Remarks by Robert P. Forrestal
President and Chief Executive Officer
Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta
Bank Administration Institute Conference
New York City, New York
October 23, 1995
It is a pleasure to be here today to talk to you about the future of the banking industry. Just as economic forecasters have a difficult time anticipating major changes in the economy, so too is it difficult to give an outlook for an industry that is undergoing such rapid and profound change. My remarks today will reflect on this transformation and what it means for both bankers and regulators.
When I joined the Fed in 1964, the banking industry was nothing if not neat and methodical. Due to stringent regulations, bankers did not have much leeway either in the products they offered, the prices they charged, or the markets in which they did so. These restrictions helped to create a banking industry that was conservative and, in many respects, complacent, run by individuals who wore dark suits and who also had the time to develop an excellent golf game.
The dark suits still survive--and maybe even some of the golf handicaps--but complacency is a thing of the past. The industry is now in as competitive an environment as any U.S. business. Moreover, the pace and impact of technological change in the last 10 to 15 years have been nothing short of breathtaking. If there is a concise way to express what both of these mean to the banking industry, I think it is that bank services have become more like commodities. In a commodities business, it is difficult to provide uniqueness, and competition occurs mainly in the realm of prices. In many respects, banking is moving in this direction because of technology. Back in the 1960s, banking was a craft -- loans depended on your relationship with a banker and your banker's knowledge of your particular, idiosyncratic organization. Even deposit records were often kept in the local branch. Now tools for processing and transmitting information have become enormously more powerful, and much, much more information is available on a wide spread basis. As a result, products can be mass produced. Hence, to stand out, a bank needs new products or a marketing angle.
To be sure, the securitization of auto loans, credit card debt, and, with credit scoring models, possibly small business loans is a positive development from the perspective of bank balance sheets and consumer choice. However, the standardization that securitization requires means that many traditional bank products are becoming difficult to distinguish from one bank to another, and this development, especially if it extends to small business lending, could threaten relationship banking. Needless to say, this shift calls for different skills and strategies from bankers, and I will try to elaborate on these in my comments today.
In concert with these industry changes, regulators have also had to modify their ideas on how best to ensure the safety and soundness of the U.S. financial system. What we have learned along the way is that the new banking environment calls for a balancing act between liberalization of the regulations and a recognition that there are new and even larger risks in the offing, thanks again to a technology that can spread risks as well as benefits faster than ever imagined. In the current environment, we have begun to move away from the paradigm of the all-knowing regulators and toward greater emphasis on internal controls by each financial organization. Since my area of expertise in regard to the outlook for banking lies more in supervising than in operating a bank, I will dwell on this regulatory challenge.
To organize my remarks, I will be talking about the future of banking at three levels -- local (or really state), national, and international. Let me begin with what is closest to home. I think the biggest factor influencing the outlook for banking at the state level will be the long-awaited advent of interstate banking. Of course, we have had de facto interstate banking for a number of years since many states already had put in place laws that allow banks to operate across state lines. Moreover, many banking organizations had found ways to provide a subset of banking business across state lines.
Nonetheless, the recently enacted federal legislation paves the way for greater efficiencies in achieving true nationwide interstate banking and branching. I have long supported such a development, which I see as benefiting both the industry and the consumer, businesses as well as households. Now the challenge for regulators is to make sure we are as efficient and knowledgeable as possible in dealing with banks that operate, for example, across the boundaries of several Federal Reserve districts or whose wider market scope, in the context of ever-evolving technology, enables them to offer much more sophisticated products.
The eventual impact of interstate banking will depend in part on what each state chooses to do. By late summer, more than one-third of the states had passed laws to authorize interstate bank branching. Only one state, Texas, has decided to opt out of interstate branching, and the legislature in Colorado tried to opt out but the governor vetoed the legislation. Colorado now has legislation on the books that, in the true spirit of political compromise, seems to both opt in and opt out. In both cases, though, the states have written their laws to allow them to opt ineventually. In my own home state of Georgia, the legislature decided to keep in place the stricture that banks wanting to expand within the state must still acquire a bank to do so. This legislation will somewhat reduce the benefits of interstate banking, especially for smaller banking organizations that border on Georgia and for whom it may be too expensive to follow a natural customer base to Georgia.
