Three large bank acquisitions announced in the closing quarter of 2020 may signal a fundamental shift in how a growing number of regional banks envision the future.
While each deal is its own distinct story, there is a common thread that ties them together: the growing demand for scale in an industry undergoing a technological transformation that accelerated during the pandemic. Even large regional banks are hard pressed to afford the kind of technology investments that will help them keep pace with mega-banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., which spend billions of dollars a year between them on their own digital transformation.
In October, First Citizens BancShares acquired New York-based CIT Group. Valued at $2.2 billion, the deal will create a top 20 U.S. bank with over $100 billion in assets, and combines the Raleigh, North Carolina-based bank’s low-cost retail funding base with CIT’s national commercial lending platform.
The two companies are a good strategic fit, according to H. Rodgin Cohen, the senior chair at Sullivan & Cromwell, who represented CIT. “If you look at it from CIT’s perspective, you can finance your loans at a much-cheaper cost,” says Cohen in an interview. “From a First Citizen perspective, you have the ability to use that incredible funding base for new categories of relatively higher-yielding loans.”
But digital transformation of banking was an underlying factor in this deal, as increasing numbers of customers shift their transactions to online and mobile channels. The fact that the pandemic forced most banks to close their branches for significant periods of 2020 only accelerated that trend.
“There is enormous pressure to migrate to a more digital technology-driven approach — in society as a whole — but particularly in banking,” Cohen says. “The key is to be able to spread that technology cost, that transformational cost, across the broadest possible customer base. It doesn’t take a lot of direct savings on technology, simply by leveraging a broader customer base, to make a transaction of size really meaningful.”
A second scale-driven deal is PNC Financial Services Group’s $11.6 billion acquisition of BBVA USA, the U.S. arm of the Spanish bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria. Announced in mid-November, the deal will extend Pittsburgh-based PNC’s retail and middle-market commercial franchise — now based in the Mid-Atlantic, South and Midwest — to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California, with overlapping locations in Texas, Alabama and Florida. In a statement, PNC Chairman and CEO William Demchak said the acquisition provided the bank with the opportunity to “bring our industry-leading technology and innovative products and services to new markets and clients.”
The deal will create the fifth-largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $566 billion. But Demchak has made it clear in past statements that PNC needs to grow larger to compete in a consolidating industry dominated by the likes of JPMorgan and Bank of America.
Lastly, in a $6 billion deal announced in mid-December, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares is acquiring Detroit-based TCF Financial Corp. to form the tenth largest U.S. bank, with assets of approximately $170 billion. Chairman and CEO Stephen Steinour says the two companies are an excellent fit with similar cultures and strategies.
“It’s a terrific bank,” Steinour says in an interview. “I’ve known their chairman for a couple of decades. Many of our colleagues have friends there, or family members. We compete against them. We see how they operate. There’s a lot to like about what they’ve built.”
The acquisition will extend Huntington’s retail footprint to Minnesota, Colorado, Wisconsin and South Dakota, while deepening its presence in the large Chicago market. And with extensive overlapping operations in Michigan, Huntington expects the deal to yield approximately $490 million in cost saves, which is equivalent to 37% of TCF’s noninterest expense.
But this deal is predicated on much more than just anticipated cost saves, according to Steinour.
“What Apple and Google and Amazon are doing is teaching people how to become digitally literate and creating expectations,” he says. “And our industry is going to have to follow that in terms of matching those capabilities. This combination is an opportunity to accelerate and substantially increase our digital investment. We have to do more, and we have to go faster, because our customers are going to expect it.”
Steinour hedges on if these recent deals also signal that banking is entering a new phase of consolidation, in which regionals pair off to get bigger in a new environment where scale matters. But last year’s $66 billion merger of BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc. to form Truist Financial Corp. — currently the fifth-largest U.S. bank, although the post-merger PNC will drop it down a peg — was also driven by a perceived need for more scale. Senior executives at both companies said the primary impetus behind the deal was the ability to spread technology costs over a wider base.
But clearly, the need for scale was a factor for Huntington as well. “We’re investing heavily in this opportunity to combine two good companies, get a lot stronger, accelerate our investments and spread that over a much bigger customer base,” he says. “That makes eminent sense to us.”
As Steinour comments later, “We’ll be stronger together.”
Accelerating appraisals has become increasingly important as lenders strive to improve efficiency in today’s high-volume environment.
Appraisals are essential for safe mortgage originations. Covid-19 underlined the potential impact of modernizing appraisal practices, and increased the adoption of digitally enabled appraisal techniques, appraisal and inspection waivers, and collateral analytics.
Banks have numerous opportunities to improve and modernize their appraisal process and provide a better consumer experience, according to recent research sponsored by ServiceLink and its EXOS Technologies division and independently produced by Javelin Strategy & Research. The research highlights several actions that lenders can take to improve their valuation processes, based on the feedback of 1,500 single-family homeowners in March who obtained either a purchase mortgage, refinance mortgage, home equity loan/line of credit for their single-family home, or who sold a single-family home, on or after January 2018.
