This week, Chris Nichols sits down with Steve Andrews, CEO of the Western Bankers Association.  They discuss all of the major issues relevant to community bankers today and the challenges and opportunities for lie ahead for 2021.

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Intro: Helping community bankers grow themselves, their team, and their profits. This is the Community Bank Podcast.

Caleb Stevens: Well hey everybody and welcome to episode 22 of the Community Bank Podcast. Thanks for joining us today I’m Caleb Stevens one of your co-hosts. I serve banks in Georgia and Kentucky. And our business development group here at center state and the corresponding division and I am joined by our expert economist strategy guide, Tom Fitzgerald. Tom, how are you?

Tom Fitzgerald: Caleb I’m doing great. And I hope you’re too.

Caleb Stevens: Doing well, it’s crazy that this is, I guess our second to last show of the year.

Tom Fitzgerald: I think so.

Caleb Stevens: Which is pretty mind-blowing we started this back in late May-early June I think it was it’s been so cool to create conversations that bring value to you the community bank here. Whether that’s culture and leadership or strategy, the economy we try to make is pretty diverse I was looking back Tom, at all the shows we did. Because we’re working on putting together this you know this best of show. We’re trying to pull all of our favorite clips from the year that’ll be releasing next week. And I was looking back at how many guests that we had on that were so different in terms of their expertise and their knowledge and their backgrounds.

Tom Fitzgerald: Right I was thinking back too. That of course my background is more from the Investment side and running a portfolio and strategies there. But we had people on about culture and people on about, you know, the digital revolution you had, you know, people talking about you know the lending environment. All aspects of banking we’re pretty much caught in those 20 or so episodes.

Caleb Stevens: And what’s funny too is me and you and Eric are always, typically, Chris Nichols does a great job too in helping us out. It’s typically the three of us one of the three of us driving that interview and half the time we are the furthest thing from an expert in the field of the person we’re talking to. So it’s kind of, kind of been a fish out of water half the time we’re on this.

Tom Fitzgerald: Yeah, a lot of it is like a hope that doesn’t say something stupid or ask a stupid question.

Caleb Stevens: Yeah, it’s almost like hey, you tell me what to ask you, it will just start there because I don’t even know where to start on some of these things. So we’re really excited for today’s show, we’ll be featuring an interview between Chris Nichols, our Director of capital markets here at center state. And Steve Andrews, the CEO of the Western Bankers Association, located in San Francisco. Really insightful conversation on all things banking, what is ahead for 2021. Credit quality concerns the issues that banks are facing today. Chris is a really, really great interviewer, I think. And the question ask Chris what was funny about this show was, Steve had the exact same equipment that we do, so he’s out in San Francisco and he sounds like he’s right here in the room with us. Because it was a nice microphone and the soundboard. So I was honestly pretty impressed with how tech-savvy, he was out there.

Tom Fitzgerald: Usually we’re dealing with a bad zoom connection or a bad cell connection. So that was, that was unusual.

Caleb Stevens: Exactly it’s always cool too, you know, have a guest that has the same equipment you do, and it makes it a lot more personal than right, being on the opposite side of the country. Well, before we jump in, Tom. Give us your last final economic update for the year and give us a little bit of a snapshot of what we expect may be the first quarter so in 2021.

Tom Fitzgerald: Okay well I know you don’t like me to timestamp these things too much. But as we are going to record this the Fed is also in their last meeting of the year. And so that decision will come down a little bit later. And so, kind of look at the big question for the Fed going into us obviously they’re not going to cut rates are going to adjust rates, they can’t go any lower, I guess they could go below zero but they’re not going to. The real question is whether they start to extend the duration of the purchases on their quantitative easing program. And that would be the effective buying. Instead of buying two and three-year maturity treasuries, they might move out to the 10,15-year, 30-year part of the curve. To try to keep rates lower at that end. As we’ve seen since I think late September early October. Rates have sort of bias their way up, and it’s probably going to continue especially if we get the stimulus package which is the other big factor that’s hanging out there.

