The Trouble That Johnny Allison Sees

Johnny Allison, chairman and chief executive officer at Home Bancshares in Conway, Arkansas, prides himself on running a very conservative institution with a strong credit culture. And Allison has not liked some of the behavior he has witnessed in other bankers, who are slashing their loan rates and loosening terms and conditions to win business in a highly competitive commercial loan market.

Allison says those chickens will come home to roost when the market eventually turns, and many of those underpriced and poorly structured loans go bad.

“Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time because our people want to match what somebody else did,” said Allison during an extensive interview with Bank Director Editor in Chief Jack Milligan for a profile in the 1st quarter issue of Bank Director magazine. (You can read the story, “Will Opportunity Strike Again for Johnny Allison?” by clicking here.)

Allison feels strongly enough about the credit quality at $15 billion asset Home that he’s willing to sacrifice loan growth, even if it hurts his stock price. In the following excerpt, Allison — whose blunt and colorful talk has become his trademark — opens up about the challenge of maintaining underwriting discipline in a highly competitive market.

The Q&A has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: You said some very powerful things in your third quarter earnings call. And you said it in sort of the Johnny Allison way, which makes it fun and entertaining. But you were fairly blunt about the fact that you see stupid people doing stupid things. That has to have an impact on your performance in 2019. You’re letting certain kinds of loans run off because you don’t like the terms and conditions and the pricing. That impacts your growth, which then impacts your stock price. That has to be a difficult choice to make.
JA: It’s extremely tough, because my people in the field are seeing dumb stuff being done. “Well, so and so did this, or so and so did that, and, Johnny, they gave him three-and-a-half fixed for 10 [years], and interest only, and nonrecourse.” I mean, there will be a day of reckoning on those kinds of bad decisions, in my opinion. Am I going to write at three and a quarter [percent] fixed for 10 to 15 years? I’m not going to do that. Do I not think I’ll have a better opportunity coming next year to where I haven’t spent that money, and I spend it next year? So, my attitude is [to] take what they give us. Stay close to your customers, support your customers. It is extremely tough. It is one tough job keeping the company disciplined. Don’t let it get off the tracks. We’re known as a company that runs a good net interest margin. We’re known as a company that has good asset quality, that runs a good ship.

BD: If you were more aggressive on loan growth, if you were willing to play the same game that other banks were playing and not worry about the future so much, would your stock price be higher today?
JA: We don’t believe that. If I loan you $100 and I charge you 6%, or I loan you $100 and I charge you 3%, you’ve got to do twice as many loans just to keep up with me. And there’s a limit to how much you can loan, right? We got $11 billion worth of loans. We’re about 97% loan-to-deposit [ratio]. Could we go up to 100%? Sure. We were at [100%] over six years ago. The examiners fuss at you a little bit. But we’ve got lots of capital. So, we kind of run in those areas close to 100% loan to deposit. But we’ve got $2.7 billion worth of capital, so we can rely on that. Plus, the company makes a lot of money.

BD: You said in the earnings call that you were building up the bank’s capital because you didn’t quite know where the world was going, or you weren’t quite certain about the future. So, how do you see the future?
JA: I’m very positive with the future, except the fact I keep hearing these naysayers on and on. We’re optimistic people. I’m rocking with the profitability of this company, and [people] tell me the world’s coming to an end. Then the [bank’s] examiner came in during [the] third quarter and said, “The world’s coming to an end, Johnny. Get ready. Be prepared. Get your reserves [up].” We didn’t ever see it. It didn’t happen. Could somebody be right? Could there be a hiccup coming? Let me say this, and I said it on the call, banks are in the best financial condition that they’ve ever been in.

Someone said, “Boy, you give the regulators credit for that.” I said, “Regulators had nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing to do with it.” What did it was [the financial crisis in] ’08, ’09, and those people who wanted to survive, and those people who wanted to keep their companies and don’t want to cycle through that again. What’s happening is, the shadow banking system is coming into the [market], and they’re taking our loans. How many [loan] funds are out there? They all think they’re lenders. Every one of them think they’re lenders. And they’re coming into the bank space. Where we’re at 57% loan to value, they’re going to 95% loan to value.

There’s the next blow up, and that’ll hurt us. We’re going to get splashed with it. We’re not going to get all the paint, but we’re going to get splashed with that.

That’s the next problem coming, these shadow bankers, the people chasing yield. REITs. Oh, God. REITs. I’m in at $150,000 a key in Key West, Florida, with a guest house owner who is a fabulous operator. We financed her for years and years, and she’s built this great program with these guest houses. She sold it to an REIT for $500,000 a key. Now, let me tell you something, you can’t have an airplane late getting into Key West. There can never be a wreck on [U.S. Highway 1]. And there can never be another hurricane. Everything has to be hitting on all cylinders and be perfect to make that work. That’s kind of scary to me. We’ve seen several of these REITs coming [in with] so much money. They won’t give any money back to the investors. They won’t say, “We failed.” Instead, they’ll go invest that money. And they’re just stretching that damn rubber band as far as they can stretch it, and I think some of those rubber bands are going to pop.

[Editor’s note: An REIT, or real estate investment trust, owns and often operates income-generating real estate.]

So, I think that’s the danger. I don’t think it’s the normal course of business. I think those things are the danger. And when it slows down a little bit like it did, these bankers panic. They just panic. “What can we do to keep your business? What can we do?” They just lay down and play dead. “What can I do? What can I do? Two and a half? Okay, okay, okay. We’ll do [loans at] two and a half [percent].” We just got back from a conference, and they’re talking in the twos. Bankers are talking in the twos. I don’t even know what a three looks like, and I sure don’t know what a two looks like. So, I can’t imagine that kind of stupidity.

BD: So, where are we in the credit cycle?
JA: Well, two schools of thought. One, that we’re in a ten-year cycle, and it’s time for a downturn.

BD: Just because it’s time.
JA: Just because it’s time. Johnny’s thought is that we were in an eight-year cycle with [President Barack] Obama, and he didn’t do one thing to help business. Absolutely zero things to help any kind of business at all. Didn’t know what he was doing. Nice guy. Be a great guy to drink beer with. Had no clue. And then here comes [President Donald] Trump. So, did the cycle die with Obama and start with Trump? That’s my theory. My theory is that [the Obama] cycle died, and we’re in the Trump cycle. Now, if we have a downturn, if something happens somewhere, he’s going to do everything he can to get reelected, right? So, he’s going to try to keep this economy rolling. But if we have a downturn, it’s not going to be anything like ’08, ’09.

The regulators blame construction for the [financial crisis]. It wasn’t construction that caused the crash. It was the lenders and the developers that caused the crash, because nobody put any money in a deal. Nobody had any equity in a deal. I remember many times, my CEO, I’d say, “See if you can get us 10%.” No. [The customer] got it done for 100% financing. If you want the deal, they give it to you. But it’s 100% financing. There wasn’t any money in the deal. There was no money in those deals, and when the music stopped, they just pitched the keys to the bankers, and here went the liquidation process. I was involved in it, too. I did some of it myself. So, I’m not the brilliant banker that skated that. I was involved in it. Not proud of that, but I learned from that lesson. I learned from that lesson.

Now is a dangerous time to be in banking, in my opinion. It is a scary time, because our people want to match what somebody else did. That’s my toughest job. And a lot of them think I’m an ass because I hold so tight to that. Now, let me tell you. This is my largest asset. This is my baby in lots of respects. I have lots of my employees that are vested in this company. I have lots of shareholders, local Arkansas shareholders that are vested. We have created more millionaires in Arkansas than J.B. Hunt [Transport Services], or Walmart, or Tyson Foods. Individual millionaires, because they believed in us and invested with us, and I am very proud of that.

When the Earnings Get Tough, the Mergers Get ‘Strategic’

Pressure on earnings and a continued evolution in bank operations could give rise to more “strategic mergers,” according to presenters during the first two days of Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference.

Deal activity, specifically “strategic mergers,” could accelerate in 2020 because of slowing growth and continued momentum in the space, say presenters ranging from the heads of investment banks to CEOs who had undertaken or announced their own transformational mergers. Factors like declining interest rates and a decreasing number of potential partners could motivate executives to look to acquisitions to leverage capital, add growth or find scale and efficiencies.

Community banks across the country are grappling with the realization that superregionals like BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks decided last year to combine to form Truist Financial in a bid for scale — and what those decisions mean for their own prospects, says Gary Bronstein, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. In a nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during one session, 48% of respondents believe their bank will be an acquirer during the year, with a plurality seeking to either acquire core deposits or gain scale.