1. Implement digital mortgage strategies that streamline appraisal workflows. One of the most-compelling opportunities to make appraisals more efficient is at the very onset of the process: scheduling the appointment. Scheduling can be complicated by the number of parties involved in an on-site inspection, including a lender, appraiser, AMC, borrower and real estate agent. Today, two-thirds of consumers schedule their appointments over the phone. This process is inefficient, especially for large lenders and their service providers, and lacks the consistency of digital alternatives.
Lenders that offer digital appraisal scheduling capabilities provide a more-predictable and consistent service experience, and reduce the back-and-forth required to coordinate schedules among appraisers, borrowers, real estate agents and home sellers. Given younger consumers’ tendency to eschew phone calls in favor of digital interactions, it’s essential that the industry embraces multiple channels to communicate, so borrowers can interact with lenders and AMCs on their own terms.
2. Increase transparency in the appraisal process. Even after an appointment is scheduled, consumers typically receive limited details about the appraiser, what to expect during the appointment and how the appraisal factors into the overall mortgage process. For example, 61% of consumers received the appraiser’s contact information before the appointment; while only 20% were provided with the appraiser’s photo and 9% were told what type of car they will drive. Providing borrowers with more information about the appraisal appointment bolsters their confidence; information gaps can contribute to a less-satisfying experience. Nearly 20% of consumers said they were not confident or only somewhat confident about their appointment, while over 30% said the same about the names of the appraiser and AMC.
3. Focus on efficiency. Overall, 38% of consumers said the duration of the overall appraisal process contributed to a longer mortgage origination process; delays among purchase mortgage and home equity borrowers were even higher.
For example, about two-thirds of appraisal appointments required the consumer to wait for the appraiser to arrive within an hourslong window or even an entire day, as opposed to giving the consumer an exact time when the appointment will take place. Given this challenge, lenders and appraisal professionals that offer more-precise appointment scheduling can improve the consumer experiences and streamline the origination process.
4. Implement processes and technology that support innovative approaches to property inspections and valuations. Covid-19 highlighted the opportunity banks have to adopt valuation products that sit between fully automated valuations and traditional appraisals, such as valuation methods that combine third-party market data and consumer-provided photos and video of subject properties. This approach still relies on a human appraiser to analyze market data and subject-property
This concept is gaining traction in the mortgage industry. In the future, it’s conceivable the approach could be expanded with the use of artificial intelligence and virtual reality technologies.
No matter the method an appraiser uses to determine a property’s value, the collateral valuations process is fundamentally an exercise in collecting and analyzing data. Partnering with an innovative AMC allows lenders to take advantage of new techniques for completing this critical market function. You can view the full white paper here.
Record mortgage activity in 2020 has inspired many lenders that have traditionally managed their appraisal processes to look at working with an appraisal management company, or AMC.
Working with an AMC allows lenders to focus on their core competencies, which is essential in this demanding environment. While some are shifting entirely to an AMC model, others are considering a hybrid approach that utilizes their original panel but leverages the innovative technology of an AMC. Lenders can benefit from working with an AMC in the following areas:
1. National AMCs dedicate significant resources towards risk management and regulatory compliance Keeping up with evolving statutes, regulations and industry standards requires an extraordinary level of diligence and investment from institutions. For example, lenders with in-house panels must be able to demonstrate to regulators that the individuals managing their panel are isolated from the sales, operations and production functions of their businesses so there can be no question as to their impartiality. Lenders that use an AMC are relieved of this burden, because AMC appraisers are independent of the lending organization.
High-quality AMCs constantly invest in risk and compliance measures, including developing and implementing technology, systems and protocols to address a whole host of compliance needs. The best AMCs are poised to respond quickly to regulatory changes and incorporate new lender-driven requirements, policies and procedures.
2. AMCs reduce administrative oversight responsibilities Partnering with an AMC relieves lenders of the responsibilities and overhead related to maintaining and managing an appraiser panel, such as screening, selecting and boarding new appraisers; auditing for certifications, licenses and insurance; and scoring appraisers to ensure the most qualified appraiser is assigned to each order.
In addition to screening, onboarding and ongoing ranking, the best AMCs will require errors and omissions insurance. They also require or supply state and federal background checks for every appraiser. Premier AMCs go even further and invest in sophisticated score-carding across multiple disciplines to ensure that a highly qualified appraiser with the requisite skills and experience is selected for each appraisal.
3. Lenders benefit from the AMC’s technology and infrastructure The best AMCs tend to be on the leading edge of technology. They make ongoing, sizable investments into developing and implementing technology, streamlining their own processes and providing a better experience for clients. AMCs with a national presence work closely with their lender base, which helps them anticipate and quickly react to emerging challenges.
When clients across the country share their insights into what they want and what their customers expect from a technology perspective, AMCs can identify trends that might take an individual lender a little longer to recognize, and help them keep their technology ahead of market- and quality-specific challenges.
