Credit Card Issuers Experiencing Loan Growth Across FICO Spectrum…But Face Rising Charge-Offs

Most leading U.S. credit card issuers reported relatively strong y/y growth in outstandings in the first quarter of 2018.

Breaking these growth rates out by FICO Score segment, we see that issuers generated growth across multiple FICO Score categories.

  • There are important differences in the FICO composition of card portfolios.  The <660 FICO Score segment accounted for 34% of Capital One’s portfolio, a much higher percentage than other issuers, such as Fifth Third (3%), Chase (7%), KeyBank (11%), Citi (16%) and Discover (19%).
  • Among the largest issuers, one of the most notable trends was strong growth in the low-prime/sub-prime and super-prime segments, but low/no growth in their prime portfolio.  Bank of America grew its sub-prime (<620) outstandings by 6% and its super-prime (>720) increased 8%.  However, its loan portfolio held by consumers with FICO scores between 620 and 739 only increased by 2%.
  • Most regional bank card issuers (such as PNC, SunTrust and Regions) reported strong growth in their sub-prime and near-prime portfolios.  Fifth Third’s <660 FICO Score portfolio rose 43%, but this category only accounts for 3% of the bank’s credit card portfolio, so growth was from a very low base.

As issuers enjoy strong growth in their credit card outstandings—especially for sub-prime and near-prime consumer segments—it is worth noting that charge-offs are also on the increase.  Most issuers reported double-digit y/y basis-point growth in their credit card net charge-off rates.  Four of the 12 issuers below now have charge-off rates of more than 4%, and only one (American Express) has a charge-off rate of less than 3%.

So, while issuers want to grow credit card loans across the FICO Score spectrum, they need to ensure that various functions are all calibrated to ensure that cardholder delinquencies and charge-offs remain at manageable levels.  These functions include:

  • Underwriting
  • Marketing: targeting, offer development, and messaging
  • Pricing: fees and APRs need to be set at levels that balance cardholder ability to pay with an appropriate margin to offset potentially higher charge offs
  • Customer support: onboarding, financial education, as well as early engagement in cases where cardholders experience payment challenges

Investing in digital channels generates benefits for banks…but they should not abandon human channels

One of the most notable trends in leading U.S. banks’ quarterly earnings conference calls was the extent to which digital channels have become central to their current operations and future growth plans. The reason? Digital channels provide numerous benefits to banks, including:

  • Allowing banks to reduce branch density…and more easily expand into new markets. With the growth of online and mobile banking, branches account for a significantly decreased share of everyday banking transactions, so most banks have been able to reduce their branch density, which saves costs while enabling banks to maintain a physical presence in markets.  Bank of America reported that its branch network has declined from 6,100 to 4,400 during the past decade, but also referred to plans to open 500 branches in new markets.  Similarly, Regions discussed plans to open 20 de novo branches in new markets in 2018, while also closing 30-40 branches.
  • Building a national presence. Banks that already have a limited branch presence are looking to leverage their brand strength and develop a national presence by creating a digital bank. Citibank recently announced that it was creating a national digital bank. Similarly, PNC reported that it would begin rolling out a national digital strategy later in 2018, which it claimed would enable it to take advantage of its brand awareness and serve more customers beyond its traditional retail banking footprint.
  • Enhancing the customer experience. Banks are investing in digital service channels not only to provide a wider range of functionality to clients, but also to enrich the customer experience. In doing so, banks can improve customer satisfaction and boost retention levels.  Regions discussed its goal of providing a consistent experience, with customers seeing the same information and having access to the same capabilities across all channels. The shift to electronic self-service channels also reduces servicing costs; Citibank reported that call center volume fell by 12 million phone calls in 2017.
  • Communicating through new marketing channels. Banks are significantly changing their media mix and messaging to reflect the channels where people are now consuming information and entertainment, and to communicate to clients and prospects in fresh new ways. In its 1Q18 earnings conference call, BB&T discussed that it is ramping up its digital marketing campaigns; 86% now have a digital component.
  • Capturing new sales opportunities and lowering average cost per acquisition. As customers increasingly use digital channels for their banking activities, they become more receptive to using these same channels to open new accounts and/or upgrade existing products and services. As a result, many banks are reporting strong growth in digital sales. Wells Fargo recently launched a digital mortgage application and noted that 10% of its mortgage applications in March 2018 came through that capability. The number of BB&T business accounts opened online rose 43% y/y and retail savings accounts grew 96%. Bank of America reported that digital accounted for 26% of all sales. It also rolled out an auto shopping app, with auto loans sourced digitally accounting for 50% of all direct auto loan originations in the first quarter.

Banks Need an Integrated Digital-Human Channel Strategy

While strategic investments in digital channels can lead to significant bottom-line benefits, banks should be careful not see this progress as proof that they no longer need human channels. A recent J.D. Power survey found that satisfaction levels are lowest for retail banking clients who exclusively use online or mobile channels and highest for “branch-dependent digital customers.” Moreover, the gap in satisfaction levels is highest for Millennial customers, underscoring this demographic segment’s affinity for branches. And while digital sales for many banking products are growing strongly, human channels are still vital for a bank’s success.

This means that banks must develop an integrated channel strategy, with digital and human channels acting in synch—and indeed actively promoting each other. Bank of America provided a great example of this synergy in operation in its 1Q18 earnings conference call: clients used its digital channels to schedule an average of 35,000 branch appointments per week during the quarter.  Full integration of digital and human channels recognizes the particular strengths and limitations of different channels, and can optimize a bank’s return on its investments in marketing, sales and the customer experience.

Banks Use Surveys to Cover Small Business Topics of Interest

In May 2017, EMI published a blog that discusses how banks use surveys to build small business engagement.  In that blog we reported that many leading banks publish recurring surveys that track general business optimism as well as key challenges and opportunities.  In addition, banks also carry surveys that cover specific topics on a one-off basis.  The following table looks at the topics covered over the past six months:

The banks cover these topics of interest to achieve a number of objectives, including:

  • Raising general awareness of the bank and affinity among small businesses
  • Positioning the bank as a small business banking thought leader
  • Communicating their understanding of the changing issues impacting small businesses
  • Highlighting their areas of strength
  • Differentiating the bank from its competitors

In fact, the desire for differentiation is leading banks to conduct surveys on specific small business sub-segments or on specific product areas.  Recent standalone surveys of this type include:

  • U.S. Bank surveys of Asian-American small business owners (October 2017) and Hispanic small business owners (October 2017)
  • Surveys by both Bank of America (September 2017) and American Express (November 2017) on women-owned businesses
  • Bank of America Small Business Payments Spotlight (October 2017)
  • American Express Small Business Saturday Consumer Insights Survey (November 2017)

The proliferation of small business surveys that cover specific topics of interest indicate that they are effective tools in helping banks build awareness and engagement with their small business clients and prospects.