What To Do About Risk Management When There Are No Clear Answers


For American Community Bank & Trust, a $590 million-asset institution located about 70 miles north of Chicago in McHenry County, Illinois, enterprise risk management (ERM) has steadily become a part of the culture and dialogue throughout the organization. Chief Executive Officer Charie Zanck admits that it will still require continual improvement over time, but knew she had to start somewhere.
 
A common theme throughout this year’s Bank Chairman/CEO Peer Exchange event was the topic of enterprise risk management and what exactly that means to today’s financial institutions. While many bank leaders are finding the term difficult to define, it is clear that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will be focusing heavily on risk management processes and not just for the publicly traded and/or larger banks.

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After much research and calls to the regulators, Zanck had come up empty in her quest to define what ERM was and what the industry standard best practices were for her to build upon at her institution. What she discovered was that it wasn’t easy, or simple, and there was no hallmark case or standard process. Now what?

Although it was hard to get started, Zanck knew that the old siloed or isolated approach to managing risk wasn’t going to work anymore. So she began to build out her own processes for assessing the risks in her organization, identifying the bank’s risk appetite in conjunction with the board, putting controls in place and determining how to best measure those risks.
 
American Community Bank & Trust ended up changing the way it looks at risk and has begun to apply those processes to not only specific areas such as IT or vendors, but also to their strategic and growth decisions. For example, when the management team wants to introduce a new product into the marketplace, it must first get the approval of the ERM committee, which looks at it from all different perspectives and asks the tough questions. That is the essence of enterprise risk management, and no one person can do it all, Zanck said. It requires a team of people from compliance, operations and senior management to fully assess the risk to the entire organization. Zanck then reports the findings to the board and audit committee.

Unfortunately, the regulators weren’t much help to Zanck despite their new mandate to monitor her organization’s risk. She sympathized with her fellow bankers, noting that this was why it was such a difficult process for her and her team. If the banks don’t figure ERM out for themselves, then it will surely get decided for them. The question is by whom?

Taking the Long View on Regulatory Relations


two-man-facing.jpgWhen FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair gave a speech last month at the American Bankers Association’s Government Relations Summit in Washington, D.C., she got into what the American Banker newspaper characterized as some “testy” exchanges with the audience while taking questions after her prepared remarks, particularly on topics like the Dodd-Frank Act and a proposed reduction in interchange fees.

Given the tone of the Q&A session, one could reasonably conclude that the state of “government relations” between bankers and the federales smells like sour milk right now. Certainly, banking regulators have been playing hardball over the last two years with institutions that are dangerously undercapitalized or have been slow to address their deteriorating asset quality. If the regulators were asleep at the switch during the real estate bubble in the mid-2000s, they probably overcorrected once the bubble burst.

To paraphrase Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” regulators were shocked – shocked! – to discover that highly leveraged banks were piling up concentrations in commercial real estate loans that turned out to be extremely dangerous.

But this is not the first time in my memory that federal banking regulators have cracked down hard on financial institutions after a period of, shall we say, benign supervision. Back in the late 1980s, after the so-called thrift crisis, Congress passed the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) that among things abolished the old Federal Home Loan Bank Board – the thrift industry’s prudential regulator – and replaced it with the Office of Thrift Supervision. FIRREA was detested nearly as much as the Dodd-Frank Act is today, and the OTS used the law’s higher capital requirements to put a lot of highly-leveraged thrifts out of business. It struck many people back then as an example of frontier justice with the OTS playing the roles of sheriff, judge and hangman.

The point is, what’s happening today isn’t new. If you watch the banking industry long enough, you’ll see everything at least twice, including things that everyone swore the first time would never happen again.

Like it or not, the regulators have a job to do. Many banks became too reliant on real estate lending during the bubble, and once it popped they needed to raise capital so they could afford to charge off their worst loans. Based on what I have heard from bankers, lawyers and investment bankers, the regulators haven’t been willing to allow marginal institutions to earn their way out of their asset quality and capitalization problems, but have been forcing the issue in many instances. As much as they dislike Dodd-Frank or the proposed limits on interchange fees, I believe that much of the tension between banks and their regulators derives from regulatory activism at the grass roots level.

