Sunday, October 09, 2016

Evolution of Banking: Three Slam Dunk Predictions

The sheer number of strategic initiatives and technologies in the banking industry makes it very difficult to predict outcomes with any certainty. Not that me or other industry pundits don’t try.

I have been noticing some trends that are providing insights on our direction, evolution, and ultimate picture of our future.

Future Picture was coined by the US Military for defining flight mission success, and was brought to business prominence in Air Force pilot James D. Murphy's 2005 book, Flawless Execution.  Using his example of envisioning what success would look like, a bank’s Future Picture should be a detailed description of successful execution of strategy. I challenge bankers’ to describe their Future Picture.

It can be highly subjective and difficult, particularly in an era of unprecedented change. But I would like to share three strategic directions where the train has either left the station, or is boarding.

1. Branches must be larger to survive. According to my firm’s profitability database, branches generated revenue (defined as consumer loan spreads, deposit spreads, and fees) as a percent of branch deposits of 3.50% in 2006. Today, that number is 2.08% due to the interest rate environment, the regulatory environment (reducing deposit fees), and customer behavioral changes. Therefore, the average deposit size of branches grew, to over $60 million at the end of 2015 (see chart). This trend is not likely to change, as bankers are more apt to prune their network and increase overall branch profitability. And the customer. Don’t forget them. They use branches less, although many still identify branch location as important to bank selection.

2.  Technology expenditures will grow faster than overall expenditures. I recently performed this analysis for a client, identifying the “Data Processing” expense as a percent of total operating expenses for all FDIC insured banks as identified in their call report. Surprisingly, it represented only 4% of total operating expense.  Note this excludes IT personnel expense. But the number is growing faster than overall operating expense (see chart), meaning that IT expense is becoming a larger proportion of operating expense. It is disappointing that this trend is slowing so banks can meet their budgets and profit objectives, regressing back to old habits of cutting IT projects to make budget. But overall, banks are seriously evaluating technology to improve efficiencies and their clients’ banking experience.

3.   Robotics are coming. It was only recently I began to believe this. But there are opportunities being evaluated and implemented to automate repetitive processes to reduce overall costs, minimize risk, and speed the process. A couple examples where automation and/or robotics are ripe to improve processes include reviewing remote deposit checks, currently eye-balled by humans. Not scalable. The x-point evaluation could more quickly and effectively be accomplished by a robot. Another area where automation is coming is BSA case evaluation, where the bank’s BSA application identifies potentially high-risk client activity and a program goes through several standardized checks to clear the case or elevate it for human intervention, reducing the overall number of cases needing human review.

These aren’t the only changes. Just the ones that I believe are coming, no matter who tries to stop them.

So why try to stop them?

~ Jeff

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Thank You Mr. Stumpf!

Bank reputations were on the rise. After the financial crisis of 2007-08, led by making mortgage loans to people that had little resources to repay them, banks were climbing from the reputational abyss.

Then came September 8th, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) jointly announced the issuance of a consent order to Wells Fargo that included $185 million in fines due to the widespread, illegal practice of secretly opening up customer accounts without the customers' consent. Fifty million of the settlement was to go to the City and County of Los Angeles, which brought a lawsuit against the bank a year ago for the same charge. For further discussion among my colleagues on this subject, click here for our podcast.

And the stench of that little news item is likely to sully the reputations of financial institutions across the country. Don't believe me? How many subprime mortgages did you make where your customers had little hope of repaying? And did the bursting of the housing bubble hurt your bank's reputation? 

Wells Fargo is so large, that many people view them as a proxy for the whole banking industry. Much like Apple or Samsung might be viewed as a proxy for the whole smart phone industry.

What does reputation get you? For Wells Fargo, it gets you $32.9 billion. Or lost them $32.9 billion. That is the decline in market value they suffered from August 31st to this writing. Thirteen percent of their market value, vanished like a puff of smoke in the wind.

According to Cutting Edge PR, sources of information that impact influencers (CEOs, senior business execs, analysts, institutional investors, etc.) are as follows:

Source of Information                          Proportion
Personal experience                                  64%
Major business magazines                        37%
Articles in national newspapers                35%
Word of mouth                                          31%
Articles in trade journals                           30%
Television news                                         14%
Articles in local newspapers                      14%
Television current affairs programs           13%

Is Wells Fargo lighting up the newswire? Yes. Will commentators start dropping Wells Fargo from the discussion and start generalizing that this is typical bank practices? I have little doubt.

I said it before in a previous post on branch incentives, and I'll say it again. Bankers should hold business line managers accountable for the service levels, profitability, and profit trends of their business units. When you begin to drill down and start measuring widgets, employees will gravitate to finding widgets. Which is exactly what Wells Fargo did.

