Excel for CECL Compliance: "Can" vs. "Should"

Preparation is fully underway among Wisconsin's banks for the new CECL standards, which were issued by FASB on June 16, 2016 and fundamentally change how banks estimate losses in their allowance for loan and lease losses (ALLL). Among other considerations, banks must develop or purchase new systems and/or processes to conduct those calculations. One hotly debated question: whether or not banks can utilize a simpler solution than software, namely an Excel spreadsheet.

The answer: banks can use Excel, but that doesn't necessarily mean they should

There are several key considerations for banks when selecting a tool for CECL compliance, including the capabilities of that tool, the bank's complexity, staff expertise, and cost. Prior to any of that, however, bank management must determine which model is the right fit for their institution. "We've seen a number of different allowance calculations," said Mark A. Zeihen, assistant deputy controller with the OCC's Milwaukee/Iron Mt. Field Office. "Banks can use a variety of calculations today and going forward under CECL." While the more complex models aren't inherently bad, it is important to select the right tool for the job. "The selection of the methodology is important," said Ryan Abdoo, CPA, partner at Plante Moran. "That decision will have a long-term impact. With increased complexity comes increased data requirements and, thus, risk of error, so if you're an institution that has historically not complicated things, I would advise not complicating them." 

Tom Danielson, principal – financial institutions at CliftonLarsonAllen, LLP, recommends the "remaining life method"—which was outlined in a regulatory webinar on Feb. 27, 2018—as a good starting point for most community banks. If necessary, they can move to a more complex model in the future. "A key consideration is whether the model is right for your organization," he said. "Does it give you an ALLL computation that is correct, understandable, and easy for you to explain to shareholders, board members, auditors, and examiners?"

Along with selecting the most appropriate model, bank management must evaluate the data capabilities of their chosen solution. "CECL will require banks to maintain, manage, and store larger amounts of data," said Zeihen. "Each tool will vary greatly, so it's important for banks to consider how quickly they can retrieve and tailor reports." A key component of that evaluation is determining whether or not the bank's CECL solution integrates with its core. "Whether they integrate with your core processer is a big piece for making sure you have historic data points," explained Tom Mews, president, First National Community Bank, New Richmond, adding that a vendor who can supply industry data is also important. 

When evaluating different solutions for CECL compliance, bank management must first consider the level of complexity of the model that best fits their bank's needs. "When purchasing or building a model, we believe simple banks do not need complex models," said Danielson. "There are certain pros and cons with each option. Some of the software tools available are more complex than what many community banks need, which could lead to higher costs and some complexities within the model that are not needed by the user," added David Braden, CPA, manager – financial institutions at CliftonLarsonAllen, LLP. "However, the one concern with using an Excel-based model is you might not have enough staff who are comfortable modifying the spreadsheet accurately over time, and maintaining a proper control structure around that process." Bank management should also keep in mind that their institution's complexity may change. Software can be more flexible than a spreadsheet by supplying different methodology options, which could be an important feature for growth-oriented banks, according to Abdoo. "CECL allows for half a dozen different methodologies that range in complexity," he explained. "Due to the fact that the more complex the methodology gets, the more data the software needs, that flexibility allows you to start with a less complex methodology and then transfer to a more complex one as you grow without changing products."

Another important factor to consider is the expertise and time required by bank staff in order to effectively use the chosen tool. "Value the time your people put into managing the components and training backups," Mews advised. "Under the current CECL requirements, to train multiple people under that model is very difficult, with time constraints being the biggest component." That evaluation is likely one of the most difficult bank leadership will face when it comes to CECL implementation. "The difficult decision is the analysis of the skillset of your current employees and an honest assessment about the challenges and skills needed to build, maintain, and validate a CECL model using Excel," said Danielson. "Many banks may conclude that while it's possible, it's not cost-beneficial to do." Staff aren't the only ones responsible for understanding the model; management are required to fully comprehend how the model works. "Management has to be in charge of the internal control structure, and that escalates as the community bank grows in size," Braden explained. "The individuals at the bank need to understand how the inputs go into the structure and interpret what the outputs mean." 

Finally, bank management must weigh the costs of a potential CECL solution against its benefits. The key is to include all of the costs involved. "Don't consider just the initial cost but also the ongoing costs," said Zeihen, using employee training and implementation costs as an example. "Cost definitely plays into every decision a community bank makes," said Mews. "We could train one person internally, but because of the in-depth knowledge it takes, it would be difficult to have any backup." It's critical for bank leadership to consider the long-term costs and benefits of each potential solution rather than selecting the least expensive option in the short-term. "It doesn't make sense to pay for more than you need, but one of the poorest business decisions you can make is to buy the cheapest solution out there and find out later that it is ineffective," said Danielson. Bank management should also factor in the staff time required to utilize a software solution. "Each institution has someone responsible for loan loss allowance calculation," Abdoo pointed out. "Whether you use Excel or not, that person will still be putting in time documenting and entering data. You still will have to put in time and effort to calculations, no matter what the tool."

Ultimately, regulators are more concerned about compliance with the principles of CECL than the specific tools being used. "The bottom line is banks will continue to have flexibility in choosing a solution that meets their needs as long as the CECL principles are followed and objectives are met," said Zeihen. "The OCC isn't expecting or requiring banks to purchase from a third party vendor or purchase a new system. It's possible for banks to use the tools they already have, but some modifications will be required. We expect them to have proper controls over the input, the appropriate calculations, and controls over changes in outputs."

If a bank does decide to pursue using Excel for CECL compliance, be sure to leave plenty of time for testing and adjustments during implementation. "Community banks who want to consider using Excel will need to start very early in building their models so they can develop or hire the skills they need and change course if necessary," said Danielson. "It can be done, but don't make that decision lightly."

Helpful Resources

Plante Moran is a WBA Silver Associate Member. 
CliftonLarsonAllen, LLP is a WBA Bronze Associate Member.

By, Amber Seitz