You know this is the last week really where the government can get something done before Christmas. And so the rumors sort of the talk as we go to hear, hear. Is that there is going to get something done. And so that’s sort of giving a little bit more pressure to treasuries. On the back end. So I think if the Fed today doesn’t move as far as to the longer duration purchases that’s something, I think they really want to keep for 2021 as a tool that they haven’t used yet. And I think they’ll do that I think with a positive talk about the stimulus, they’ll sort of let that go and let that see how that kind of runs through the economy in the first quarter, and then kind of keep that longer duration purchase option open to them. As we move into 21. So that’s kind of the things to look for. As we close out this year, and kind of roll into early 21.

Caleb Stevens: I think we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, on one of our shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We’re not quite sure how long the tunnel is going to be. But we do see some positive things for 2021 relative to this past year.

Tom Fitzgerald: Right, right you are speaking of the vaccine obviously we’re it’s already been administered to the frontline healthcare workers, we’re seeing that Dr. Fauci talked about it being available to anyone who wants it by the end of March-early April and so like you said, there’s a light at the tunnel, it’s just a matter of sort of going from here to there, we’re still going to have some ugly numbers coming out of the virus in the next couple of months. But, you know, we do see an end to this, and it’ll be probably sometime in 21, whether it’s mid-year or a little bit later. You know we should start to see a lot of improvement.

Caleb Stevens: We appreciate you keeping us informed of all these shows, and if folks aren’t subscribed to your market update you put that out a few times a week and I know we’ve even been talking about ways to make that even better next year with some fresh design and a cool look to it. So if folks want to subscribe to that how can they do that?

Tom Fitzgerald: Well probably the easiest way just email me at T Fitzgerald at center state bank.com, and I’ll get that request and forwarded on to our web provider and, you know, we’ll get you on the list. It’s like, Caleb said we do it three times a week Monday Wednesday, Friday. Occasionally, we’ll put out an additional research piece when there’s something that’s come up that probably needs to be addressed. You know like today’s fed meeting I’ll do a piece on that. So, you know, again, just email me, T Fitzgerald, at center state bank.com and we’ll get you going as quick as, probably the next issue.

Caleb Stevens: Fantastic. Well, folks, we appreciate you listening, and joining us today and we are excited for you to hear, Chris Nichols’s interview with Steve Andrews. Thanks for joining us.

Chris Nichols: Welcome everyone. We’re here with Steve Andrews the head of Western Bankers Association, a longtime banker. Steve appreciate you coming on today wanted to knock out a couple of topics. How are things going to start?

Steve Andrews: Oh they are going pretty well Chris how have you been?

Chris Nichols: I’ve been okay you know we’ve been as we gear up for the holidays here and trying to figure out what 2021 happens for our bank and the banking industry. The producer of this podcast and myself, kind of scanning the horizon scanning the industry to try to get different points of view. So, with that, we figured you have a good take on what’s happening in the 13 western states. So I want to ask you a couple of questions today. If that’s okay?

Steve Andrews: Fire away. I’m happy to answer them.

Chris Nichols: Let’s start off with the general banking environment. Haven’t, I’m not sure we’ve seen an environment this tough we have the potential credit issues we have net interest margin changes you know the administration what, what’s your take on 2021 for banks?

Steve Andrews: Well I think it’s been a mixed bag out here in the west. I would say that you know, we have seen some tough times during the Great Recession. What’s interesting about this downturn or tough time is the geopolitical stuff that’s going on in the nation. You’ve got a lot of animosity between political parties, I think the biggest challenge for our banks right now is the net interest margin compression, the name has really suffered. I think it’s down around 281 basis points last time I looked with the fed on a national average. So, that’s really top of mind for our bankers and then what’s keeping them up at night is the potential fear of a credit crisis, you know through this year I think a lot of people thought that would surface, and it hasn’t. I don’t know if that’s because the government was effectively paying a lot of the borrower’s loans, but I guess the fear is if we don’t get something done on the COVID relief side, and it’s meaningful that there’s going to be credit issues that pop up in banks’ balance sheet.