It won’t always be this way. The industry’s asset quality will gradually improve as the economy strengthens, most undercapitalized banks will either figure out a way to raise capital or will sell out to a stronger competitor, and the regulators will ease up. CEOs and directors may not like this oscillation between supervision sometimes being too soft and sometimes being too tough, but it seems to be a normal phenomenon in banking.

After living through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, I am sure that all of federal banking regulatory agencies have felt pressure to tighten up their supervision. And while privately they might chafe against the heightened scrutiny, smart CEOs and their boards don’t go to war with their institution’s regulators. Instead, they consult with them frequently, communicate regularly and take a proactive approach to problem solving.

Smart bankers take the long view of regulatory relations. And that certainly doesn’t include picking a public fight with the chairman of the FDIC.

A Turnaround Year?


For the third time this week, I found myself on the FDIC’s website to start my day. A glutton for regulatory punishment? More a curiosity to see the agency’s latest report card. On the bright side, it shows that the banking industry checked in with an $87.5 billion profit in 2010 (up from a net loss of $10.6 billion a year earlier). Less rosy, four points worth noting as a follow up to my post on Monday about FDIC-assisted transactions:

  • Last year, the number of failed banks reached 157, an 18-year high.
  • The number of institutions on the FDIC’s “Problem List” rose from 860 to 884.
  • Total assets of “problem” institutions increased to $390 billion from $379 billion in the prior quarter, but are below the $403 billion reported at year-end 2009.
  • While the problem banks has grown for the fifth year in the row, it expects the number of failures to be fewer than last year.

Additionally, the report shows that lending remains weak: total loans and leases fell again during the fourth quarter. Not surprisingly, the agency’s chairwoman, Sheila Bair went on record with her expectation that “industry to take the next step, and begin to build their loan portfolios. The long-term health of both the industry and our economy will depend on a responsible expansion of bank lending.”  While not a surprising position, some might be reminded that the banking industry remains under considerable pressure from financial regulations that impact lending activity.

The fall continues for WaMu


Full disclosure: I’ve long thought of Washington Mutual’s leadership team in high regard. During my “first tour of duty” with Bank Director, I had a chance to hear WaMu’s than-CEO Kerry Killinger speak at one of our Acquire or Be Acquired conferences and came away impressed with his enthusiasm and vision for the bank. We covered WaMu in the pages of Bank Director throughout the 00’s, so I’m well versed in their fall from grace. Yes, we’d seen their highs; sadly, history hasn’t been kind to this once-darling of Wall Street. As many know, JPMorgan Chase bought the functional assets of Washington Mutual in the fall of ’08. Once the nation’s largest savings and loan, the price tag was a mere $1.9 billion after the federal government shut down the bank and held a quick auction. But until last night’s news about the FDIC potentially suing former execs from the bank, I’d filed away their demise as product of the black hole many banks were sucked into. Now?

In preparing for yesterday’s post on the coming wave of M&A, I went on to the FDIC’s website to get a sense of where our industry is and where it might be heading. While I didn’t cite any of their press releases, these three are all up and featured:

  • First California Bank Assumes All of the Deposits of San Luis Trust Bank;
  • Bank of Marin Assumes All of the Deposits of Charter Oak Bank; and
  • HeritageBank of the South Assumes All of the Deposits of Citizens Bank.

If you read yesterday’s post, you’ll notice a common thread between what I wrote and what the FDIC has promoted: assisted transactions for healthy banks. Still, the third release gave me temporary pause — not by the size of the deal; rather, the name of the acquirer. If you’re on the board of any financial institution, I’ll bet $20 you know the name Heritage (Community) Bank.  No, not the one from above; rather, the failed bank whose executives and outside directors are under siege from the FDIC.

