Time to Automate All Bank Processes

The uncertain economic environment, with a recession likely on the horizon and inflation driving up costs, has given banks a unique opportunity: revisiting their existing compliance and operational systems, and exploring long-term, scalable solutions in response to looming and increasing regulatory pressure.

Leveraging machine learning and automation to power digital transformation can address the concerns that keep bank directors up at night — especially since financial institutions may be expected to begin providing more data over the coming months. This comes at a time when banks are dealing with a number of external challenges; however, bank directors know they cannot skimp on adherence to strict compliance requirements. Missing a revenue goal is unfortunate, but from what we’ve heard from our customers, missing a compliance requirement can be a devastating blow to the business.

Increasing Regulatory Risk
Banks and other lenders may encounter financial strain in adding more compliance staff to their teams to address new regulations. Among them, Section 1071 of the Dodd-Frank Act requires financial institutions to report demographic information on small business loans. Regulators are reworking the Community Reinvestment Act. In response, banks are considering how they can leverage automated compliance systems for fair lending, loan servicing and collections.

Bankers are quick to acknowledge that the manual processes involved in data verification should be eliminated if their institutions have any hope of staying ahead of the curve. Furthermore, labor shortages and increased competition for talent has increased costs associated with these tasks — yet their necessity is imperative, given regulatory scrutiny.

As loan originations decrease during an economic slowdown or recession, it may look like delinquency rates are increasing as the ratio of delinquent loans to originations increases — even with no notable changes in delinquency cases. The increasing ratio could trigger scrutiny from the regulators, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If that happens, regulators look into whether the borrower should have received the loan in the first place, along with any fair lending bias concerns, and whether the bank followed appropriate procedures. Regulators will scrutinize the bank’s loan servicing and collections compliance procedures. Given that traditional manual reviews can be more inconsistent and vulnerable to human error, this becomes an incredibly risky regulation environment, especially where data integrity is concerned.

To mitigate risk and increase operational efficiency, banks can use end-to-end document processors to collect, verify and report data in a way that adheres to existing and pending regulation. Implementing these processes can eliminate a large portion of time and labor costs, saving banks from needing to recruit and hire additional compliance professionals every time fair lending and servicing requirements become more demanding.

Automated Processing
Lenders like Oportun, a digital banking platform powered by artificial intelligence, have found that leveraging intelligent document processing has reduced the cost of handling physical documents and traditional mail by 80%, increased margins, lowered instances of human error and improved data integrity. Enhancing customer experiences and providing quality data are crucial for Oportun; this makes their operational goals more cost-effective and scalable, and increases the capacity for Oportun’s team.

“[Automation] has helped us establish some strong controls around processing mail and servicing our customers,” Veronica Semler, vice president of operations at Oportun, says. “It’s reduced the risk of mail getting lost … it has increased our efficiency and made things easier for our team members in our stores.”

Institutions that leverage automated systems and machine learning for compliance can reduce labor costs, provide customers with high quality, efficient service and deliver accurate data to regulators. This provides companies like Oportun, which was an early adopter of machine learning, with an advantage over competitors that use traditional manual review methods.

Implementing document automation into existing systems allows banks to address compliance concerns while laying the groundwork for growth. Automation systems provide the tools for banks to reduce friction in lending and operations, enhance their controls and reduce human error — giving boards confidence that the bank can provide accurate, quality data ahead of any new fair lending and servicing regulations. Now is the time for boards and executives to recession-proof their banks and facilitate long-term success by investing in automation for document processing.

Commit to Process and Framework in the New Year

The challenging last three years have done nothing but reinforce our belief that the best-performing community banks, over the long run, anchor their balance sheet management in a set of principles — not in divining the future.

They organize their principles into a coherent decision-making methodology that evaluates all capital allocation alternatives across multiple scenarios, over time, on a level playing field. Unfortunately, however, far too many community bankers rely on forecasts of interest rates and economic conditions, which are then engraved into budgets, compensation programs and guidance provided to stock analysts and asset-liability providers.

If we’ve learned anything recently, it’s that nobody can predict rates — not even the members of the Federal Open Market Committee. A year ago, its median forecast for fed funds today was approximately 0.80%; the reality of 4.50% is 370 basis points above this “prediction.”

Even slight differences between predicted and actual rates can result in significant variances from a bank’s budget, which can pressure management towards reactive strategies based on near-term accounting income, liquidity or capital. We’ve long argued that this approach will usually accumulate less reward, and more risk, than proponents ever expect.

