The year ahead is likely to present a challenging environment for M&A. According to Dory Wiley, president and CEO of Commerce Street Holdings, the rising interest rate environment, possible deposit runoff and economic uncertainty are likely to tamp down deal activity in 2023. Nonbank deals could be more attractive to some buyers, in part because they draw less regulatory scrutiny. And banks focused primarily on organic growth need to shore up capital at the holding company level to make sure they have options, too.
Banks are doing very well, if you look at credit quality and profitability. But tell that to investors.
Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee raised the target federal funds rate by 75 basis points, the third hike of that magnitude in a row, to combat inflation.
The market has punished equities lately in response, but even more so, bank stocks, probably in anticipation of a recession that may have arrived. The S&P 500 fell 21.61% in 2022 as of Friday, Sept. 23, but the S&P U.S. large cap bank index was down 25.19% in that same time frame, according to Mercer Capital using S&P Global Market Intelligence data. By asset size, large banks have seen the biggest declines so far this year.
Going back further in time, the cumulative return for U.S. bank stocks in general, as measured by the S&P U.S. BMI Banks index, was down 5.30% as of Sept. 22 from the start of 2020, compared to a gain of 21.55% for the S&P 500.
Investors’ dim view of bank stocks belies the underlying strengths of many of these banks. Bank net income of $64.4 billion in the second quarter was higher than it had been in the same quarter of 2018 and 2019, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Since 2019, in fact, bank profitability has been going gangbusters. Rising interest rates improved net interest margins, a key profitability statistic for many banks. Plus, loan growth has been good.
And credit quality remains high, as measured by the noncurrent loan and quarterly net charge-off rates at banks, important bank metrics tracked by the FDIC. Despite weaknesses in mortgage and wealth management, this combination of variables has made many banks more profitable than they were in 2018 or 2019.
“Earnings are excellent right now, and they’re going to be even better in the third and fourth quarter as these margins expand,” says Jeff Davis, managing director of Mercer Capital’s financial institutions group.
Investors don’t seem to care. “It’s been a real frustration and a real incongruity between stock prices and what’s going on with fundamentals,” says R. Scott Siefers, managing director and senior research analyst at Piper Sandler & Co. “You’ve had a year of really great revenue growth, and really great profitability, and at least for the time being, that should continue. So that’s the good news. The bad news is, of course, that investors aren’t really as concerned with what’s going on today.”
Worries about a possible recession are sending investors away from bank stocks, even as analysts join Davis in his prediction of a pretty good third and fourth quarter for earnings this year. The reason is that investors view banks as sensitive to the broader economy, Siefers says, and think asset quality will deteriorate and the costs of deposits will rise eventually.
The place to see this play out is in two ratios: price to earnings and price to tangible book value. Interestingly, price to tangible book value ratios have remained strong — probably a function of deteriorating bond values in bank securities’ portfolios, which is bringing down tangible book values in line with falling stock prices. As a result, the average price to tangible book value as of Sept. 23 was 1.86x for large regional bank stocks and 1.7x for banks in the $10 billion to $50 billion asset range, according to Mercer Capital.
Meanwhile, price to earnings ratios are falling. The average price to earnings ratio for the last four quarters was 10.3x for large regional banks, and 11.4x for mid-sized bank stocks. (By way of comparison, the 10-year average for large cap bank stocks was 13.4x and 14.6x for mid cap bank stocks, respectively.)
For bank management teams and the boards that oversee them, the industry is entering a difficult time when decisions about capital management will be crucial. Banks still are seeing loan growth, and for the most part, higher earnings are generating a fair amount of capital, says Rick Childs, a partner at the tax and consulting firm Crowe LLP. But what to do with that capital?
This might be the perfect time to buy back stock, when prices are low, but that depletes capital that might be needed in a recession and such action might be viewed poorly by markets, Childs says. Davis agrees. A lot of companies can’t or won’t buy back their own stock when it’s gotten cheap, he says. “If we don’t have a nasty recession next year, a lot of these stocks are probably pretty good or very good purchases,” he says. “If we have a nasty recession, you’ll wish you had the capital.”
It’s tricky to raise dividends for the same reason. Most banks shy away from cutting dividends, because that would hurt investors, and try to manage to keep the dividend rate consistent, Childs says.
