with authorities?

Report Suspected Exploitation
Banks are subject to various reporting requirements at the state and federal levels that relate to suspected elder financial fraud. National banks, state banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other financial institutions must file a suspicious activity report (SAR) with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) upon detection of a known or suspected crime involving a transaction. FinCEN has provided related guidance, and the electronic SAR form includes an “elder financial exploitation” category of suspicious activity. Several states’ laws and regulations also require that banks report suspected elder abuse to APS or law enforcement.

Banks may consider permitting clients to identify a “trusted contact person” that the bank may contact upon reasonable suspicion of potential exploitation. This is consistent with a March 2016 advisory from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Privacy concerns exist when disclosing customer information to a third party. However, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) permits disclosure of nonpublic personal information with customer consent. Regulation P under GLBA also grants an exception to the notice and opt-out requirements to protect against fraud or unauthorized transactions, or to comply with federal, state or local laws, rules and other applicable legal requirements. Additionally, 2013 Interagency Guidance “clarifies that reporting suspected financial abuse of older adults to appropriate local, state or federal agencies does not, in general, violate the privacy provisions of the GLBA or its implementing regulations.” A safe harbor from liability also exists for a bank that voluntarily discloses a possible violation of law or suspicious activity by filing a SAR. Bank personnel are also protected from liability in this situation.

Regulators at all levels of, and sectors within, the financial services industry continue to prioritize the interests of elderly customers, especially where there may be signs of diminished cognitive capacity. The banking community has gone to great lengths to support these efforts, and bank directors will continue to play an important role in defining internal policies and emphasizing the importance of vigilance in this area.

2018 Bank M&A Survey: Will Bank M&A Pick Up?


merger-survey-12-4-17.pngDriven in part by expectations for modest growth in the U.S. economy, almost half of the bank executives and directors participating in the 2018 Bank M&A Survey believe that the current environment for bank M&A is more favorable for deals, and 54 percent say their institution is likely to purchase another bank by the close of 2018. U.S. banks announced 191 deals through October 27, 2017, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence, and is on track to close the year on par with 2016, which closed with 241 deals. With that in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that 40 percent expect a stagnant deal environment.

The 2018 Bank M&A Survey, conducted through September and in early October of 2017, is sponsored by Crowe Horwath LLP. It features the views of 189 chief executive officers, directors and senior executives of U.S. banks on the U.S. economy, the bank M&A environment and their own M&A strategies.

The unfettered optimism felt by the banking industry in the wake of the election of expected deregulator-in-chief Donald Trump has been tempered with the reality that regulatory relief largely hinges on the actions of the U.S. Congress. One-third of bank executives and board members lack confidence that the Republican majority will be able to push through regulatory relief for the banking industry by the end of 2018. But hope springs eternal for most bank leaders. Fifty-nine percent expect modest relief for the industry.

Where President Trump and his administration can best impact the nation’s banks is through his appointment of regulators. Fifty-eight percent believe that Donald Trump has had a positive impact on the banking industry. As of November 30, 2017, Trump has appointed Randy Quarles, who’s viewed as a moderate deregulator, as vice chairman of supervision for the Federal Reserve, and former OneWest CEO Joseph Otting as Comptroller of the Currency. Janet Yellen will leave the Fed when she is replaced as chairman by current Fed board member Jerome Powell in February 2018. Trump has nominated economist Marvin Goodfriend to fill an open seat on the Fed Board of Governors, and announced he will nominate Fifth Third Bancorp Chief Legal Officer Jelena McWilliams to chair the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The permanent leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—not addressed in the survey—is also in flux. Ninety-seven percent of respondents believe that these regulatory appointees will be more sympathetic to the banking industry.

Additional Findings

  • Forty-four percent indicate that rising bank valuations have made it more difficult for their bank to compete for or attract suitable acquisition targets.
  • When asked about the kinds of acquisitions the bank is willing to make, 83 percent say their board and management team would consider a market extension, and 78 percent an in-market deal. Twenty-eight percent would consider an out-of-market deal.
  • Few—just 7 percent—are likely to acquire a fintech company by the end of 2018.

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