When a Bank Goes Bad

by David McSwain

IMG_3994Creep. Not as is the guy in the scary movie, but how the creep factor turns a good bank bad over time. See, policies are put in place for a reason and, yet the lure of risk means a bank sometimes thinks it’s okay to go on the edge a little bit, to ignore the policies, to turn their backs on discipline and take a risky loan.

Let’s say Banker Bob knows Jane in the community and she’s a nice person, but doesn’t have much capital and has a lot of charisma and passion but not a good handle on her financials. But Banker Bob trusts Jane and gives her the loan. Banker Sue sees Banker Bob make that loan that didn’t meet the criteria of the bank, and thinks, “Hey, I know Tom was wanting a loan to expand his fitness center.” Like Jane, Tom also doesn’t have the capital or good cash flow, but goes on the edge and gives him the loan anyway.

Score for the bank and the banker, right? The bankers get bonuses and praise all around. At least for a little while.

That Domino Effect is what happens when a bank goes bad. The creep factor means it’s building up like the sands of time and eventually can bury a bank. Unfortunately, banks don’t see it coming until it’s too late. Because life happens: Jane ends up getting a divorce and can’t make her payments, or a new fitness chain moves to town and lures all of Tom’s fitness clients away and he’s in default of his loan because he doesn’t have enough revenue to keep the lights on let alone the bank.

Both are still good people, but it was a bad business decision on the part of the bank because neither client had the necessary benchmarks for a good loan.

What’s even tougher than saying now to a neighbor is that as a culture, we live out on the edge. Living on credit. New house, new mobile phones, braces. It’s the customers that create this culture that the banks feel they must bend over backward to meet. Humans find it difficult to say no and never believe “Winter” is coming.

When everything is approved on the edge, it can seem like earnings are up…at least for a little while. Things rarely go bad with liquidity problems — they go bad with lending discipline. Earnings plummet. Classifieds escalate, Charge-offs are hyper, cash flow goes down, clients don’t pay, then liquidity and capital problems begin bleeding through the entire bank.

That’s how a bank fails. Greed gets in the way, however unintentionally, and no one recognizes it. It can go fast or slow.

How to fix it? Do what we are supposed to do in the beginning within the loan policy adherence. We come in and hold accountable the disciplines. Ask more questions. Dig in. Be an advocate for sound financial management. A banker in this century must be a service provider, a mentor in some ways, not a handout or a tight-rope walker.

The banking team may be the best and brightest, but it can be tough to color within the lines and find the clients who do meet the requirements, so the bank can safely make the loan request and help the client succeed in business and in life.

A bank doesn’t have to go bad. It is possible to not only survive in this culture but to thrive with the right policies and discipline in place to see it through.

David McSwain is an Oklahoma bank consultant and president of McSwain Consulting providing loan risk management solutions, bank loan review services, and bank consulting services to community banks in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. 

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