Trends for 2013: Banking & Finance: Finding profit in era of slim margins

NORTH BAY -- While the Federal Reserve's continued effort to keep interest rates as low as possible has helped many borrowers to refinance existing debt or purchase property in 2012, that same economic policy has also narrowed margins for financial institutions and created a period of historic challenge for lenders of all sizes in the North Bay and beyond.

That pressure is likely to continue through 2013, after the Fed's pledge that it would work to keep rates low until U.S. unemployment drops below 6.5 percent. The policy has created a fiercely competitive environment for lenders, pushing institutions to offer the lowest rates possible to satisfy a consumer that has grown accustomed to borrowing money on the cheap.

“When you get rates as low as they are, it puts a lot of pressure on lenders,” said William Schrader, president and CEO of Santa Rosa’s Exchange Bank.

Yet in that challenging environment, North Bay lenders have remained profitable, with an expectation that growing consumer confidence will lift both finance and other industries through next year.

“We’re incredibly confident about the resiliency of Sonoma County,” said Mr. Schrader. “There’s going to be a tomorrow where growth and recovery is realized, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

Many North Bay financial institutions have made big pushes to expand offerings in 2012, whether through new technology or increased staff in strong markets. Redwood Credit Union and Exchange Bank, both in Santa Rosa, have completely revamped their technology offerings and will continue to roll out new features to online and mobile banking in 2013. Bank of Marin, based in Novato, has continued to expand its presence in the Napa Valley, adding more staff dedicated to the wine industry and growing its physical footprint in the region after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.-assisted acquisition of Charter Oak Bank in early 2011.

Those lenders and other community institutions continue to benefit from a flow of new customers that began in late 2011. Yet at a time of economic uncertainty, those customers, both businesses and individuals, are borrowing less.

The convergence of low demand and slim profit from loans, along with the expense of complying with new regulations brought on by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, has created pressures for lenders of all sizes. Yet Russell Colombo, president and CEO of Bank of Marin, said that those challenges are most acute for smaller lenders.

“We have enough size that we can absorb it,” he said of the $1.4 billion Bank of Marin. “But not everyone can. You’re going to see a lot of the smaller banks throw in the towel. I would expect M&A activity to pick up in the next year.”

For the $430 million Summit State Bank in Santa Rosa, growing in the current economic and regulatory environment has meant developing a specialty in serving regional nonprofits and other specific areas of expertise. The bank financed $50 million in loans in 2012 -- more than the previous two years combined -- and President and CEO Tom Duryea said that the bank's pipeline is the strongest it has been in over five years.

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