Regardless of individual restrictions that states might choose, interstate banking is likely to result in more consolidation -- and more competition. Already, the number of mergers nationwide has been of dramatic proportions. Some 1,500 banks merged between 1990 and 1994. Several banking experts at a recent conference in Atlanta estimated that the number of banks eventually will settle at 5,000 to 7,000 from a level of about 10,000 today -- and from 15,000 not so many yearsago.
I believe that many community banks will survive, perhaps even thrive, if they are able to meet the needs of the local community. Large banks may have different priorities than the small banks, thus creating the potential for separate markets in the same community. The real competition may not be from other banks, however. Both large and small banks must compete with the array of nonbank financial service companies that have expanded in areas where regulation traditionally prevented banks from operating.
The lesson for bankers in all of this goes back to what I said at the outset, namely, that banking has become a commodity business. That means that banks of all sizes will have to put more emphasis than ever on creating added value, to distinguish their products from those of the big bank headquartered on the other coast, from an investment bank, or from the market generally. Banks will need to be creative in how they build and maintain relationships with their customers, when many of their younger customers would rather face an ATM than a teller, a personal computer rather than a loan officer. Size -- big or small -- is not the panacea. In the future, relationship banking will have more to do with creating the intellectual capital and the delivery mechanisms needed to meet the needs of consumers and businesses managers who have to deal with their own competitive challenges. While this caveat has some negative connotations, I am optimistic because banks still have the edge in gathering, processing, and monitoring information.
Turning from the state to the national level -- and I admit this distinction vis-à-vis banking is increasingly valid only as a rhetorical device -- I believe one key issue that will determine theoutlook for the industry is the future of Glass-Steagall. The Sturm und Drang accompanying the legislative debate on this issue has made it seem as though it would be a major reform. It seems to me and others in the Fed, however, that a repeal of Glass-Steagall actually amounts to a recognition of market realities, especially insofar as it affects financial firms. Indeed, we have had considerable de facto product liberalization, particularly for banks that are well capitalized.
Why is further reform desirable? Simply stated, because customers want it and need it and because it promises efficiencies to the industry. Fundamentally, here more than in the realm of interstate banking, I think it will help banks to expand into areas that have enormous potential for economies both of scope and scale.
On the regulatory side, we will face daunting, but not insurmountable, challenges if Glass-Steagallis repealed. One challenge will be to develop an appropriate regulatory framework that deals with firms that encompass nonbanking financial activities or even nonfinancial activities. Another challenge I merely hinted at earlier is maintaining the intellectual capital necessary to keep pace with the innovations in bank activities. Frankly, regulatory agencies cannot hope to be ahead of the market. The incentives are intrinsically asymmetric in this regard between public-policy organizations and private-sector organizations. However, regulators can keep pace. What is more, we can approach regulation in different ways.
Supervisors in different countries and of different industries use various channels to ensure that the institutions they supervise follow sound risk management practices. U.S. banking supervisors rely heavily on the annual full-scope examination. A number of foreign banking supervisors depend on outside auditors to evaluate the adequacy of controls. Securities and commodities regulators place significant oversight responsibilities with self-regulatory organizations and external auditors. There may be lessons here, although the examples of Barings and others remind us that internal risk management cannot be taken for granted.
The big issue here is which regulatory model makes most sense, that which prevails in banking or the SEC model. There are arguments to be made for a functional approach like that of the SEC, especially when the purpose is consumer protection; however, the Barings case also shows us that when our concern is the safety and soundness of the financial system, there is great merit in an umbrella approach that takes into consideration the organization as a whole.