For example, lenders can benefit from working with an AMC that offers real-time, digital scheduling. This technology provides consumers, loan officers and real estate agents with increased convenience and transparency. It improves lenders’ processes by eliminating phone tag and scheduling delays. Instead, the user can select an appointment date and time and receive instant confirmation. This adds to the lender’s credibility as a partner focused on customer satisfaction.
Now more than ever, banks are tasked with ensuring data security – not only their own, but that of their third-party suppliers. The top AMCs constantly invest in best-in-class security infrastructures and prioritize data security through advanced controls and regular audits of their facilities, systems, communications, and internet protocols.
4. AMCs help lenders scale Many lenders needed to quickly recruit appraisers this year, as refinance volume spiked to a 17-year high. AMCs were able to accommodate these volume fluctuations because they had deep appraiser panels in place with nationwide coverage.
Because AMCs manage volume from lenders around the industry, they build scalability into their capabilities. In addition, this deeper pool of talent offers a wider range of knowledge such as specific property types and value ranges.
5. AMCs offer options
While some lenders may opt to shift fully to an AMC model, others elect a hybrid approach. This might take the form of adopting the AMC’s technology but not its panel management, allowing an AMC to manage a bank’s existing panel as an independent entity, or leveraging an AMC when handing off volume outside of the geographic footprint or area of expertise.
When a lender has a trusted panel they want to keep but not manage, it can allow the AMC to manage those appraisers in their system. The lender benefits from the AMC’s technology, experience and appraiser oversight, score-carding and recruitment capabilities, while eliminating their operational and fixed-personnel costs. The financial and operational benefits of this type of model can be exceptional.
*ServiceLink Valuation Solutions, LLC, (“ServiceLink”) is a registered Appraisal Management Company (“AMC”) in all states with AMC licensing requirements. ServiceLink’s AMC license numbers in states that require disclosure on these instructions are: NV # AMC.0000118, VT # 077.0067954-MAIN, WI #2-900.
New York-based Quontic Bank bills itself as an adaptive digital bank; it’s also a $1 billion community development financial institution (CDFI), lending to immigrants, low-income populations, gig-economy workers and borrowers who struggle to get a traditional mortgage. That mission means that the bank’s executives — including chief innovation officer Patrick Sells — tend to think about banking a little differently.
Its culture is a true competitive advantage of the bank — and that goes beyond having good, talented people on staff who get along with one another. It requires a mission, he says, and “strategic anchors” that can guide decision-making and empower employees.
Banks were already facing an “existential crisis” around digital and technology, Sells continues. “The pandemic that we found ourselves in has only exacerbated that tension,” he says. “[W]hen there is anxiety, we tend to act irrationally, we can tend to act scattered, we go back and forth. And what’s really critical is a steady hand as to who we are and what we need to do, and how we navigate through this, so we don’t get sucked into all of that. The culture, the clarity that we have, has definitely helped us navigate this storm.” Quontic has hired almost 90 new employees during the pandemic, he adds.
Sells discusses this further in this interview with Emily McCormick, Bank Director’s vice president of research. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.
BD: It’s very easy to think about innovation, and focus on the nuts and bolts of the technology, but the culture and the mindset are so critical. How do you think through culture as it applies to innovation? PS: There’s a tragedy in that innovation is often synonymous with technology, especially in this industry, and it really shouldn’t be. Innovation as much more than that. The thing that perhaps needed the most innovation, and would yield the greatest results, was culture that I think many banks don’t have. I think culture is an area where they’ve struggled. When you compare it to what’s gone on in the world around us — there’s so many things happening, and banks haven’t kept up with that.
These issues all interplay with each other. I think the greatest existential threat to the industry of community banking is culture. We have lost the war on talent. As the first digitally-native generation grew up and came out of college, they didn’t want to go work at a community bank. So today, we’re so behind from a technology standpoint, and we’re frantically, as an industry, trying to say, “We need this, we need that.” And that’s really a Band-Aid.
If we don’t figure out how to change this and lose the next decade of talent, we don’t stand a chance. The technology that’s new and cool today, we know the pace it’s accelerating at will be nothing compared to two, three years from now. … We also know in the data that’s coming out around millennials and the generations that follow, is that the sense of purpose matters immensely. And so for us, where we really focused on innovating, or what to do differently, is all in and around culture: How do we do that, and how do we bring that to life at Quontic? That will drive us into the future and where we want to go.
BD: You’re active on Twitter; one of your recent tweets focused on the fact that culture doesn’t end at the bank, it extends to the customer. Could you expand on that concept and how that informs how Quontic meets customer needs? PS: There’s three components to Quontic’s culture: the mission, the de-centralized decision [making], and the shared language. Core values became that shared language, but one of our core values is try it on. For example, we want to be quick to try something new, even if we don’t know if it’s the right thing or not.
The other one is saying, “Cheese.” The next time someone asks to take a picture of you and they say, “Cheese,” what happens? Both of you smile, and usually the photographer is also smiling. How do we create that interaction? I think most customers expect, when you call your bank, you’re going to get very black-and-white answers as to what can and can’t be done. And there isn’t so much a focus on making it a pleasant experience.
