The Promise and the Peril of Director Term Limits

Bank boards seeking to refresh their membership may be tempted to consider term limits, but the blunt approach carries several downsides that they will need to address.

Term limit policies are one way that boards can navigate crucial, but sensitive, topics like board refreshment. They place a ceiling on a director’s tenure to force regular vacancies. Bringing on new members is essential for banks that have a skills or experience gap at the board level, or for banks that need to transform strategy in the future with the help of different directors. However, it can be awkward to implement such a policy. There are other tools that boards can use to deliver feedback and ascertain a director’s interest in continued service.

The average age of financial sector independent directors in the S&P 500 index was 64.1 years, according to the 2021 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index. The average tenure was 8.3 years. The longest tenured board in the financial sector was 16 years.

“I believe that any small bank under $1 billion in assets should adopt provisions to provide for term limits of perhaps 10 years for outside directors,” wrote one respondent in Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey.

The idea has some fans in the banking industry. The board of directors at New York-based, $121 billion Signature Bank, which is known for its innovative business lines, adopted limits in 2018. The policy limits non-employee directors to 12 years cumulatively. The change came after discussions over several meetings about the need for refreshment as the board revisited its policies, says Scott Shay, chairman of the board and cofounder of the bank. Some directors were hesitant about the change — and what it might mean for their time on the board.

“In all candor, people had mixed views on it. But we kept talking about it,” he says. “And as the world is evolving and changing, [the question was: ‘How do] we get new insights and fresh blood onto the board over some period?’”

Ultimately, he says the directors were able to prioritize the bank’s needs and agree to the policy change. Since adopting the term limits, the board added three new independent directors who are all younger than directors serving before the change, according to the bank’s 2022 proxy statement. Two are women and one is Asian. Their skills and experience include international business, corporate governance, government and business heads, among others.

And the policy seems to complement the bank’s other corporate governance policies and practices: a classified board, a rigorous onboarding procedure, annual director performance assessments and thoughtful recruitment. Altogether, these policies ensure board continuity, offer a way to assess individual and board performance and create a pool of qualified prospects to fill regular vacancies.

Signature’s classified board staggers director turnover. Additionally, the board a few years ago extended the expiring term of its then-lead independent director by one year; that move means only two directors leave the board whenever they hit their term limits.

Shay says he didn’t want a completely new board that needed a new education every few years. “We wanted to keep it to a maximum of a turnover of two at a time,” he says.

To support the regularly occurring vacancies, Signature’s recruitment approach begins with identifying a class of potential directors well in advance of turnover and slowly whittling down the candidates based on interest, commitment and individual interviews with the nominating and governance committee members. And as a new outside director prepares to join the board, Signature puts them through “an almost exhausting onboarding process” to introduce them to various aspects of the bank and its business — which starts a month before the director’s first meeting.

But term limits, along with policies like mandatory retirement ages, can be a blunt corporate governance tool to manage refreshment. There are a number of other tools that boards could use to govern, improve and refresh their membership.

“I personally think term limits have no value at all,” says James J. McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

He says that term limits may prematurely remove a productive director because they’re long tenured, and potentially replace them with someone who may be less engaged and constructive. He also dislikes when boards make exceptions for directors whose terms are expiring.

In lieu of term limits, he argues that banks should opt for board and peer evaluations that allow directors to reflect on their engagement and capacity to serve on the board. Regular evaluation can also help the nominating and governance committee create succession plans for committee chairs who are near the end of their board service.

Perhaps one reason why community banks are interested in term limits is because so few conduct assessments. Only 30% of respondents to Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, which published May 16, said they didn’t conduct performance assessments at any interval — many of those responses were at banks with less than $1 billion in assets. And 51% of respondents don’t perform peer evaluations and haven’t considered that exercise.

For McAlpin, a board that regularly evaluates itself — staffed by directors who are honest about their service capacity and the needs of the bank — doesn’t need bright-line rules around tenure to manage refreshment.

“It’s hard to articulate a reason why you need term limits in this day and age,” he says, “as opposed to just self-policing self-governance by the board.”

