The Community Bank Desert

Arizona has
become a state without a significant community bank presence.

The population
of community banks headquartered in the state has cratered in recent years
thanks to Phoenix’s protracted boom, precipitous bust and slow rebuild.

Community banks have long-leveraged their local presence, flat organization and flexibility to meet customer needs, says Michael Stevens, senior executive vice president with the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. But small banks are encountering a number of challenges that threaten their relevance and independence, and the meager number of de novos is doing little to combat the trend.

Those forces
are playing out in Arizona. The state’s deposit market is dominated by big
out-of-state banks. Phoenix-based Western Alliance Bancorp, the largest bank based
in Arizona with $26.3 billion in assets, has more than half of its deposits
outside of the state. No other local bank has more than $1 billion in assets.

In the years
leading up to the financial crisis, the desert state enjoyed rapid population
and economic growth, fueled in part by construction and real estate. The number
of commercial banks headquartered in the state grew from 45 in 2004 to 55 in
2008, according to FDIC data.

Residents who
moved to the state may have stayed with the large national banks, wrote Lee
McPheters, the director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at
Arizona State University, in an email. The diverse offerings and geographies of
those banks gave them an edge over local community banks when Arizona’s real
estate bubble popped in the financial crisis. It took five years for the state
to recover all lost jobs in the recession, according to McPheters.

Since 2008, the number of banks headquartered in Arizona has steadily declined due to M&A and failures; there are only 15 today. And the number is even smaller if you look just at community banks.

Arizona had 14 community banks in the third quarter – the fifth lowest in the country – according to “Banking Strategist,” which defines a community bank as an institution with less than $10 billion in assets. That number will decline further after the acquisition of State Bank of Arizona in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The bank, which has $677 million in assets, agreed earlier this year to be acquired by Kalispell, Montana-based Glacier Bancorp, which has $13.7 billion in assets.

Arizona’s boom
and bust created a “tough market” for smaller banks, but it needs them, McPheters
wrote. Since 2005, Arizona has ranked among the 10 fastest growing states for
employment, driven by industries like construction, education, transportation
and health care.

“The implications for small business are important,” McPheters writes. “Because Arizona depends more on small business than many other states, due partly to a very mobile population, community banks are important.”

Bob Homco, the
proposed CEO of Discovery Business Bank, a bank in organization, agrees.

community bank has always served a purpose,” he says. He highlights the local
decision-making that is lacking among the “order-takers” at bigger banks, which
have been reducing their footprints for years. In his three decades of
experience, starting, running and selling three banks in the state, a
successful operation requires a local management team.

“I think some
of the struggle over the years has been in bringing in out-of-state management
at the presidential level or chief credit officer level,” he says. “If they’re
not from here or have experience here, it’s tough to penetrate the market on a
quality level.”

McPheters says the recovery has created larger lending opportunities that smaller community banks may not be able to partake in, such as land deals or construction projects that accompany population growth and expansion.

Homco says Discovery
Business Bank plans to raise more than $15 million in capital, which he
believes can meet the needs of businesses in Chandler, Arizona, where it will
be based. Additionally, the bank will have a network to facilitate borrowers’
needs if they exceed its legal lending limit.

The Conference of State Bank Supervisors is very aware of these trends. The organization focuses on understanding the impact of supervision on bank operations, and has hosted a research conference on community bank policy with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for years.

“The goal is to craft policy that understands and appreciates the way community banks operate by encouraging more research, so that we don’t end up in a scenario like you might be describing: the death of community banks,” Stevens says. “We don’t believe that is in our national economic interest.”


Kiah Lau Haslett

Banking & Fintech Editor

Kiah Lau Haslett is the Banking & Fintech Editor for Bank Director. Kiah is responsible for editing web content and works with other members of the editorial team to produce articles featured online and published in the magazine. Her areas of focus include bank accounting policy, operations, strategy, and trends in mergers and acquisitions.