An example of that, when Covid[-19] first happened at the end of March or early April, as an online bank, we picked up a lot of CD customers. For the consumer, one of the great things about CDs is you commit to putting your money in for a period of time, and you typically get the highest interest rate. If you break the CD, you lose all that interest. We knew a lot of customers would be nervous about what that meant for their financials, so we quickly reached out to say, “If you need to break your CD, you can do that penalty free.”
The majority of people said, “Thank you for offering this. As of now, I don’t want to do that.” But there was another group of people who said, “Yes, I want to do that.” Those same people called us back later and said, “I ended up being OK. I want to re-establish my account with you, and I’m going to tell everyone I know about what you’ve done for me, because it was so above and beyond.”
We want to be a spot, even though there’s a lot of anxiety going on, where we can bring smiles to people’s faces. I don’t know the data, but I doubt many banks emailed their CD customers to say, “You can break penalty-free if you need to.” We’re trying something on, and what happened from it? It deepened relationships and brought new relationships because it resonates the culture of who we are with the customer that we serve.
BD: We know that small businesses continue to be devastated by this pandemic. How is Quontic thinking through meeting the needs of small businesses, as this crisis continues and past it? PS: This gives us the opportunity, in any crisis, to reframe, which is something I talk about in terms of innovation. What is innovation? Can you reframe what’s going on? Can we become aware of these underlying assumptions that haven’t changed in a while? If we change nothing but that, everything changes — that’s where you can find your most effective innovation.
For example, there’s a lot of small business owners who are behind the ball in terms of e-commerce. There [are] two ladies that own a [boutique] that I’ve gotten to know, and they wanted to open up a Shopify account to sell products online. I helped them do that. In one lens, helping [our small business customers] establish Shopify and e-commerce doesn’t result in any new revenue for the bank; but it strengthens the relationship and the [role] that banks historically played as a resource for small business owners.
There’s an opportunity to rethink branches. … While there’s great technology out there, like Shopify and Square, they don’t have people who can help you. What if the branch became a place where small business owners could get help [digitalizing themselves?] Now you’re utilizing the space that so many banks already have, and you’re beginning to play that meaningful role again in society. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for banks to think differently, and say, “How do we help our customers also embrace technology that will ultimately help their businesses thrive?” That’s an example of a way banks can reframe what those relationships look like and deepen those relationships that’s outside of the norm as to what we think banks should be doing.
BD: So essentially, it’s about having that talent and expertise within the branch that can help the customer, and empowering employees to do that. PS: This goes back to the mission [of] financial empowerment. It’s both that the products banks offer [are] one size fits all, and that the culture or the skills are largely the same. What if banks said, “We’re going to hire kids out of college who understand social media and e-commerce natively to help our small business customers.” Now you have talent that can help your bank figure out how to evolve. You solve two problems with one stone, and begin to change the reputation and everything. Not only does that have an impact for today, [but] my suspicion is the ROI on that over a decade is tremendous.
But you have to be willing to do something different. That’s where banks struggle, understandably; we’re taught to mitigate risk and to think about risk in everything. That can stand in the way of trying things that aren’t all that risky … it’s not that risky to add another digital bell and whistle that our core provides. It may be new for the bank, but it’s not really risky or innovative. We actually have to challenge ourselves to be bold and do something differently.
It’s more important than ever for banks to compete on value and increase client loyalty.
Banks are increasing loan loss reserves to counteract eroding credit quality at the same time they are also contending with competitors’ high-yield savings accounts, which pay more than 0.60% APY in some cases. August’s consumer savings rate was 14%, albeit down from a high of nearly 34% in April.
It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of competing on value in this environment, even as cost-effective ways to retain funding are more necessary than ever.
When I managed cash and investment products for banks and brokerage firms, I was regularly asked to increase the interest rate we offered our clients — often because a large client was threatening to leave the firm. My response then is still relevant today: A client relationship is more than an interest rate. In fact, multiple research studies I’ve sponsored over my career showed that when it comes to their cash deposits, the majority of clients rank safety, in the form of deposit insurance protection, first; access to their cash when they need it second; and interest rate third.
It’s a given that the majority of banks are members of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and have debit cards linked to savings accounts, making clients’ funds accessible. According to the FDIC, the current average national savings rate at the end of October was 0.05% APY.
I ask potential bank partners the following key questions to understand what their strategy is to retain the excess deposits as long as possible on their balance sheet.
Does your bank create value with relationship pricing?
Does your institution have an easy-to-navigate website and app?
Can clients easily open an account online?
Does your bank offer a broad range of flexible products that meet clients’ cash needs?
When was the last time your institution launched an innovative savings product?
We’ve learned a lot about building more value for customers from successful consumer technology over the last few decades. Decisive points include that product attributes should be intuitive for use by front-line sales, be easily incorporated into a bank’s online experience, and allow clients to co-create a banking experience that meets their individual needs.
