Kelly Coughlin is CEO of BankBosun, a management consulting firm helping bank C-Level Officers navigate risk and discover reward. He is the host of the syndicated audio podcast, Kelly brings over 25 years of experience with companies like PWC, Lloyds Bank, and Merrill Lynch. On the podcast Kelly interviews key executives in the banking ecosystem to provide bank C-Suite officers, risk management, technology, and investment ideas and solutions to help them navigate risks and discover rewards. And now your host, Kelly Coughlin.

Kelly: Hi, this is Kelly Coughlin with the BankBosun. I’m going to do an interview today with Adam Mustafa, who’s one of the founders of a company called Invictus Group. There’s been so much discussion in the last couple months on this new CECL regulation that’s coming down the pike here this year some time that deals with how banks are supposed to be valuing and estimating their credit loss. I read a report that Invictus put together, a 2016 regulatory outlook. I actually did three blog posts on it, so you can go to the blog section and read those, as well, and then I’ve appended the Invictus report, as well. With that in mind, I’ll get Adam on the line. Adam, we’re going to talk about some things that are relevant to the bank industry. Why don’t you give us some background on yourself, on Invictus. I see a Mustafa name at the top of the letterhead. I assume that’s a family member.

Adam: Yes, my father and I co-founded the business, and like I tell everybody I’m the smarter, better looking version of him. I do all the work, and he gets to take all the credit. In all seriousness, we started the firm back in 2008 right after the financial crisis began. Today, our bread and butter is providing community banks with strategic advisory services that focus very heavily on using analytics to get an edge in terms of acquiring other banks, being able to analyze those banks and know those banks better than they know themselves, and using analytics also to customize their own capital requirements with their regulators in the face of increasing regulation and the implementation of Basel III.

Kelly: You were with Deloitte Touche for a while. It looked like a number of your other guys came from the banking or investment banking circles. What’s kind of been the genesis of the partners? You and your dad, where did you guys come from?

Adam: I’ve been very much an entrepreneur. I consider myself an entrepreneur first and foremost. I did work at Deloitte, and I was in their business evaluations group. I worked on Wall Street as a junior grunt earlier in my career. I’ve seen commercial banking and investment banking from a variety of different angles. My father’s background is far more impressive than mine. In many ways, a lot of the techniques we use today, my father learned from the great Walter Wriston at Citigroup. My father worked at Citibank in the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, where he was responsible for all mergers and acquisitions, including Citibank’s acquisitions of other financial institutions.

He is a disciple of Walter Wriston. Again, a lot of the techniques we use today were originated by Wriston, and we’ve just updated it for today’s times. That’s our background. We like to say we put the A back in ALCO. What we do is, on the one hand, innovative, because as soon as the 2008 crises occurred, the conventional techniques for analyzing banks all broke down. We’ve developed new analytics, but at the same time, they go back to the fundamentals of banking. You could trace their origins back to the ’60s and the ’70s when Walter Wriston was running Citibank.

Kelly: So now we get at the name Invictus and Invictus Group. Can I assume that it comes from the William Ernest Henley poem, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul,” that type of Invictus, or is it another genesis?

Adam: Yes, sir. You hit the nail on the head. In many ways it was very much a metaphor for the times we were in, circa 2008, 2009, when we were in the depths of the financial crisis. Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen, but everybody knew that the industry was never going to be the same.

Kelly: Yeah, one of my favorite stanzas from that poem, it describes 2008 pretty well. It says, “In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody but unbowed.” It describes how many of us went through a very tough period. You also had some experience with the famous Jim Cramer. What was that like?

Adam: I was with him long enough to have a cup of coffee. I don’t even think he would remember my name, although he called me Ace for some odd reason. It was a great experience because he is obviously very well-known and very well respected. He’s got a method to his madness, so just being able to observe him, even though he didn’t know my name, to watch him go about his day, watch him go about his process, I learned a heck of a lot from him. I’d actually tell you what I learned was that I don’t want to be a stock picker because that job is not only very difficult but is very short-term oriented. It is very focused on what companies are going to report quarterly earnings better than what the analysts thought. It was very focused on what tomorrow’s economic indicators were. It was too short-term oriented for me. And so if nothing else, I learned that I wouldn’t make much of a stock picker.

