C&I Loan Growth is Slowing; How Can Banks Maintain Momentum?

The FDIC’s Quarterly Banking Profile reported this week that commercial and industrial (C&I) loans rose 7% between 2Q15 and 2Q16.  This represents a decline from growth rates in 2Q15 (+8%) and 2Q14 (+9%).

With this decline in commercial loan growth, how can individual banks develop structures and strategies to continue to drive growth in this key area?  The following are some key considerations:

  • Identify and communicate key differentiators.  Banks should gain insights from internal (salespeople, product staff, key executives) and external (current clients, suppliers, other partners) on what the bank’s key strengths and limitations are in serving commercial clients.  Banks should combine this research with in-depth competitive analysis to identify key differentiators.  These key differentiators then need to be consistently communicated across all communications channels.
  • Identify and leverage opportunities in vertical industry sectors.
    • Size and profile the opportunity: identify industry clusters within the bank’s footprint and/or sectors that have strong growth potential and that have traditionally been underserved by other banks.  These sectors should be profiled to identify the key business and financial challenges of companies in this sector.
    • Develop and implement a plan to target this sector, which may include establishing a dedicated industry group (First Tennessee Bank recently created a dedicated music industry group in Nashville), and engaging with this sector (e.g., by creating industry-specific content and collateral, as well as participating in, sponsoring and even hosting industry events).
  • Develop thought leadership infrastructure and assets.  Banks can develop a competitive advantage by creating compelling content in a mix of formats (reports, newsletters, infographics, blog posts, videos, surveys) and presenting this content in a consistent and visually-appealing format (e.g., using bullet points for quick scanning, images, callouts).  Many leading banks have now created branded portals that provide content, tools and advice.
  • Leverage captive channels and use non-traditional channels for communicating to prospects.  Traditional B2B marketing channels are under pressure, as business readership of trade publications is falling and direct mail response rates continue to decline.  Banks need to invest in a broader mix of marketing media, including online, email, social media and events.  Banks also have significant opportunities to leverage their existing service (and sales) channels, including branch, call center, online, mobile and social media.
  • Develop a commercial banking presence in non-traditional markets.  Unlike retail banking, banks have more scope to develop their commercial banking operations outside their traditional footprint by opening beachhead offices in markets that have growth potential (overall or for specific industries) and where the bank feels it can compete effectively with incumbents.
    BMO Harris recently opened a commercial banking office in Dallas
    Wells Fargo opened a commercial banking office in Portland, Maine.

Although C&I loan growth has slowed, banks remain committed to continuing to grow their commercial loan portfolios.  Banks that can clearly articulate and deliver their value proposition (and competitive differentiation) to their commercial clients and prospects will have increased their chances of success in this dynamic environment.

Leading U.S. Banks Continue Robust C&I Loan Growth

The leading U.S. banks reported a 10% y/y rise in average commercial and industrial (C&I) loans in 2Q15, based on an EMI analysis of the FFIEC call report data.


Interest income on C&I loans rose 5% y/y, indicating that downward pressure on commercial loan pricing persists.  This is reflected in the following table, which shows consistent y/y declines in commercial loan yields.  However, there are signs that yield are now stabilizing.


Most leading banks report that the commercial loan market is highly competitive.  So, how are banks managing to grow their C&I loan portfolios at double-digit rates?

  • Banks are targeting specialty segments.  Many leading banks reported that targeted vertical segments drove overall commercial loan growth in the second quarter.  Comerica’s average technology and life sciences loans rose 20% y/y, compared to only 3% for total Comerica middle market loans.  And while KeyBank grew its commercial, financial and agricultural loans by 12%, loans to the transportation sector grew by a hefty 42%. A bank’s selection of target segments depends on a number of factors, including segment size and growth, concentration of specific segments in their footprint; and the bank’s heritage in serving this segment.  To more effectively build a presence in specific vertical markets, many banks are now creating dedicated teams that include industry experts.  In addition, a number of banks are developing segment-specific content, which both establishes bank credibility and creates opportunities for prospect engagement.
  • There are signs of growth in commercial loan utilization.  As the economy and business optimism improves, companies are more inclined to invest to grow their businesses.  A number of banks are now reporting a slow-but-steady rise in commercial loan utilization.  Regions reported a 97 basis point increase in line utilization during the quarter. Equally, Fifth Third’s commercial line utilization rose from 32% to 33% in the second quarter.
  • Banks are increasingly focused on optimizing commercial client lifetime value.  As in consumer banking, banks are seeking to optimize relationships with commercial clients by taking a lifetime value approach and focusing not just on acquisition, but on all key stages of the relationship (including onboarding, retention and cross-sell).  The effect of this approach for banks can be significant.  Since the start of 2010, Huntington Bank has grown commercial relationships by 36%, but commercial relationship revenue by 72%. The percentage of Huntington’s commercial clients with 4+ services rose from 32.6% to 43.4% over the past three years.  This long-term perspective may also help explain why yields on new commercial remain low.  In discussing its quarterly financials, KeyBank claimed that “if we believe we have a client who wants a broad relationship and the credit metrics look good for us, we know that over time we can generate a profitable relationship, even if we are pressured a bit on the loan pricing.”



