Sunday, July 27, 2014

Guest Post: Second Quarter Economic Review by Dorothy Jaworski

Summer’s Here
We are all thankful that summer has arrived!  Heat and humidity!  And no one complains!  After the brutally cold and stormy winter, stuck in the perpetual polar vortex, no one dares to complain.

Our winter mood was brutally apparent in the GDP report that was released for the first quarter of 2014.
Actually the report comes out three times with a preliminary report, a revision, and a final report.  The Bureau of Economic Analysis, or “BEA,” a part of the Commerce Department provided their preliminary peak at 1Q GDP at the end of April.  GDP was reported at -.1%, they said.  Hey, great!  That winter wasn’t so bad after all…The second release at the end of May came in at -1.0%.  Wait!  That winter was bad.  Business just didn’t replenish inventories…Then came the shocking final report at the end of June showing -2.9%!  Wait!  The economy was so bad, the weather was so bad, consumers did not spend…

This is supposed to be an economic recovery.  In fact, it is now five years old.  And we get a terrible quarter like that?  What is going on here?  I will tell you that the change from -1.0% to -2.9% by the BEA was the largest downward revision since this GDP methodology was developed in 1976.  And do some math- if GDP grows at 3% (by some miracle) for the rest of 2014, GDP will average 1.5% for the year!  Plenty of excuses accompanied the final report, but I am not completely buying them.  I sum up the revisions by the BEA with a thought from Mike Flynn (06/30/14):  “If you torture economic statistics long enough, they will confess to anything.”

What’s Really Going On
I am still of the view that our economy will continue its growth path at 2% to 2.5%, well under its normal recovery speed and well below its potential.  Numerous regulations burdening all industries and higher capital requirements for the banking industry will weigh down growth.  Investors’ Business Daily has estimated the annual cost of regulation at $1.86 trillion.  Just think about that number as it relates to $17 trillion in annual GDP.  Consumer spending tanked in 1Q14, but should rebound in 2Q14.  Remember the spike in electricity prices in January and February?  That put consumers in a bad spending mood.  Gas prices began a slow climb in 1Q14 and the increases have not yet abated.  Gas prices have passed $3.70 per gallon and are up 12% year-to-date.  I’m outraged, aren’t you?

Having just read an article on Bloomberg that the US has now surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia with average daily output of 11 million barrels of oil in 1Q14, I would have thought that the concepts of supply and demand were still alive.  Due to the fracking boom (extracting energy from shale rock by using high pressure liquid to split rocks and release oil or gas) has made the US competitive in the energy industry again and there is little impact to reduce our prices?  That leaves me outraged!  Will we approach our all time high gas prices of $4.11 per gallon from July, 2008 and $3.99 in May, 2011 soon?  At both of those times, consumers reached a tipping point where spending fell on most discretionary goods as a result.

Recent employment reports have been increasingly positive, showing the potential for GDP improvement. The June report showed that 288,000 jobs were created.  The unemployment rate fell to 6.1% in June from 7.5% one year earlier.  Many of the jobs being created are low paying ones or are part-time.  The proportion of part-time jobs to total jobs is now at 19% compared to 17% in 2008.  People dropping out of the labor force have certainly contributed to a falling unemployment rate; Those Not in the Labor Force rose again in June to a record 92.1 million.  The labor force participation rate is still at a 30 year low at 62.8%. These two statistics speak volumes- we are losing the productivity of a great number of persons, probably very experienced ones.

To know if interest rates will rise soon, or sooner than the market expects, my advice would be to watch the Yellen Dashboard on employment and pay attention to whether the measures are improving over pre-crisis ones.  The markets expect the first short term rate increase in mid-2015 and this is built into the futures markets.  The Fed has already indicated that they will be ending the QE program by the fall of 2014.  It is my view that the program initially worked, but in 2013, the Fed lost credibility with it and had to begin to unwind it.  And, as always, watch inflation, too.  It is still tame and at or below Fed targets.

The Economy
Yes, our economy is resilient, but five years into a recovery, growth of about 2% is well under our potential. Since the recovery began in June, 2009, real GDP has averaged +2.2%.  In the ten previous recessions, real GDP averaged +4.6%.  I do think we will continue to grow around 2%.  Hiring is up, albeit with lots of part-time jobs.  Average hourly earnings are up to $24.45, which is an increase of 2% in the past year. Consumer spending may not be much higher than 2% as borrowing to supplement spending is not as prevalent as it was before the 2008 crisis.  Technology is advancing and aiding productivity growth.  Stock markets are reaching new highs with the Dow Jones average at 17,000 and the S&P 500 approaching 2,000, with a PE ratio of 15.7 times.

We would love to grow exports but Europe and Asia’s economies are fairly weak.  I may have to personally go to Europe and investigate!  The European Central Bank, or “ECB,” just lowered rates again and this time tested negative interest rates, at -.10%, on bank reserve deposits.  Speaking of other parts of the world, the unrest and fighting in Iraq, Syria, Israel, and over in the Ukraine make for a very uncertain world indeed.  In the US, children and immigrants from South America are flooding through our borders in huge unmanageable numbers.  Uncertainty is often the enemy of economic growth.

As always, take heed of the roadblocks to higher growth (the Fed calls them headwinds) - high gas prices, regulatory burden, weak world economies, low income growth, uncertainty, and bad pothole repair!  Stay tuned!

Thanks for reading and Happy Summer!  DJ 07/09/14

Dorothy Jaworski has worked at large and small banks for over 30 years; much of that time has been spent in investment portfolio management, risk management, and financial analysis. Dorothy has been with First Federal of Bucks County since November, 2004. She is the author of Just Another Good Soldier, which details the 11th Infantry Regiment's WWII crossing of the Moselle River where her uncle, Pfc. Stephen W. Jaworski, gave his last full measure.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Will Bigger Lead to a More Efficient Bank?

A friendly competitor of ours, Anita Newcomb, spoke about strategic planning and economies of scale in banking at the recent Maryland Bankers Association annual convention. She led attendees through the increasing regulatory burden and the need for some level of scale to remain competitive.

This got me thinking, if Anita's premise is correct, that bigger is necessary to compete, then what is bigger? And what has changed since before the dawn of Dodd-Frank? So I went to the numbers. As I have often said, it always comes down to a spreadsheet.

I searched for all banks and thrifts that have existed since at least 2007. Any institution that had "NA" in their efficiency ratio for either 2007 or year to date (YTD) 2014 I eliminated. So the sample size was fairly large, nearly all financial institutions in existence today. I then parsed them into seven asset size categories, and compared their efficiency ratios in 2007 and today. The result is the below tables.

For both periods, the lowest efficiency ratios come from the $20B - $100B asset class. In 2007, this asset class had 60% of their members achieve an efficiency ratio lower than 55%. That number has shrunk from 60% to 30% YTD, a dramatic fall from glory. Yet the asset class retains the honor of the highest percent of banks that achieve the under 55% honor.

All asset classes suffered declines in the percent that have efficiency ratios lower than 55%. In 2007, however, you can see the steep dropoff in efficiency between the $500MM - $1B and the $1B - $5B classes. In 2014, the dropoff moved upstream to the larger banks, with 24% of the $5B - $10B banks achieving < 55%, and the $1B - $5B asset class only having 15% under 55%.

So, at least statistically, it appears as though it is becoming more difficult for banks with less than $5B in assets to achieve superior efficiency.  But it is difficult for everybody, not just the under $5B class.

One of my working theories regarding the "you must be bigger" argument was that the number of smaller institutions that achieve superior efficiency is shrinking. So the anecdotes about how this small bank or that small bank do it (achieve superior efficiency) are declining. But the anecdotes about all banks achieving superior efficiency are also in decline, according to the statistics.

