An Easy Way to Lose Sight of Critical Risks

CHICAGO — Let me ask you a question:

How does the executive team at your biggest competitor think about their future? Are they fixated on asset growth or loan quality? Gathering low-cost deposits? Improving their technology to accelerate the digital delivery of new products? Finding and training new talent?

The answers don’t need to be immediate or precise. But we tend to fixate on the issues in front of us and ignore what’s happening right outside our door, even if the latter issues are just as important.

Yet, any leader worth their weight in stock certificates will say that taking the time to dig into and learn about other businesses, even those in unrelated industries, is time well spent.

Indeed, smart executives and experienced outside directors prize efficiency, prudence and smart capital allocation in their bank’s dealings. But here’s the thing: Your biggest—and most formidable—competitors strive for the same objectives.

So when we talk about trending topics at today and tomorrow’s Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference in Chicago, we do so with an eye not just to the internal challenges faced by your institution but on the external pressures as well.

As my team at Bank Director prepares to host 317 women and men from banks across the country this morning, let me state the obvious: Risk is no stranger to a bank’s officers or directors. Indeed, the core business of banking revolves around risk management—interest rate risk, credit risk, operational risk. To take things a step further:

Given this, few would dispute the importance of the audit committee to appraise a bank’s business practices, or of the risk committee to identify potential hazards that could imperil an institution. Banks must stay vigilant, even as they struggle to respond to the demands of the digital revolution and heightened customer expectations.

I can’t overstate the importance of audit and risk committees keeping pace with the disruptive technological transformation of the industry. That transformation is creating an emergent banking model, according to Frank Rotman, a founding partner of venture capital firm QED Investors. This new model focuses banks on increasing engagement, collecting data and offering precisely targeted solutions to their customers.

If that’s the case—given the current state of innovation, digital transformation and the re-imagination of business processes—is it any wonder that boards are struggling to focus on risk management and the bank’s internal control environment?

When was the last time the audit committee at your bank revisited the list of items that appeared on the meeting agenda or evaluated how the committee spends its time? From my vantage point, now might be an ideal time for audit committees to sharpen the focus of their institutions on the cultures they prize, the ethics they value and the processes they need to ensure compliance.

And for risk committee members, national economic uncertainty—given the political rhetoric from Washington and trade tensions with U.S. global economic partners, especially China—has to be on your radar. Many economists expect an economic recession by June 2020. Is your bank prepared for that?

Bank leadership teams must monitor technological advances, cybersecurity concerns and an ever-evolving set of customer and investor expectations. But other issues can’t be ignored either.

So as I prepare to take the stage to kick off this year’s Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference, I encourage everyone to remember that minds are like parachutes. In the immortal words of musician Frank Zappa: “It doesn’t work if it is not open.”

3 Trends (and 3 Issues) Every Bank’s Board Needs To Consider

Quickly:

  • The challenges faced by financial institutions today are as numerous as they are nuanced. Be it data security, emerging technology, fraud, crisis management and/or the effectiveness of internal controls, I opened the 12th annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference by laying out a number of key governance, risk and compliance issues and trends.

CHICAGO — While a sophomore at Washington & Lee University, a professor loudly (and unexpectedly) chastised a close friend of mine for stating the obvious. With a wry laugh, he thanked my classmate “for crashing through an open door.” Snark aside, his criticism became a rallying cry for me to pause and dive deeper into apparently simple questions or issues.

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I shared this anecdote with some 400 attendees earlier today; indeed, I teed up Bank Director’s annual program by reminding everyone from the main stage that:

  1. We’re late in the economic cycle;
  2. Rates are rising; and
  3. Pressure on lending spreads remains intense.

Given the composition of this year’s audience, I acknowledged the obvious nature of these three points. I did so, however, in order to surface three trends we felt all here should have on their radar.  I followed that up with three emerging issues to make note of.

TREND #1:
Big banks continue to roll-out exceptional customer-facing technology.

Wells Fargo has been kicked around a lot in the press this year, but to see how big banks continue to pile up retail banking wins, take a look at Greenhouse by Wells Fargo, their app designed to attract younger customers to banking.

TREND #2:
Traditional core IT providers — Fiserv, Jack Henry & FIS — are under fire.

