Why you should care

Because community banks could be the key to Middle America’s success.

Mark Thompson is, in his own words, “an entrepreneur disguised as a banker.” Between his expensive-looking power suit, neatly combed gray hair and perfectly polished sales pitch honed from a lifetime in the industry, it’s an awfully good disguise. But the native Bostonian, a three-decade veteran of the local banking industry, is taking a $45 million punt: starting a new bank. He’s done all this before, but that was back when nearly 200 new banks were opening across the country every year. Those numbers continued up until the financial crash. And now? Only two new banks have opened in America in the past six years.

And it’s not just Thompson who’s punting. In the past few months, new banks have been announced in Austin and Buffalo, and community banks are expanding in Virginia and Tennessee. (Technically, Thompson’s new Boston bank isn’t a brand-new de novo charter; it’s buying most of the assets of an existing bank, but it’s still hoping to inject $100 million of new capital into it.) The owners of these banks think that they can exploit a niche in their local economies and inspire hope that, with rising interest rates and the new administration’s promise of financial deregulation, community banking might finally undergo a renaissance.

Technology is a leveling opportunity for community banks.

Paul Merski, group executive vice president, Independent Community Bankers of America

The Federal Reserve defines a community bank as any commercial bank with less than $10 billion in assets — so, it’s basically just another term for a not-huge bank ($10 billion is still pretty sizable). At latest count, there were a little more than 5,000 banks in the United States, and only the 91 largest fail to meet this definition. But those 91 hold more than four times as much in assets as all of the rest combined. Community banks are still vital to the nation’s economy, however, says Paul Merski from the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA) trade group: They make more than half of all small business loans and around 90 percent of all agricultural loans. Americans living in approximately one in four counties are served exclusively by community banks.

The first bit of good news for community banks comes from the Federal Reserve: Many experts predict that interest rates will continue to rise from historic lows over the next few months and years, which “widens the spread for profitability” for banks, says Thompson. “Without profitability, you can’t invest in technology, you can’t invest in great people, you can’t grow a business.” Furthermore, a top priority of incoming Republican lawmakers is to alleviate regulatory pressures on small banks by amending or repealing the landmark Dodd-Frank financial legislation. The amount of regulation facing community banks is “astonishing,” says Robert Solomon, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. Dodd-Frank doesn’t distinguish between small and big banks: “If you are a $100 million bank you are regulated the same way as if you are a $100 billion bank, and that’s just crazy,” he says. While huge institutions can hire compliance teams to tackle these regulations, the burden is disproportionately costly for small banks.

And it’s not just Dodd-Frank: The ICBA identifies six areas where regulatory reform can help the sector, from easing the international Basel III capital requirements to tax breaks to deregulation for small businesses in general. (As Merski emphasizes, the better small businesses do, the better community banks do, too.) Blanket deregulation is not the answer; instead, regulations must be tailored to the size of the bank, argues Merski, because the too-big-to-fail megabanks are as much a threat to community banking as they are to the entire financial system. Many regulations currently force big banks to engage in community lending and keep local branches open, so reduced reporting requirements across the board could accelerate the decline of local banking, warns Solomon.

To be sure, even with rising interest rates and reductions in red tape on the horizon, it’s still too early to declare a boom time for community banks. A handful of new banks opening in prosperous cities like Boston and Austin doesn’t necessarily reverse years of bank closures or mergers, says Tanya Marsh from Wake Forest University. Until people can be convinced to close their Bank of America or Citibank accounts and put their money into community banks — a tough sell given the low ATM fees, cheap credit cards and national penetration of the big guys — then the sector will continue to struggle. Plus, the precrisis rise of securitization and ultracheap mortgage brokers priced community banks out of residential mortgages, leaving them overexposed and overly dependent on the fluctuations of the commercial real estate market, a trend that continues to this day. Community banks therefore need more than just a repeal of Dodd-Frank “if they’re going to survive,” says Marsh.

Small banks can fill the vacuum left by big banks, argues Solomon, perhaps by providing finance to low-income and unbanked groups, like rural and immigrant communities. Of course, the ability to innovate depends on whether the regulatory environment can be designed to incentivize new practices. Thompson, on the other hand, is targeting Boston’s innovation economy and its millennial entrepreneurs with a tech-savvy offering at his not-so-snappily named Bank & Trust Company of Boston. ICBA’s Merski isn’t afraid of fintech-led disruption, either: “Technology is a leveling opportunity for community banks,” many of which offer online banking as sophisticated as that of larger institutions.

Ultimately, though, these bankers rely on the belief that individuals and small businesses want the extra human connection that bricks-and-mortar banks tout. If that sounds a bit hokey, so be it. In fact, these guys are banking on it.

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