What would tech-inspired, easy-to-use, personalized products look like in retail banking?
Example 1: A savings ladder strategy can meet clients’ needs for safety and access to their cash. This approach gains crucial additional value, however, when a bank deploys technology linking all the steps in the ladder into one account. Clients want to see what they’re getting in advance too: to test different inputs and compare potential strategies easily prior to purchasing. Implementing new, individualized products should be as easy as clicking on the Amazon.com “Buy” button.
Example 2 In the face of economic uncertainty and job losses, many clients may look for flexibility. Some consumers will want to readily access cash for their already-known needs — for instance, parents with college-age children, small businesses, or homeowners with predictable renovation schedules. Advanced software lets banks meet these needs by creating customizable, fixed-term deposits with optimized rates that allow for flexible withdrawals.
Banks can consider adding value to their product offering beyond rate with time-deposit accounts that are easy for clients to implement and designed to meet their specific cash needs and terms. A product with such attributes both meets clients’ individualized needs and creates value in a competitive field.
Example 3 If a client prefers safety with some exposure to the market upside, a market-linked time deposit account also helps banks offer more value without increasing rate. An index or a basket of exchange traded funds can be constructed to align with your client’s values, which is especially attractive in today’s market. Consider the appeal of a time deposit account linked to a basket of green industry stocks, innovative technology companies, or any number of options for a segment of your clients. Offering products that align with your client’s broader worldview allows you to build a more holistic, longer-lasting relationship with them.
The ability to create customer value beyond rate will ultimately determine the long-term loyalty of banking clients. Fortunately, we can look to technology for successful models that show how to add value through simple, intuitive, and individual products. At the same time, tech already has many solutions, with software and IT services that banks can access to meet their clients’ personal needs, even at this challenging moment. Innovation has never been more relevant than now — as banks need to secure their communities, their client relationships, and their funding in a cost-effective manner.
The pandemic has underlined how essential risk technology is for proactive and responsive financial institutions.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, bank risk managers were already incorporating such technology to manage, sift and monitor various inputs and information. The pandemic has complicated those efforts to get a handle on emerging and persistent risks — even as it becomes increasingly critical to incorporate into day-to-day decision-making.
“Data, and getting insights from it, has always been central to how risk managers have worked. That hasn’t changed,” says Sandeep Mangaraj, an industry executive at Microsoft who focuses on digital banking transformations.
Prior to the pandemic, concerns about operational risk had increased “somewhat” or “significantly” among 51% of CEOs, chief risk officers and directors responding to Bank Director’s 2020 Risk Survey, which was completed just before the pandemic. More than half also revealed heightened concerns around cybersecurity, credit and interest rate risk, and strategic risk.
That survey also found respondents indicating there was room for technology to improve their compliance with Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering rules (76%), know your customer (50%) requirements, and vendor management requirements.
One way executives and risk managers can keep up is by incorporating risk technology to help sift through reams of data to derive actionable insights. These technologies can create a unified view of risk across exposure types and aggregation levels — product, business line, region — so executives can see how risk manifests within the bank. Some of these solutions can also capture and provide real-time information, supplementing slower traditional sources or replacing end-of-day reports.
But the pandemic led more than half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey to alter or adjust their technology roadmaps — including 82% of respondents at institutions with more than $10 billion in assets. Two-thirds said they would upgrade existing technology; just 16% planned to add technology to improve regulatory compliance.
Artificial intelligence holds a lot of promise in helping banks more efficiently and effectively comply with regulations and manage risk. Many banks are still early in their risk technology journeys, and are working to identify areas or situations that can be serviced or assisted by risk technologies. Forty-six percent of respondents to Bank Director’s Technology Survey say they are not utilizing AI yet.
Those that have are applying it to situations like fraud monitoring, which generates large amounts of data that the bank can correlate and act on, Mangaraj says. Others have applied it to process intelligence and process improvement, or used it to enhance the control environment. Key to the success of any AI or risk-technology endeavor is finding the right, measurable application where a bank can capture value for heightened risk or capabilities.
“We have a client who uses AI to monitor trader conversations that can proactively flag any compliance issues that may be coming up,” he says. “There are lots and lots of ways in which you can start using it. Key is identify cases, make sure you have clear measurement of value, monitor it and celebrate it. Success breeds success.”
The addition and incorporation of innovative risk technologies coincides with many banks’ digital transformations. While these changes can often complement each other, they can also make it difficult for a bank to manage and measure its risk, or could even introduce risk.
A strong management team, effective controls and active monitoring of the results are essential keys to a bank’s success with these technology endeavors, says James Watkins, senior managing director at the Isaac-Milstein Group. Watkins served at the FDIC for nearly 40 years as the senior deputy director of supervisory examinations, overseeing the agency’s risk management examination program.
“It’s time for a fresh look of the safeguards and controls that banks have in place — the internal controls and the reliability of the bank system’s and monitoring apparatuses. All of those are extremely important,” he says.