Community banking is challenging, but it needn’t be bewildering. The following decision-making principles can clarify your path and energize your execution:

Know where you are.
Net interest income and economic value simulations in isolation present incomplete and often conflicting portrayals of a bank’s risk and reward profile. To know where your bank is, hold yourself accountable to all cash flows across multiple rate scenarios over time, incorporating both dividends paid to a horizon and the economic value of the bank at that horizon. This framework produces a multi-scenario view of returns to shareholders , across a range of possible futures. Making capital allocation decisions in the context of this profile is everything; developing and consulting it is far more inspiring and leverageable than a mere asset-liability exercise.

Refuse to speculate on rates.
Plenty of wealth has been lost looking through the wrong end of the kaleidoscope. Nobody can predict rates with any utility — not economists, not even the FOMC. Make each marginal capital allocation in the context of your shareholder return profile, avoiding unacceptable risk in any scenario while seeking asymmetric reward in others. The idea is to stack the deck in the bank’s favor, not to guess the next card.

For example, imagine your institution is poised to create more shareholder wealth in rates down scenarios than up, a common reality in the current environment. Should you consider trading some of this for outsized benefits in the opposite direction, or not? Assess potential approaches across multiple scenarios: compare short assets versus long liabilities, test combinations or turn the dial through simple derivative strategies to asymmetrically adjust returns or create functional liquidity.

Price options appropriately.
Banks sell options continually, but seldom consider their compensation. They often price loans to win the business, rather than in comparison to wholesale alternatives, and they often forgo enforceable prepayment penalties. Less forgivably, many banks sell options too cheaply in their securities portfolios, in obtaining wholesale funding or in setting servicing rates. Know who owns each option the bank is short, and determine whether it is priced appropriately by comparing it to possible alternatives and measuring the impact on the bank’s forward-looking return profile.

Evaluate risk and regulatory positions.
To make capital allocation decisions prospectively, principle-based decision-makers assess their risk and regulatory positions prospectively as well. The bank’s enterprise risk management platform should offer an objective assessment of its current capital, asset quality, liquidity and sensitivity to market risk positions, and simulate these on a prospective basis also. The only way to determine if a strategy aligns with management’s specific risk tolerance is to have clarity and confidence in its pro forma impact on risk and regulatory positions. For many, establishing secured borrowing lines and reviewing contingency funding plans in 2023 will be prudent steps.

These principles are timeless — only the conclusions they lead to will vary over time. Those institutions that have already woven them into their organizational fabric are facing 2023 and beyond with confidence; those adopting them now for the first time can soon experience the same.

Developing a Digital-First Approach to Risk Management

The world has leaned further and further into the digital realm, largely thanks to a younger, more tech-dependent generation.

The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a years-long push toward online and mobile banking use. Does your institution have a true digital banking strategy to deliver simple and secure digital banking services to your customers? As the primary channel through which customers conduct nearly all their banking activities, digital is your bank now.

But as more consumers turn to digital channels, cybercriminals are following suit — as demonstrated by increasing incidents of fraud and unauthorized account access. To mitigate cybersecurity threats and protect your customers, your bank’s risk management strategy now requires a digital-first approach.

Risk Management in Digital Banking
Even though customers demand digital transformation, delivering frictionless experiences comes with certain inherent challenges and risks. Once you identify these hurdles, you can mitigate them so that your institution can move forward.

The most pressing digital banking risk management issues fall into two categories: overcoming organizational challenges and mitigating regulatory risks. Each of them has several considerations and variables your institution should consider.

Overcoming Organizational Challenges

Outdated corporate culture: Entrenched processes and perspectives can stall your digital transformation. Promoting a more forward-thinking culture must start at the top and flow down in order for the entire institution to embrace change. Confirm your bank’s risk management personnel are onboard, and involve them from the beginning to ensure a secure and safe transformation.

Refocusing of key positions: Some of your bank’s key positions may change in response to digital transformation. Digitization may shift the focus of some, but these positions are still critical to the institution’s success. For example, instead of manually performing tasks, employees working in an operations department may begin focusing on automating processes for the institution.

Resistance to change: Many institutions have executives that will champion progress, while others are resistant to the changes required to adopt a digital-first approach. Identify the champions at your institution and empower them to lead your digital transformation.

Lack of innovative thought leadership: It will take true out-of-the-box thinking to digitally compete with the big banks and emerging fintech companies. Encourage that kind of modern thinking within your institution.

