Pandemic Offers Strong Banks a Shot at Transformative Deals

It’s a rule of banking that an economic crisis always creates winners and losers. The losers are the banks that run out of capital or liquidity (or both), and either fail or are forced to sell at fire-sale prices. The winners are the strong banks that scoop them up at a discount.

And in the recent history of such deals, many of them have been transformative.

The bank M&A market through the first six months of 2020 has been moribund – just 50 deals compared to 259 last year and 254 in 2018, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. But some banks inevitably get into trouble during a recession, and you had better believe that well-capitalized banks will be waiting to pounce when they do.

One of them could be PNC Financial Services Group. In an interview for my story in the third quarter issue of Bank Director magazine – “Surviving the Pandemic” – Chairman and CEO William Demchak said the $459 billion bank would be on the lookout for opportunistic deals during the downturn. In May, PNC sold its 22% stake in the investment management firm BlackRock for $14.4 billion. Some of that money will be used to armor the bank’s balance sheet against possible losses in the event of a deep recession, but could also fund an acquisition.

PNC has done this before. In 2008, the bank acquired National City Corp., which had suffered big losses on subprime mortgages. And three years later, PNC acquired the U.S. retail business of Royal Bank of Canada, which was slow to recover from the collapse of the subprime mortgage market.

Together, these deals were transformational: National City gave PNC more scale, while Royal Bank’s U.S. operation extended the Pittsburgh-based bank’s franchise into the southeast.

“We’re more than prepared to do it,” Demchak told me in an interview in late May. “And when you have a safety buffer of capital in your pocket, you can do so with a little more resolve than you otherwise might. The National City acquisition was not for the faint of heart in terms of where we were [in 2008] on a capital basis.”

One of the most profound examples of winners profiting at the expense of the losers occurred in Texas during the late 1980s. From 1980 through 1989, 425 Texas banks failed — including the state’s seven largest banks.

The root cause of the Texas banking crisis was the collapse of the global oil market, and later, the state’s commercial real estate market.

The first big Texas bank to go was actually Houston-based Texas Commerce, which was acquired in 1986 by Chemical Bank in New York. Texas Commerce had to seek out a merger partner after absorbing heavy loan losses from oil and commercial real estate. Through a series of acquisitions, Chemical would later become part of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Two years later, Charlotte, North Carolina-based NCNB Corp. acquired Dallas-based First Republicbank Corp. after it failed. At the time, NCNB was an aggressive regional bank that had expanded throughout the southeast, but the Texas acquisition gave it national prominence. In 1991, CEO Hugh McColl changed NCNB’s name to NationsBank; in 1998, he acquired Bank of America Corp. and adopted that name.

And in 1989, a third failed Texas bank: Dallas-based MCorp was acquired by Bank One in Columbus, Ohio. Bank One was another regional acquirer that rose to national prominence after it broke into the Texas market. Banc One would also become part of JPMorgan through a merger in 2004.

You can bet your ten-gallon hat these Texas deals were transformative. Today, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, respectively, are the state’s two largest banks and control over 36% of its consumer deposit market, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Given the size of the state’s economy, Texas is an important component in their nationwide franchises. 

Indeed, the history of banking in the United States is littered with examples of where strong banks were able to grow by acquiring weak or failed banks during an economic downturn. This phenomenon of Darwinian banking occurred again during the subprime lending crisis when JPMorgan Chase acquired Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo & Co. bought out Wachovia Corp. and Bank of America took over Merrill Lynch.

Each deal was transformative for the acquirer. Buying Washington Mutual extended JPMorgan Chase’s footprint to the West Coast. The Wachovia deal extended Wells Fargo’s footprint to the East Coast. And the Merrill Lynch acquisition gave Bank of America the country’s premier retail broker.

If the current recession becomes severe, there’s a good chance we’ll see more transformative deals where the winners profit at the expense of the losers.