Even though only 11% of banks with less than $500MM in assets achieve a sub 55% efficiency ratio, it still represents the greatest amount of banks that achieve the feat. So, if you are sitting around your Board table or in senior management meetings lamenting about rising costs relating to regulation and technology, perhaps instead of calling your investment banker, you should ask how the 11% of small financial institutions do it.

It's a legitimate question, right?

~ Jeff

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five Bank Marketing Leadership Takeaways from the ABA School of Bank Marketing Management

Lance Kessler introduced a new subject to the ABA School of Bank Marketing Management (SBMM) this week... Marketing Leadership.

A few months ago, he asked me and two other marketing experts to be on a panel for the class. I rejected the moniker "marketing expert". I may be an expert on a couple of topics, but marketing is not one of them. But I applaud Lance and the school for putting a finance and strategy wonk on the panel to get some outside perspectives on how the marketing function can be a significant contributor to the evolution of our respective banks from what we were to what we can be.

The class was a combination of lecture, questionnaire, and panel. So there was not a list of key takeaways displayed in a slick PowerPoint presentation. But I was taking notes on key items identified as critical takeaways for marketing leadership. Unfortunately, I left my notes back in Atlanta. So you, my readers, are stuck with my memory.

Key takeaways for marketing leadership:

1. Speak the language of the C-Suite. As much as marketers read and discuss the increased number of "impressions" they get from a witty Facebook post, your CFO could care less. If you talk social media impressions, you better know how that translates to greater unaided brand awareness, and ultimately more at-bats for your sales force that leads to greater balances than you would have otherwise achieved without the increased impressions. Tell the CEO/CFO how you will drive volume, increase margin, or drive down costs, and their ears will spike like a German Shepard that heard a rabbit shuffling in a thicket. Otherwise, check the marketing-speak at the door.

2. Take your CFO to lunch. But first take heed of (1) above. Building internal relationships will be critical to improving the marketer's influence on the future direction of your bank. Having stronger relationships with bank executives will give you the opportunity to demonstrate you do more than run the ad budget and branch merchandising. 

3.  Be analytical. Many if not most marketers got into the profession to leverage their creative nature. But the marketing function is evolving to be more analytical. Correlating organizational actions to outcomes based on statistical analysis gives the marketer far greater internal credibility than a discussion on how different primary colors impact the senses. You're going to have to trust me on this one.

4. Don't wait to be asked for help. It grates me when marketers focus on retail account acquisition when the bank's strategy is to grow commercial customers. I have not yet concluded that this is because it is within the marketer's comfort zone or that commercial bankers simply don't think they need marketing's help. Maybe a combination of both. If marketers' want to be an integral part of executing bank strategy, then go to the senior commercial banker and show them how marketing will be helping them achieve their objectives.

 5. Grow revenue. Position marketing expenditures as the fuel that grows organizational revenue. Having a well thought out campaign that shows multiple financial outcomes should result in funding. Delivering on the results improves your internal credibility and will make it easier to fund your next project, reducing the need to "whine for dollars" (i.e. can I puhleeezzzz have $50,000 for a direct mail campaign?).

Five is all that my memory will allow. There was a lot of great discussion, and marketers had excellent questions for panelists. 

What else is critical to marketing leadership?

~ Jeff

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Barriers to Entry In Banking Spell Opportunity. But Do We Seize It?

There are numerous and significant barriers to entry in banking. Regulation, capital requirements, competition, and the concentration of customers at the largest institutions have all contributed to only one bank charter being granted over the past three years. 

But I rarely hear of opportunity as a result of high barriers to entry in bank strategy sessions. I mostly hear lamentations and gnashing of teeth over the sluggish economy, aggressive regulatory environment, and irrational competition.

We are missing an opportunity, in my opinion. Here are the 10 strategic issues banks should address to position themselves to take advantage of high barriers to entry:

1.  We have thousands of customers, but do we understand who they are and what they want? Don’t believe me, ask your head of retail or commercial for an analysis of your customer base, including trend. If you get it immediately, good for you. I have my doubts.

