Friday, October 05, 2012

Banking's Curious Lack of Profits in Fee-based Businesses

Remember the good old days when bankers talked big about their fee income prowess? And bank stock analysts issued glowing reports about revenue diversification, and the banks that get “it”. As a side note, if anybody knows what “it” is, please let me know. Because in the fee based business game, “it” appears to be wasted effort.

Why? Because most of us are not making serious money, if we’re making anything at all, from our fee-based lines of business (LOBs). What do I base this on? My firm has been measuring the profitability of LOBs and products since our inception. The average profitability of fee-based products was -10% during the first quarter of 2003, and is –7% during the first quarter of 2012. Are there exceptions? Yes. But on the whole, we have laid a giant egg.

This sad truth reared its head in profit improvement engagements that I worked on. Banks that have meaningful fee based LOBs typically dropped little to the bottom line. We recommend changes to not only get profits to where they should be, as defined by RMA’s common sized income statement (see table for Insurance Agencies), but also to absorb some overhead/support costs from the bank.

I like using RMA numbers because 1) bankers use these statistics to evaluate borrowers by industry, and 2) they are an amalgamation of profit performance of largely private companies by NAICS code. Sure, I could use publicly traded companies. But we have to be cautious comparing a community financial institution’s brokerage operation to Charles Schwab.

But publicly traded companies can be instructive. They typically operate independently, containing HR, IT, and Marketing Departments. These departments are not usually found in community FIs brokerage arms. That is why it is important to measure these units’ profitability with an overhead/support allocation. They rely on HR, IT, etc. from the bank. They should pay for it.

I am not against fee-based LOBs. In fact, managing finances, employee benefits, and risk is becoming increasingly complex for individuals and businesses… i.e. our customers. Developing expertise can clearly be consistent with your FIs strategy.

But they must be developed and managed to deliver meaningful profits to the bottom line. Succeeding will increase the amount of business you do with existing customers, make them stickier, and your FI more valuable to them. It will also increase your profits, reduce dependence on the spread, and reduce the relative size of your big three balance sheet risks… credit, interest rate, and liquidity.

Increase profits, make customers stickier, and decrease risk. Worth it? I would say so.

How about you?

~ Jeff

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