As traditional players move towards digital businesses, new players continue to emerge to help traditional banks become more nimble, flexible and competitive.  Here, FinXact and Nymbus provide two good examples of legitimate challengers to legacy cores.

TREND #3:
Amazon lurks as the game changer.

Community banker’s fear Amazon’s potential entry into this market; according to Promontory Interfinancial Network’s recent business outlook, it is their greatest threat.

In addition to these trends, I surfaced three immediate issues that banks must tackle

ISSUE #1:
Big banks attract new deposits at a much faster pace than banks with less than $1 billion assets.

If small banks can’t easily and efficiently attract deposits, they basically have no future. ‘Nuf said.

ISSUE #2: 
Bank boards need to know if they want to buy, sell or grow independently.

In a recent newsletter, Tom Brown of Second Curve Capital opined that “if you have less than $5 billion in assets, an efficiency ratio north of 65%, deposit costs above 60 basis points, and earn a return on equity in the single digits, this really is time to give some thought to selling.”  As I shared on LinkedIn yesterday, the 3 biggest bank M&A deals of the year took place in May: Fifth Third Bancorp’s $4.6 billion purchase of MB Financial, Cadence Bancorp’s $1.3 billion acquisition of State Bank Financial and Independent Bank Group’s $1 billion agreement to buy Guaranty Bancorp. 
 I don’t see the pace of consolidation slowing any time soon — and know that banks need to ask if they want (and can) be buyers or sellers.

ISSUE #3:
The risk of data breaches across industries continues to increase.

Be it risk management, internal control or third-party security considerations, every aspect of an institution is susceptible to a data breach — and managing these threats and identifying appropriate solutions takes a village that includes the most senior leaders of an organization.

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Just as banks need to develop their audit and risk capabilities, skills and talents, so too do officers and directors have both an opportunity and the responsibility to stay abreast of various trends and topics.  Bank Director’s event continues tomorrow with some fascinating presentations. To see what’s been shared already, take a look at Twitter, where I’m tweeting using @aldominick and #BDAudit18.

3 Disruptive Forces Confronting Banks – and How Zelle Might Help

By Al Dominick, CEO of DirectorCorps (parent co. to Bank Director & FinXTech) | @aldominick

“The volume and pace of what’s emerging is amazing. I’ve never seen it before in our industry.”

These words, spoken about technology driving an unprecedented pace of change across our financial landscape, came from Greg Carmichael, today’s keynote speaker at Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference.  Greg serves as president and CEO of Fifth Third Bancorp, a diversified financial services company headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The company has $142 billion in assets, approximately 18,000 employees, operates 1,191 retail-banking centers in 10 states and has a commercial and consumer lending presence throughout the U.S.

Fifth Third Bancorp’s four main businesses are commercial banking, branch banking, consumer lending and wealth and asset management.  Given this focus, Greg’s remarks addressed how, where and why technology continues to impact the way banks like his operate.  Thinking about his perspective on the digitization of the customer experience, I teed up his presentation with my observations on three risks facing bank leadership today.

Risk #1: Earlier this year, the online lending firm SoFi announced that it had acquired Zenbanx, a startup offering banking, debit, payments and money transfer services to users online and through its mobile app.  As TechCrunch shared, “the combination of the two will allow SoFi to move deeper into the financial lives of its customers. While today it focuses on student-loan refinancing, mortgages and personal loans, integrating Zenbanx will allow it to provide an alternative to the traditional checking and deposit services most of SoFi’s customers today get from banks like Bank of America, Citi or Chase.”  Given that many banks are just beginning their digital transformation, combinations like this create new competition for traditional banks to address.  Cause for further concern?  It came to light that SoFi just applied for an industrial loan bank charter in Utah under the name SoFi Bank.

Risk #2: With so much talk of the need for legacy institutions to pair up fintech companies, I made note of a recent MoneyConf event in Madrid, Spain.  There, BBVA chairman Francisco González said that banks need to shed their past and image as ‘incumbents’ and transform into new digital technology companies if they are to prosper in a banking environment dominated by technologically astute competitors. Transforming the bank “is not just a matter of platforms. The big challenge is changing an incumbent into a new digital company.”  Clearly, transforming one’s underlying business model is not for the faint of heart, and the leadership acumen required is quite substantial.