2.  Do we have employees that grip old habits with white knuckles?  And, if yes, have failed to move them forward or out?

3.  We speak of relationships, but have we defined in detail what that means?

4.  We spend tens of millions in operating expenses, but do we direct expenditures to strategic priorities? Or have we failed to identify strategic priorities?

5.  We talk of service, but have we communicated service expectations?

6.  We expect customer contact staff to reach out to customers, but do we train them to do so?

7.  We speak of sales, but what percent of our staff have sales responsibilities?

8.  We spend millions on technology. But breaking it down, does our budget look like we are more focused on replacing Windows XP than building the distribution network of the future?

9.  Do we focus more on building the bank of the future or making budget?

10.  Do we identify the bank of the future, and the bank we want to become? Or do we remain some slightly modified version of the bank we were in 1950.

It is time for bold thinking to break from our past. We can no longer be some slightly modified version of what we once were. If we don’t bust our business model, someone else will.

And hey, I need community banks to thrive. So do your communities. So let’s get to it.

~ Jeff

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Three Levels of Business Bankers

Community bankers hunt aggressively for experienced lenders to grow their loan portfolios. I outlined a Business Banker job description in a prior post based on what I hear from bankers about what they expect from that position. 

You can't teach an old dog new tricks. If that job description represents our ideal, then we have a long way to go to develop the type of business bankers that will drive our bank forward. Instead of striving for our ideal, we continue to pluck old-school lenders from competitors because we need our pipelines filled now, not two years from now. So I opined to a community bank client what I thought was a healthy composition of business bankers.

Note I mention banker composition, not loan composition. For risk management purposes, we are accustomed to managing the mix of loans on our books. We may not be as accustomed to managing the mix of employees responsible for generating those loans. I put Business Banker composition in three categories.

1.  The Fat Cat

Don't contact my HR department. This is not commentary on his or her body composition. It's more a testimony as to the size of the Fat Cat's portfolio. It's usually large (typically > $50 million). And size does matter. Because of the large portfolio, this lender comes with a high number of relationships, and little time for meaningless meetings and all of your chatter about "total relationships" and "core deposits". Their portfolio is large and profitable, and they know it. Their salary is high and the bonus pool is flush. They are not as concerned about growing their portfolio as they are about maintaining it. They might be open to sharing smaller relationships with more junior business bankers, but not because they are the best team players. They simply don't have time to deal with lower balance customers, and they know that balances drive their bonus pool. They are also hesitant to bring other bankers into their relationships, for fear they may screw them up.

2.  The Builder

This person has a mid-range portfolio, somewhere in the $25-$50 million range. They take their growth goals seriously. Because they see the Fat Cats reaching critical mass and milking those portfolios into retirement. They want that too! So they leverage their relationships into more relationships such as calling on COI's they met at the latest Chamber mixer. This group may also be willing to take the junior business banker under their wing. They are not so far removed from the "junior" status that they lack empathy for the Up and Comers. Unlike the Fat Cats, this group tend to be better team players, because they may have greater organizational ambitions other than to be a Fat Cat.

3.  The Up and Comer

This person came from the branch manager, credit analyst, or portfolio manager ranks. They received a taste of the life of a business banker in their former position and they liked it. They have small portfolios, typically well under $25 million. Community banks frequently have inadequate support structures to nurture the Up and Comer. They have no mentoring programs, little in terms of formal training, and even less in terms of patience and the ability to carry "non-producing" producers for any significant period. But the Up and Comer can be the Builder and Fat Cats of the future, if the community bank thought farther than the current budget into the future. Another benefit of populating your Business Banker ranks equally with Up and Comers is instead of taking more experienced ones from competitors and inheriting their way of doing things, this group grew up in your way of doing things. 

If your Business Banker ranks were built by you, first as Up and Comers, steeped in your bank's way, that grew into Builders and Fat Cats, would you be better capable of moving your bank forward?