Our editor wrote about this type of government action last month in our publication. And many service providers (namely, attorneys) have sent clients executive briefings about what this might mean to them.  Still, if you recall the S&L crisis of the late 80’s and early 90’s, the FDIC sued or settled claims against bank officers and/or directors on nearly a quarter of the institutions that failed during that time. And if the past is any indication of the future, then there is a significant risk that directors of failed banks from the recent financial crisis may see some type of action taken against them by the FDIC.

So who might be next? Well, it just came to light that the FDIC sent letters to former executives of the failed Washington Mutual Bank warning of possible legal action. According to a Wall Street Journal report I read last night, the regulator has already discussed damages of $1 billion in relation to the potential Washington Mutual lawsuit. So I have to wonder when and/or where this will all end… and who will be next.

Where My Deals At?


Last summer, Keefe Bruyette & Wood’s released an interesting bank takeover list. It had the usual suspects — potential buyers and potential sellers — and a “surprising” third: potential buyers who could become sellers. I thought back to this report while watching a handful of videos from our annual Acquire or Be Acquired conference over the weekend. With so much discussion at AOBA centering on FDIC-assisted transactions (which we will explore in greater detail in Chicago this May), this survey came back to me as it focused on so-called open-bank consolidation, comprising potential deals that wouldn’t involve a shutdown by the FDIC first.

Quite a few presented their views on non-distressed bank mergers at our 17th annual M&A conference —  forecasting a huge wave of bank M&A driven by aging management, the need to cut expenses and boost earnings, heightened regulatory costs and more. Of course, FDIC-assisted bank transactions continue to attract strategic acquirers, and the bidding process remains competitive. So “escaping” this particular discussion at our event proved nearly impossible. Indeed, for any healthy bank, considering this type of deal as a growth strategy bears real consideration.  

Case-in-point, this short video of Ben Plotkin, Vice Chairman of Stifel Nicolaus & Co.and long-time Bank Director supporter. We asked Ben to provide his thoughts on the impact of FDIC-assisted deals on M&A activity when we were together at AOBA; take a look:

A random fact that might interest only me…

As we celebrate President’s Day today, February 22, did you know today’s federal holiday celebrates George Washington’s birthday? In fact, this is the first federal holiday to honor an American citizen — celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday in 1796 (the last full year of his presidency).

D&O insurance: hope for the best, prepare for the worst


red-umbrella.jpgOn day three of our annual Acquire or Be Acquired event, a major snowstorm was hitting the mid-west and shutting down many airports leaving attendees either stranded or dashing off to catch a flight. The possibility of being stuck in Arizona didn’t concern the many remaining bankers who joined the breakout session on D&O insurance, led by Dennis Gustafson, SVP & Financial Institutions Practice Leader of AH&T Insurance, as he explored how changes at an institution can impact its risk profile as perceived by the underwriters.

While there are a variety of activities that will impact the underwriters’ risk assessment process, by understanding what they look for, directors and officers can better communicate their story to the insurance carrier. Gustafson shared the following key factors that today’s underwriter considers when identifying a financial institution’s risk profile:

Regulatory Exposures
Given the condition of the financial services industry, regulatory exposure is still the single largest risk to bank boards. With the increase in bank failures reflective of the increased number of lawsuits authorized by the FDIC, it’s become the government’s standard practice to contact the insurance carriers of a failed bank to recoup their losses and therefore gain access to the policy whether the board did their job or not.

However, as Gustafson pointed out to the audience, when a bank is considered a regulatory risk, the D&O carrier can file a regulatory exclusion which allows the insurance agency to deny claims filed by FDIC based on asset quality and capital. 

Mergers & Acquisitions
Any director and/or officer of an institution in an acquisition is considered an increased risk as they are more likely to be sued. The insurance policy might need a mid-term acquisition’s threshold for acquirers, discovery provisions for sellers, change of control provisions, cancellation and M&A exclusion. Directors should conduct an in-depth conversation about the specific M&A goals of the institution with the carrier before renewing the policy.

