A Seller’s Perspective on the Return of Bank M&A

Any thoughts of a lingering impact on mergers and acquisitions as a result of the 2020 economic downturn caused by Covid-19 should be long gone: 2021 bank transaction value exceeded $50 billion for the first time since 2007.

Continued low interest rates on loans and related compression of net interest margin, coupled with limited avenues to park excess liquidity have made many banks consider whether they can provide sustainable returns in the future. Sustainability will become increasingly difficult in the face of continued waves of change: declining branch transactions, increasing cryptocurrency activity and competition from fintechs. Additionally, the fintech role in M&A activity in 2021 cannot be ignored, as its impact is only expected to increase.

Reviewing 2021 M&A transactions, one could argue that the market for bank-to-bank transactions parallels the current residential home market: a finite amount of supply for a large amount of demand. While more houses are being built as quickly as possible, the ability for banks to organically grow loans and deposits is a much slower process; sluggish economic growth has only compounded the problem. Everyone is chasing the same dollars.

As a result, much like the housing market, there are multiple buyers vying for the same institutions and paying multiples that, just a few years ago, would have seemed outlandish. For sellers, while the multiples are high, there is a limit to the amount a buyer is willing to pay. They must consider known short-term gains in exchange for potential long-term returns.

For banks that are not considering an outright sale, this year has also seen a significant uptick in divestures of certain lines of business that were long considered part of the community bank approach to be a “one-stop shop” for customer needs. Banks are piecemeal selling wealth management, trust and insurance services in an attempt to right-size themselves and focus on the growth of core products. However, this approach does not come without its own trade-offs: fee income from these lines of business has been one of the largest components of valuable non-interest income supporting bank profitability recently.

Faced with limited ability to grow their core business, banks must decide if they are willing to stay the course to overcome the waves of change, or accept the favorable multiples they’re offered. Staying the course does not mean putting down an anchor and hoping for calmer waters. Rather, banks must focus on what plans to implement and confront the waves as they come. These plans may include cost cutting measures with a direct financial impact, such as branch closures and workforce reductions, but should entail investments in technology, cybersecurity and other areas where returns may not be quantifiable.

So with the looming changes and significant multiples being offered, one might wonder why haven’t every bank that has been approached by a buyer decides to sell? For one, as much as technology continues to increasingly affect our everyday lives, there is a significant portion of the population that still finds value in areas where technology cannot supplant personal contact. They may no longer go to a branch, but appreciate knowing they have a single point of contact who will pick up the phone when they call with questions. Additionally, many banks have spent years as the backbone of economic development and sustainability in their communities, and feel a sense of pride and responsibility to provide ongoing support.

In the current record-setting pace of M&A activity, you will be hard pressed to not find willing buyers and sellers. The landscape for banks will continue to change. Some banks will attack the change head-on and succeed; some will decide their definition of success is capitalizing on the current returns offered for the brand they have built and exit the market. Both are success stories.