~ Jeff

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Are Bank Net Interest Margins Under Pressure?

Industry analysts are beating the drum of net interest margin (NIM) decline. Irrational pricing by competitors is often cited in strategy sessions.

But in picking through the numbers, there appears to be something else at work. Factually, NIMs were actually greater in 2013 than in 2007 for Bank and Thrifts, according to the financial institutions included in SNL Financial's Bank & Thrift Index (2.91% in 2007 versus 2.94% in 2013). But NIM has been on the decline since 2010 when it stood at 3.31%.

Is it irrational pricing by the competition? I think all bankers will attest that at the forefront of the financial crisis, credit spreads worked their way back into pricing decisions. Banks were not only more cautious about the quality of the credit, but the yield on the loan too. And this partially explains why the NIM rose from 2007-2010. But has irrational loan pricing driven the NIM south since that time? The below chart shows differently.

                        Source: The Kafafian Group, Inc.

The largest loan categories on bank balance sheets actually showed spread gains during this period, until they finally began to wane in 2013.  This analysis measures loan spreads by taking the actual yield of the loan portfolios, and charging a transfer price for funding the loans using a market instrument with the same repricing characteristics. In plain English, it removes interest rate risk from the spread, often called co-terminous spread. 

How do we explain rising loan spreads, combined with decreasing NIMs? Well one reason can be the reduced benefit of deposit repricing. Financial institutions have benefited by the significantly reduced funding costs brought about by the historically low Fed Funds rate. But that benefit has been mostly exhausted. Leaving re-pricing of loans to be offset by, well, nothing.

The second culprit behind NIM decline since 2010 is the continued decline in loan to deposit ratios (see chart). Perhaps you hear talk of this in your FIs senior management meetings over the last couple of years. "We don't need more deposits because we have no place to put them." "We have tons of cash to lend." Etc.

But loan pipelines are getting fuller as the tortoise-like economic recovery grows deeper roots. With many FIs still mopping up excess liquidity, competition remains strong for those "good" credits, whatever that means. Presumably it means borrowers who will pay you back. This will continue to put pressure on NIMs. Once rates rise, there will likely be additional pressures as the least liquid FIs start pricing up their deposits to keep funding their pipeline. 

Will deposit rates rise faster than the loans those deposits will fund? Time will tell. 

Do you think NIMs will continue to decline, even when rates rise?

~ Jeff

Friday, May 02, 2014

Guest Post: First Quarter Economic Review by Dorothy Jaworski

Spring-At Last

We are all thankful to leave the brutal winter of 2014 behind, especially the polar vortex! The constant barrage of snowstorms was mind numbing. The ice storm that hit our region (Philadelphia Region) with damage and over 700,0000 power outages was perhaps the worst storm. I missed being on the eastbound Pennsylvania Turnpike by 30 minutes on February 14th. For that, I am truly thankful. The lost productivity cost our local economy greatly. and the lasting legacy of potholes will keep drivers on their guard for months!

But it is pring and a new beginning. The equity markets are reaching new highs, expecting the economy to emerge from the deep freeze in the first quarter. GDP is expected to rebound from 1% to 1.5% in the first quarter to its "normal" mediocre growth rate of 2% to 2.5% in the second quarter.

Long term interest rates remain near their highs of last year, with the 10 year Treasury trading around 2.75%, as a result of the Federal Reserve tapering of their QE bond buying program. The bond markets unwound the benefits of QE during 2013, so it quickly became apparent to the Fed to reduce it. Rates would be much higher today if the economy was expected to grow more than the rates I indicated here. Markets are ignoring would events, such as Russia's annexation of Crimea, further unrest in Ukraine, earthquakes, and the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

