With many financial institutions benefiting from increased stock values and renewed optimism following the November election, merger activity for community banks is on the uptick. Successful acquirers must remain in a state of readiness to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves.
Whether a prolonged courtship or a pitch book from an investment banker, deals hardly, if ever, show up when it is most convenient for a buyer to execute on them. As a result, buyers need to develop a plan as to what they want, where they want it and what they are willing to pay for it, long before the “it” becomes available. M&A readiness equates to the board of directors working with management to have a well-defined M&A process that includes the internal and external resources ready to jump in to conduct due diligence, structure a transaction and map out integration. Also, M&A readiness requires that buyers have their house in order, meaning that their technology is scalable, they have no compliance issues and the capital is on hand or readily available to support an acquisition.
Technology. In assessing the scalability of an institution’s technology for acquisitions, a buyer should review its existing technology contracts to see if it has the ability to mitigate or even eliminate termination fees for targets that utilize the same core provider. Without this feature, some deals cannot happen due to the costs of terminating the target’s data processing contracts. Cybersecurity is another key element of readiness. As an institution grows, its cybersecurity needs to advance in accordance with its size. Buyers need to understand targets’ cybersecurity procedures and providers in order to ensure that their own systems overlap and don’t create gaps of coverage, increasing risk. Additionally, buyers should understand existing cybersecurity insurance coverage and the impact of a transaction on such policies.
Compliance. Compliance readiness, or lack thereof, are the rocks against which even the best acquisition plans can crash and sink. Ensure that your Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering programs are above reproach and operating effectively, and that your fair lending and Community Reinvestment Act policies, procedures and practices are effective. Running into compliance issues will cause missed opportunities as the regulators prohibit any expansion activities until any issues are resolved.
Conducting a thorough review of compliance programs of a target is critical to an efficient regulatory and integration process. A challenge to overcome is the regulators’ prohibition on buyers reviewing confidential supervisory information (CSI), including exam reports as part of due diligence. While the sharing of this information has always been prohibited, the regulatory agencies have become more diligent on enforcement of this prohibition. Although it is possible to request permission from the applicable regulatory agency to review CSI, the presumption is that the regulators will reject the request or it will not be answered until the request is stale. As such, buyers should enhance their discussions with target’s management to elicit the same type of information without causing the target to disclose CSI. A simple starting point is for the buyer to ask how many pages were in the last exam report.
While stress testing may officially apply to banks with $10 billion or more in assets, regulators are expecting smaller banks to prevent concentrations of risk from building up in their portfolios. The expectation is for banks to conduct annual stress tests, particularly among their commercial real estate (CRE) loans. Because of these expectations, buyers need to know the interagency guidance governing CRE concentrations and how they will be viewed on a combined basis. Reviewing different stress-test approaches can help banks better understand the alternatives that are available to meet their unique requirements.
Capital. An effective capital plan includes triggers to notify the institution’s board when additional capital will be needed and contemplates how it will obtain that capital. Ideally, the buyer’s capital plan works in tandem with its strategic plan as it relates to growth through acquisitions. Recently the public capital markets have become much more receptive to sales of community bank stock, but this has not always been the case. In evaluating an acquisition, the regulators will expect to see significant capital to absorb the target as well as continue to implement the buyer’s strategic plan.
The increase in financial institution stock prices has increased acquisition opportunities and M&A activity since the election. Opportunistic financial institutions have plans in place and solid understandings of their own technology needs and agreements, regulatory compliance issues and capital sources. Although it sounds simple, a developed acquisition strategy will aid buyers in taking advantage of opportunities and minimizing risk in the current environment.