How Future Consolidation Will Change the Value of a Branch

consolidation-3-3-17.pngTwo long-term trends that have helped shape the banking industry as we know it today are consolidation and the shift from physical distribution built around branches to digital channels, including mobile. Although we tend to think of consolidation and the shift toward digital as separate but parallel evolutionary forces, they are beginning to interact in ways that could impact the bank mergers and acquisitions (M&A) market going forward.

The number of bank branches has been steadily declining since 2009, when they peaked at 89,775, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. There was a glut of de novo branches from 2004 to 2007 when, according to veteran bank analyst Tom Brown, founder and CEO of the New York-based hedge fund Second Curve Capital, the popular deposit gathering strategy of many banks was to flood their markets with lots of new brick and mortar in order to sell free checking programs. “Before long, the landscape was littered with redundant, expensive, new bank branches,” writes Brown in his February 17 weekly newsletter. “All this at a time, remember, when consumer behavior was starting to move away from branch banking and toward online banking.”

The seminal event in 2008 was, of course, the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the advent of the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Since 2009, the number of U.S. bank branches has declined to 83,768 at the end of the third quarter of 2016, or by 6.7 percent. Brown has argued for years that the industry needs to reduce the size of its brick-and-mortar distribution system at a much faster pace. “[As] I’ve said many times, that’s still way too many branches,” Brown writes in his newsletter. “Consumer behavior toward online, non-branch banking isn’t growing at a slow, linear pace, but rather exponentially. A mere 7 percent reduction this decade after the reckless expansion the prior decade isn’t nearly enough.”

And this is where these separate trend lines of consolidation and distribution could begin to merge. For one thing, the quickening pace of the industry’s shift toward digital distribution—most banks have been seeing declines in branch traffic for several years now, which is the primary reason they’ve been closing branches in the first place—could have an impact on a seller’s valuations. If branches are a fixed asset of declining importance (and therefore declining value), how much will an acquirer be willing to pay for them? In an interview, Brown says this impact has already begun to occur. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when you did your due diligence on a target, you wanted to see that their branches were owned,” he says. “Today when you evaluate a target, the last thing you want to see is branches with long-term leases.”

It could also be that consolidation will hasten the reduction of branches because they offer a plum cost-takeout target in an acquisition. If a bank’s branch system is one of the most significant components of its cost structure, and if branches are of declining value as the industry continues its shift toward digital distribution, then one of the best ways that a buyer can reduce costs in the combined bank is by closing branches. Cost-takeout deals aren’t new in banking. They were very popular back in the ‘80s when they were the principal merger model. But branches were a much more valuable asset back then, and therefore did not bear the brunt of post-merger cost cutting. It’s a different game today. “It’s not going to be about PNC Financial moving out to the West Coast and buying Western Alliance,” says Brown. “It’s going to be a $20 billion bank buying a $5 billion bank and closing all sorts of branches.”

Do the Regulators Want Bigger Banks?

big-banks-12-2-16.pngOne of the more intriguing story lines of the banking industry’s consolidation since the financial crisis is the persistent belief that federal regulators privately want a more concentrated industry with fewer banks because it would be easier for them to supervise, and they signal their support for this laissez-faire policy every time they approve an acquisition.

Consider this comment from a respondent to our 2017 Bank M&A Survey: “Regulators are actively trying to reduce the number of charters, to reduce their workload and to give them control, with fewer institutions to supervise. While they do not openly admit it, every agency has admitted to me that they would prefer fewer institutions. This will cause more consolidation.” Implicit in this perception is the assumption of regulatory bias against the thousands of small banks that dot the industry landscape. The aforementioned respondent to our survey was a director at a bank with less than $500 million in assets.

Are the regulators really guiding the industry’s consolidation with a hidden hand? Looking back to the mid-1980s, I think it’s impossible to argue that the last five presidents and 11 secretaries of the Treasury (not to mention numerous federal regulators) were opposed to the idea of consolidation as the industry shrunk from 14,884 insured institutions in 1984 to 6,058 as of June 2016, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The most intense period of consolidation was probably a 20-year period, beginning in 1984, where the industry shrank to just 7,842 insured institutions by the end of 2003—nearly a 50 percent reduction!

I found this observation in a 2005 article in FDIC Banking Review, entitled “Consolidation in the U.S. Banking Industry: Is the Long, Strange Trip About to End?” “Over the two decades 1984 to 2003, the structure of the U.S. banking industry indeed underwent an almost unprecedented transformation—one marked by a substantial decline in the number of commercial banks and savings institutions and by a growing concentration of industry assets among a few dozen extremely large financial institutions. This is not news.” And if it wasn’t news in 2005, it certainly shouldn’t be news today.

I think a more interesting question is whether the collective governmental brainpower seriously considered the systemic ramifications of a more concentrated industry—especially the creation of megabanks like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp. Those three institutions, along with Citigroup, rank as the four largest U.S. banks and collectively held 40 percent of the industry’s total deposits and 42 percent of its total assets as of September 2016, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

It was the fear that a large bank would fail during the financial crisis, worsening the situation even further, that led to the controversial and much criticized industry bailout and provided the emotional fuel in Congress to pass the Dodd-Frank Act. Even today, approximately seven years after the crisis passed, we are still debating whether another unofficial governmental policy from years past—too big to fail—could be deployed in times of emergency despite the efforts of the framers of Dodd-Frank to kill it once and for all. I would say that Washington ended up getting exactly what it had wanted over the last three decades—a more concentrated industry with fewer banks—but doesn’t seem to be very comfortable with the outcome.

Another interesting question is when will consolidation end? It’s taken as gospel that the four megabanks will not be allowed to do any more acquisitions because they’re already too large, and most of the M&A activity in recent years has been in the community bank sector, where individual banks do not pose a systemic threat to the economy. But is there a number at which point the regulators, Congress or some future presidential administration would say enough? A more concentrated industry poses systemic risks of its own, so does Washington reverse its laissez-faire policy when we reach 5,000 banks, or 3,500, or even 2,000?

If anyone in Washington has an answer to that question, I’d love to hear it. Then again, President-Elect Trump fits the description of a laissez-faire capitalist as well as anyone, so maybe he’ll let the banking industry seek its own final number.