Banks across the nation felt headwinds even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and a new, more rigorous accounting rule isn't helping.
Banks could face eroding profits on a scale they haven't seen since the Great Recession. For depositors and other bank customers, this is a possible cause for concern – or at least a reason to reevaluate their banking needs.
Banks aren't in trouble. The number of banks on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s problem list eased to 51 at the end of last year – a 13-year low and representing only about 1% of all companies. No banks failed in 2018, four did so last year, and two have through May. The FDIC doesn't identify the institutions on its problem-bank list.
"The banking industry remains strong," FDIC Chairman Jelena McWilliams said in February, when the agency revealed that banks with deposit insurance, the overwhelming majority, earned a combined profit of $55.2 billion.
Profit squeeze is on
Yet the October-December report marked a second straight quarter of declining profitability. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, pushing the nation into a recession and raising the specter of loan delinquencies, defaults, bankruptcies and other fallout.
Interest rates dropped in recent months, narrowing the spread between what banks earn on loans and pay on deposits.
The FDIC was scheduled to report the industry's first-quarter financial results around the end of May, but that has been pushed back to mid-June to give banks more time to prepare their numbers amid the outbreak.
Profits already are tumbling. Three of the nation's biggest banks – Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America – reported combined net income from January through March of about $6 billion, down from about $21 billion in the same period one year earlier.
The economic ramifications of the coronavirus outbreak weren't fully felt in the first quarter. The impact for April through June will be larger.
Accounting rule in force
Many banks have started to adjust their earnings lower, reflecting a new accounting standard that requires them to estimate credit losses over the lifetimes of their loans, not just as losses accrue. It's a big change that will require executives to factor in future losses under various scenarios and incorporating many factors.
As Bank of America explained it, these factors can include changes in unemployment rates, real estate prices, Gross Domestic Product, corporate bond spreads, long-term interest rate forecasts, the competitive landscape, regulations, lending policies and more, along with experience with past-due loans.
For the first quarter of 2020, Chase, Wells Fargo and Bank of America included roughly $17 billion in combined provisions or charges for credit losses, well above the $3 billion or so they had reported one year earlier and explaining much of the profit erosion. The new loss provisions reflect not just the accounting rule change but also lower interest rates and the gloomy economy ushered in by the pandemic.
Few delays ahead
No wonder McWilliams, in a letter March 19, asked the Financial Accounting Standards Board to let banks delay implementation of the new rule for credit losses.
Most publicly traded banks were required to adopt it at the start of 2020. When the pandemic hit and Congress and the White House enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in late March, banks were given the option to delay, said Christine Klimek, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Financial Accounting Foundation, which oversees the accounting board.
To her knowledge, only about three dozen small banks that were subject to the new rule opted to delay.
If the economy rebounds quickly, as many observers expect, those credit-loss charges could be lowered, improving the profitability outlook.
Banks adjust to new reality
Banks, like most other businesses, had to alter their operations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
For example, Western Alliance Bancorp, the largest banking company headquartered in Arizona, said it made many adjustments, including eliminating business travel, requiring employees to work from home if they can, forming a COVID-19 business continuity task force and offering flexible loan repayment options where appropriate.
That's in addition to tighter underwriting standards and limited new loan issuance to businesses in higher-risk industries, including transportation, travel, lodging, entertainment and retail.
Many banks reduced hours, closed certain branches, restricted access to safe-deposit boxes or taken other actions that have proven unpopular with some customers.
Analyzing your bank
All of these disruptions might provide a good opportunity to reevaluate your bank.
Has the company cut its business hours or closed branches to your annoyance? Do you find the website and smartphone apps easy to use? Does the bank charge fees for overdrafts, low balances or other reasons? Are interest rates on credit cards or other loans reasonable? Can you earn a few more pennies in interest by going elsewhere?
Most customers don't need to worry about the safety of their money, even if bank profits decline. On up to $250,000 in deposits at an insured bank, your money is fully protected against loss by the FDIC (similar coverage applies at credit unions).
This basic insurance amount can be expanded if you own different types of accounts, such as retirement and nonretirement money. It's easy to augment coverage beyond the $250,000 limit by simply moving some money to another institution.
Customer satisfaction looms as a factor, especially now that more people are forced by social distancing to conduct most or all of their transactions online.
“With fewer customers visiting branches, it will be important for retail banks to replace the in-person service they would have provided with personalized services delivered instead through digital channels,” said Paul McAdam, a senior director at J.D. Power.
In the researcher's latest banking satisfaction report in late April, digital-only customers described themselves as less satisfied than those who visit branches periodically – or at least used to do so.
Reach Wiles at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Coronavirus affects banks as tough new accounting rule looms