Risk #3: Finally, when it comes to digital companies doing it right, take a look at TheStreet’s recent post about how “Amazon Has Secretly Become a Giant Bank.”  I had no idea that its Amazon Lending service surpassed $3 billion in loans to small businesses since it was launched in 2011.  Indeed, “the eCommerce giant has loaned over $1 billion to small businesses in the past twelve months… Hiking up the sales for third party merchants is a plus for Amazon, as the company gets a piece of the transaction.” What I found particularly note-worthy is the fact that over 20,000 small businesses have received a loan from Amazon and more than 50% of the businesses Amazon loans to end up taking a second loan.

A Potential Solution

Jack Milligan, our Editor-in-Chief, recently wrote, “disruptive forces confronting banks today are systemic and in some cases accelerating.” In his words, the greatest risk facing bank leadership today is “the epochal change occurring in retail distribution as consumers and businesses embrace digital commerce in ever increasing numbers, while aggressive financial technology companies muscle into the financial services market to meet that demand.”

Against this backdrop, Fifth Third Bank just announced it will be one of more than 30 major financial institutions to roll out Zelle, a new peer-to-peer (P2P) payments service operated by Early Warning.  As Greg shared during his remarks, this will initially be offered through the banks’ mobile banking apps, and positions the bank to better compete with PayPal’s Venmo.

This is big news.  Indeed, Business Insider noted in today’s morning payments brief that the growing crowd of providers will fight over a mobile P2P market set to increase ninefold over the next five years, reaching $336 billion by 2021.  In addition to working directly with financial institutions, let me also note that Early Warning has established strategic partnerships with some of the leading payment processors –– think FIS, Fiserv, and Jack Henry.  These relationships will allow millions more to experience Zelle through community banks and credit unions.

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Here in Chicago, we have 298 bank officers and directors with us today and tomorrow — and our Bank Audit and Risk Committees Conference itself totals 366 in attendance.  In terms of bank representation, we are proud to host audit committee members, audit committee chairs, CEOs, presidents, risk committee members, risk committee chairs, corporate secretaries, internal auditors, CFOs, CROs and other senior manager who works closely with the audit and/or risk committee.  Curious to see what’s being shared socially? I encourage you to follow @bankdirector and @fin_x_tech and check out #BDAudit17.

3 Key Takeaways from Bank Director’s Audit & Risk Conference

A quick check-in from the Swissotel in Chicago, where we just wrapped up the main day of Bank Director’s 10th annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference.  This is a fascinating event, one focused on key accounting, risk and regulatory issues aligned with the information needs of a bank’s Chairman, CEO, Bank Audit Committee, Bank Risk Committee, CFO, CRO and internal auditor.  Risk + strategy go hand in hand; today, we spent considerable time debating risk in the context of growing the bank.

By Al Dominick, President & CEO of Bank Director

Earlier today, while moderating a panel discussion, I referenced a KPMG report that suggests “good risk management and governance can be compared to the brakes of a car. The better the brakes, the faster the car can drive.”  With anecdotes like this ringing in my head, allow me to share three key takeaways:

  1. A company’s culture & code of conduct are critical factors in creating an environment that encourages compliance with laws and regulations.
  2. Risk appetite is a widely accepted concept that remains difficult, in practice, to apply.
  3. As a member of the board, do not lose sight of the need to maintain your skepticism.

This year’s program brings together 150+ financial institutions and more then 300 attendees. The demographics reflect the audience we serve, so I thought to share three additional trends.  Clearly, boards of directors are under pressure to evolve.  Financial institutions need the right expertise and experience and benefit greatly when their directors have diverse backgrounds.

Further, as more regulatory rules are written, board members need to understand what they mean and how they can affect their bank’s business.  Finally, technology strategies and risks are inextricably linked to corporate strategy; as such, the level of board engagement needs to increase.

Given the many issues — both known and unknown — a bank faces as our industry evolves, today made clear how challenging it can be for an audit or risk committee member to get comfortable addressing risk and issues.  Staying compliant requires a solid defense and appreciation for what’s now.  Staying competitive?  This requires a sharper focus given near constant pressures to reduce costs while dealing with increasing competition and regulation.