And in terms of lending, banks most certainly will want to continue lending to borrowers with good credit, but may exercise caution when it comes to riskier categories, Davis says. Capital management going forward won’t be easy. “If next year’s nasty, there’s nothing they can do because they’re stuck with what’s on the balance sheet,” he says. The next year or two may prove which bank management teams made the right decisions.
Bank stocks traded at such rich multiples that no one batted an eye when a management team sold their bank for two times book. That valuation meant you were a mediocre bank.
Take Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati. In the ‘90s, its stock traded at more than five times book value. A well run and efficient bank, it had the currency to gobble up competitors and it did.
It announced a deal in 1999 to buy Evansville, Indiana-based CNB Bancshares for 3.6 times tangible book value and 32 times earnings. “That was not completely unheard of,” says Jeff Davis, managing director at consultancy Mercer Capital. Fifth Third announced a deal in 2000 to buy Old Kent Financial Corp for a 42% premium.
In fact, Fifth Third was a little late to the M&A premium game. The average bank M&A deal price reached a peak of 2.6 times tangible book value in 1998. The median price was 24 times earnings that year.
M&A Pricing Peaked in 1998
Source: Mercer Capital, S&P Global Market Intelligence and FDIC.
It was such a hot market for bank acquisitions, investors rushed into bank stocks in order to speculate on who would get purchased next. I remember sitting down with then-president of the Tennessee Bankers Association, Bradley Barrett, in the mid-2000s. He predicted the market would fall and many banks would suffer.
Boy, was he right. He was probably the first to school me in banking cycles.
Fast forward two decades. The industry is in a relatively depressed trough for bank valuations. Selling a bank for three times book value in the 2020s seems a remote fantasy. And it is. The pandemic and the economic uncertainty that kicked off this decade took a huge chunk out of banks’ earning potential and dragged down shares. As of Feb. 2, the KBW Nasdaq Bank Index was down 4% compared to a year ago. The S&P 500 was up 18% in the same time frame.
Granted, bank stock valuations have improved during the last six months. Investors tie bank stocks to the health of the economy: When the economy is improving, so will bank stocks, the thinking goes. As pricing improves, bankers should be more interested in doing deals in 2021, Davis says. Much of bank M&A pricing is dependent on the value of the acquirer’s stock, since most deals have a stock component.
But rising stock prices haven’t translated into higher prices for deals — at least not yet. The average price to tangible book value for a bank deal at the end of 2020 was 116%, according to Davis, presenting slides during a session of Inspired by Acquire or Be Acquired.
Improved stock valuations alone can’t alleviate the pressure holding down M&A premiums. Newer loans are pricing lower as companies and individuals refinance or take on new loans at lower rates, slimming net interest margins.
Plus, investors have also been less receptive recently to banks paying big premiums for sellers, says William Burgess, co-head of investment banking for financial institutions at Piper Sandler, during an Inspired By presentation.
There’s usually a rise of mergers of equals in times after an economic crisis, and that’s exactly what the industry is experiencing. The rollout of the vaccine and improving economic conditions could lead to more confidence on the part of buyers, higher stock prices and more bank M&A. Sellers, meanwhile, are under pressure with low interest rates, slim margins and the costs of rapidly changing technology.
“We think there’s going to be a real resurgence in M&A in late spring, early summer,” Burgess says.
To see M&A pricing rise to three times book, though, interest rates would have to rise substantially, Davis says. But higher interest rates could pose broader problems for the economy, given the heavy debt loads at so many corporations and governments. Corporations, homeowners and individuals could struggle to make debt payments if interest rates rose. So would the United States government. By the end of 2020, America’s debt reached 14.9% of gross domestic product, the highest it has been since World War II. In an environment like this, it might be hard for the Federal Reserve to raise rates substantially.
“The Fed seems to be locked into a low-rate regime for some time,” Davis says. “I don’t know how we get out of this. The system is really stuck.”
Given the recent impact of Covid-19 on the economy, unemployment and operations, discussions around potential goodwill impairment — and the related testing — is a hot topic for many financial institutions as the March 31 quarter ended.