One reason could be that loan growth among small and mid-cap banks has been slowing since 2015, says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud. His firm is modeling no earnings per share growth for these banks in 2020 because of net interest margin compression. At the same time, banks’ net income has been bolstered by share repurchases: excluding buybacks, earnings per share would be lower by 6% in 2020, and log no growth in 2021.

Bigger banks have been thinking about how to achieve meaningful, strategic change that can jumpstart internal transformation and external results. Enter the “strategic merger,” Michaud says, which his firm defines as transactions where the target owns 25% or more of the pro-forma company. Many of these recent deals have been among regionals and were structured as mergers-of-equals, which helped define M&A activity in 2019.

The MOEs are back. That was a popular method of consolidation in 2019, and I believe we’re going to see more of it,” he says. “It is the major theme as to how this industry is consolidating.”

Indeed, for the second year in a row, the conference coincided with an MOE announcement — this time, between Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp and Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. to form a Southeastern institution with $34 billion in assets.

The financial attractiveness of these deals is undeniable, say investment bankers and executives: the no-premium deals carry low dilution and quick tangible book value earn-back periods as well as double-digit earnings per share accretion and enviable returns on tangible common equity. The logic seemed to resonate with attendees: 61% of respondents during the nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during a session indicated they would consider an MOE during the year.

“These deals are being structured to make these companies more profitable … and to build better companies,” he says.

Michaud wasn’t the only presenter convinced that MOE interest and momentum will continue this year. Joe Berry, managing director and co-head of depositories investment banking at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, points out the potential stock outperformance of certain MOEs and other strategic mergers, especially after they announce capital actions.

But recording the eye-popping results from a strategic merger only comes about after the “soft issues” are hammered out, Berry says. The MOE announcement between TCF Financial Corp. and Chemical Financial Corp., which occurred during the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, was motivated partially by a desire to achieve scale to serve larger credits, says David Provost, executive chairman at TCF Bank. The bank is now based in Detroit and has $45.7 billion post-merger. But first, executives needed to negotiate a “reverse divorce” to determine the new name and headquarters location.

It then comes down to who gets the dog, and you both love the dog. That’s the CEO title,” he says. Deal filings indicated that Provost “was going take the dog for 18 months and then [President and CEO Craig Dahl] was going to take the dog. In the end, I decided to give up the dog and create $1 billion in value for shareholders.”

The MOE catalyst has not been limited to regional banks. Randy Greene, president and CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Bay Banks of Virginia, says an MOE transformed his bank. The 2016 deal allowed two more-rural based banks to combine and move to a more-urban area; Bay Banks now has $1.1 billion in assets.

But bankers contemplating an MOE must also ensure that internal expansion doesn’t erode the strategic financial gains of the deal. BJ Losch, CFO at $43.3 billion First Horizon National Corp., says the bank is trying to “become bigger without becoming big” as part of its MOE with Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.

An MOE allows a bank to “build Star Wars from an IT perspective, but then you become big —like the bigger banks that you want to be more nimble than,” he says.

The MOE spared Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon and IBERIA from needing an “upstream” buyer, says fellow panelist Daryl Byrd, IBERIA’s current president and CEO, who will serve as the pro forma bank’s executive chairman. The dearth of potential buyers has emerged as a competitive dynamic for institutions of all sizes, including the $31.7 billion bank.

“It’s a musical chair game and you don’t want to be left without a chair. And we recently lost two very big chairs,” he says.

Michaud points out that many of the companies involved in these strategic mergers are “really good banks in their own right,” deserving of their independence. These executives do not need to find a merger partner but believe the transactions’ defensive attributes will allow them to keep up with digital transformations and changes in the bank space down the road.

He says executives are asking, “‘If we don’t do this, what’s the industry going to look like in three to five years? How relevant are we going to be and how much are we going to … make sure our shareholders have a long-term play here?’”

Your M&A Success Could Depend On This One Thing


merger-12-19-18.pngBenchmarking key performance indicators (KPIs) can help you more fully understand your bank’s financial condition and operating results, as well as the true value in a potential M&A market.

The success of your M&A strategy – whether buy, sell or stay – measurably increases with a sound grasp of the metrics that drive shareholder value.

KPIs as M&A drivers
KPIs can help you to identify important strengths in your target organization and your own institution. This can help determine the areas you could strengthen in an acquisition, or understand where your bank’s value lies within a merger. You can also learn about your organization’s, or your target institution’s, primary challenges and how this might impact the transaction.