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To see what we’re sharing on our social networks, I encourage you to follow @bankdirector @fin_x_tech and @aldominick.  Questions or comment?  Feel free to leave me a note below.

What To Do With FinTech

For the 699 financial institutions over $1Bn in asset size today, the drive to improve one’s efficiency ratio is a commonly shared goal.  In my mind, so too should be developing relationships with “friendly” financial technology (FinTech) companies.

By Al Dominick // @aldominick

Small banks in the United States — namely, the 5,705 institutions under $1Bn in assets* — are shrinking in relevance despite their important role in local economies.  At last week’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference in Chicago, Steve Hovde, the CEO of the Hovde Group, cautioned some 260 bankers that the risks facing community banks continue to grow by the day, citing:

  • The rapid adoption of costly technologies at bigger banks;
  • Declining fee revenue opportunities;
  • Competition from credit unions and non-traditional financial services companies;
  • Capital (in the sense that larger banks have more access to it);
  • An ever-growing regulatory burden; and
  • The vulnerability all have when it comes to cyber crime.

While many community banks focus on survival, new FinTech companies have captured both consumer interest and investor confidence.  While some of the largest and most established financial institutions have struck relationships with various technology startups, it occurs to me that there are approximately 650 more banks poised to act — be it by taking the fight back to competitive Fintech companies or collaborating with the friendly ones.

According to John Depman, national leader for KPMG’s regional and community banking practice, “it is critical for community banks to change their focus and to look for new methods, products and services to reach new customer segments to drive growth.”  I agree with John, and approach the intersection of the financial technology companies with traditional institutions in the following manner:

For a bank CEO and his/her executive team, knowing who’s a friend, and who’s a potential foe — regardless of size — is hugely important.  It is also quite challenging when, as this article in Forbes shows, you consider that FinTech companies are easing payment processes, reducing fraud, saving users money, promoting financial planning and ultimately moving our giant industry forward.

This is a two-sided market in the sense that for a FinTech founder and executive team, identifying those banks open to partnering with, investing in, or acquiring emerging technology companies also presents great challenges, and also real upside.  As unregulated competition heats up, bank CEOs and their leadership teams continue to seek ways to not just stay relevant but to stand out.  In my opinion, working together benefits both established organizations and those startups trying to navigate the various barriers to enter this highly regulated albeit potentially lucrative industry.

*As of 6/1, the total number of FDIC-insured Institutions equaled 6,404. Within this universe, banks with assets greater than $1Bn totaled 699. Specifically, there are 115 banks with $10Bn+, 76 with $5Bn-$10Bn and 508 with $1Bn – $5Bn.

Main Areas of Focus for a Bank’s Audit and Risk Committees

What’s top-of-mind for a bank’s Audit and Risk committee members?  Let’s start with cyber security…

By Al Dominick // @aldominick

There are many challenges that bank boards & executives must address, and these two videos (one by our editor, Jack Milligan; the other, by me) briefly review current issues that demand attention + emerging ones that we took note of at this week’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference at the JW Marriott in Chicago.

*For more on the risks facing banks today, take a look at this report from our conference (#BDAudit15).

How to Understand a Bank’s Audit and Risk Committees Issues in Three Steps

I’m in Chicago at Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference along with more than 260 bankers and some 315 total attendees.  At a time when audit and risk committees have an increasing amount of responsibilities, I’m impressed with the commitments made by attendees and speakers alike to tackle real issues as opposed to sugar coating the challenges before banks today.

As we move into a series of afternoon breakout sessions, I am taking a pause to share my observations on the day so far.  Having moderated a session that touched on how banks can enhance risk oversight capabilities and effectively challenge management on risk, let me try to make sense of the issues being faced by senior bankers and board members if you are not with us.

Step 1: Know Where We Are Coming From

Now that the worst of the financial crisis is behind them, you might think bank boards might finally breathe a sigh of relief.  You would be mistaken.  For example, we have been in an exceptionally low-interest rate environment — one that has caused net interest margins to decline significantly since 2000.  Moreover, growing the bank organically remains challenging with slow loan growth and changing consumer expectations.  Finally,  compliance costs and uncertainties continue to escalate.  So yes, for banks here with us in Chicago, the storm was weathered.  Still, significant risks and challenges remain in place.

