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The new normal in branch activity

September 24th, 2009 by Pitney Bowes

by Brian Diepold

Cross posted at

Among other effects, the current recession is likely to have an immediate and lasting impact on the branch deployment strategies in our industry. The immediate impact is fairly easy to predict. That is, net branch growth rate will decline significantly, most likely with some contraction over 2009 and 2010. But, what should we expect to see happen after the recession?

In the period just after past recessions, we have experienced a short-term spike in branch growth, likely due to some catch-up effects, followed by a return to the normal trend. It would be easy to assume that we could be in for the same kind of response after this recession.

But, I think there are several factors working against a return to the old patterns of branch growth. Most importantly, we have the ever-present alternative channel argument. While the maturing of remote banking may play a role in future branch growth, I believe that the dominant effect will be driven by overall residential development patterns.

If we look at the pockets of high branch growth over the past decade, much of the net new branches have logically followed the suburban development patterns. With every new McMansion development, branches followed to serve those communities. Unfortunately, many of those communities are being hit the hardest by the collapse of the real estate market. Prices are dropping much faster in the outer fringe development than they are in the urban core in many places. One could argue that these developments represent much of the excess inventory in the residential housing market today. As a result, it’s unlikely that we will see more of these developments popping up any time soon.

As the real estate market corrects itself, one of the numbers that is going back up is the percent of the population that rents instead of owning a home. Renters tend to reside closer in to the urban core in more densely populated parts of the market. Coincidentally, banks already have mature branch networks in these parts of the market. That is not to say there will be no new branches built, but simply that the decisions may move towards relocations, renovations, and need-based in-fill of the network, rather than continuing to grow with the residential development.

This is a unique recession, and as a result there will be unique events that unfold during the recovery period as well. One of them, I believe, is going to be a modest transformation of residential development patterns. We should see a move back towards more densely populated residential development. I don’t expect this to be a radical change, but as it changes on the margin, that should have an impact on where we look for new branch opportunities.

The result for branching is a new normal that probably doesn’t include a return to steady branch growth. There will be some branch growth, but I expect it to be more in line – finally – with household and population trends.

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