Preparing for challenging times
How to recognize signs of potential problem credits and how to deal with them
By Nelson R. Block
The signs of potentially challenging times in the economy have begun to appear: The bond yield curve briefly inverted during 2019 and, though recovering until the end of the year, was immediately followed by a new decline.
In addition, there is increased instability in the oil-producing Middle East, weakness in the manufacturing sector and, of special concern for Texas, a softening energy market, including plant closings and permanent layoffs in oil field services. Bankruptcies in the oil and gas sector have been on the uptick.
The financial oversight agencies have been active in response to these indicators. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s “Fiscal Year 2020 Bank Supervision Operating Plan” identifies, among other priorities, development of supervisory strategies for commercial and retail underwriting practices, with a focus on evaluating credit risk appetites, risk layering and portfolio risk exposure, commercial and retail credit oversight and control functions, including portfolio administration and risk management, independent loan review, concentration risk management, policy exception tracking, collateral valuation, stress testing and collections management.
The FDIC’s fall 2019 edition of “Supervisory Insights” highlighted its Interagency Guidelines Establishing Standards for Safety and Soundness regarding leveraged lending, expressing concerns about eroding covenant protection in loan agreements, failure of banks to monitor enterprise value, inadequate valuation methodologies, insufficient loan review procedures and outsourcing of risk management in syndicated credits and participations.
In response, regional and community banks preparing for a possible economic downturn should consider including the following steps in their plans:
Stress test the portfolio
Review potentially troubled parts of your bank’s loan portfolio for compliance with the original loan approval and underwriting. The review criteria will vary with each bank, such as loans constituting the largest 10% of the portfolio, or the 20 largest loans at the bank or a concentrated portfolio of loans to potentially distressed industries.
Review borrowers for tell-tale signs
Certain borrowers may have difficulties because of market conditions or other factors and may be unable to respond adequately based on their specific problems. Indicators for these loans include:
- Financial reporting issues — chronically late or incomplete financial statements.
- Poor management — lack of experience or expertise, or too lean a management team.
- A tall capital stack — stakeholders in multiple tiers of preferred equity, mezzanine financing or subordinated debt often have divergent business goals when cash flow tightens.
- Ownership in denial about its challenges.
- Lack of responsiveness to bank requests.
- Unexplained loss of customers, changes in vendors and changes in lines of business.
- Tax issues.
- Poor internal controls or key employee misbehavior.
- Personal problems diverting management’s focus away from the business.
What to review
In addition to a general review of compliance with the original loan underwriting and current financial information on the borrower and any affiliates, subsidiaries and guarantors, special attention should be paid to issues that frequently arise with distressed credits that could affect your bank’s position or strategy in a workout or bankruptcy: