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6 min read

Time to Get Back to the Crisis of the ’20s

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Two types of banks will emerge as winners from this far-reaching, decade-long crisis: the lucky and the smart

In an article titled Is the Banking Crisis Over? We Are About to Find Out, the Wall Street Journal identified three concerns that could determine if the banking industry is out of the crisis or still in one:

  • Deposit costs. High-interest rates have forced many banks to pay more to retain deposits (often via brokered deposits), while many institutions have seen deposits flee to higher-yielding money market funds.
  • Bond losses. Rising interest rates depress the value of low-rate securities and loans. Banks had more than $500 billion in unrealized losses on their securities at the end of March. Holding these assets can impact profitability because banks can’t lend those funds out or invest them at higher rates.
  • Commercial real estate loans. Banks are anticipating losses in their commercial real estate portfolios. Many mid-size institutions, with a heavy concentration of commercial real estate loans in their portfolios, could be impacted by the low occupancy rates in commercial real estate.

One bright spot for the banking industry is Americans’ rising appetite for credit card debt. The Credit Card Competition Act of 2023 could negatively impact banks’ ability to generate interchange fees and reduce the amount of capital they issue, however.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

Even if Q2 results are rosy beyond expectations, bankers shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking the industry is out of crisis mode. The crisis the WSJ is alluding to is the short-term “crisis of 2023.” But the industry is in the throes of the “Crisis of the ’20s,” a crisis that will last the entire decade.

This crisis touches banks’ products, technologies, people, processes, and the political climate. Here are five elements of the Banking Crisis of the ’20s:

1) Checking accounts isn’t what they used to be. In the first half of 2023, nearly half of the “checking accounts” opened in the United States were opened by digital banks and fintechs.

There are quotes around checking accounts because bankers don’t see offerings from companies like PayPal and Square as checking accounts. However, young consumers don’t know the difference between a checking account and a Square Cash App account or PayPal payment account. They all enable consumers to make payments. And yet Square’s and PayPal’s product allows consumers to do a range of activities that would require them to open multiple accounts at banks.

In addition, banks have learned—or are learning—that the checking account isn’t the anchor product (for a broader relationship) they once thought it was.

Without reinventing their product set, banks won’t survive the Crisis of the ’20s.

2) Zombie cores. A person’s core has to be in shape—and so does a bank’s. Getting their core systems into shape has become either a nightmare or an impossibility for banks. The bank technology landscape is littered with what Cornerstone Advisors’ Brad Smith calls “zombie cores”—core apps that haven’t been sunsetted but are no longer supported by or enhanced by the tech companies that sold them.

Banks have two options throughout the rest of this decade: core replacement or core modernization. Neither is cheap and neither is fast.

The good news for banks is that this situation has given rise to a new category of tech firms like Core10, PortX, Constellation, and Sandbox Banking—let’s call them core integration platforms—that promise to make it easier to integrate ancillary systems to existing cores and create a strategy for core replacement.

3) The people shortage. Core integration platforms are a good thing for banks, but the new reality is that banks will still need people to put things together. The (mid-size) bank IT department has evolved from being a builder to a vendor management team and will evolve further in this decade to become an integration team.

Finding these people—and others who bring expertise in technologies like machine learning, conversational AI, and generative AI—will be the number one challenge for banks throughout the rest of the decade.

A new reality facing banks throughout the Crisis of the ’20s: The four walls of a bank are no longer there.

The amount of work and positions that will need to be outsourced or partnered for means the typical bank may find that nearly half of the people working “with the bank” don’t work “for the bank”—or even “at the bank.”

4) The creativity imperative. Every management fad has a life cycle, and the innovation fad is on its last legs. For the past five years or so, banks have obsessed over “innovating.” Other than an ad hoc innovation team led by someone with a lofty chief innovation officer title, few banks have truly created any innovations.

That isn’t to say that they haven’t made a lot of internal changes and improvements, but most of these efforts don’t live up to the innovation label.

Banks need to stop playing innovation charades. With the influx of new technologies, the challenge isn’t “innovation” but “creativity”—how can banks, at an organizational level, make more creative use of data and technology than their competitors, and how can they help their people become more creative in getting their jobs done.

5) The political element. For some politicians (you know who they are), banks are the scapegoats for society’s ills. Increased regulations from a bank-unfriendly government work against all the things banks need to do to survive and thrive in the Crisis of the ’20s.

Overcoming the Crisis of the ’20s

Two types of banks will be winners come 2030: The lucky and the smart. It’s always good to be one of the lucky 1%, but most banks will need to be smart and that means:

Lengthening the strategic planning horizon. Too many banks only plan out one to two years—and pay lip service to ensuring years. Banks need to pay more attention to years three through seven (focusing on the five elements of the Banking Crisis of the ’20s).

Building new strategic capabilities. Too many banks go into the annual planning process and identify projects they intend to complete in the coming year. But they typically don’t assess their internal ability to get the project done. So, they rely on third-party resources when they should have developed the skills internally.

Determining a new strategic focus. Community-based financial institutions can no longer rely on their geographic communities for growth. They’ll need to carve out niches that they believe they can serve better than other institutions and look for members of that niche wherever they are.

Ron Shevlin is chief research officer at Cornerstone Advisors. Follow Ron on LinkedIn

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