Aside from the overall regulatory framework, there are other issues to resolve, such as how to regulate interest-rate risk and market risk. We have seen some encouraging developments in the area of market-risk evaluation models: It seems to me that we are better off heading away from having regulators specify which models to use. I believe there is room for financial firms to use their own value-at-risk models and then to augment this safety factor by having them pre commit to what they believe would be their worst-case losses on their market-risk portfolios, with a penalty for those that go over their predetermined limit.
I have addressed the evolution of the banking industry on the state and national levels, but now let me make some comments about the international arena, which also has seen immense technological and developmental changes. Here again, what will determine the future for the industry is how well banks provide value-added services to their customers. It used to be that only money center banks needed to know what the currency of Brazil was doing relative to the dollar and what financial techniques were available to help business customers deal with exchange-rate risk as well as many other international business issues. As a wider array of firms become involved in the global economy, a wider array of banks need to have some international expertise.
The Federal Reserve has also intensified its international expertise, thanks largely to statutory actions taken in 1991. As part of a larger legislative initiative directed toward the banking industry, the United States enacted the Foreign Bank Supervision Enhancement Act, or FBSEA as it has become known. This legislation was controversial even from its introduction because it significantly raised certain standards for entry into or expansion within the American market.
At a distance of almost four years, I think we may all conclude that certain banks have been effectively denied entrance into the U.S. market which, on their own merit, would have gained entry prior to FBSEA. However, during this period, pressure has been brought on supervisors in emerging market economies to move toward international standards, and it has been most gratifying to observe the material progress a number of countries have made toward this goal. In the end, we all benefit from supervisory systems that follow all the activities of an institution, not just those within local borders.
FBSEA was not intended to dictate to other countries what blueprint they should adopt for their supervisory programs. Proper supervision can be carried out in different ways, and, in the end, all supervisors gain from diversity of approach. However, no matter the means, the end must be supervision of the whole, often in cooperation with other supervisors, both domestically and abroad. Supervision has become a multilateral responsibility and will benefit from the demand for higher standards for entry among those nations dealing with the global marketplace.
Nonetheless, I believe there may be room for more flexibility on the part of the United States inregard to implementation. The standard of comprehensive, consolidated supervision in the Foreign Bank Supervision Enhancement Act is somewhat stronger than that which currently prevails elsewhere in regard to supervising internationally active banks. Such supervision is not the norm worldwide, particularly in countries with less developed financial systems. In fact, the U.S. standard is stricter than the Basle minimum standards, which also emphasize the need to consolidate internationally active banks. Therefore, I favor legal action that would incorporate more flexibility, such as that embodied in the Basle minimum standards.
In conclusion, I have discussed a number of challenges the banking industry faces, but by no means have I exhausted the list. The banking industry will face more changes because the force of technology cannot be stopped. At the Federal Reserve, we are grappling with the implications of such new technologies as check-imaging and electronic cash. For example, with stored-valuecards, which are one form of electronic cash, we must be aware of their effect on reserve requirements. Although that issue can be addressed with depository institutions, the real crux of the matter is how to deal with nondepository institutions. The Federal Reserve does not currently have the authority to impose reserve requirements on nondepository institutions. Thus there is a potential issue of disparate treatment of bank and nonbank issuers. We certainly do not intend to stand in the way of these developments, though. In fact, I mention them only to end where I began -- by pointing out that it is difficult to prognosticate the future of the banking industry in the midst of such resolute change.
Overall, banking has evolved enormously since I joined the Fed and especially since I have been making speeches on banking. Technology, increased competition, and underlying economic changes have made and will continue to make financial intermediation a more challenging business. On the regulatory side we have gradually moved away from the paradigm of the Great Depression, when many U.S. banking laws were established. The pace of change has been frustrating and slow in many instances, but the evolutionary process is not over. All of us involved in this industry must remain open to change if we are to enable the industry to play its key role in the economy effectively.