Banks want to achieve above-average profitability. Profitable growth is a critical element to success as an organization. Long-run commercial viability occurs when an organization delivers value to its constituents in a profitable and sustainable manner. But how do banks get that way? Are there distinguishing characteristics of high-profit banks?

The year 2018 was a blockbuster one for the banking industry, thanks in large part to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The industry earned $236.7 billion in 2018, a whopping 44.1% improvement over the $164.3 billion in 2017, and return on assets (ROA) was 1.35% – its highest point in over seven years. According to the FDIC’s Quarterly Banking Profile, the 44.1% increase in full-year net income would have only been an estimated 13.5% given a normalized tax rate.

Drawing conclusions from the FDIC’s published data, it’s clear that asset size is a factor to profitability. Medium and larger banks have a much higher profit advantage over smaller banks. For example, banks under $100 million in assets have a ROA disadvantage of 33 basis points (bps) to the industry’s 1.35%, much of which can be attributed to scale that results in greater efficiency. However, the discussion of size and performance recalls the chicken-and-egg conundrum; or as statisticians would put it, correlation does not imply causation.

The effectiveness of an institution’s management team shapes its performance, and hence its size. Growth for the sake of growth is no substitute for profits. The wrong incentives related to growth could lead to uncontrolled increases in operating expenses and a loss of a competitive advantage. Rather, management teams should focus on delivering value in a profitable manner. Growth then becomes a natural byproduct, which can bring scale and further improvements in efficiency. 

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