Goodwill is defined as an asset representing the future economic benefits arising from other assets acquired in a business combination. Financial institutions record goodwill as a result of a merger or an acquisition. Accounting Standards Codification (ASC) 350, Intangibles – Goodwill and Other, states that entities must evaluate their goodwill for impairment at least annually. However, during interim periods, a goodwill impairment analysis could be necessary if the entity has an indication that the fair value of a reporting unit has fallen below carrying value, defined by the guidance as a triggering event. Determining whether a triggering event has occurred is challenging for many financial institutions.
Under the guidance of ASC 350, impairment testing for goodwill is required annually and upon a triggering event. Private entities electing the accounting alternative are only required to test upon a triggering event. Here are some examples of goodwill triggering events, according to ASC 350-20-35:
Macroeconomic conditions: deterioration in general economic conditions, limitations on accessing capital, fluctuations in foreign exchange rates or other developments in equity and credit markets.
Industry and market considerations: deterioration in the environment in which an entity operates, an increased competitive environment, a decline in market-dependent multiples or metrics (consider in both absolute terms and relative to peers), a change in the market for an entity’s products or services, or a regulatory or political development.
Overall financial performance: negative or declining cash flows, or a decline in actual or planned revenue or earnings compared with actual and projected results of relevant prior periods.
Other entity-specific events: changes in management, key personnel, strategy or customers; contemplation of bankruptcy or litigation.
Events affecting a reporting unit: a change in the composition or carrying amount of its net assets, a highly probable expectation of selling or disposing of all, or a portion, of a reporting unit, the testing for recoverability of a significant asset group within a reporting unit, or recognition of a goodwill impairment loss in the financial statements of a subsidiary that is a component of a reporting unit.
A sustained decrease in share price: to be considered in both absolute terms and relative to peers.
It is clear that Covid-19 has global impacts on some macroeconomic conditions. Financial institutions may want to assess whether they have experienced a triggering event; if they conclude there has been such an event, they will need to proceed to a goodwill impairment test. Assessing whether there has been a triggering event, as defined by ASC 350, involves judgment.
When it comes to a decline in stock price, the guidance in ASC 350 does not define what “sustained” means. In isolation, a decrease in share price is not an automatic indicator of a triggering event. The guidance suggests comparing the relative decrease to peers — if it is consistent among the industry, one may conclude that the decrease is related to general economic events and not specific to the institution individually. Banks may determine that an overall decline in the market could be indicative of macroeconomic conditions that impact the value of the company. Entities should consider forecasts and projections to determine whether the situation is expected to be temporary, and the reduction in stock price is reflective of short-term market volatility rather than a long-term, sustained decline in fair value.
The guidance does not suggest that the existence of one negative factor results in a triggering event. Rather, the guidance requires companies to assess various factors to determine whether it is probable that the company’s fair value is less than its carrying value. One way to consider the factors mentioned in the guidance is to weight them by their impact on the entity’s fair value. If the company concludes that a triggering event has occurred, then an impairment analysis should be performed to determine if in fact goodwill is impaired.
The determination of a triggering event, or lack thereof, involves judgment; management’s analysis and conclusion should be thoroughly documented. As the economic environment and resulting impacts of Covid-19 continue to shift and evolve, companies should revisit goodwill impairment triggers on a regular basis.
Executives and directors at public banks need
to prepare for new rules this spring that will make it easier for investors to
accumulate meaningful stakes in their companies.
The Federal Reserve Board has approved an update to the control framework for investors in banks or bank holding companies that goes into effect April 1. The update comes as the marketplace undergoes a structural shift in flows from active fund management to passive investing. The changes should make it easier for investors — both passive and active — to determine whether they have a controlling influence over a bank, and provides both banks and investors with greater flexibility.
“Anything that’s pro-shareholder, a bank
CEO and board should always be happy to support,” says Larry Mazza, CEO at Fairmont,
West Virginia-based MVB Financial, which has $1.9 billion in assets. “The more
shareholders and possible shareholders you can have, it’s very positive for the
The Fed last updated control rules in
2008. This update codifies the regulator’s unwritten precedent and legal
interpretations around control issues, which should increase transparency for
investors, says Joseph Silvia, a partner at Howard & Howard.