And if you think this culture started recently. Guess again. Google the much lionized former Norwest and Wells Fargo CEO Dick Kovacevich that touted the "eight is great" cross-sell ratio. Stumpf has worked for Norwest/Wells for thirty four years. 

I guess eight isn't so great after all.

And the Schleprock cloud hovers above us all.

Thank you Mr. Stumpf.

~ Jeff             

Friday, September 23, 2016

Bankers: Bring On The Change

On the shores of the Ammonoosuc River, alongside the hotel where the famous Bretton Woods conference took place in 1944, I talk about the onslaught of change that has recently occurred, and will continue to occur in our industry.

Change: Is your institution ignoring it, trying to stop it, or adapting to it?

How much grief will I get comparing employees to beavers?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Politics: Can We All Just Get Along?

I do not venture into politics much, either in this blog or in person. But our environment is so toxic, I would like to take a crack at identifying shared goals by most of us.

1. We all want to reduce the number of impoverished people. We have different ideas on how to do it. I think capitalism is a better solution than socialism, as the latter creates so much more of an underclass. Except for the bureaucrats. They tend to do well in socialism. The more you disperse economic power in a society, the better, in my opinion.

2. Many successful capitalists turn into jerks. I think, by and large, this is because they want to solidify their position, and the by-product is keeping others from achieving it. That is why in large corporations executives might make it difficult for up and comers, fearing they might be unseated by them. This is also why top executives get paid so much. I wouldn't stop companies from paying executives so much, but would insist on transparency and not allow a company to deduct executive comp that is greater than some multiple of company average compensation on their Federal taxes. But better to have many, many successful capitalists, than a few successful bureaucrats. Successful capitalists are the "do-ers" of society. They create jobs. Not government. If you don't trust me on this, study economics. At most colleges. Not all. I also want to encourage a society where capitalists do well, and give their excess to charitable endeavors. Like Warren Buffet is trying to make happen.

3. Our tax system is way too complex. I would make the personal and corporate marginal tax rate the same. Somewhere around 20%. I put a simple tax solution in a post way back in 2012. See it here. This will cause disruption among accountants and tax lawyers. Taxes would be so easy and transparent, these professionals wouldn't be needed by individuals or corporations. Think of all the tax compliance savings!

4. Government spending. Until we reverse the alarming trend of national debt to GDP, we must spend less than revenue growth, and balanced budgets have to be the norm rather than the exception. I wouldn't do a balanced budget amendment, because elevating infrastructure investments and spending during recessionary periods makes sense to me. But until that time, Federal spending growth should be less than GDP growth. Oh, and the last balanced budget under President Clinton was spurred, in part, by Pay-Go. That system where new "programs" would have to be paid for by eliminating other programs that cost the same or more. I would put that structural discipline in place right away.

5. Federal government operation. Our rules are ridiculous. Bills would be cleaner, and more linear. No slapping on stupid amendments for pork. If it has enough support, have the pork get its own bill. And bringing a bill to the floor for vote would be easier. One requirement I would insist on is having a litmus test for programs designed to help society. If they don't meet a pre-agreed upon social objective over a reasonable time period, they automatically die. No vote needed. We tried to fix a social ill. It didn't work. Let's move on. And not worry about those that lose funding sending out press releases that we don't care "for the children".

6. Speaking about lawmaking, there are way too many laws and regulations for society to follow. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows them all. In fact, most if not all of us break the law every day. This creates a ripe environment for tyranny, that we see playing out in front of our eyes. Don't like someone? Figure out a law they broke and go after 'em. Think about it. If I were in charge, there would be less, and the objective would be far less, rules and regs to follow, reducing the ability of powerful law enforcement and government bureaucrats to move against its citizens. And making it easier to enforce and comply, both individually and economically. Watch the bureaucrats squirm about this one.

7. World relations. We want to influence societies to be free. But our own freedoms are being eroded by the growing body of laws and regs, mentioned above, and political correctness which has curtailed our ability to solve problems. So we should take care of our own problems to show the world that, as our society matures, we make corrections to enhance freedom. And create a worthy example that other countries would like to emulate. But dictators. We have to be active in keeping them in check. If we were isolationist, our world would be a different, and much worse place, in my opinion. But our international forays would be selective, proportional, and  given the resources and the fortitude to win. Isolated cells of terrorists need not worry about a US Army battalion. But they would have to worry if they actively seek to harm our citizens. Their end will not be pleasant. But it may not be all over the news media, either. Oh, and trade. Free trade works. Few economists believe otherwise. The rub is that they must be enforceable and punitive for cheaters, making cheating so unpalatable that parties to the agreements abide by what they signed. There is a lot of angst against free trade now, but as a society we voted for free trade by buying less expensive stuff that must be made by labor that is less expensive than our own. And lets face it, union work rules made us noncompetitive in manufacturing. Shame on us.