Loan & Asset Quality
For many reasons, loan and asset quality directly affects the risk profile of any director or officer. AH&T utilizes an underwriting risk spreadsheet that includes benchmark figures and calculates the risk associated with each policy. For instance, a loan portfolio with 1-4 family mortgages carries less risk than an institution with a higher commercial real estate profile. Deposits, positive ROA and ROE, along with capital, give the underwriter a good sense of the overall risk profile.

Peer Benchmarking
By reviewing what a bank’s peers are doing, insurance carriers can help measure what type of policy a board member should be getting and how much they can expect to spend. As an industry, financial services saw the highest premium rate for $5 million in coverage during their last renewals

Securities Litigation filings by Industry
Another method carriers will use as consideration is the number of securities class action lawsuits filed in the financial industry as compared to the rest of the universe. In 2009, the financial industry had 38.2 percentage of market capitalization subject to new filings which made for a riskier profile.

Gustafson strongly recommends that before your next D&O renewal, you set up a meeting with all the bidding underwriters to accurately present the financial institution’s goals and objectives over the term of the policy. With a face-to-face conversation, the underwriters are able to ask and answer questions in order to get a better sense of the bank’s risks. By engaging in these conversations, insurance carriers can prepare the most appropriate language for a policy, therefore better protecting a director’s personal assets.

Want to buy a bank? Look for that fatigued banker near you.


Bank directors are fatigued, many aren’t having much fun anymore, and that’s creating an environment where bank acquisitions are going to increase as some bankers just give up, according to investment bank Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.’s managing director Collyn Gilbert and executive vice president Ben Plotkin.

The two spoke today, on the first morning of Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference, which lasts through Tuesday in Scottsdale, Arizona. Close to 700 people have signed up to attend.

“One thing I see diminished is passion for what you are doing,’’ said Gilbert, an analyst for Stifel, speaking to a crowd of about 350 bankers, consultants and bank directors. “If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, your vision for the business gets crowded.”

But it’s not just a general sense of malaise that’s going to lead to more acquisitions. Loan growth also is slow and banks have lots of capital they aren’t using all that effectively, Gilbert said. Buying other banks is one way to put that money to work.

Plotkin said that prices banks have to pay to buy other banks will go up in the future as the economy gets past its post-traumatic stress. Opportunities to buy at a good price are diminishing.

“I think it’s really that moment of truth in banking,” he said.  

Small banks under $1 billion are the most likely to sell to other banks because it will be so challenging for them to make a profit.

But the string of FDIC-assisted deals is slowing and becoming less attractive for acquiring banks, Plotkin said.  Private equity is competing heavily for those deals and it is taking a long time to close, leading to even further deterioration in the acquired bank’s value, he said.

Commercial real estate may have hobbled many a community bank’s bottom line, but that doesn’t mean the community bank business model is broken, Plotkin said.

Community banks can provide banking services, loans and fee-based products to small businesses, continuing to serve their local communities.

Improving execution of the bank’s strategy will be the key to success, he said.

What Keeps Directors Up at Night


worried.jpgDuring the S&L crisis of the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation sued or settled claims against bank officers and/or directors on nearly a quarter of the institutions that failed during that time. If the past is any indication of the future, then there is a significant risk that directors of failed banks from the recent financial crisis may see some type of action taken against them by the FDIC.

In addition to lawsuits against senior executives of IndyMac Bank, and also senior officers and directors of Heritage Community Bank in Illinois, the FDIC has authorized actions against more than 109* insiders at failed banks to recover over $2.5* billion in losses to the deposit insurance fund resulting from this wave of bank failures.

Based on their work with a number of banks as well as individuals who are the targets of recent FDIC cases in various stages of development, John Geiringer and Scott Porterfield from the Chicago-based law firm of Barack Ferrazzano answer some questions about what could be keeping bank directors up at night.

What are the steps taken by the FDIC after the closure of a bank?

The FDIC begins a preliminary investigation when it believes that a bank may fail and will interview bank employees, officers and directors promptly after the bank’s closure.It is common for the FDIC to send a demand letter to the bank’s officers and directors demanding payment, usually in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, shortly before the expiration date of the bank’s D&O insurance policy.The FDIC sends that letter in an apparent attempt to preserve the D&O insurance for any litigation claims that it may later assert.