Misguided beliefs: Quash any notions that a mobile banking app is the only component of a digital strategy, or that a digital-first approach means that personalization is no longer needed. Back-end operations and internal processes must fully support a digital environment that effectively identifies and fulfills individual customer needs based on their actions and behaviors — without adding friction to the customer experience.

Mitigating Regulatory Risks

Digital compliance and cybersecurity: Banks operating in a digital environment must still comply with all applicable laws and regulations. This includes paying attention to uniquely digital processes that are covered under specific rules, such as electronically signing documents per the E-Sign Act. To mitigate risk, institutions should invest in technology designed to ensure compliance and strengthen cybersecurity.

Third-party risk management: Many banks are outsourcing all or part of their digital strategy to fintechs and other third-party vendors out of necessity. But institutions are still ultimately responsible for all functions, whether they are performed internally or externally. A robust vendor management program is key to avoiding unqualified third-party providers. A provider must understand applicable regulatory requirements, be able to adhere to them and guarantee compliance.

Fraud and identity theft: The increase in banking without face-to-face interaction can increase the risk of synthetic identity fraud, traditional identity theft and account takeovers. Your bank should meet these challenges by reviewing and strengthening your Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML), know your customer (KYC), customer due diligence (CDD), cybersecurity and other relevant compliance programs. Digitizing internal processes will result in more available data as well as the ability to use AI to monitor customer behaviors and efficiently identify potential fraud.

While digitization can increase certain risks for banks that undertake such a transformation, enabling enhanced digital banking risk management to secure digital channels, mitigate risk and deliver a frictionless customer experience is worth the effort.

Seven Costs of Saying “No” to Cannabis Banking

Ask the typical bank executive why their institution isn’t providing banking services to state-legal cannabis-related businesses (CRBs), and you will likely hear a speedy retort along these lines:

“We’re not allowed to — it’s still federally illegal.”

“We would love to, but we don’t know enough about that industry to manage the risk.”

“We don’t think our customers would want our name and reputation associated with that.”

On the surface, these prudent practices make perfect sense. A complex legal landscape, inability to assess regulatory risk and desire to protect the institution’s reputation are compelling reasons to stay far away from cannabis-related proceeds. But there are hidden costs to saying “no” to cannabis banking. These hidden costs accrue to CRBs, the communities in which they are located, the financial institutions that avoid them and potentially society at large.

Community Risks

Community risks stem from direct and indirect sources. The obvious risks, such as the increased potential for crime and the resulting challenges to law enforcement, are frequently cited. The indirect risks are less obvious, such as a community’s inability to identify or collect appropriate taxes on CRB proceeds.

Cash on hand invites crimes of opportunity. A retail location that is known to have large volumes of cash on hand produces a seductive temptation for the criminal element.

Cash is easy to conceal from revenue officials. Fewer dollars in the public coffers are the inevitable outcome when revenue goes uncollected. In its “Taxing Cannabis” report, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy indicates that tax evasion and ongoing competition from illicit marijuana operations remain an ongoing concern in legal use states.

Opportunity Costs

Early adopters have demonstrated that the cannabis industry is willing and able to accept higher price points from financial institutions in exchange for the safety and convenience of obtaining traditional banking services. Your bank’s avoidance means forfeiting both short-term and long-term opportunities to generate fee income while giving others a head start on future business opportunities.

Cost of lost fee income. It is not uncommon to hear of small financial institutions generating multimillion-dollar annual fee income from CRB accounts. In less-established markets, accounts yield monthly fees based on their average deposit balances.

Cost of missing out. Just like its social media counterpart — FOMO or fear of missing out — COMO is real. If 5% to 10% of your peers are already banking CRBs, imagine what will happen as the next 10% step in. And then the next 10% after that. Before the real race has even begun, you’ve ceded some portion of the addressable market simply by not being present in the market today.

Economic Costs

The suppression of legal cannabis businesses weakens their potential to inform decisions and progress. Anecdotal and scientific evidence supports that mental and physical health benefits can be derived from responsibly sourced and properly administered cannabis-based products. Data from countries that are moving quickly to align public policy with sentiment and science on these issues indicates that sustainable economic benefits are possible.

Cost of falling behind in medical and other scientific research and advances. In 2018, 420Intel identified six countries for their cannabis research: Spain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Uruguay, the Netherlands and Israel. This type of research cannot be conducted in the United States because of federal prohibitions that require clearing multiple regulatory hurdles, at great cost.