We have a new beginning at the Federal Reserve, too.  Janet Yellen was sworn in as the first female Fed Chairwoman and she is expected to rule an empire in the same traditions as her two predecessors, the Maestro and Big Ben.  She worked for both men and is a fan of each.  She is a proponent of studying the data and is not fooled by numbers that do not provide the full picture of economic health, such as the unemployment rate.  She learned her first lesson at her first press conference.  When asked to define “considerable time,” she blurted out “six months or that type of thing” without thinking.  What?  “Considerable” is that short?  Bernanke always implied it was years!  Bond markets quickly adjusted to rate hikes sooner than expected.  I don’t think she meant that at all.  Nearly five years into our “recovery,” she knows that she must keep short term rates low to improve employment and prevent inflation from getting too low.  She knows if she tightens too soon, economic growth could stall.

Cautious Growth for 2014

We still expect that GDP growth for 2014 will be between 2% and 2.5% nationally.  Once the country recovers from the brutal winter in most parts of the US, growth will resume but uncertainty will remain, as businesses and consumers adjust to the new healthcare laws, regulatory burden, and general discomfort with the economic outlook.  Many of our bank customers remain reluctant to borrow and spend on large projects.

The Federal Reserve released their updated economic projections on March 19, 2014.  Generally, they lowered their GDP projections for this year and the next two slightly, kept their inflation forecasts about the same- still at 2% or below, and lowered their unemployment rate projections due to structural problems with the rate falling from persons exiting the labor force and lower paying jobs being added.  They slightly raised their Fed Funds projections, including an earlier increase of the Fed Funds rate from the prior December projections.  The market interpreted this as tightening sooner than had been built into the term structure.  Janet Yellen, when asked directly about this change in the scatterplot, stated that we should “ignore” it and pay attention to Fed statements released after their meetings.  Here we are- back to the good old days when everything the Fed says is vague!

Fed QE Programs

I am of the opinion that the QE bond buying programs served to reduce long term rates and were initially successful.  During 2012 and 2013, long term interest rates, including mortgage rates, fell and contributed to an improvement in the housing markets, allowing home price increases to gain some momentum and prompt the new construction markets to improve.  Then, the Fed mishandled their message on QE early in 2013 and the markets abruptly removed its favorable impact, sending long term rates soaring over 100 basis points.  This type of increase is very rare in a declining inflationary environment, but we live with it.  With the markets having removed the benefits of QE, the Fed began “tapering” the program, which started at $85 billion per month last year and is now at $55 billion per month.  Markets expect the Fed to continue reducing purchases by $10 billion per month until it is down to zero- in October or November, 2014.  So our question to Janet is:  What will you do if the economy stalls and you need to ease?  Her answer:  More QE!

By the way, Europe is about the start up a QE bond buying program for the first time- to the tune of $1 trillion Euro to help the struggling economies, where growth turned positive, but only by about +.5%.  Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, is revealing his plans to the International Monetary Fund for buying sovereign debt, or maybe even private debt!  Later, he will make a public announcement.  The European markets are abuzz with speculation, but it will not be the first time Draghi has proposed something big and not followed through on it.  Yeah, like negative interest rates, Mario!  Stay tuned!

Discovery of the Waves

Albert Einstein predicted in 1915, in the general theory of relativity, that the universe contained gravitational waves, left over from the Big Bang billions of years ago.  A second theory developed in the 1980s predicted these waves as part of a process known as cosmic inflation.  An instant after the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, the universe expanded exponentially, inflating in size trillions and trillions of times.

An announcement by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts on March 18, 2014 stated that researchers have discovered the gravitational waves, confirming both theories, by looking through telescopes on the South Pole.  This is another monumental breakthrough in understanding the universe, after the discovery of the “God particle” by the Large Hadron Collider team in Switzerland last year.  Yeah, now we know!  Now, if we could only predict interest rates!

Thanks for reading and Happy Spring!  DJ 04/07/14

Dorothy Jaworski has worked at large and small banks for over 30 years; much of that time has been spent in investment portfolio management, risk management, and financial analysis. Dorothy has been with First Federal of Bucks County since November, 2004.

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