A Banker’s Perspective on LIBOR Transition to SOFR

The scandal associated with manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) during the 2008 financial crisis caused a great deal of concern among banking and accounting regulators. In 2014, the Financial Stability Oversight Council recommended that U.S. regulators identify an alternative benchmark rate to LIBOR.  This recommendation was given an effective timeline in 2017 when the UK Financial Conduct Authority, as the regulator of LIBOR, announced the intent to discontinue the rate by year-end 2021. The Federal Reserve and the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (AARC) have since recommended the Secured Overnight Funding Rate (SOFR) as the recommended replacement rate for LIBOR.  Additionally, the AARC recommends that all LIBOR loan agreements cease using any LIBOR index rates by Sept. 30, 2021.

The transition to SOFR presents two distinct challenges for U.S. banks: term structure and fallback language.

Term structure: SOFR is an overnight rate, and not directly appropriate for term lending with monthly or quarterly resets. As such, several possibilities for using SOFR for term lending have emerged, with the main recommendation being Daily Simple SOFR plus a spread adjustment.  This spread adjustment is currently 12 basis points for 1-month LIBOR and 26 basis points for 3-month LIBOR, reflecting the difference between SOFR as a secured rate and LIBOR as an unsecured rate.  More importantly, Daily Simple SOFR is an arrears calculation, which is not particularly client-friendly for a standard commercial bank loan. Nevertheless, the AARC recommends that Daily Simple SOFR be used to replace LIBOR until a true term SOFR rate emerges.

SOFR vs 1-month LIBOR

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Banks are continuing to discuss options that would be easier for clients to understand on smaller bilateral loans, including prime or a historical average SOFR set at the beginning of an interest period (Figure 1). While not necessarily in-line with the cost-of-funds approximation of Daily Simple SOFR in arrears, the ability to set a rate at the beginning of an accrual period may be more appealing for client-friendly relationship banking.  Overall, the market still needs to settle on the best SOFR rate solutions for bilateral bank loans, and banks need to have a plan for using overnight SOFR until a true term SOFR rate is available.

Figure 1: Calculation Options for monthly payment

Fallback language: Most existing loan documentation is not expected to support SOFR without amendment. The AARC recommends adding “fallback language” to existing loan documents, with a very specific “hardwired” approach to using SOFR. This language defines a “waterfall” of options, depending upon what SOFR rates are available. However, many banks have also been working through a more general fallback language, to allow greater flexibility for different types of SOFR calculations as well as the use of other replacement rates. Whatever language is used, however, commercial banks are likely to have hundreds of thousands of floating-rate LIBOR loans that will need to be amended with new fallback language within the next 10 months.

In light of these issues, banks need to examine three key areas that will be affected by LIBOR replacement: documentation, systems and analytics.

Documentation: All existing LIBOR-based loans will need to be reviewed and potentially amended with appropriate fallback language before September 2021.  Amendments will require consent and signature from clients, opening the opportunity for negotiation of existing terms. Banks should have appropriate legal and banker teams working the review and amendment negotiation process with clients. And plenty of time should be allocated for these amendments to be executed and booked ahead of the fourth-quarter 2021 discontinuation of LIBOR.

Systems: All loan and trading systems that index to LIBOR will need to be re-coded to support SOFR. Most major loan system vendors have already created updates to support multiple SOFR calculations, which banks will need to install and test before re-booking amended LIBOR loans. Interfaces and downstream systems may also be impacted. Overall, a full enterprise examination of systems is required as loan systems are re-coded for the SOFR rate.

Analytics: All models — including those used for funds transfer pricing, risk adjusted return on capital and asset-liability management — will need to be rebuilt and pushed into production to support a new SOFR base rate.  Aligning the new floating rate index of SOFR with the models used internally to price funds and risk is essential to ensure that lending is evaluated appropriately.

The move from LIBOR to SOFR is now less than a year away. Bankers have generally embraced an approach to using SOFR; however, there is a great deal of work to be done on documentation, systems and models to be ready for the conversion in 2021.