Chris Nichols: What’s your best guess if we’re starting to see some deterioration. Let’s say we do get a stimulus package, come on here. There’s no doubt you think that would help stave off any credit issues or you think the credit issues, just get pushed into 2022, or at least the back end of 2021.

Steve Andrews: There’s a combination of that I think that there’s some staving off so to speak if that’s the verbiage we’re going to use but I think that there are some types of industries that are not going to recover easily and so I think that you’ve got a lot of folks hanging on in these niche industry. So I think the restaurants are hanging on or going b k I think the health clubs are in crisis at least out here they can’t get in. I think that commercial real estate is unknown in the west. I know a lot of people are downsizing. That’s a problem. So I think these niche industries could creep up and then it depends on what the regulatory environment is, you know, as we’re speaking right now at the end of the year. We just don’t know if some of the future legislation is going to continue extensions of TDR and things of that nature and if they don’t have troubled debt restructure kicks in the first year, I think a lot of banks are going to be in trouble.

Chris Nichols: And what’s your stay on that topic for a second. What’s your take and what’s your association doing on the laundering front, with the regulators, and with the legislation?

Steve Andrews: Well, you know, we get the regulators on all the time and so we’ll have the FDIC on we’ll have the Federal Reserve we’ll have the OCC, and essentially the end of the day. They’re kind of an order taker to a degree in the sense that they have to follow legislation and are so embedded in the cares act or certain areas that are going to affect banks and so now as we’re sitting here today. There are only a few days left in a legislative session back in DC, and things have seemed to be baked into maybe this 908, coalition bill that seemed to be coalescing between both parties. Included in that might be some simplified forgiveness which banks are looking for, and we need that a lot, there might be some clarity around the economic injury disaster loan program that’s the EIDL.

And then we’re also looking for some deductibility from a taxpayer standpoint for this PPP. And so those things seem to be kind of baked in but what’s not in there today, and maybe our association, others are trying to get an extension for the troubled debt restructuring that we just talked about for the accounting. And because if you have to start taking hits to capital and or get measured. Your TDR is against your capital base, that’s going to crush banks just like it did during the Great Recession. And then you go through that whole impairment process, so I guess what’s keeping bankers up at night from a legislative perspective is what the hell are legislators doing back there are they going to come forward repackage. And then, are they going to keep their ears open and make it work for the lenders. And then you’ve got this conversation going on about, you know, PPP too and what’s that going to look like.

Chris Nichols: And what’s your best guess. I think you’re one of the few organizations that at least state organizations of your size that employ a group of lobbyists how many lobbyists do you have full time?

Steve Andrews: So we do have a really robust lobby department of six people we have three full-time lobbyists. We lobby, very heavily in Sacramento. So, the Western Bankers Association essentially is the merger of the California Bankers Association, which was a trade association, where our main mission core mission was one of advocacy. And then we merged with the Western independent Bankers Association whose core mission was to deliver educational services to the 13 western states. So we do pay a lot of attention to what’s happening in Sacramento and for those listeners that aren’t aware. California is pretty damn liberal. And so,

Chris Nichols: No surprise to our listeners.

Steve Andrews: Yeah. No surprise. We also are by ourselves California, the fifth or sixth-largest economy in the world. And it is coming out of California, every year are probably about 2000 bills. And so we have a traffic manager that takes a look at those bills sees where it affects banking or financial services and then tries and figure out where we’re going to pick our fights. And unfortunately for the industry.

What flows out of California heads north into Oregon and Washington, and then it heads, east, and actually becomes. Some of the basis or foundation or at least the discussion points for federal legislation. So, we have a lot of banks that like to get engaged with us out here because it makes sense to stop it at its source. And, you know, Chris today, you know victories are measured in different ways. If you can’t knock a bad bill out, then, you’ve got to kind of pare it down or you have to pair it down or you have to dampen it or dilute it.

