The U.S. cannabis market is expected to continue its growth in 2023, with projected sales of $72 billion a year by 2030. That’s more than double the current market estimation of $32 billion annually. Today, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow adult cannabis use. According to the Pew Research Center, 43% of U.S. adults now live in an area that has legalized cannabis use. While not every state that has legalized cannabis use saw growth last year, the market as a whole continues to expand.
Meanwhile, last fall, President Joe Biden announced pardons for simple cannabis possession at the federal level and ordered a review of federal cannabis scheduling under the Controlled Substances Act. According to a recent survey from Data for Progress, the majority of likely voters support legalizing cannabis at the federal level.
But as the market expands, access to banking continues to lag. Congress has failed to pass the SAFE Banking Act, a bill aimed at normalizing banking for licensed cannabis businesses. Despite the lack of legislative progress, a playbook exists for banks to serve the industry in compliance with FinCEN guidelines; bank examiners continue to recognize the work banks are doing to meet their compliance obligations. Bankers considering this line of business can have confidence that the cannabis use space will continue to grow and keep banking services in high demand.
Three Trends to Watch
As the industry expands and attitudes toward cannabis evolve, financial institutions are facing new competition and pressures on their business models. We are seeing three significant changes.
Cannabis industry consolidation is creating businesses that need access to the balance sheets that bigger banks can provide. As a result, larger financial institutions are entering the space. There are more financial institutions in the $1 billion to $10 billion assets space actively serving the industry today, along with a few banks with over $50 billion in assets. Considering just a few years ago these institutions were predominantly less than $1 billion in assets, this is a significant shift that gives cannabis businesses greater choice.
Early entrants that gained cannabis banking expertise in their home market are leveraging that proficiency to provide services across entire regions, or nationally in states with legal cannabis programs. Some of this is driven by consolidation, as bankers follow their customers into other states. Others are seeking new customers in underserved or newly minted cannabis markets.
Lending, both directly to operators and indirectly to landlords or investors, has emerged as a critical component of the cannabis banking portfolio. Not only is this a competitive differentiator for banks, it is also as a prime source of earning assets and a way to gain additional yield. Like all lending, however, it is important to understand the unique credit risks in this industry, which can vary greatly from state to state.
Competition Demands a More Customer-Centric Approach
Competition is creating pressure on financial institutions to operate more efficiently while delivering more client-centric services. When it comes to meeting compliance obligations, banks that employ strategies that achieve greater efficiency can dramatically lessen the burden on both their bankers and their customers. There’s now more clarity about what information offers the most value for risk management teams; bankers can tailor their compliance requirements to reduce risk and avoid creating unnecessary work streams. Technology that automates compliance tasks and aids in ongoing monitoring can also contribute to a better customer experience. As cannabis operators face increased competition and tighter margins, financial institutions that take steps to minimize the compliance burden can gain a competitive advantage.
Financial institutions are also introducing new pricing strategies to attract customers. Historically, banks priced these services strictly to offset or monetize their compliance function. Now, bankers can use pricing tools to benefit customers while creating value for the institution. For example, offering account analysis can encourage customers to maintain higher balances while generating noninterest income on accounts with lower balances.
The past year brought about significant economic and policy changes in the cannabis industry. In 2023, bankers can act with even greater certainty in the industry’s stability, investing in the processes, services and technologies that will improve the customer experience while supporting the institution’s bottom line. As financial institutions and regulators gain a deeper understanding of the compliance requirements for this industry, it is increasingly clear that the industry is not going backward. States that have legalized cannabis and are issuing new licenses offer banks an ever-growing opportunity to tap into the industry’s financial rewards with the confidence that positive momentum is on their side.
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This article originally appeared in Bank Director.