Costs of pain and suffering to those in need of relief. Even if your personal belief sets don’t allow you to explore cannabis topics with an open mind, you need look no further than your media feeds or internet searches to find immeasurable examples of individuals who claim that using cannabis or cannabinoids have provided them with physical and mental health benefits.

Cost of lost economic growth potential. While exact numbers are hard to come by, there more than 110 studies taking place in Israel alone, funded at rates in the six and seven figures apiece. BNN Bloomberg reported that Canada’s legalized cannabis sector contributed $8.26 billion to its gross domestic product in its first 10 months of national legalization.

So before your bank decides the risks of saying “yes” to banking CRBs is still too high, pause to consider the risks you’re allowing to affect your institution and local community when you say “no.” Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at whether CRB banking is for you.

Good Corporate Governance Starts With the Articles and Bylaws


governance-11-14-16.pngJust as a good diet and regular exercise contribute to a healthy lifestyle, good corporate governance and board oversight often serve as the foundation for the health and stability of any corporate organization. Corporate governance is often a difficult concept to nail down. In the highly regulated banking industry, the importance of good corporate governance practices is significantly amplified due to the additional layer of regulatory risk that may not affect businesses in other industries.

Although good corporate governance is often associated with maintaining certain policies and procedures, such as guidelines, codes of conduct, committee charters, shareholder agreements and intercompany and tax sharing agreements, we routinely encounter financial institutions that ignore or overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of corporate governance: the articles of incorporation and bylaws. In fact, we experience many situations in which financial institutions have articles and bylaws that are significantly outdated and have not been revised to comply with current laws, regulations and other corporate best practices. Failure to keep these governing documents current can not only raises legal and regulatory concerns, but oftentimes compromises the ability of the management team to protect and preserve the interests of its shareholders.

A comprehensive review of the articles and bylaws is recommended, particularly if you have not conducted such a review in the past. Set forth below is a summary of certain terms and provisions that may be of particular interest to your management and board of directors.

Compliance With State Corporate Laws
State corporate laws provide the basic foundation for the conduct of business of most banks and bank holding companies. Over time, these state corporate laws are revised or replaced with more modern corporate statutes. Although the corporate laws may evolve over time, many financial institutions fail to adapt their articles and bylaws to conform to these changes. In many cases, we encounter articles and bylaws that reference outdated and repealed laws and statutes that could lead to questionable legal interpretations and uncertainty in many critical situations.

Limitation of Personal Liability and Indemnification of Directors and Officers
Most state corporate laws have provisions that permit a corporation to limit the personal liability of, and/or provide indemnification to, directors and officers pursuant to provisions in its articles or bylaws. Typically, the ability to limit liability and provide indemnification to directors and officers is eliminated in certain situations such as a breach of fiduciary duty or intentional misconduct. However, we routinely experience situations in which the limitation of liability and indemnification are either not addressed by the articles or bylaws or contain provisions that may not fully protect the interests of the management team.

Electronic Communications
As technology continues to evolve, many state corporate statutes have been revised to permit certain shareholder and director communications, such as notices of shareholder and director meetings, to be delivered in electronic format. Despite these statutory revisions, if your institution’s articles and bylaws require physical delivery of these notices, you might not be able to take advantage of these newer and less costly forms of communication.

Uncertificated Shares
As financial institutions continue to consolidate and increase their shareholder base, the use of third-party transfer agents is becoming more prevalent for the management of stock transfer records. Most transfer agents have implemented uncertificated book-entry systems as a means of recording stock ownership, which eliminates the need for physical stock certificates. However, it is not uncommon for the articles and bylaws to specifically require the issuance of physical stock certificates to their shareholders. Obviously, these provisions must be revised before implementing an uncertificated stock program.

In addition to the specific matters addressed above, some other important areas to consider when reviewing your articles and bylaws include the shareholders’ ability to call special meetings, the process for including shareholder proposals at annual or special meetings, the implementation of a classified board of directors, the process for the removal of directors, mandatory retirement age for directors, shareholder vote by written consent and a supermajority vote standard for certain article and bylaw amendments, such as limitation of liability and indemnification.

A review of your institution’s articles and bylaws is only one component of the broader corporate governance umbrella, but it is one of the more important and fundamental aspects of your board’s corporate governance responsibilities. Routine maintenance of these fundamental corporate documents will be a good start towards enhancing your institution’s overall corporate governance structure.