And so how do you measure victory. A lot of ways, when you have a very liberal legislature, you just measure it by diluting the badness in it. So that’s what we’re heavily engaged in out here is a lot of fights. On behalf of the industry.

Chris Nichols: I think it just occurred to me that, even if you’re a bank outside the 13 western states there’s reason to get involved with your organization. Banks such as ours, it’s not involved in the 13 western states but still have a stake in some of the things that come out of Sacramento like the California Privacy Protection Act. Probably is a good argument to be part of the organization some level to help influence that

Steve Andrews: is really, really an excellent argument I mean I claim, what we do on the elevator given elevator speech to a banker. I equated to investing in DNO insurance that you may pay a ton for your fidelity insurance bonds. But if you’re an out-of-state bank and you throw say like, say 25 grand toward California. That money is really, really well spent. Because, you know, they could spend that money just by calling up an attorney to defend themselves from some frivolous lawsuit back at home.

But here it’s going toward protecting the franchise value, where maybe the legislation gets into their franchise in a much bigger fashion from an economic perspective so. Not everybody sees that, but really what we’re involved with is franchise protection when we’re dealing with advocacy that can come at the legislative level, it can come also by influencing the regulatory regimes. So we’re quite active. Very active.

Chris Nichols: Excellent. Let’s go back to the credit situation. One of the things that I think is an interesting history that we have the Cecil banks that are reserved around, you know, 2%, and the non-Cecil banks that are like one and a quarter 130 ish. What’s your, what’s your take on your average community bank out there under reserve or over reserve or just right.

Steve Andrews: That’s a hard question to answer, I guess my take from a high-level perspective is when COVID first hit. All your seesaw reporters’ theory needs to get at anticipating future losses. And so they pair around the corner under Cecil, and they say okay what’s coming at us. And you saw. Back in the first quarter all the major banks, but the central banks moved in a really big, big fashion to throw money into reserves.

And then the community banks are not operating under Cecil so they’re operating under. Maybe the old classic Excel spreadsheets, you know attaching some number or factor to an asset category, and I look at those banks it’s just in time reserving, but they’re not making the big strokes. And then you get, you know, these banks are acquisitive that it can affect their reserves because they’re bringing over these acquisitions at an already discounted value to the loan portfolios are requiring.

You know, you need to take down a few layers into the allowance these days. But to answer your question, I think that, on average, the community banks might be a tad under reserved. Just because out here in the West, commercial real estate is the largest concentration and all of the Federal districts. And I think that shoe has not fallen, and I think it has the ability to fall. Pretty hard, because a lot of people are trying to get out of their real estate holdings, or their leases, or downsize because we’re moving toward a remote workforce. That being said, I think the community banking sector is a lot better space than it was before there’s a lot more capital out there, and capital, as well as your reserve, is there for tough times. So I would say that, you know, I think the community banks are doing a pretty good job. I think they’re close to their borrowers. And I think that the average basis points might have popped up 25, or 30 basis points on the allowance, but I’m a little bit nervous about what’s around the corner.

Chris Nichols: Yeah, the great unknown out there that everyone’s worried I know. You mentioned that valuations alluded to m&a. I think that’s really slowed down m&a. What’s your take, what do you think is ahead for both bank valuations and m&a activity coming up?

Steve Andrews: So, you know, take a look at m&a activity I think you need to take a look at it with a long haul and so when you do that, you’re going to find that when your research sort of into the m&a world that bank consolidation or banks in the landscape typically about four to 5% per year leaving the landscape. Over maybe the last 20 years so now you go back to say 84, 85 when we were younger men. You might have had close to 20,000 banks. Today you got 5000 banks. I think that that consolidation trend is only going to continue. I talk to a lot of investment bankers, and right now it is slowed. It’s not slowed like it was during the Great Recession and that everybody was scared of everybody else. I think that everybody kind of figures they know what everyone’s portfolio looks like.