Leading U.S. Banks Maintain Commercial Lending Momentum

Strong growth in commercial lending for leading U.S. banks has offset declines in other loan categories in recent years, but coming into 2014, there was evidence that the rate of growth in commercial lending was tailing off.  However, EMI’s analysis of second quarter 2014 financials for 14 leading banks shows that commercial loan growth remains robust.  Average commercial loans rose 8.4% between 2Q13 and 2Q14, up from a 7.4% y/y growth rate in 1Q14.


10 of the 14 banks reported stronger y/y growth in 2Q14 compared to 1Q14.  Most banks attributed the stronger growth to improved business confidence.  Other factors that drove commercial loan growth included:

  • Slow but steady growth in commercial loan utilization: for most banks, loan utilization is well below historic norms, but there has been a gradual improvement in this metric in recent quarters.  Fifth Third reported that its commercial loan utilization rate rose from 30% in 1Q14 to 32% in 2Q14.  Chase’s loan utilization grew three percentage points in the first half of 2014 to 33%, but this remains well below the 40% level that Chase considers to be the historic norm.
  • Industry targeting propelling overall commercial loan growth.  A number of leading banks attributed a significant part of their growth to their targeting of specific industry segments.  Huntington Bank reported that half of its commercial loan growth came from targeted verticals.  Comerica reported strong y/y growth in its technology and life sciences (+32%), as well as its energy (+10%) portfolios.

As banks have been pushing to grow their commercial loan portfolios in recent years, yields have been steadily decreasing.  So, with banks continuing to report strong commercial loan growth in 2Q14, did loan yields continue to decline?  The answer: yields continued to decline on a y/y basis for most banks, as the market remains very competitive.  For the 11 leading banks in the chart below, 10 reported double-digit basis-point declines in commercial loan yields between 2Q13 and 2Q14.  And two of the banks—U.S. Bank and Bank of America—now have yields below 3%.  However, there are some signs that the decline in yields is beginning to taper off; three of the banks—Fifth Third, Capital One and Key—reported q/q increases in their commercial loan yields.


Assuming that economic growth and business confidence continue to grow, demand for commercial loans should also continue to remain robust.  The following are four areas where banks should concentrate efforts in order to propel their commercial loan growth:

  • Identify and target high-potential commercial segments.  Banks need to look at both external and internal factors in identifying high-potential segments.  The external factors include segment size and growth rates, as well as segment clusters within the bank’s commercial banking footprint.   Internal factors include having the required in-house skills, experience and product solutions to effectively target these segments.  Industry sector represents the most effective segmentation criterion, given the fact that companies within industries tend to have similar characteristics and needs.  However, banks should also look to identify opportunities using other business segmentation criteria, such as ethnicity and gender.
  • Develop consistent marketing for all commercial banking solutions.  Due to their silo-ized structures and cultures, different groups within a commercial banking organization may develop their own marketing and sales communications, which can create confusion for clients.  Banks should create an overall value proposition for their commercial banking operations, as well as guidelines for messaging and creative executions, to provide a unified face to the client.
  • Capture cross-sell opportunities.  Again due to their traditional structures and cultures, banks have often fallen short in developing synergies across business units and selling the entire bank to the customer.  However, banks like Wells Fargo and Huntington have been steadily growing commercial cross-sell rates.   Banks should build programs to grow referrals rates between different business units, and should incorporate both retention and cross-sell goals into commercial bankers’ compensation structures.
  • Invest in Content marketing.  In a world where we are overwhelmed with information, commercial clients will be attracted to a bank that can provide insights and advice on various topics.  In developing content for commercial clients, the topics need to be of interest and importance to the client.  They also need to be topics on which the bank can speak authoritatively.  And lastly, banks need to take into account that the objective of content marketing is not to promote its products and solutions, but rather to position itself as a valuable source of intelligence and advice.