Bank executives and boards of directors must have the processes and procedures in place to ensure they’re using this technology and contextualizing its outcomes in a prudent manner.
“I think the importance of general contingency planning, crisis management strategies, thinking strategically — these are all areas that boards of directors and senior management really need to be attuned to and be prepared for,” Watkins says.
Year in and year out, Bank Director’s surveys tap into the views of bank leaders across the country about critical issues: risk, technology, compensation and talent, corporate governance, and M&A and growth.
But 2020 has been a year for the record books. It’s been an interesting time for me as head of research for Bank Director, with the results of our recent surveys revealing changes that, in my view, will continue to have far-ranging effects for the industry.
As boards plan for 2021 and beyond, here are a few things I believe you should be considering.
The Great Tech Ramp-Up The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated technology adoption by the industry, an issue we explored in Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey.
Sixty-five percent of the executives and board members responding to that survey told us that their bank implemented or upgraded technology to respond to Covid-19, primarily to issue Paycheck Protection Program loans. As a result, most banks reported increased spending on technology, above and beyond their budgets for 2020.
The primary drivers that fuel bank technology strategies remain the same — improving customer experience and generating efficiencies — and pressure has only grown on financial institutions to adapt. More than half of the survey respondents told us that their bank’s technology plans had been adjusted due to the pandemic, with most focused on enhancing their digital banking capabilities.
“The next generation will rarely use a branch,” one survey respondent commented, “so a totally quick efficient comprehensive digital experience will be necessary to survive.”
The 2020 Compensation Survey confirmed that most banks dialed back on branch service early in the pandemic; by the time we fielded the Technology Survey in June and July, bank leaders finally recognized the digital channel’s preeminence in terms of growing the bank and serving customers. (The previous year’s survey found respondents placing equal emphasis on digital and branch channels.)
The Technology Survey revealed gaps in small business and commercial lending as well — deficiencies that have been laid bare as a result of the pandemic. More than half of respondents that have adjusted or accelerated their technology strategy indicated they’d expand digital lending capabilities.
Some bankers I spoke with about the survey results indicated concerns that banks could dial back on technology spending due to the profitability pressures facing the industry. However, given the changes we’ve seen, I don’t believe it’s sustainable to dial back on this investment.
That leaves bank leaders facing a few key challenges, starting with determining where to invest their technology dollars. It’s difficult to gauge where the wind will blow, but the survey provides solid clues: 42% believe process automation will be one of the most important technologies affecting their bank, followed by data analytics (39%). Almost 40% believe the security structure to be vitally important; cybersecurity is a perennial concern for bank leaders and as banking grows more digital, this will require additional investment.
Additionally, 64% told us that modernizing their bank’s digital applications forms a core element of their bank’s strategy.
Implementing new technology requires expertise, and the 2020 Compensation Survey found most respondents (79%) telling us that it’s difficult to attract technology and digital talent.
But this may not mean bringing data scientists or other highly-specialized roles on staff. Olney, Maryland-based Sandy Spring Bancorp hired a senior data strategist who is responsible for the use, governance and management of information across the organization; that individual also reviews vendor capabilities and identifies areas that help the bank achieve its goals. “The senior data strategist should be on the lookout for ways to find opportunities for and through data analytics, whether that’s predicting customer trends or finding new revenue-generating opportunities,” said John Sadowski, chief information officer at the $13 billion bank.
Finally, 69% told us their bank didn’t streamline vendor due diligence processes in response to Covid-19. As technology adoption accelerates, consider whether your bank’s third-party management process is sufficiently comprehensive, while still allowing it to quickly and efficiently put new solutions into place.
Work-From-Home Will Alter the Workplace The 2020 Compensation Survey found that banks almost universally implemented or expanded remote work options as a result of the pandemic; the 2020 Technology Survey later told us that for many banks (at least 42%) that change will be permanent for at least some of their staff.
In late October, $96 billion Synchrony Financial — a direct, virtual bank — announced that remote work will become permanent for its employees, allowing them to choose from three options. Some can simply work from home. Others can schedule office space, while some will have an assigned desk. This third group includes executives, who will be asked to work remotely at least a couple days a week to reinforce the cultural shift.
It’s a move that the bank believes will make employees happy, but it also promises to yield significant cost savings by cutting real estate expenses.
It could also yield competitive benefits for banks seeking top talent. Glacier Bancorp, for example, doesn’t limit hires to its Kalispell, Montana-based headquarters — instead, it hires anywhere within its multi-state footprint. That helps the $18 billion bank recruit the technology talent it needs, human resources director David Langston told me in May.
Remote work is a cultural shift that many bank executives will be reticent to make. But even if a long-term remote work option doesn’t align with your bank’s culture, offering flexibility will help support employees, who have their own struggles at home with virtual schooling or caring for high-risk family members.
A recent McKinsey study finds that a lack of flexibility, among other issues, drives women in particular to leave the workforce. The authors also advise that companies “should look for ways to re-establish work-life boundaries” — putting policies in place to assure meeting times and work communications occur within set hours, and encouraging employees to take advantage of flexible scheduling. Unfortunately, employees often worry that taking advantage of these benefits will damage their reputation at work. “To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will not be measured based on when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility [and] can model flexibility in their own lives. … When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.”