But I think that when we start to roll out of this with Dr. Falchi says hey, we’ve obtained herb immunity. I think you’re going to see the consolidation jump from the historic four to 5% into the eight to 9% range. I think that there’s a lot of conversations are transpiring but people are not pulling the trigger. I also think that this net interest margin is very tough for the community bank model. When you start talking about money center banks. I view them as really financial companies, they have all sorts of income opportunities that are non-interest related when you start getting into the community bank model, then you rely solely on that spread between your deposits and your earning assets, and that’s what’s under siege, and there used to be a lot of different places they could play but for the most part, not as much anymore so. I think the spread is going to really drive the mergers in the future.

Chris Nichols: What’s your aggressive hat on, looking at m&a. Would you, you seem like the type that would be thinking about loaded up on common equity right now. Go after would be ready for that consolidation is that do you see that happening?

Steve Andrews: I think that when you, when you take a look at the common equity offerings that are out there. Very few of them approach it from a common equity perspective, I think that most people are acquisitive. I think they’ve loaded up on sub debt. Right, and they loaded up on that because you know it’s not going to dilute their shareholders. So I think at the very beginning of this cycle relative to the banks that no one knew what COVID was going to bring a lot of people pretty scared. And so, the sub-debt market took off like crazy and the m&a folks were, they were doing, debt, debt, debt, debt and more debt, and initially they were selling that as, you know, defensive, you know, Sky’s falling load up on some debt so you’re ready.

And then all of a sudden, we had these cares acts, where in theory, the government was subsidizing some of our loans going bad they were putting money into the hands of those who were unemployed, and they could make their loan payments. And that sub-debt sort of became offensive to a degree where some of these banks that had extra debt now, or capital, we’re taking a look and saying, okay, who’s a target out there that we could talk to. I think for the common equity, I think you need to be careful there because it’s so dilutive. And so when you create a hierarchy of cost of capital, I think, common equity is the highest cost of capital when you start to put in these hurdle rates that, you know, the investment bankers are fond of. So I think there will be some consolidation and I think it will be driven by those held up on some sub debt.

Chris Nichols: And let’s go back to nim kind of where we started, what do you see some successful strategies doing or what as your with your banker hat on what would you be doing right now it’s tough sledding up there a little credit side spreads are probably the tightest, we’ve seen. Part of me wants to stay in cash and part of me wants to just grab whatever I can even if it isn’t a 165 spread. What’s your guess of where to go from here. You know, I don’t know if I comment on costs and expenses, etc.

Steve Andrews: Well I guess I would want to be living back around 30 years ago and go to the bar when it was acceptable. It’s a tough environment out there. So, you know, everybody, not everybody but a lot of the, what I call smaller banks. They did pretty well with this PPP program, you know, they came into it reluctantly, and then they did a really great job of getting the dough out, and maybe more so than some of the bigger banks as far as batting above there, or hitting above their weight, so to speak. And so a lot of these banks are awash with deposits and loans. And so, you know they’re on average, 20 to 35% larger than they were before they entered the program.

And so I think that banks are awash with liquidity today and then the question is where do you go with this. And I don’t think they know, and I don’t know I’d be interested to hear what you have to say. Because some of them are just putting in overnight funds and saying you know what I’m just going to take the beating in earnings.

And I think that you know, we’ve already seen the sector rotation away from banks that during this downturn, the valuations for a lot of banks slipped below there, you know their net worth and so they were trading below their value or liquidation. And I don’t know when that’s returning, you need to be cautious when you’re chasing yield, you’re not getting it in a lot of securities. Those yields are down you’re not getting it from loans. Do you know who do you lend to today? Not everybody can lend Amazon, I mean there are the companies that are doing really well are those in transportation and those, you know are in the gig economy so. It’s tough I think that we’re just sort of got to hunker down and not be stupid. Through this downturn, but, you know, investors aren’t patient and so when you’ve got all this investor money in your bank that they loan you. They’re looking for that improving story quarter over quarter I think that’s hard to deliver right now.