Kelly: Let’s get right into it. I’ve known about you guys for a number of years, and I have great respect for the work that you do, but what got my attention I’d say most recently was this 2016 Regulatory Outlook. As I was pouring through that, it’s about a fifteen or twenty page report, most of which most CEOs and CFOs won’t read because it’s too long, I went through it and parsed it out into three components. One was a regulatory compliance cyber security thing. Part two was balance sheet risk management, and then part three, which was more board-level issues. Just briefly I want to skip to part two that got my attention. “Invictus research found seven hundred and fifty banks with commercial real estate concentrations above 250%. Regulatory guidance suggests banks have unhealthy concentrations.” That seems a lot.

Adam: Yeah, it’s very hypocritical when you think about it, because on the one hand, there is these concentration ratios that are essentially monitoring community banks, in terms of their exposure to commercial real estate, but at the end of the day, that’s what community banks are. They are commercial real estate lenders. That’s what nine out of ten of them do. In many cases, of course they’re going to have concentration ratios in that range. The regulators tend to use 300% as a threshold, and if a bank goes over 300%, that’s when they will examine them a lot more thoroughly, but that’s what community banks do. Community banks, they’re like any other for-profit business. They’re in business to make money, and they have to make loans to make money.

If you try to limit the number of loans they can make, then they won’t be able to make enough money, especially in this environment. And then on the other hand, if these ratios start to push them towards other forms of lending, such as C&I, then all of a sudden they don’t have expertise in C&I. It can be very dangerous making loans in areas where you don’t have an expertise in, and then the regulators will come after banks for venturing into lines of business where they may not have what they need from a skill set perspective. If they make too much of the loans that is their bread and butter, then they’re going to come under scrutiny, but if they try to diversify, they’ll come under scrutiny for getting into lines of business that they’re not familiar with. Community banks are in a very tough position.

That being said, I understand where the regulators are coming from. When you look at the carnage of the 2008 financial crisis, and you study banks that failed and got into heavy trouble, there was heavy concentration. The key is, let’s evaluate the spirit of what’s happening. The spirit of what’s happening is that regulators don’t want banks to fail, but at the same time, banks got to stick to their bread and butter. At the end of the day and we work with a lot of banks who are over that 300% threshold. At the end of the day, the regulators will be comfortable, and a community bank could have a concentration level at 500% to capital, but they have to demonstrate to the regulators that they have the toolkit from the perspective of risk management, capital management, and the sophistication to manage that type of risk.

Kelly: On this CECL business, what is the basic difference between from what banks are doing now in doing some sort of loan loss reserve? There seems to be this discussion on the life of the loan, and replacing and incurred loss approach with a lifetime expected loss estimate. It seems like, on origination, FASB and the regulators are going to say, “Okay, when you originate the loan, we want you to estimate how much you’re going to lose on this loan on origination.” When they do the loan, they’re not really expecting that they’re going to be losing on the life of the loan. Every credit they grant is estimated to be a good credit, so what is the difference here on the approach that they’re doing now, which is a basic allowance system possibly based on past results, versus this lifetime expected loss estimate?

Adam: The primary difference is that CECL is designed to be forward looking, whereas the current process for recording a loan loss reserve is backward looking. That’s the primary difference.

Kelly: Backward looking on their entire portfolio, not with that particular credit, but their overall portfolio, correct?

Adam: Yes. Let’s examine quickly how banks today calculate their loan loss reserve. It’s actually very simple, but you could then see how broken it is. By the way, I’m not advocating here for CECL, but the one thing I can tell you right now is the current way of calculating ALLL (Allowance for Loan and Lease Losses) is a joke. Let’s start with what banks do as first step. They take all of their high quality loans, they call them pass-rated loans, or loans that are currently doing fine, they put them into pools, and they will calculate how much they expect to lose off that pool, but that calculation is based off their historical loss experience. It’s backward looking from that perspective.

