An Optimist’s Dilemma

WASHINGTON, DC — At this time two years ago, optimism swept across the banking sector.  The change in administration gave us a steepened yield curve.  Investors predicted improved economic growth.  Many anticipated regulatory relief and the prospect of major corporate tax cuts.

The future of banking looked promising.

Now, pragmatism has worn that luster. Many have concerns about the growing divide between the biggest banks and everyone else. Throughout 2018, moderate loan and dull deposit growth proved persistent themes for banks.

The future appears far more challenging.

As the year winds down, I find the cyclical nature of banking of particular interest. While an optimist by nature, I fear we’re entering a harder operating environment.

  • We’re getting closer to a turn in the credit cycle.
  • We saw investors bail on bank stocks in October.
  • We see big banks closing rural and suburban branches—opting for digital services instead.

Against this backdrop, I take some comfort in a new book by Dorris Kearns Goodwin, “Leadership in Turbulent Times.”  Goodwin provides anecdotes about controlling negative emotions, like President Abraham Lincoln’s “hot letters”—his own missives of his frustrations he then put aside, hoping he’d never have to send what he’d written.

Leadership in Turbulent Times

So in that spirit, consider this my “Lincoln letter” to a bank’s CEO and board, albeit with an optimist’s take.

Please pay attention to the vast amounts being spent on digital advertising.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PwC estimate U.S. digital ad spending will hit $100 billion by year-end. This number might shock those thinking about where and how they want to tell their bank’s story through videos, social media and other digital means. Nonetheless, considering what’s being spent to court the attention of your “loyal” constituents might spark new ideas for where to invest time and effort.

When thinking tech, intertwine conversations about talent.
With venture capitalists still pouring money into startups offering basic banking services, potential employees have even more options to spend their energy and creativity. For any bank, the demand for the talent needed to deliver new digital capabilities will significantly outpace the available labor pool. If you don’t have a team now, I worry your bank might be challenged to successfully create meaningful technology partnerships.

Culture is eating strategy (and new initiatives) for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Many executives have talked with me about how they’re working hard to ensure the bank’s existing culture keeps pace with the evolution of the industry. We all deal with execution risk—but as that old saying goes, if all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll ever get is all you’ve ever gotten.

Windows of opportunity most certainly exist.  What those windows are, and how long they remain open, remains a moving target — one we intend to focus on next month at our 25th annual Acquire or Be Acquired Conference, Jan. 27-29 at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona.

*This first ran in Bank Director’s weekly newsletter, The Slant, on December 8.

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