“The goal of the regulators is to make sure that they understand who owns those entities, who runs those entities and who’s in charge, because those entities are backed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.,” he says. “The regulators take a keen interest, especially the Fed, in who’s running these entities.”
The question of who controls a bank has always been complicated, and much of the Fed’s approach has been “ad hoc,” Silvia says. The latest rule is largely a reflection of the Fed’s current practice and contains few changes or surprises — helpful for banks and their investors that are seeking consistency. Large shareholder should be able to determine if their stakes in a bank constitute control in a faster and more-straightforward way. They also may be able to increase their stakes, in some circumstances. Silvia specifically highlights a “fantastic,” “wildly helpful” grid that breaks down what the regulator sees as various indicia of control, which observers can find in the rule’s appendix.
“A lot of investors don’t like the pain of some of these
regulations — that helps and hurts. [The] regulation creates predictability and
stability,” Mazza says. “Where it hurts is that investors may not go forward
with additional investments, which hurts all shareholders.”
Shareholders, and banks themselves that may want to take stakes in other companies, now have increased flexibility on how much money they can invest and how to structure those investments between voting and non-voting shares, as well as how board representation should figure in. Silvia says this should advance the conversations between legal counsel and investors, and spare the Fed from weighing in on “countless inquires” as to what constitutes control.
“Both banks and shareholders will likely benefit from the
changes, as it could lower the cost of capital for banks while allowing for a
greater presence of independent perspectives in the board room,” wrote Blue
Lion Capital partner and analyst Justin Hughes in an email. Blue Lion invests
in bank stocks.
The change impacts active and passive investors, the latter
of which have grown to be significant holders of bank stocks. Passive vehicles
like exchange-traded and mutual funds have experienced $3 trillion in
cumulative inflows since 2006, while actively managed funds have seen $2.1
trillion in outflows, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods CEO Tom Michaud.
Passive ownership of bank stocks has increased 800 basis points since 2013,
representing 17.1% of total shares outstanding in the third quarter of 2019. Some
funds may be able to increase their stakes in banks without needing to declare
control, depending on how the investments are structured.
Still, banks may be concerned about the potential for increased activism in their shares once the rule goes into effect. Silvia says the Fed is familiar with many of the activists in the bank space and will watch investment activity after the rule. They also included language in the final update that encourages investment vehicles who have not been reviewed for indicia of control from the Fed to get in touch, given than no grandfathering was provided to funds that had not been reviewed.
“They’re not really grandfathering any investments,” Silvia says. “There’s not a lot of additional protection.”
If nothing else, the rule is a chance for bank executives and directors to revisit their shareholder base and makeup and learn more about their owners, he adds. They should keep track if the makeup of their shareholders’ stakes changes once the rule goes into effect, especially investors that may become activists.
The recent acquisition of LegacyTexas Financial Group by Prosperity Bancshares serves as a microcosm for the changing bank M&A landscape.
The deal, valued at $2.1 billion in cash and stock, combines two publicly traded banks into one large regional institution with over $30 billion in assets. Including this deal, the combined companies have completed or announced 10 acquisitions since mid-2011. Before this transaction, potential sellers had two active publicly traded buyers that were interested in community banks in Texas; now, they have one buyer that is likely going to be more interested in larger acquisitions.
The landscape of bank M&A has evolved over the years, but is rapidly changing for prospective sellers. Starting in the mid-1990s to the beginning of the Great Recession in late 2007, some of the most active acquirers were large publicly traded banks. Wells Fargo & Co. and its predecessors bought over 30 banks between 1998 and 2007, several of which had less than $100 million in assets.
Since the Great Recession, the largest banks like Wells and Bank of America Corp. slowed or stopped buying banks. Now, the continued consolidation of former buyers like LegacyTexas is reducing the overall buyer list and increasing the size threshold for the combined company’s next deal.
From 1999 to 2006, banks that traded on the Nasdaq, New York Stock Exchange or a major foreign exchange were a buyer in roughly 48 percent of all transactions. That has declined to 39 percent of the transactions from 2012 to the middle of 2019. Deals conducted by smaller banks with over-the-counter stock has increased as a total percentage of all deals: from only 4 percent between 1999 and 2006, to over 8 percent from 2012 to 2019.
