Six years ago, right before the Big Bang that sunk this country's economy, we discussed problems of declining net interest margin on bank profitability, the ineffectiveness of the rate-cutting efforts of the Federal Reserve to boost that margin, and that banks were desperately seeking income from all sorts of other fees (including overdraft fees) and new lines of business to combat the problem. Over half of a decade later, the situation sounds distressingly similar.
Central Massachusetts banks are feeling the squeeze — the interest rate squeeze.
Financial performance among banks based in Worcester County during 2013 reflected the fine line institutions are facing as they grapple with slim margins while investing in technology and working to comply with new federal regulatory requirements.
"We really, over the last five to six years, have seen the net interest margin shrinking year after year," said Thomas J. O'Connor, vice president in charge of the financial institutions practice at G.T. Reilly & Co. of Milton, an accounting and consulting firm that works with community banks. "It's really the market conditions. These aren't institutions that have done anything wrong. If anything, they've done everything right."
All the banks face a common problem: Costs to manage customers' deposits while complying with federal regulations, especially reforms enacted under Dodd-Frank legislation in 2010, are steady to rising. Yet interest rates paid by borrowers taking out new loans are low.
The result is low net interest margins, or the net income that banks make charging and paying interest relative to the bank's assets. In Central Massachusetts, eight banks had net interest margins smaller than overhead costs relative to assets during 2013.
"Bank earnings are going to be suppressed until interest rates start to rise at some time in the future," said Commerce Bank President and Chief Executive Brian W. Thompson. "I don't think there's any expectation that's going to happen until sometime in 2015."
You can substitute "Central Massachusetts" with pretty much any other geographic area, and you'll have the same problem as far as the interest rate yield curve is considered.
The yield curve problems go back even further than 2008, when the world came crashing down around us. The following is from a blog post I wrote in August 2005:
The underlying economic problem for the banks is the flat yield curve. It's frankly without precedent (outside of a recession), or at least that's what my bank and hedge fund clients tell me. I defer to them on such matters, because I'm merely their mouthpiece with no mind of my own. However, assuming that this is true, banks can't make nearly enough money making conventional loans for the simple reason that the spread between what they pay to borrow the money (for example, by issuing a certificate of deposit to a consumer) and what interest rate they can charge on a loan they make with the funds borrowed, isn't enough to cover operating expenses, much less make a profit. That's the problem when the spread between two- and ten-year bonds is 20 basis points (0.02%), and the spread between two- and thirty year bonds is 40 basis points (0.04%). Thus, there has been increasing pressure on banks to increase fee income, from whatever sources are legal. The fees charged are legal. The banks are trying to make money. It's what they do.
Later that year, the curve became inverted.
If Mr. Thompson is correct, the interest rate squeeze will have lasted over a decade. Thus, while much has changed in the world of banking in the last nine years, banks find themselves in a distressingly similar place today: trying to make a buck from sources other than interest rate spread. They are trying to do so while coping with a post-Dodd-Frank world in which the elephant in the room, the CFPB, sets the tone for vigorous opposition to "taking advantage" of "fog-brained consumers" who don't have a clue what's in their own interests. "Taking advantage" means "making any money from banking services provided to." Thus, overdraft fees have been savaged, debit card interchange fees have been squeezed, proprietary trading hammered, and "subprime," "payday," "tax refund anticipation," and "deposit advance" all have been rendered to be four-letter words by the federal banking regulators.
The future sure looks rosy, doesn't it?