Chris Nichols: Yeah, I think they’re going to be disappointed for the next couple of quarters for sure.

Steve Andrews: Yeah. And then, you know, the credit starts getting whacked. You know that’s going to be tough. So, that, you know by itself Chris could drive the m&a market I mean, the conversations when you sit down today. Everybody remembers getting some multiple over their book value. What happens when you’re trading below book value. Most of these banks that are on the smaller side less say under 10 billion, or even under a billion these community banks. They can’t easily affect top-line revenue. They can’t go out there and bring more money in the doors. So now, what are they engaged with, they’re all looking okay what can we do on the expense side so you’re seeing some branch closures. You’re seeing maybe some salary reductions, you’re seeing where they can see the plus side, and that’s where these mergers are going to be driven.

You can have company A talking to Company B, and Company A is going to determine that they’re probably better off merging with Company B because they can exact some cost savings out of this merger. They can carve out redundant marketing costs redundant notes departments, redundant management, and typically mergers you know that carve out 30% of overhead. And that’s five things you’re not going to see these deals where people are getting rewarded at some huge multiple over their book value, you’re going to see deals come together, and it’s going to make sense because they’ve cut out costs. And that’s, that’s the only place left to really do it today. You can’t get it out of your margin.

Chris Nichols: Yeah, those costs Steve I think is good for you know two things as you say is one, making sure you can do a local deal with a lot of overlap where you can’t get those costs Steve and or two just having a more efficient platform so I, you know, I think what we see around here is to get down to 40% of efficiency ratio and below, and then anybody with a 75 to 80% efficiency ratio has to be scared. And so I think that’s one of the great investments going forward is just trying to drive towards technology, try to get your brain system right, try to get your loan operations as efficiently as efficient as possible.

Steve Andrews: Yeah, I’m not saying that community banks are going to leave the landscape by any means I think that ditch banking is going to always be around. I just think that the returns for the shareholders are going to be at risk for a while, relative to historic ones, and then, are these banks going to get an interest margin above 300 basis points. I mean, now you’ve got players like Schwab down there 30 basis points, you’ve got the money center banks down at 200 basis points. Can Community Bank stay in the high threes or low fours, you know, I don’t know, I mean it’s hard to compete.

Chris Nichols: That’s going to need the trick. We’ll Steve as we wrap up any other thoughts that we should be paying attention to that’s on your guys’ radar screen your radar screen, going forward for 2021.

Steve Andrews: Well, I think, you know, we talked about what keeps bankers up at night. I think that cybersecurity is another thing that we didn’t touch on but maybe we can do another time that you know as we’re sitting here today, we just had one of the major breaches affect the US relative to solar winds. A vendor that touches a lot of banks and also touches a lot of government agencies, and during these times of remote working. The bad guys don’t take any days off and they’re trying to go after banks, all the time and I think that you know, running a bank is not an easy proposition and so you have to be totally diligent in today’s world and so I think that you know, what’s keeping my bankers up, I think for the most part is potential credit risk, potential cyber risk. And then, you know, just dealing with losing market share to more nimble players if you’re smaller. So it’s not an easy industry but it’s a rewarding industry and I think that you just got to keep blocking and tackling and not take the excessive risk as we roll through a downturn.

Chris Nichols: Couldn’t agree more. We’ll Steve. Thank you very much for your time. We know you’re all over the place, busy. We appreciate your insight and, you know, we tend to be more east coast, southeast focus. So it’s great to hear and other perspectives and we appreciate it, thank you very much, and have a happy and safe holiday.

Steve Andrews: Same to you Chris thanks for having me on and I look forward to chatting again in the future.

 

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