Part of this stems from the declining number of Nasdaq and NYSE-traded banks, which has fallen from approximately 850 at the end of 1999 to roughly 400 today. At the same time, the median asset size has grown from $500 million to over $3 billion over that same period of time. By comparison, the number of OTC-traded banks was relatively flat, with 530 banks at the end of 1999 decreasing slightly to 500 banks in 2019.
This means that small community banks are facing a much different buyer landscape today than they were a decade or two ago. Many of the publicly traded banks that were the most active after the Great Recession are now above the all-important $10 billion in assets threshold, and are shifting their focus to pursuing larger acquisitions with publicly traded targets. On the bright side, there are also other banks emerging as active buyers for community banks.
Privately traded banks Privately traded banks have historically represented a large portion of the bank buyer landscape, and we believe that their role will only continue to grow. We have seen this group move from being an all-cash buyer to now seeing some of the transactions where they are issuing stock as part or all of the total consideration. In the past, it may have been challenging for private acquirers to compete head-to-head with larger publicly traded banks that could issue liquid stock at a premium in an acquisition. Today, privately traded banks are more often competing with each other for community bank targets.
OTC-traded banks OTC-traded banks are also stepping in as an acquirer of choice for targets that view acquisitions as a reinvestment opportunity. Even though OTC-traded banks are at a relative disadvantage against the higher-valued publicly traded acquirers when it comes to valuation and liquidity, acquired banks see a compelling, strategic opportunity to partner with company with some trading volume and potential future upside. The introduction of OTCQX marketplace has improved the overall perception of the OTC markets and trading volumes for listed banks. This has helped OTC-traded banks compete with the public acquirers and gain an edge against other all-cash buyers. Some of these OTC-traded banks will eventually choose to go public, so it could be attractive to reinvest into an OTC-traded bank prior to its initial public offering.
Credit Unions In the past, credit unions usually only entered the buyer mix by bidding on small banks or distressed assets. This group has not been historically active in community bank M&A because they are limited to cash-only transactions and subject to membership restrictions. That has changed in the last few years.
In 2015 there were only three transactions where a credit union purchased a bank, with the average target bank having $110 million in assets. In 2018 and 2019, there have been 17 such transactions with a bank, with the average target size exceeding $200 million in assets.
The bank buyer landscape has changed significantly over the past few years; we believe it will continue to evolve over the coming years. The reasons behind continued consolidation will not change, but the groups driving that consolidation will. It remains important as ever for sellers to monitor the buyer landscape when evaluating strategic alternatives that enhance and protect shareholder value.
Information contained herein is from sources we consider reliable, but is not guaranteed, and we are not soliciting any action based upon it. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, based on interpretation of data available at the time of original publication of this article. These opinions are subject to change at any time without notice.
Chief executive officers at community banks want more equity, not more cash.
This is particularly true of community bank CEOs, who say that including equity in pay packages incentivizes them to create long-term shareholder value, aids management retention and prepares them to join the board.
While this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, the message may be lost on some directors of these banks.
In Bank Director’s 2019 Compensation Survey—sponsored by Compensation Advisors—54 percent of CEOs said their bank should offer equity or increase the amount of equity they already provide. Directors didn’t feel as strongly about this: Only 19 percent said offering or increasing equity was a priority. They saw equity as one of a number of potential improvements, along with other options like non-equity long-term compensation, cash incentive and higher salary.
The board of directors at Talladega, Alabama-based FirstBanc of Alabama added stock grants to the compensation plan for President and CEO J. Chad Jones in 2017, after discussing how to incentivize and retain executive management. The board granted Jones 3,000 shares—1,000 of which were unrestricted and granted immediately, with the remainder consisting of restricted stock transferred over time.
“It has raised my eyebrows,” he says. “It certainly helped me focus on how to drive the stock and dividends.”
Adding the equity incentive “very minimally” diluted existing shareholders but allows Jones to benefit from the upside he creates. The board also approved a block of shares for other C-level officers, with which Jones can implement a similar equity grant program for them.
Jones added that increasing his salary beyond a certain point offered diminishing returns for him and higher expenses for First Bank of Alabama, which has $548.6 million in assets.