8. Elections. Any candidate that wants to run for office, must complete a two-page resume to a non-partisan website. Page one denotes the candidate's experience. Page two has the candidate's answers to five key questions for the office sought (i.e. federal questions for federal office), in 50 words or less for each question. This is so voters like me can review candidate's qualifications and positions before getting into the voting booth. In PA, where I live, there is a tough US Senate race underway, and the ads the candidates run are ridiculously irrelevant and designed to stir up emotion, and not make us better voters. I say ignore that idiocy. Read the two-page, vote smartly.

9. Safety Net. I'm all for a transitional safety net to help our fellow citizens pick themselves up and get on their feet again. I'm all against turning families into lifelong government dependents, which I think is the consequence of a safety net without the transitional philosophy. If someone hurts their elbow and can no longer do the manual job they once did, we don't re-train to do other jobs not dependent on the elbow. We put them on disability for life. C'mon. This makes so much common sense, that the cynic in me thinks those that support lifelong government assistance (either in word or deed) are just bribing people for their vote using other peoples' money. And relegating the lifelong "drawers" to the lower economic rung for life. Sad.

Why doesn't the media cover much of the above? Instead, they assemble a panel of talking heads to discuss a tweet. 

Not sure there would be many that object to the above. Ok, accountants and lawyers, and union leaders. Other than them, why is everyone else shouting at each other?

Who's onboard?

~ Jeff

Monday, September 05, 2016

Board Composition: What Does the Best Bank Board Look Like?

In April 2016, Delaware Place Bank in Chicago was placed under a Consent Order (CO). One article within the order read as follows:

"the Bank shall retain an independent third party acceptable to the Regional Director of the FDIC’s Chicago Regional Office (“Regional Director”) and the Division, who will develop a written analysis and assessment of the Bank’s management needs (“Management Study”) to evaluate the management of the Bank."

This is a common article and my firm performs several of these annually. The CO went on to say:

"As of the effective date of this ORDER, the board of directors shall increase its participation in the affairs of the Bank, assuming full responsibility for the approval of sound policies and objectives and for the supervision of all of the Bank’s activities, consistent with the role and expertise commonly expected for directors of banks of comparable size."

In the same article, the CO compelled the bank to elect an additional director with banking experience. And there lies the rub. By including this provision, the unwritten assumption was that appointing a director with banking experience will make this bank more safe and sound.

Will it? Is there evidence that proves it is so?

What makes an effective banking board? Is there one recipe?

We are often asked this question, either formally (through a Management Study or Board evaluation engagement) or informally, And the answer is, it depends.

It depends on the bank's strategy, geography, risk parameters, and personalities of existing board members. I have seen banks with former regulators on the board fail, and banks with farmers on their board thrive. I do not think there is one answer for all.

To further my point, I evaluated publicly traded, SEC registered banking companies between $500 million to $3 billion in total assets. I searched for the best, and not so much, ROE banks based on their five-year average ROEs. I excluded banks that had negative ROEs, recently converted during that five years from the mutual form (which elevates their "E"), or had standard deviations greater than 4 from their five-year ROE. In other words, they were consistently good, or consistently bad.

Then I reviewed their board composition. The top six results are as follows.

How does this differ from the bottom six? See their board composition below.

There were retired bankers in three of the six top performing banks. Wait! There were retired bankers in three of the six bottom performers. CPAs, another common piece of expertise desired on a high performing board, were on all six bottom performing banks. CPAs were only on two of the six top performing banks (assuming the CFO was a CPA, which was not mentioned in their bio). Attorneys were on four of six top and bottom performing bank boards.

The prize for most board billable hours goes to Robert Gaughen Jr., and Randy Black, CEOs of Hingham Institute for Savings and Citizens Financial Services, respectively, for having the most attorneys on their board. Perhaps the answer is not only have an attorney on the board, but lots of them.

There were no former regulators on the boards of the above banks. At least they wouldn't admit to it in their bio.

The point of this review is that there is no one answer as to what makes a good functioning board. In my experience, a board that maintains management accountability for business performance and ensures management operates within the risk guidelines established by the board and commemorated in bank policy, is a good performing board. It doesn't matter if that board includes a baker or candle stick maker.

What do you think makes a high performing bank board?