Step 2: Accept Where We Are Today

Per our first speaker, Steve Hovde, it has become exceedingly more difficult to maintain net interest margins without growing loan balances.  As he made clear, banks with lower loan-to-deposit ratios operate with less overhead, but they have been unable to translate their lower operating costs into higher profitability over the long run.  In his words, loan growth is now paramount to profitability — and banks will need to find ways to generate loans either organically or (more likely) through M&A activity.

I know that many banks are struggling to find new revenue sources.  I also hear how bank boards are considering diversifying into new loan products and service offerings to attract and retain new and existing customers.  So, for banks considering new lending strategies or launching a new product or service, I made note that the audit committee, risk committee and internal auditor must collaborate to safeguard the organization by understanding an organization’s initiatives, limits and controls, all while understanding the risk monitoring that exists at the institution.

Step 3: Understand Where Things Are Heading

As we look ahead, it is quite clear that the largest banks in the U.S. (e.g. those above $50Bn in assets) have greatly benefited from their ability to spread fixed costs over a larger pool of earning assets.  They have lower efficiency ratios, more non-interest income and stronger earnings.  Since there are at most 30 banks that are above that $50Bn threshold out of some 6,500 banks, the risks facing most of the industry may take various forms but share similar origins.  That is, banks — and their boards — will continue to wrestle with technology issues, find fewer opportunities to replace declining fee revenue, deal with non-regulated “shadow” banks, struggle with regulatory cost burdens and expectations, face new cyber threats and have to address third-party vendor risks.

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Tomorrow, I will have more to share on this afternoon’s breakout sessions and our final point/counterpoint session.  In between, I invite you to follow the conversation via Twitter using #BDAudit15, @bankdirector and/or @aldominck.

Quick Guide: Bank Mergers & Acquisitions

Mergers & Acquisitions will continue to serve as one of the biggest revenue drivers for banks in the United States.

By Al Dominick // @aldominick

I’m in Chicago to host Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference, an exclusive event for Chief Executive Officers, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Risk Officers, Chairmen and members of the board serving on an audit or risk committee.  As I reviewed my speaker notes on yesterday’s flight from D.C., it strikes me that of all of the risks facing a bank’s key leadership team today — e.g. regulatory, market, cyber — knowing when to buy, sell or grow independently has to be high on the list.

While we welcome officers and directors to a series of peer exchanges and workshops today, the main conference kicks off tomorrow morning. To open, we look at the strategic challenges, operating conditions and general outlook for those banks attending this annual event.  With public equities and M&A valuations at multi-year highs, numerous institutions having raised capital to position themselves as opportunistic buyers and sellers continuing to take advantage of a more favorable pricing environment, I thought to share three points about bank M&A for attendees and readers alike:

  1. In 2014, there were 289 whole-bank M&A transactions announced (and 18 failed-bank transactions) for a total of 307 deals. Through the first quarter of this year, there have been 67 whole-bank M&A transactions announced and just 4 failed-bank transactions.
  2. KPMG’s annual Community Banking Outlook Survey illustrates that M&A will be one of the biggest revenue drivers for community banks over the next three years, especially as community banks face the need to transform their businesses in an effort to reach new customer segments and streamline their operations.
  3. The continued strengthening of transaction pricing — with 2015 transaction multiples at the highest levels since 2008 — is an important and emerging trend.

According to Tom Wilson, a director of investment banking with the Hovde Groupmany of the factors driving the current M&A cycle have been well documented and remain largely unchanged.  These include improving industry fundamentals, increased regulatory costs, net interest margin compression in a low rate environment, industry overcapacity and economies of scale.  As he notes, while those themes have been playing out in various forms for several years, some additional themes are emerging that are significantly impacting the M&A environment; for example, “the advantages of scale are translating to a significant currency premium. For years we have seen a significant correlation between size, operating performance and currency strength. Lately, that trend has become a significant currency advantage for institutions with greater than $1 billion in assets and resulted in smaller institutions being constrained in their ability to compete for acquisition partners because of a weaker valuation.”