“You can give me 5 percent to 10 percent pay increases each year for the next 25 to 30 years. At that point in time, what good has it done?” he says. “I love the compensation side, don’t get me wrong, everyone does. But … if [the board] continues to increase my pay 5 percent and I’m the highest paid individual in this company, it doesn’t make sense for [them] to continue increasing my pay.”
Interest in and demand for equity-based compensation is expected to rise as competition for qualified executives remains stiff and a new generation of talent assumes the top spot, says J. Scott Petty, a partner at executive search firm Chartwell Partners. He says community bank boards should use it as a retention tool.
“In general, more and more CEOs want equity as a part of their compensation package,” he says. “It’s the ultimate alignment of the goals of the board and how the CEO is going to achieve those goals.”
Succession planning at First National Bank of Kentucky changed President and CEO Gregory Goff’s perspective on equity incentive compensation. He plans to retire soon from the Carrollton, Kentucky-based bank, which has $124.5 million in assets, and says he wishes he had opportunities to accumulate equity throughout his career.
“It’s one area of the bank where I didn’t push much—I did my job and went home,” he says. “I ran it like I owned all of it. But now I have no reason to stay here.”
He says the board of directors looked at different incentive compensation structures several times, but could never get comfortable with the dilution from awarding equity or alternatives like bank-owned life insurance. He says the board discussed adding him as a director after he retires, but his lack of equity makes him less interested in a seat.
When Jeffrey Rose interviewed with the board at Davenport, Iowa-based American Bank & Trust in 2016, he told them he wanted to make a bet on himself. Rose says he had been paid a salary and a bonus for turning around banks before, and it “wasn’t enough.” As president and CEO of American Bank & Trust, he hoped to capture some of the upside he created as he helped turn the bank around.
At the $366.2 million asset bank, Rose has the option to purchase a set number of shares each year at a predetermined price. The program is “very simple, very clean,” and the shares fully vest after he purchases them.
American Bank & Trust is taking the equity compensation philosophy one step further, having recently decided to compensate the board with stock instead of cash, too. Rose says the decision generated extensive discussion, but will help long-time directors become more invested in the bank and serve as a positive signal to local shareholders.
It’s tempting for a board to shy away from granting equity to executives—especially if the bank is closely held—but the benefits from doing so can outweigh the costs.
The significant downturn in bank stock prices witnessed during the fourth quarter of 2018 prompted a number of boards and managements to authorize share repurchase plans, to increase the amounts authorized under existing plans and to revive activity under existing plans. And in several instances, repurchases have been accomplished through accelerated plans.
Beyond the generally bullish sentiment behind these actions, the activity shines a light on the value of a proactive capital management strategy to a board and management.
The importance of a strong capital management plan can’t be overstated and shouldn’t be confused with a capital management policy. A capital management policy is required by regulators, while a capital management plan is strategic. Effective capital management is, in large part, an exercise in identifying and understanding future risks today. Capital and strategy are tightly linked — a bank’s strategic plan is highly dependent on its capital levels and its ability to generate and manage it.
There are a couple of guidelines that executives should bear in mind as they develop their capital management plans. First, the plan needs to be realistic and achievable. The windows for accessing capital are highly cyclical. There’s limited value in building a plan around an outcome that is unrealistic. Second, if there is credible information from trusted sources indicating that capital is available – go get it! Certain banks, by virtue of their outstanding and sustained performance, may be able to manage the just-in-time model of capital, but that’s a perilous strategy for most.
Managements have a number of levers available to manage capital. The key as to when and which lever to pull are a function of the strategic plan. A strong plan is predicated on staying disciplined but it also needs to retain enough nimbleness to address the unforeseen curveballs that are inevitable.
Share Repurchases Share repurchases are an effective way to return excess capital to shareholders. They are a more tax-efficient way to return capital when compared to cash dividends. Moreover, a repurchase will generally lift the value of a stock through the reduction in shares outstanding, which should increase earnings per share and the stock price itself. Share repurchases are generally the favored mechanism of institutional owners and can make tremendous sense for broadly held and liquid stocks.
Cash Dividends Returning capital to shareholders in the form of cash dividends is generally viewed very positively in the banking industry. Banks historically have been known as cash-dividend paying entities, and the ability and willingness to pay them is often perceived as a mark of a healthy and stable company. A company’s decision regarding whether to increase a cash dividend or to repurchase shares can be driven by the composition of the shareholder base. Cash dividends are generally valued more by individual shareholders than institutional shareholders.