~ Jeff

P.S. I received an e-mail from a banker asking me the insider ownership of the above banks. So here you go! The bottom performing banks have a greater level of insider ownership. And from eye balling it, the bottom performing banks have a greater level of institutional ownership too.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Four Reasons for the 2007-08 Financial Crisis

A recent Bank Think post by ConnectOne Bank CEO Frank Sorrentino regarding restoring Glass-Steagall got me thinking about how far the debate has drifted from the root causes of the 2007-08 financial crisis.

There have been quite a number of research pieces offered as to the root causes (read a good one here by University of North Carolina). In researching this post, I sifted through some interesting, and some not so interesting opinions. Which reminds me that the old axiom "figures don't lie, but liars figure" may be closer to accurate than we would like.

Here is what I think caused the financial crisis based on what I read, what I experienced, common sense, and my interpretation of the facts.

1.  People borrowed more than they could repay if they experienced a modest financial setback.

If you know me personally, I will always put more weight on personal responsibility than the boogeyman. Yes there was some degree of fraud perpetuated on the borrowing public. But, by and large, people knew how much they were borrowing, what their payments were, and that some of their mortgage payments would rise if rates rose. 

In 1974, household debt stood at approximately 60% of annual disposable personal income. In 2007, that number climbed to 127%. It should be noted that in 2006, 40% of purchase mortgages were for investment or vacation property. But you won't see the real estate investor losing his/her shirt on 20/20.

Absolving people of personal responsibility is a problem in our society. As one of my Navy lieutenants once told me: "Be careful pointing the finger, because the other fingers are pointing back at you". Words to live by.

So, in my opinion, number one exceeds all others. It will not get me personal kudos in the news media.

2.  Credit risk was too far removed from the loan closing table.

This is the moral hazard argument, where the people that have the relationship with the customer, that stare the customer in the face and say "yes" or "no" to the loan, were not the same people assuming the risk should the customer default, in most cases. The shoulders where credit risk ultimately came to rest, investors, were placated by insurance and bond ratings. 

Community financial institutions make their debut here, as they purchased bonds, typically highly rated, backed by mortgages that also had insurance applied to them.

3.  There was a lot of money looking for investments, and Wall Street met the demand. Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBS) almost tripled between 1996 and 2007, to $7.3 trillion, as investors lined up to participate in the US housing market. This led to creative means to take a risky mortgage at the closing table, to a perceived "safe" investment in the bond market after it was combined with hundreds of other mortgages, parsed into traunches, insured by a bond insurer, and rated by a ratings agency. What could go wrong?

See the list of top 10 sub prime mortgage lenders from 2007. Note the absence of anything resembling a community bank. BNC was owned by Lehman Bros. EMC-Bear Stearns. First Franklin, a JV between National City Bank (emergency sale to PNC) and Merrill Lynch (emergency sale to BofA). Option One was sold to shark investor Wilbur Ross for its servicing rights. Ameriquest was purchased by Citi, and its origination arm shut down. The table indicates that loans were closed in these banks'/entities' names. A community financial institution that sells its loans in the secondary market would typically close the loan in its own name, and then sell it. So the absence of community financial institutions implies that these loans were originated by mortgage brokers or the listed banks themselves, and not a community FI. This is consistent with my experience. 

The MBS bond-creation engine was a well oiled, end-to-end machine designed to satisfy the appetite of investors.

4.  Government's participation in the mortgage market. Way back to the Great Depression, when mortgages were typically five-year balloons, the Federal Government has intervened in mortgage lending. When the five years were up, the government didn't want people tossed from their homes because they couldn't refinance due to economic hardships. A respectable goal. But this intervention played a role in what we have today, a separation between the borrower and the ultimate lender. 

Note that Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and even Obama openly encourage home ownership because it has a causal relationship with household wealth creation.

But the reason why community financial institutions shy from putting 30-year, fixed rate mortgages on their books is because there is no 30-year, fixed rate funding instrument. It creates unpalatable interest rate risk. 

If interest rate risk drives the wedge between borrower (i.e. homeowner), and the desired lender (i.e. local bank that retains the credit on their books), then perhaps a 5/1 mortgage should be the norm. This answers the interest rate risk problem, while allowing borrowers to keep their mortgage and therefore their home if they befall some economic setback after five years.

And note, a local financial institution has more flexibility to alter the terms of the loan if it is on their books, rather than owned by an investor.

Back to my original point regarding re-instating Glass-Steagall. What does this have to do with the four points above? We should ask the same question about every article within Dodd-Frank.

~ Jeff 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Bankers: Give Your Employees a Bucket of Balls

Very few financial institutions commit to the level of employee development found in some of our largest corporations. The fear, aside from the cost of a homegrown development program, is that employees will leave. I have news for you, you should be afraid the untrained will stay.

What banks do you know that have a formal employee development program?

~ Jeff