These metrics can also help the organization evaluate the success of the transaction after completion. Have the key performance indicators drastically changed? Was that change different from the anticipated adjustment from the combination of the two entities? Understanding the metrics, and some of the forces impacting them, can be a strong foundation for successful M&A transactions.

Q3 2018 KPI observations
Community banks throughout the U.S. used the strong economy and relatively stable interest rate environment to maintain steady operations throughout the third quarter of 2018.

Baker Tilly’s banking industry key performance indicator (KPI) report reflected almost no change in comparison to the same benchmarks for the second quarter of 2018. Earnings, credit quality and capital adequacy benchmarks all remained essentially the same. This consistency appears to reflect a more stable economic environment, disciplined management of credit pricing and quality, notwithstanding a continued highly competitive environment, and the early stages of a move to higher interest rates.

M-A-chart.png

If there is anything to take away from the relatively unchanged KPIs over the first nine months of 2018, it is that community bankers have diligently pursued the opportunities emerging from the strong economy.

Loan growth, reflected in the comparison of the loan-to-deposits ratios each quarter, has been somewhat subdued. Potential drivers of this include increasing liquidity pressures arising from changes in interest rates, early stages of the potential for a downward credit cycle and the uncertainty of the November midterm elections. These factors kept many community bankers focused on internal matters such as compliance and technology during the second and third quarters of 2018.

Many banks continued to assess consolidation opportunities on both the buy and sell side. Until the recent series of market declines, bank equity currency remained quite strong, supporting a continued active consolidation of the industry, at price points that, on average, exceed 1.5 – 1.7 times book value.

We expect more of the same consistency in the KPIs as we have seen throughout 2018. It does not appear there will be any significant shifts in either direction arising from changes in economic policy. However, the pace of deregulation may subside due to the change in leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If equity markets rebound following the midterms and the Federal Reserve pauses its increase of interest rates, we may see a re-acceleration of the consolidation of community banks, especially those with assets of $500 million or less. Other than an increased emphasis on securing and maintaining low cost deposits, we anticipate community banks to maintain a steady course into early 2019.

Four Ways to Effectively Deploy Excess Capital


capital-7-23-18 (1).pngFavorable economic conditions for banks, which include a healthy business sector, a rising interest rate environment, and the impact of tax and regulatory reforms, have resulted in strong earnings for many community banks. While this confluence of positive market developments has led many growing banks to tap public and private markets for additional capital to fund growth opportunities, many other institutions are facing an opposing challenge.

These institutions, many of which are located in non-metropolitan markets, are experiencing record earnings yet do not have existing loan demand to effectively deploy the capital into higher yielding assets. As a result, these institutions must evaluate how best to deploy excess capital in the absence of organic growth opportunities in existing markets to avoid the impact on shareholder returns of reinvestment into the securities portfolio during a period that continues to be characterized by historically low interest rates.

Dividends. Returning excess capital to shareholders through enhanced dividend payouts increases the current income stream provided to shareholders and is often a well-received option. However, in evaluating the appropriate level of dividends, including whether to commence paying or increase dividends, banks should be aware of two potential issues. First, an increase in dividends is often difficult to reverse, as shareholders generally begin to plan for the income stream associated with the enhanced dividend payout. Second, the payment of dividends does not provide liquidity to those shareholders looking for an exit. Accordingly, dividends, while representing an efficient option for deploying excess capital, presents other considerations that should be evaluated in the context of a bank’s strategic planning.

Tender Offers and Other Stock Repurchases. Stock repurchases, whether through a tender offer, stock repurchase plan or other discretionary stock repurchase, enhance liquidity of investment for selling shareholders, while creating value for non-selling shareholders by increasing their stake in the bank. Following a stock repurchase, bank earnings are spread over a smaller shareholder base, which increases earnings per share and the value of each share. Stock purchases can be a highly effective use of excess capital, particularly where the bank believes its stock is undervalued. Because repurchases can be conducted through a number of vehicles, a bank may balance its desire to effectively deploy a targeted amount of excess capital against its need to maintain operational flexibility.

De Novo Expansion into Vibrant Markets. Banks can also reinvest excess capital through organic expansion into new markets through de novo branching and the acquisition of key deposit or loan officers. For example, a rural bank with a high concentration of stable, inexpensive deposits but weak loan demand could expand into a larger market where loan demand is strong but deposit pricing is elevated. By doing so, the bank can leverage excess capital and inexpensive deposits through quality loan growth and, optimize its net interest margin and earnings potential. With advances in technology, overhead costs associated with de novo entry into a new market have substantially decreased, although competition for deposit and loan officers is intense. Startup costs may be further diminished through a loan production office, rather than a branch in a new market.

