The Big Banks Are Back

January 28th, 2019

banks-1-28-19.pngIs it now a big bank world that the rest of the industry is just living in?

One could justifiably come to that conclusion based on comments by Tom Michaud, president and chief executive officer at the investment bank Keefe Bruyette & Woods during a presentation on the opening day of Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired conference Sunday in Phoenix.

Approximately 1,300 people are attending the 25th anniversary of Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired event at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge resort, which will run through Tuesday.

It’s no secret the four largest U.S. banks—JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup—hold dominant positions in the country’s banking market. These four megabanks control approximately 45 percent of the U.S. deposits. But historically, large institutions have been less profitable than much smaller ones in part because their size and complexity have made them more difficult to manage.

That is now changing, according to Michaud.

Bank of America, for example, posted a return on tangible common equity (ROTCE) in 2017 of 10.8 percent. The bank’s ROTCE rose to 15.4 percent in 2018 and is projected to hit 15.9 and 16.5 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Similar ROTCE increases are forecasted for JPMorgan, Wells and Citi through 2020.

The reason these banks are now operating at a much higher level of profitability is in part because their management teams have figured out how to turn their enormous size into an advantage. Although analysts, consultants and the banks themselves have often touted the advantage of size, it has had an averaging effect on their financial performance as they have grown increasingly larger in recent years.

“It seems now that the scale argument has a lot more traction,” said Michaud.

Just three years ago, the most profitable U.S. banks based on their performance metrics were in the $5 billion to $10 billion asset category—just large enough to gain some benefits from scale but still small enough to escape the averaging effect. This so-called “sweet spot” shifted in 2017 to banks with assets greater than $40 billion, and Michaud expects these large institutions to again claim the sweet spot in 2018 by an even wider margin once the industry’s profitability data are finalized.

One important place large banks have been able to use scale to their advantage is in technology. The U.S. economy is in the midst of a digital revolution, and the banking industry is being forced to embrace digital distribution of consumer products like checking accounts and mortgages. “Consumers really like the digital delivery of retail banking services,” Michaud said.

And it’s the national and super-regional banks that are capturing the greatest share of “switchers”—consumers who are leaving their current bank for another institution that offers a better digital experience. Michaud cited data from the consulting firm AT Kearney showing that national banks are capturing about 41 percent of the digital switchers, with super-regionals taking 28 percent. Even direct banks at 11 percent have been gaining a larger share of switchers than regional banks, local banks and credit unions.

The advantage of scale becomes most apparent when you look at the amount of money large banks are able to invest to upgrade their digital capabilities. Each of the big four banks are expected to invest a minimum of $3 billion a year over the next few years in technology—and some of them will invest significantly more. For instance, JPMorgan’s annual technology spend is expected to average around $10.8 billion.

While not all of that will be invested in digital distribution, the country’s largest bank is investing heavily to build a digital banking capability capable of penetrating any consumer market anywhere in the country.

jmilligan

Jack Milligan is editor-in-chief of Bank Director, an information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can connect with Jack on LinkedIn or follow @BankDirectorEd on Twitter.