Then with the loans that are in trouble, they have to actually analyze those loans individually, and they will look at the collateral position of the loan. They’ll look at the borrower’s financials, and they will estimate using that data, which is also backward looking, how much reserve they need to have against those individual loans. Then you’ve got this third bucket. What CFOs will refer to is as is “qualitative factors”. Qualitative factors is the plug right now, the band aid that’s trying to bridge this gap of the ALLL being backward looking, and the idea that their own loss reserve should be forward looking. Essentially, these qualitative factors is like throwing darts at a board. The CFO or the chief credit officer will look at economic conditions locally and then add plus or minus 1, or 10, or 15% to these scorecards, and then they’ll try to use these score cards to pad their ALLL.

The irony is that this bucket, these qualitative factors, for most banks is actually representing 90 or 95% of their loan loss reserve. 90 or 95% of bank’s loan loss reserve today right now is based off throwing darts at a board. Frankly, that is not effective. The irony is, is that although studies have shown that CECL would hurt banks and would require banks to add to the reserve, we actually don’t see that. For strong, healthy banks, this bucket of qualitative factors is such a large component of their ALLL. We actually think CECL would help a lot of banks because it would demonstrate with more science and far less art how actually less risky those loans are, depending on where and when they were originated.

Kelly: Those qualitative factors that you mentioned, isn’t there a bit of an issue as to how that data is captured. Some of it is captured maybe in memory, some of it’s captured in a Word document, maybe it’s in Excel format. It’s not like there’s a standard input of this type of data, number one, and then number two, isn’t it true that much of that data is kind of subjective?

Adam: That’s exactly my point. It’s like throwing darts at a board. It’s highly subjective. It’s 99% art, 1% science at the most, and yet these qualitative factors, the number coming out of that bucket, is representing 90 to 95% of a bank’s loan loss reserve.

Kelly: Okay, but they’re still under the duty to try to compile that data, correct? That’ve got to collect it and compile, and then make some decisions based on that, right?

Adam: There’s not a lot of data, that’s the problem, for them to collect. Many of them are doing their best to try to collect local or national economic data and try to interpret that, but it is literally like throwing darts at a board. Therein lies the problem. This is why the FASB wants to replace how banks are calculating their loan loss reserves now and replace it with CECL. If you went back to 2008, and you studied what happened in the crisis, a lot of banks didn’t have enough in the reserve. When we’ve done this, if you study failed banks and you looked at their loan loss provisioning, you would see zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, and then a huge spike in one quarter, the quarter where the regulators showed up, and all of a sudden, the banks is under-capitalized and then two quarters later they fail. There was too much volatility. The ALLL itself is highly subjective, easy to manipulate, especially for larger, publicly traded banks. The current system for ALLL completely broke down in the financial crisis, which is why FASB proposed CECL.

Kelly: Wouldn’t it be true, though, that the qualitative factors that you mentioned that led to the ALLL analysis or result, those qualitative factors will help guide the CECL analysis, correct?

Adam: CECL’s going to replace that, because the regulators know, FASB knows that these qualitative factors are a joke. The qualitative factors right now is a band aid. FASB wants to improve the methodology for the reserve in instead of relying on these qualitative factors. They want to have a lot more science to the process. They want it to be far more forward looking. That’s why they want to implement CECL.

Kelly: I was under the impression, though, that some of those qualitative factors were part of the calculus of CECL, though.

Adam: The spirit of it, yes. The spirit of the qualitative factors right now in the ALLL is to basically say, “Yeah, we know when we calculate our loan loss reserve off our pooled loans and our individually impaired loans that that number’s not big enough because economic conditions could change, and economic conditions right now are fragile, albeit, we’re in this recovery driven by artificially low interest rates. We know enough to know the environment is fragile. We need to find a way to capture that in the loan loss reserve, so let’s come up with these qualitative factors to fulfill that. It’s not a great approach.

Kelly: The basic formula is something like probability of default, times exposure default, times loss of the given default, and that equals CECL. On that probability of default, therein lies the subjective element to that, correct?