The FDIC may then subpoena officers and directors for documents and depositions. After conducting depositions, the FDIC will decide whether to initiate litigation against any officer or director. If the agency decides to litigate, it will initiate settlement discussions before actually filing its lawsuit. Because of the many evolving issues in these situations, such as whether insiders may copy documents for defense purposes before their banks fail, potential targets of these actions should ensure that they are being advised by counsel through every step of this process, even before their banks have failed.

What are the legal standards by which the FDIC may sue directors?

The FDIC bases its lawsuits on general legal principles that govern director and officer conduct and also considers the cost effectiveness of any potential lawsuit when making its decision. Federal law allows the FDIC to sue directors and officers for gross negligence and even simple negligence in certain states. What those standards mean as they relate to the conduct of bank insiders during this unprecedented economic cycle is difficult to predict at this time, although we are getting a clearer picture.

In the Heritage case, for example, the FDIC alleges that the defendants did not sufficiently mitigate the risks in the Bank’s commercial real estate portfolio and made inappropriate decisions regarding dividend and incentive compensation payments.

Will the FDIC differentiate between inside and outside directors?

Whether someone is an inside or outside director is one of the factors that the FDIC considers in determining whether to sue a director of a failed bank. According to the FDIC’s Statement Concerning the Responsibilities of Bank Directors and Officers, the most common lawsuits likely to be brought against outside directors will probably involve insider abuse or situations in which directors failed to respond to warnings from regulators and bank advisors relating to significant problems that required corrective actions.

Will D&O insurance cover any liability to the FDIC?

That depends on the amount and terms of the D&O policy. Directors should work with their insurance broker and bank counsel to review their D&O policies and to help them to make this determination. They should determine whether their policy amount is sufficient, whether their policy has certain exclusions (such as regulatory and insured vs. insured exclusions), whether proper notices are being made and under what conditions their policy can be cancelled.

What can directors do to mitigate their risk in the event that their bank fails?

In its Policy Statement, the FDIC states that it will not bring civil suits against directors and officers who fulfill their responsibilities, including the duties of loyalty and care, and who make reasonable and fully informed business judgments after proper deliberation. The FDIC generally requires bank directors to: (i) maintain independence; (ii) keep informed; (iii) hire and supervise qualified management; and (iv) avoid preferential transactions.

Directors should ensure that their bank’s counsel and other advisors are discussing these crucial issues with them. If their bank is in troubled condition, directors should seriously consider the need to hire personal legal counsel and to understand their ability to obtain indemnification.

Figures updated as of 1/4/11 based on latest reportings.

Pros & Cons of Traditional M&A vs. FDIC-Assisted Transactions


handshake.jpgWith the financial industry cautiously anticipating a recovery from the dramatic economic crisis that resulted in increased regulations and scrutiny for banks of all sizes, many are hoping to see increased activity from traditional M&A transactions. Although the number and size of bank failures is slowing down, FDIC-Assisted deals should not be discounted as a viable growth opportunity in 2011.

As part of our Inside the Boardroom interview series, Rick Childs, a director in Crowe Horwath LLP’s financial advisory services group, outlines below the pros and cons of traditional M&A vs. FDIC-Assisted transactions, and what today’s boards should know before considering these two options.

What are the pros & cons of traditional M&A vs. FDIC-Assisted deals?

TRADITIONAL M&A

PROS:

  • There is more time to perform due diligence and to understand how the organization fits your culture and business plan.
  • Traditional M&A deals are usually negotiated with a single buyer. If a potential acquirer can negotiate and improve its chances of winning the transaction. In an FDIC-assisted transaction, the agency is required by law to select the bid that entails the lowest cost to the FDIC insurance fund. As a result, competition for the bid can decrease the odds of the bidders being successful.
  • In 2010, there were still a number of deals where the target’s earnings were positive. In approximately 42 percent of the traditional M&A deals the target had positive earnings and approximately 26 percent had ROAs in excess of 50 percent. Institutions with positive earnings provide growth opportunities at attractive prices.

