Analyst: 20,000 bank branches — or more — could close after COVID-19

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U.S. bank branches have been closing at the rate of more than three a day for the last 10 years, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

They should be closing faster, some analysts say.

“Given the shelter-in-place orders, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated mobile adoption,” with teller transactions down “30 to 40 percent” this year, as bank-by-phone replaces standing in the teller line, according to a report to clients by Michael Perito, regional bank analyst for Keefe Bruyette & Woods, a New York investment bank.

Americans have been banking by phone at accelerating rates for 15 years or more. But an even steeper slowdown in walk-ins is hitting just as banks face record-low interest rates and higher loan losses, increasing cost-cutting pressures.

“Another 20% to 30% of branch consolidation is likely needed — and that’s a conservative estimate,” Perito told investors.

Since March, “banks have proven to themselves that they have the capabilities to have employees work remotely and handle customer transactions digitally,” he added. Keeping branches that attract fewer customers means that “banks’ occupancy costs and other physical infrastructure costs are too high.”

It’s not just banks.

Publicly traded U.S. office landlords have lost nearly a third of their stock market value this year as tenants learn to work from home. In contrast, warehouse landlords have benefited from the surge in direct-to-customer shipments. Their stocks have held their own even as others have plummeted, wrote John W. Guinee, analyst at Stifel Financial Corp., in a report to clients.

Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and other giants have steadily and strategically shut less-popular branches over the past decade, while regionals such as Wilmington-based WSFS bought up local competitors and shut surplus sites. Some 12,000 bank branches have shut across the country over the last decade — a 12% drop.

To be sure, growth-oriented banks, such as JPMorgan Chase & Co., the most valuable U.S. bank, and Republic Bank, based in Philadelphia, have defied the trend, opening new, mostly smaller offices in hopes of drawing new customers.

But mostly, “with interest rates low, and branch traffic slowing, branch economics are simply less attractive,” Perito concluded.

“Our response to the pandemic taught us a great deal about our ability to serve our clients and work remotely,” and those lessons have reshaped how the bank manages workers and customers, Bryn Mawr Trust Co. told investors in a June 29 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The Pennsylvania-based bank has accelerated its previous trend toward “work from home” so that 70% of the bank’s 600-plus workers are no longer reporting to offices, it said.

Home will be the “long-term working environment” for most, the company said, enabling Bryn Mawr to vacate 33,000 square feet of office space in the Philadelphia suburbs.

As to its 29 branches, Bryn Mawr says many will be “limited-service drive-up locations,” with others remodeled as “client centers where we will physically meet with clients via appointment only,” instead of the old walk-in-anytime service model.

The company last month cut more than 20 jobs as part of the new alignment.

Perito sees Bryn Mawr Trust as a model: “Now would seem to be the time to make these changes.” He expects other banks to make similar announcements as they report grim first-half 2020 profits later in July.

Banks that could afford to give up a lot of space and still make big profits include PNC, the biggest bank based in Pennsylvania, according to KBW analysts, who are recommending the stock.

Indeed, PNC has closed 24 of its 2,300 branches since March 31 and plans to close 30 more by the end of August, and 39 more in September, said spokeswoman Marcey Zwiebel.

KBW is also recommending WSFS, the largest bank still based in the Philadelphia region, which last year bought and consolidated Beneficial, shutting 30 surplus branches and using savings to upgrade online customer service.

But not everyone is rushing to unbranch.

“We are not closing branches as a result of the pandemic,” affirmed Frank Quaratiello, spokesman for Citizens Bank, one of the largest lenders in Philadelphia, New England and parts of the Midwest.

A successor to the former Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, or PSFS, Citizens still has branches in dozens of neighborhood and suburban main street districts and had moved a few from aging buildings to newer, smaller locations in recent years instead of shutting them.

The looting that hit Philadelphia business districts after the protests at the end of May damaged several Citizens branches. That could have given the company an excuse, if it needed one after the coronavirus lockouts, to speed away from bricks-and-mortar toward virtual customer service.

Instead, Citizens has renewed its investment in Philadelphia: the last of its damaged offices, at 52nd and Market Streets in West Philly, “is slated to reopen later this month,” Quaratiello said.

Meanwhile, Citizens’ rival TD Bank, whose U.S. headquarters is in Cherry Hill, N.J., isn’t completely converted to work from home.

“How is that going to play, coming out of COVID?” asked Michael Carbone, head of TD Bank’s metro Pennsylvania/New Jersey market.

“We’re still having a lot of dialogue around that,” he added. “What’s the new normal for a business office? We have adjusted to Webex and Zoom; what’s the productivity around that? Where are we going to see the most efficiency and effectiveness for an employee? There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done” before banking is something everyone always does from far away.

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