Flexibility and remote work can help companies retain valued employees.
It’s difficult to change a culture, especially if you believe that what you’re doing works. But sometimes, culture can change around you. I’d encourage you to approach these issues with fresh eyes to ensure your leadership team can direct the change — not the other way around.
Don’t Put Diversity on the Backburner Almost half of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey told us their bank doesn’t measure its progress around diversity and inclusion, indicating to me that they don’t have clear objectives around creating an inclusive culture that hires, retains and rewards employees despite race, ethnicity or gender.
Further, just 39% of the CEOs and directors responding to our 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey told us their board has several members who are diverse, based on race, ethnicity or gender. And almost half believe that diversity’s impact on a company’s performance is overrated.
Employees and customers take this issue seriously. Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp., which has been recognized for LGBTQ workplace equality by the Human Rights Campaign since 2016, incorporates inclusion in its “cycle of engagement.” This starts with engaged employees who provide a higher level of service that delights customers, resulting in strong financial performance for the institution, allowing the company to invest back into its employees — continuing the virtuous cycle.
The $13 billion bank’s culture promotes respect, teamwork, empathy — and inclusion, COO Robert Cozzone told me in a recent interview. “Think about working for a company where you enjoy being around the people that you work with, you enjoy the work that you do, you buy into the mission of the company — you’re going to be much more productive than if you don’t have those things,” he says. Today, “It’s all that more important to show [employees] care and empathy and understanding.”
Small, rural banks may believe it’s difficult to hire diverse talent, making it nearly impossible for them to tackle this issue. Expanding remote work options, mentioned earlier, can help. But ultimately, it’s an issue that companies nationwide will need to address as the demographics of the country change. “We all need to do better [on] diversity and inclusion,” one survey respondent wrote. “Many of us out in rural America don’t have as many opportunities, but we need to keep this topic front of mind, and [read] information and stories on how to be more intentional.”
Directors Must Be Engaged and Educated The 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey also found 39% indicating that at least some members of their board aren’t actively engaged in board meetings; 36% said some members don’t know enough about banking to provide effective oversight.
That survey, conducted just before the pandemic effectively shut down the U.S. economy, found executives and directors identifying three top challenges to the viability of their institution: pressure on net interest margins (53%), meeting customer demands for digital options (40%) and industry consolidation and the growing power of big banks. Further, most directors said that staying on top of the changes occurring in the industry is one of the great challenges facing their board.
Confronting these issues will require engaged and knowledgeable leadership.
Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, surveyed 265 independent directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives of U.S. banks to understand trends around the acquisition of talent, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. The survey was conducted in March and April 2020.
Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, surveyed more than 150 independent directors, CEOs, chief operating officers and senior technology executives of U.S. banks to understand how technology drives strategy at their institutions and how those plans have changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also includes compensation data collected from the proxy statements of 98 public banks. The survey was conducted in June and July 2020.
Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, surveyed 159 independent directors, chairmen and CEOs of U.S. banks under $50 billion in assets to understand the practices of bank boards, including board independence, discussions and oversight, engagement and refreshment. The survey was conducted in February and March 2020.
Financial institutions increasingly seek to use technology to efficiently and effectively mitigate risk and comply with regulations. Bank leaders will need the right solutions to meet these objectives, given the amount of data to make sense of as organizations include risk as part of their decision-making process. Microsoft’s Sandeep Mangaraj explains how banks should explore these issues with Emily McCormick, Bank Director’s vice president of research. They discuss:
Historically, banks have relied on a small number of monolithic suppliers and systems to provide them with broad capabilities, augmenting their own internal development, to provide all their infrastructure.
These systems are patched to add features as banks grow and markets evolve. Mergers can lead to overlapping, incompatible systems; the bank’s infrastructure can make these systems brittle, costly and time-consuming to change.
Still, this suits the entrenched oligopoly of suppliers: locked-in customers unable to sunset anything but stuck paying substantial recurring license fees. Interfaces between systems are often proprietary, making integrations multi-year projects. Most of these are undertaken by a select group of implementation firms that are incentivized to install systems that maximize billable hours and ensure years of lucrative integration work.
Covid-19 and the subsequent government interventions, however, are forcing banks to move quickly: multi-year projects would never adequately address the emergency needs of customers and existential challenges of businesses. The crisis comes at a seminal moment for the industry, when many banks are beginning to experiment with cloud infrastructure. These solutions are able to provision (or decommission) infrastructure in seconds what previously would have taken years, and are well suited for rapid experimentation. This has led to an appetite at banks to try new things and “fail fast.”
The Darwinian effect of running multiple parallel experiments lends itself to thinking of a bank as an ecosystem, where the best providers can be brought in for each functional area. Meanwhile, the bank’s own technologists can focus their people and budgets on key priorities, rather than spending large portions of ever-shrinking budgets patching a leaky ship.