Adam: Any forward looking model is going to be dependent on assumptions, and assumptions will vary in terms of how much art and science is contributing to them. The methodology you just described, it is one methodology that is being recommended for CECL compliance. It’s probably going to be the most used methodology. The key assumptions such as probability default and loss given default themselves will require some subjectivity or art to it, but there’s a lot more science that can be used in that process. That’s how we work with our clients.

Kelly: All right, so let’s move to the bigger picture here. Give us your take on this whole CECL thing. Is it a crisis? Is it something that CFO’s and CEOs and boards should put at the absolute top of the front burner? What’s your take on it?

Adam: I think CECL doesn’t need to be so complicated. I think there are vendors who stand to benefit from CECL, who are either subconsciously or consciously creating the perception that CECL’s going to be far more complicated than it really need to be.

Kelly: Both of us worked at Big 6 accounting firms in our early careers. I can picture, I was at PWC, and you were at Deloitte Touche? I mean these guys must be licking their chops at the size of some of these engagements, don’t you think, to get in there and help these banks out?

Adam: Yeah, absolutely. Take your typical community bank where it’s hard enough to make money in this environment. Our perspective on it A) this could increase my loan loss reserve, which is going to decrease my earnings and my capital, and B), the cost of putting the system in place for even doing that calculation’s going to cost me money now. From a community bank’s perspective, I completely understand the concern. That being said, let’s set the record straight. CECL hasn’t yet been passed. They’re talking about early half of this year where they’re going to make a final decision on it, although, they hinted at the end of last year it’s likely going to happen.

They also said there’s going to be a five year runway for compliance. So I don’t think community banks need to overreact to CECL. I think they need to develop a plan for CECL readiness, but I don’t think they need to rush into anything. I don’t think they need to panic about it. At the end of the day, CECL does not change the actual risk of a loan. If I make a loan to you today, the risk of that loan hasn’t gone up because of CECL. Maybe how I account for that risk has changed, but it doesn’t change the spirit of making loans. That all being said, here’s some things that community banks should be aware of. You know we talked about the life of the loan, but the other thing that community banks need to be aware of is the vintage of the loan matters.

If you have a properly built CECL model, what you will find is that the risk profile of loans made during the early part of a credit cycle will actually be very low, but if you’re making a lot of loans in the late part of a credit cycle, the risk could be very high. If you’ve got the system in place, you’ll be able to analyze that and not just have the accounting treatment reflect it, but more importantly, it will highlight your strategic decision-making, and it will help provide community banks with a sense of the risk/reward trade-off of making new loans in different environments. What we found is, the time to make new loans is in the early part of a credit cycle and not the second half of a credit cycle, and CECL will just bring that point to the surface, but it doesn’t change the actual risk profile of the loan itself.

Kelly: All right, let’s wrap it up. Do you have three to five takeaways you want to leave the bankers with?

Adam: I’m just going to leave you with one takeaway. It’s a quote that summarizes everything that we’re seeing in this environment, CECL being one aspect of it, which is, “The worst loans are made in the best of times.” The opposite of that is actually also true. A CECL model will quantify that point, but with or without CECL, that point holds true, and community banks, from a strategic planning perspective, really need to think hard about that.

Kelly: That’s a good one.

We want to thank you for listening to the syndicated audio program, The audio content is produced by Kelly Coughlin, Chief Executive Officer of BankBosun, LLC;  and syndicated by Seth Greene, Market Domination LLC, with the help of Kevin Boyle.

Video content is produced by The Guildmaster Studio, Keenan Bobson Boyle. The voice introduction is me, Karim Kronfli. The program is hosted by Kelly Coughlin.

If you like this program, please tell us. If you don’t, please tell us how we can improve it. Now, some disclaimers.

Kelly is licensed with the Minnesota State Board of Accountancy as a Certified Public Accountant.   Kelly provides bank owned life insurance portfolio and nonqualified benefit services to banks across the United States.  The views expressed here are solely those of Kelly Coughlin and his guests in their private capacity and do not in any other way represent the views of any other agent, principal, employer, employee, vendor or supplier of Kelly Coughlin.