CONS:

  • The level of non-performing assets in some of the deals may still make the transaction prohibitive without FDIC loss protection. While bidders for FDIC-assisted deals are able to bid the assets acquired at a discount, the traditional M&A buyers cannot bid less than $0. Or, to put it another way, the sellers of whole institutions are not in a position to pay the buyer to take over the institution while the FDIC-assisted transaction is able to absorb the negative bids.
  • With prices for healthy institutions still depressed, there are fewer healthy sellers. Likely these institutions are waiting for prices to return to historical—which is to say higher-levels, although it’s unclear whether that will every happen.

FDIC-ASSISTED TRANSACTIONS

PROS:

  • The protection afforded from loss sharing has been a catalyst for getting bidders to participate in the bidding process and makes the transaction palatable on a prospective basis as the future losses are covered by loss sharing.
  • For many acquirers, it has offered a unique growth opportunity and there have been a number of serial FDIC-assisted transaction acquirers who have been able to raise capital and build long-term franchise value.
  • Buyers have been able to acquire assets and liabilities but leave behind unfavorable contracts and any potential litigation risks that would be associated with a failed institution.
  • The potential for bargain purchase gains can provide capital for the acquiring institution. However, those institutions should expect the regulatory agencies to exclude capital arising from a bargain purchase until the valuations have been finalized and then validated through examination or external audit.

CONS:

  • The loss sharing contract requirements can be time consuming and expensive to comply with, including reporting, systems and the required loan modification commitments.
  • Limited due diligence and a compressed time frame for the transaction translate into the bidder needing to make a significant number of material estimates to arrive at the bid with limited information. This can lead to unexpected results post transaction.

What is the outlook for both types of deals?

Trends in acquisitions of both types of deals increased in 2010 compared to 2009. On September 30, 2010, the FDIC reported 860 troubled institutions, up from 720 at December 31, 2009. If only 10 percent of those institutions ultimately fail, then 2011 will still see a significant number of transactions.

The total assets of troubled institutions are actually lower than at December 31, 2009, so the transactions likely will be of smaller sized institutions. Traditional M&A transactions also appear to be ready for an increase in activity in 2011, although still tempered compared to more recent history before the current financial crisis.

Are the FDIC-Assisted deals still attractive, or have they lost their allure since the FDIC is providing less loss protection?

The deals are still attractive and what the bidders appear to be doing is considering the level of expected losses including the revised coverage into their bids. In the 4th quarter of 2010 the asset discount on the deals with loss sharing increased over the prior quarters. Further, about 15 percent of transactions in 2010 didn’t include a loss sharing agreement, and in those transactions the asset discount was approximately twice as much as the loss sharing transactions. Our experience with bidders has been that they adjust to the changes in the FDIC structures.

Is this change in loss protection making traditional deals more competitive?

The changes in the loss sharing agreements do not appear to be changing the landscape. Bidders adjust their bids to encompass the expectations of losses. At the same time, buyers in traditional deals are including contingent payments, escrows and other holdbacks tied to credit performance as ways of providing some protection against future losses.

What are the impediments to getting traditional M&A deals done?

Capital is clearly an issue for many acquirers in traditional deals, and because the discounts on traditional deals are limited by the level of capital, some deals actually produce goodwill once the purchase accounting adjustments are all recorded. Regulators are expecting higher levels of capital and as a result the available buyer pool may be limited. Additionally, many potential sellers may be waiting until prices rebound and the returns to shareholders are maximized.

Potential acquirers are also weighing the ongoing costs of acquiring an institution with significant credit problems. The time and expense related to working out a significant number of problem credits can be prohibitive for some institutions. Finally, activity in certain states has been nominal in the last several years, so for buyers in those states, a potential transaction may be well outside their market area and that can be an impediment.

The Return of Darwinian Banking


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.

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“Unreal” Earnings

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.

Improving Trends

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.