This requires a change in emphasis for financial technology firms: Rather than attempting to disrupt incumbents, there is now a unique opportunity to cooperate with them, providing a much-needed injection of innovation and dynamism at a crucial moment for the economy and communities. Fintechs need to be able to prove their value fast, so the emphasis is on deep vertical expertise that can be deployed rapidly in a variety of environments. Having open APIs and the ability to play a part in a diverse ecosystem of providers is an absolute necessity. Suppliers with “Mechanical Turk” solutions that paper over missing functionality with services will battle to scale rapidly enough and struggle to meet the demand from multiple client banks.
The qualities required to thrive in this new order already exist at banks and fintechs; the winners will be those that can get out of their own way and utilize these strengths. Over the last few years, banks have learned how to integrate disparate systems. The pandemic is forcing them to learn how to do to this quickly.
They need to remove obstacles in their purchasing processes that entrench large suppliers and prevent them from building tech stacks made up of agile and best-in-class solutions. If they back their own ability to craft a cohesive and comprehensive ecosystem, they can tailor this end-state to achieve their desired results. Fintechs are used to bringing innovation and dynamism to the table. Creating lasting impact requires them to follow through and turn this into tangible products. There will be no shortage of opportunities for them to prove their value.
The extraordinary circumstances brought about by the coronavirus have led to a moment of unique opportunity for both banks and fintechs. The economic environment and policy responses by the federal government has meant that banks are forced to act with surprising resourcefulness and agility. They are now seeking to carry this momentum to radically transform projects that seemed previously destined to move at a snail’s pace.
To do this at speed and at scale, they have had to look beyond the short list of traditional vendors and implementation partners more accustomed to project timelines of several years, to a constellation of smaller, more agile fintechs that are able to meet specific needs at a rapid pace. The Davids and Goliaths are finally working together — so far, the outcomes have been pretty phenomenal.
Real estate lenders are racing against the clock to process the deluge of refinancing demand, driven by record-low interest rates and intense online competition.
Susan Falsetti, managing director of origination title and close at ServiceLink, discusses the challenges that real estate lenders are facing — and how they can address them.
What particular stressors are real estate lenders facing? We’ve seen volume surge this year, but heavy volume is only part of the equation. Market volatility, job loss and forbearance are adding even more pressure. Meanwhile, the origination process is increasingly complicated, with the regulatory environment remaining an important factor. Amid all of this, many lenders have shifted to a remote work business model, forcing team members to grapple with additional caregiving and family complications.
How have market conditions affected lenders’ abilities to meet consumer expectations for closing timelines? Some of our clients working with other providers have reported processes as simple as obtaining payoff demands and subordinations are causing delays. They’re telling us that, in some cases, these requests have gone from 24-hour turn times to 10-day turn times. Working with an efficient settlement service provider is essential, given that 75% of recent homebuyers in a Fannie Mae survey expect that it should take a month or less to get a mortgage.
What can lenders do to immediately reduce their timelines? One way is by selecting the right settlement service partner, which can help them get to the closing table faster without making major changes to their process or tech investment. Settlement service providers should provide a runway to close, not contribute to a bottleneck. Examining or revisiting settlement service providers is low-hanging fruit for lenders looking to immediately deduct days from closing timelines.
What characteristics should lenders look for when making a settlement service provider selection? Communication: Lenders should examine how they’re communicating with their settlement service provider. Is their provider integrated into their loan origination system or point-of-sale platform? Can they submit orders through a secure, auditable platform, or is email the only option? Regardless of how orders are submitted, lenders should also consider whether their provider has the resources to dedicate to communication and customer service, even in a high-volume environment.
Automation and digitization: Selecting a title provider with automation and digitization built into its processes can help lenders thrive, even as their volume fluctuates. The mortgage industry is cyclical; it’s essential that settlement service providers have the capacity to scale with their client banks and grow with their business. They should help banks manage their volume, without having to make dramatic process or technology changes.
Some providers can provide almost-instantaneous insight into the complexity of particular title orders through an automatic title search. This type of workflow helps both the lender and the provider. They both can quickly funnel the simplest orders through to the closing table while employing more-experienced team members to work on more-complicated loans.
Transparency: That kind of insight gives lenders extra transparency into their customers. When originators are aware of the complexity of a title early in the process, they can let their borrower know that the title is clear. If that’s the case, the consumer can stop shopping and leave the market.
Access to virtual closing solutions: Of course, the origination process doesn’t stop once a loan is clear to close. A survey recently conducted by Javelin Strategy & Research at the request of ServiceLink found that one of consumers’ chief complaints about the mortgage process was the number of physical forms that must be signed at closing. The survey also found that 79% expressed interest in using e-signatures specifically for mortgage applications. This interest in e-signings has evolved into genuine demand for virtual closings.
The right settlement service provider should help lenders to operate more efficiently and profitably. The key is identifying a partner with solutions to help banks thrive in today’s high-volume environment.