Mergers and Acquisitions. Banks can deploy excess capital to jumpstart growth through merger and acquisition opportunities. In general, size and scale boost profitability metrics and enhance earnings growth, and mergers and acquisitions can be an efficient mechanism to generate size and scale. Any successful acquisition must be complementary from a strategic standpoint, as well as from a culture perspective. For example, a bank’s acquisition strategy could involve joining forces with, or eliminating, a competitor with a complementary business and corporate culture. Alternatively, it could be driven by corporate objectives to enhance earnings by expanding into a larger market with stronger demand for high-quality loans. On the other hand, an institution based in a metropolitan market may be inclined to target a lower growth market with a high concentration of lower cost, core deposits. In either case, the acquisitions are complementary to the institutions.

All banks with excess capital have strategic decisions to make to maximize shareholder value. In many cases, these decisions result in returning capital to shareholders, while others seek to leverage excess capital in support of future growth. The strategy for deploying excess capital should be a material component of a bank’s strategic planning process. There is no universal, or right, answer for all banks. Each bank must consider its options against its risk tolerance, long-term strategic goals and objectives, shorter term capital needs, management and board capacity.

Why Book Value Isn’t the Only Way to Measure a Bank


11-14-14-Al.jpgA few days ago, I woke up to the announcement that Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based BB&T Corp. has a deal in place to acquire Lititz, Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Bancshares in a $2.5 billion deal. The purchase price is 70 percent stock and 30 percent cash and includes 0.253 BB&T shares and $4.05 in cash for each Susquehanna share. The implied price of $13.50 per share equates to 169 percent tangible book value, 16.3 times price as a multiple of last-twelve-months earnings per share and a 7.4 percent deposit premium.

While easy to see the deal as being strategically compelling from BB&T’s perspective (the deal makers expect to generate cost savings from the combined institution, targeting $160 million annually or 32 percent of Susquehanna’s non-interest expense), the announcement had me unexpectedly thinking about valuation issues and Warren Buffet.

Yes, Warren Buffet.

Let me explain the correlation between the two. A year ago, Buffet was on CNBC and took a question from a viewer about how he valued banks. In his words, “a bank that earns 1.3 percent or 1.4 percent on assets is going to end up selling above tangible book value. If it’s earning 0.6 percent or 0.5 percent on assets it’s not going to sell. Book value is not key to valuing banks. Earnings are key to valuing banks.

Keep in mind that for many smaller community banks, book value has been the primary determinant of value on a trading basis. As the lion’s share of mergers and acquisitions have involved small community banks over the past few years, talk of book value has been quite prevalent. So the BB&T deal, the second largest so far this year, got me thinking about valuation issues and if an increased focus on price to earnings might be a more appropriate way to value banks.

To get some perspective on this topic, I reached out to Dory Wiley, president and CEO of Commerce Street Holdings. He sees earnings as more important, but was quick to remind me that tangible book value does matter.

John Gorman, a partner in the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Luse Gorman Pomerenk & Schick, P.C. provided additional context. “Having value driven by earnings is the goal for most publicly traded community banks, and that goal is bearing fruit, but in a discriminating fashion. The market is being selective in terms of which companies it is rewarding with earnings-based valuation on a trading basis. And that reward provides those select companies with a competitive advantage in terms of paying the higher price-to-earnings and price-to-book multiples in the M&A marketplace.”

Andy Gibbs of Mercer Capital opined “it is earnings, after all, that are the source of the capital needed to reinvest in the bank (and grow its value), to pay dividends to shareholders, or to repurchase shares. A well capitalized bank can do those things in the short-run, but without earnings to replenish and expand capital, it’s not sustainable.”

Clearly, a bank that generates greater returns to shareholders is more valuable; thus, the emphasis on earnings and returns rather than book value. To this end, Gorman says: “If a company is a strong earner, and is located in an attractive geographic market, it may be able to obtain a significant M&A premium and thereby realize an earnings-based valuation.”

So investors and buyers will always use book value as a way to measure the worth of banks. But as the market improves and more acquisitions are announced, expect to see more attention to earnings and price to earnings as a way to value banks.