Business Line Investment Community banking at its core is a spread dependent business. The ability to diversify the revenue stream through the development or acquisition of a fee generating business can be an effective and worthwhile use of capital. Common areas of investment include mortgage banking, wealth management, investment products and services and insurance. Funding the lift out of lending teams can also be a legitimate use of capital. A recent development for some is investment in technology as an offensive play rather than a defensive measure.
Capital Markets Access Effective capital management plans also consider the ability to access the capital markets. In the community banking space, accessing capital is not always a foregone conclusion. Over the past couple of years, the most common forms of capital available have been common equity and subordinated debt. For banks of a certain size and market cap, it’s a prudent capital management strategy to file a shelf registration, also known as form S-3, which provides companies with flexibility as to how and when they access the capital markets. The optionality provided by having a shelf registration far outweighs the concern that the shelf itself suggests a shareholder dilutive activity is on the horizon.
It’s important to note that these capital management activities can be utilized individually or in combination. An acquisition may necessitate the need to access the capital markets. Or given the relative inexpensiveness of sub debt, raising some for the purpose of a share repurchase could make sense. A strong capital management plan can allow a management team to be ready both offensively and defensively to drive their businesses forward in optimal fashion.
Information contained herein is from sources we consider reliable, but is not guaranteed, and we are not soliciting any action based upon it. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, based on interpretation of data available at the time of original publication of this article. These opinions are subject to change at any time without notice.
In late August 2018, the Federal Reserve issued an interim final rule increasing the asset threshold from $1 billion to $3 billion under the Fed’s Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement. The interim policy now covers almost 95 percent of the financial institutions in the U.S., significantly enhances the flexibility in capital structure, acquisitions, stock repurchases and ownership transfers, among other things, for institutions organized under a holding company structure.
No Consolidated Capital Treatment The most significant benefit of small bank holding company status is that qualifying banks are not subject to consolidated capital rules. Instead, regulatory capital is evaluated only at the subsidiary bank level. As a result, small bank holding companies have the unique ability to issue debt at the holding company level and contribute the proceeds to its subsidiary bank as Tier 1 common equity without adversely impacting the regulatory capital condition of the holding company or the bank. Due to the expanded coverage of the new rule, banking organizations with up to $3 billion in assets can now take advantage of this benefit to support organic and acquisitive growth, stock repurchases and other corporate transactions. Acquisition Leverage
Perhaps the most significant application of this benefit is in acquisitions by private institutions, whose equity may be less attractive or undesirable acquisition currency. For these institutions, an acquisition of any scale often requires additional capital, and, without access to public capital markets, utilizing leverage may represent the only viable option to fund the transaction.
Under the Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement, an acquiring bank holding company may fund up to 75 percent of the purchase price of a target with debt, which equates to a maximum debt to equity ratio of 3-to-1, so long as the acquirer can reduce its debt to equity ratio to less than 0.3-to-1 within 12 years and fully repay the debt within 25 years. The enhanced ability to utilize debt in this context is designed to enable private holding companies to be more competitive with other institutions who have access to the public capital markets or who have a public currency to exchange.
Stock Repurchases Ownership succession also remains a critical issue for many private holding companies, and the new rule extends the ability to use debt to enhance shareholder liquidity to an expanded group of organizations. In many cases, and especially for larger blocks of stock, a holding company represents the only prospective acquirer for privately-held shares. By using debt to fund stock repurchases, a small bank holding company can create liquidity to a selling shareholder, while providing a benefit to the remaining shareholders through the increase in their percentage ownership.
Moreover, stock repurchases often present themselves at times and in amounts that make equity offerings a less suitable alternative for funding. Finally, as discussed below, stock repurchases can be utilized to enhance shareholder value.
