Why Banking as a Service May Be Best Community Bank Survival Strategy

As both banks and fintechs face economic headwinds they may find mutual advantage in partnerships that link the power of a bank charter with fintechs' niche strategies and algorithms.
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Between heightened regulatory scrutiny of partner banking relationships with fintechs and fintechs facing their own challenges in a rocky market, right now may look like a bad time to launch partner banking services. But times of disruption breed innovation.

The challenges facing existing bank-fintech relationships will open opportunities for new partner banks to emerge as the banking as a service (BaaS) industry enters a new phase of its evolution. The current market environment not only presents a compelling opportunity to launch banking services that meet the demands of regulators and fintech partners, but also offers a lifeline to community banks struggling to accelerate growth and increase profitability beyond that of their current services.

Why Community Banks Must Find New Profit Sources

The community banking sector has been consolidating for years. In 1989, there were over 15,000 banking charters in the U.S. Today, the number of charters is just under 4,800. Among the 4,800 banks in the U.S., community banks — banks with total assets less than $10 billion — represent over 95% of bank charters outstanding.

The trend in bank consolidation will continue. Indeed, the annual consolidation rate since 1990 of 3.7% is equal to the last four quarters, but the drivers of consolidation have evolved. Since the financial crisis, increased regulatory and compliance costs have increased operating expenses. At the same time, a prolonged low-rate environment pressured interest revenue. In addition, large portions of the loan market have moved outside the banking industry. Dig Deeper: Grow or Die: The Ultimatum Facing U.S. Banks

In other words, rising costs and shrinking revenue opportunities have squeezed margins and, consequently, overall profitability for community banks. The Paycheck Protection Program provided a temporary revenue lift for many, but the pandemic’s more significant, longer-term effect is the need for banks to accelerate tech investments, putting further pressure to an industry already fighting for survival.

Against this bleak outlook, community banks have limited options.

Read More: The Future of ‘Banking as a Service’

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Why Banking as a Service May Be the Ultimate Solution

Most will choose to continue their go-it-alone strategy. Many management teams are emboldened by an improving rate environment that should alleviate net interest margin pressure and improve the bank’s bottom line.

But this may only be a temporary respite. Longer term, the status quo for most community banks is insufficient given cost structure disadvantages. Selling the bank is a viable option, but it may not prove an attractive one. As structural headwinds play out, buyers may be unwilling to pay large deal premiums.

Another option — and perhaps the best — for community banks is to leverage their bank charter, which is their most decisive competitive advantage. They can partner with fintechs and other non-banks to unlock new areas of growth through partnerships.

Investment in these partnerships will not only open new areas of growth, but they will also allow banks to better serve their current markets by improving the bank’s tech infrastructure and risk functions.

Banks and Fintechs Both Challenged:

Fintechs face their own operating headwinds. These will force consolidation and ultimately clear the playing field for scaled, successful firms that will demand resilience in their bank partners.

Fintechs will have many institutions to choose from. Two criteria will prove critical.

First, increased regulatory scrutiny of BaaS banks will raise the bar for these banks’ compliance and overall risk functions. To avoid disruption of their own businesses, fintechs will only partner with banks that boast the most robust and resilient compliance programs.

Second, fintechs will require better tech from their partner banks that can easily scale with the growth of each fintech’s business. As fintechs continue to grow both existing and new products, the ability for the partner bank to seamlessly adapt with the fintech — rather than force it to seek a new partner bank — will prove vital.

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How to Prepare for a BaaS Future

Success in partner banking is not guaranteed.

There’s an opportunity for a lot of financial institutions to succeed in partner banking. However, with so much change occurring in the market, banks need to start thinking about their strategy now because it will take years — not months — to execute effectively.

While many community banks are willing to forge this new path, most are ill-prepared, lacking the regulatory expertise, tech capabilities, and, more often than not, capital to successfully execute this strategic pivot.

Notwithstanding resource limitations, some banks are better positioned than others. Critical factors increasing the probability of success include:

  • Alignment between a bank’s management team and its owners —and buy-in from the board. This is obvious but essential, and far from guaranteed.
  • A credible relationship between bank management and regulators, as buy-in from regulators will prove necessary.
  • A clean business with no legacy hurdles (e.g., poor credit) allows the team to focus on execution.
  • An adaptable tech stack. One benefit of community banks’ underinvestment in tech is a blank slate vendors and partners can build on without significant disruption to legacy infrastructure.

The partner banking business model faces serious challenges from both regulatory and market trends, but we expect demand for partner banking to continue to grow over the longer term. This supply-demand imbalance creates a large and growing opportunity for banks that can meet the increasingly high bar being set by their partners and their regulators.

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