Listening to Ben Plotkin, EVP and vice chairman at the investment banking firm Stifel Nicolaus Weisel, as he provided a broad industry overview at our Bank Executive & Board Compensation event last week in Chicago, the image that came to mind was a heavy-weight boxer who has been staggered by repeated blows to the head but somehow is still standing.
Looking at the fundamentals, there’s no question that the U.S. banking industry has been bloodied by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930. According to Plotkin, the industry’s profitability plummeted from a high-water mark of $128.2 billion in 2006, to $97.6 billion in 2007 – to just $15.3 billion in 2008. Plotkin illustrated this on a bar chart, and that dramatic 2009 earnings decline resembled a Sears Tower elevator dropping from the top floor to darn near the basement.
Of course, we all know that industry’s record profitability from 2002 through 2006 was fueled by the bubble economy and a hyperactive mortgage market. Or as Plotkin put it, “A lot of people say those earnings weren’t real.” And indeed they weren’t considering how much of that money was given back in the form of loan and bond losses, but I think it’s also amazing that the banking industry didn’t sustain even more damage than it did.
The number of banks on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s troubled institution list rose to 829 in the second quarter of this year, but banks are dropping at a much lower rate than in the early 1990s, when the collapse of the commercial real estate market resulted in many more bank failures than we’re likely to see this time around.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel for most banks, and it’s not necessarily a freight train hurtling towards them. Based on Plotkin’s numbers, it would seem that the industry’s asset quality problems have finally peaked. After rising sharply from 2006 through 2009, non-performing loans have finally leveled out and even declined slightly to about 3.2% in November. Healthy banks with strong balance sheets (including better than average asset quality) have also been able to raise capital from institutional investors.
The industry’s net interest margin (which is essentially the difference between the interest rate on a loan and all the costs associated with getting that loan) has also shown recent improvement. Through the first two quarters of 2010 the margin was approximately 3.85% — compared to 3.39% in 2006 and 3.35% in 2007, when the industry was (ironically enough) rolling in dough. Those numbers say two things to me.
One, loan pricing is gradually improving as bankers are able to charge higher rates on their loans. And two, the industry compensated for its cut-rate pricing in 2006-2007 with volume – which turned out to be a recipe for disaster.
Why would the big pension and mutual funds be willing to invest capital in a troubled industry? Perhaps because they anticipate a predatory environment in which the strong and the swift will devour the weak and the weary. “Many of the catalysts for renewal of the traditional M&A market are beginning to take shape,” Plotkin told the audience. Asset quality is slowly beginning to improve, signaling potential acquirers that the worst is over. Strong banks have access to capital, so they can afford to acquire. And banks with diminished earnings power and little or no access to institutional sources of capital may find that selling out to a more highly valued competitor is their only viable strategy to reward their long suffering owners.
It’s a Darwinian principal that has helped drive bank consolidation for the past 25 years, and no doubt for a few years more.