Attractiveness to Investors While the new rule increases the operating flexibility of banking organizations by providing additional tools for corporate transactions, the use of leverage as part of an organization’s capital structure also results in a number of meaningful benefits to shareholders. First, holding company leverage, whether structured as senior or subordinated debt, generally carries a significantly lower cost of capital, as compared to equity instruments. The issuance of debt is non-dilutive to common shareholders, which means existing shareholders can realize the full benefit associated with corporate growth or stock repurchases funded through leverage without having to spread those benefits over a larger group of equity holders. In addition, unlike dividends, interest payments associated with holding company debt are tax deductible, which lowers the effective cost of the debt. Accordingly, funding growth or attractively priced stock repurchases through leverage can be immediately accretive to shareholders.
Final Thoughts Funding growth, stock repurchases and other corporate transactions can be a challenge for banking organizations that do not have access to public capital markets or have a public currency. However, the revised Small Bank Holding Company Policy Statement provides management teams and boards of directors with additional tools to fund corporate activities and growth, manage regulatory capital, and enhance shareholder liquidity and value.
Aaron Dorn spent two years putting together a checklist of things that needed to be in place and questions that needed to be answered before starting a new bank.
He considered buying an existing bank, but acquiring a company built on legacy core technology was a big inhibitor to building a digital-only bank, which was Dorn’s business plan. However, the idea of going de novo became too costly and intensive to justify the effort after the FDIC increased its capitalization requirements for startups following the financial crisis. Now, there are signs that the environment for de novos is improving. Economic conditions around the country are better and bank stock values are higher, but there are other factors that could also be significant drivers behind a recent uptick in de novo activity, all of which Dorn discovered in Nashville as he considered the de novo route.
Dorn, 37, formally began the process of raising capital in the fall of 2017 to form Studio Bank, which will officially open in a few weeks. He will serve as the CEO and also brought along a few former colleagues from Avenue Bank, where Dorn was the chief strategy and marketing officer. Avenue Bank was a 10-year-old “de facto de novo” (a recapitalized and rebranded Planters Bank of Tennessee) that sold in 2016 to Pinnacle Financial Partners, another Nashville-based bank. In fact, Studio’s music company-turned bank home sits in the shadow of Pinnacle’s headquarters building.
Just two banks have earned FDIC approval this year, but nearly more than a dozen de novo applications were awaiting approval in mid-June. That comes after just 13 banks opened in the seven preceding years, according to the agency. Capital raises for the new banks have been anywhere from a fairly standard $20 million to $100 million by Grasshopper Bank, based in New York.
This flurry of activity has naturally drawn attention and speculation about whether there will be a return to the level of new charter activity we saw previous to the financial crisis when in any given year there could be between 100 to 200 new bank formations. What exactly has inspired this growth in applications? Along with a stronger economy and higher valuations, the industry’s ongoing consolidation has created opportunities for former bankers like Dorn who are itching to get back into a business currently ripe with promise.
“These mergers are producing opportunities for groups to put together locally owned, more community focused financial institutions to service their market and also play an important role as community leaders,” said Phil Moore, managing partner at Porter Keadle Moore, an advisory and accounting firm.
But the question circulating among bankers and insiders is what has inspired the sharp increase in de novo activity. Or perhaps more importantly, what’s the recipe for starting a new bank today?
There’s a few things some agree need to be in place to get a new bank off the ground.
“The first is that these de novos are organizing in what could be considered underserved markets, secondly they are focusing on vibrant growth areas and third, they are generally organizing to serve an affinity group,” says Moore.
This is Dorn’s perspective also, who says he created Studio in part because the booming Nashville market has few local banks. Studio will focus on “creators,” as Dorn calls them, including musicians, nonprofits and startups, a very similar model to Avenue, except that Studio will operate from a digital platform.
The Nashville deposit market has doubled since the last de novo opened there in 2008, Dorn says. There is also a preference for local ownership. “Empirically, (Nashville is) a market that strongly prefers locally headquartered banks,” he says.
Studio is one of just two de novos that have been approved this year. The other, CommerceOne Bank, is in Birmingham, Alabama, another blossoming metro area that also has very few locally owned banks. Birmingham rates in the top 160 metro areas in the country, according to the Milken Institute’s 2017 Best-Performing Cities report.
Other pending applications that are also in high-performing areas like Oklahoma City, ranked 131, and Sarasota, Florida, ranked No. 6.
That’s still a far cry from the de novo activity seen in the decades prior to the financial crisis, but the interest in starting new companies can certainly be seen as encouraging.