Moreover, an industry outlook published by Deloitte’s Center for Financial Services earlier this year says that the “M&A activity seen in 2014 is likely to continue through 2015, driven by a number of factors: stronger balance sheets, the pursuit of stable deposit franchises, improving loan origination, revenue growth challenges, and limits to cost efficiencies.” However, their 2015 Banking Outlook also acknowledged that “as banks move from a defensive to an offensive position to seek growth and scale, they should view M&A targets with a sharper focus on factors such as efficiencies, growth prospects, funding profile, technology, and compliance.”

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For those looking for more on bank M&A, let me suggest a read of our current digital issue (available for free download through Apple’s App Store, Google Play and Amazon.com).  In it, we look at how to “bullet-proof” your deal from shareholder lawsuits and have a great video interview with ConnectOne Bank’s CEO, Frank Sorrentino, who talks about how his bank fought back against fee-seeking shareholder activists.  To follow the conversations from the JW Marriott and Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference, check out #BDAUDIT15, @bankdirector and @aldominick.

A Complete Guide to Bank Director’s Audit & Risk Committees Conference

Whether it is a complex product, new service or emerging line of business, this year’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference examines the many issues and opportunities being faced in boardrooms at financial institutions of all sizes across the country.

By Al Dominick // @aldominick

While much has been written about how and where banks might grow, with new opportunities come new challenges.  With our industry undergoing significant change, boards must be highly informed in order to proactively oversee the management of security risks, compliance challenges and reputational issues.  At this year’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference, we focus in on key accounting, risk and regulatory issues that challenge bankers and board members alike.  Today’s column tees up this year’s program, one that opens on Wednesday at the JW Marriott in Chicago, IL.

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Wednesday, June 10

Before the curtains officially come up, we offer a series of pre-conference programs; most notably, a series of peer exchanges exclusive to a bank’s audit and risk committee chairs.  Modeled upon our annual Bank Chairman/CEO Peer Exchange, small groups of directors meet in closed door, off-the-record peer exchanges for candid discussions about various hot topics.  In addition, we have added a cyber security workshop that allows attendees to play out various scenarios that involve a hack, breach or attack.  Finally, we offer a primer for newer audit and risk committee members and chairs that provides a framework for both roles and responsibilities.

Thursday, June 11

According to several bankers I have recently talked to, this has become a must-attend event for audit committee members, audit committee chairs, CEOs, CFOs, presidents, corporate secretaries, internal auditors, chief risk managers and other senior executives who works closely with the audit and/or risk committee.  This year, we cover pertinent issues such as enterprise risk management, fraud, relations with internal and external auditors, audit committee oversight and regulatory changes for banks.  It is this ability to focus in on critical concerns and complex scenarios to a very specific group of officers and directors that sets us apart from others.  At a time when audit and risk committee members are being asked to take on more responsibilities and perform at higher levels than ever before, the presentations made on day one are laser-focused on key financial, risk management and regulatory issues.

Friday, June 12

A significant imperative for members of a bank’s board today?  Fully integrate risk management, compliance and ethics “that fit” into a particular bank’s culture.  On day two, we look at how this might be done while addressing many other challenges.  Indeed, some of the key risks facing banks today (that regulators expect boards and senior managers to address) include:

  • Strategic risk as banks adapt business models to respond to the current economic and competitive landscapes;
  • Management succession and retention of key staff;
  • Loosening loan underwriting standards;
  • Expansion into new products and services;
  • Exposure to interest rate risk;
  • Oversight of third party service providers;
  • Increased volume and sophistication of cyber threats;
  • BSA/AML risk from higher-risk services and customer relationships; and
  • Maintaining effective compliance management systems.

The presenters at this event are some of the leading experts in accounting, legal, consulting and regulatory areas, as well as experienced bank officers and directors.  From Sullivan & Cromwell to KPMG, Arnold & Porter to Crowe, Latham & Watkins to FIS, we are pleased to bring some of the industry’s foremost advisors together in Chicago.

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To follow the conversation via Twitter, check out #BDAUDIT15, @bankdirector and @aldominick.