2019 Mid-Year Bank M&A Outlook


merger-8-5-19.pngWhat might the second half of 2019 bring for bank mergers and acquisitions (M&A)?

The favorable drivers in the first half of 2019 — the regulatory landscape, enhanced earnings as a result of tax reform, desire for scale and efficiency, and the search for digital capabilities — will likely continue to be the catalysts for bank M&A activity in the second half of 2019. While the market has not seen a spike in the bank M&A deal volume, overall deal values continue to rise because of a few large transactions, including mergers with price tags of a $28 billion and a $3.6 billion. The following trends and drivers are expected to continue to have an impact on banking M&A activity in the second half of 2019 and beyond.

Intensifying Battle for Secured Customer Deposit Bases
U.S. banks’ deposit costs rose far more quickly than loan yields in the first quarter of 2019; further increases in deposit costs may prevent net interest margins from expanding in 2019. As the competition for deposits intensifies, buyers are increasingly looking for banks with a secured deposit base, especially those with a significant percentage. Moreover, as deposit betas accelerate — even as the Federal Open Market Committee slows rate hikes — it becomes more difficult for banks to grow deposits.

With the largest banks attempting to grow their deposit market share via organic customer growth, the regional and super regional banks are trying to develop similar presences through acquisitions. Banks that can navigate this rate environment ably should emerge as better-positioned acquirers via their stock currency, or sellers through the attractiveness of their funding base.

Favorable Regulatory Environment
Dodd-Frank regulations have eased over the past 12 months, increasing the threshold for added oversight and scrutiny from $50 billion in assets to $250 billion. Easing bank regulations and tax reforms that create surplus capital could continue driving regional and super regional consolidation. Moreover, banks with $250 billion to $700 billion in assets may continue to benefit in the second half of 2019 from a more-favorable regulatory landscape.

MOE’s Potential Change on the Competitive Landscape
There were a couple of mergers of equals (MOE) in the first half of 2019 that were welcomed by investors — an indication that the industry could be likely to see a rise in the volume of larger transactions in 2019. Regional banks that miss the MOE wave in the near term may soon find themselves without a “partner” after the initial wave of acquisitions occurs.

As the banks pressure-test their MOE strategy, the key may be to find a partner with strategic overlap to drive the synergies and justify the purchase price premium yet also provide an opportunity for growth and geographic footprint. Furthermore, unlike smaller tuck-ins, MOE requires additional strategic diligence and capabilities. This includes the ability to successfully integrate and scale capabilities, the ability to cross-sell to newly acquired segments, the ability to consolidate branches in overlapping markets and integrating divergent management processes and culture.

The Hunt for Digital Capabilities
Evolving consumer wants and the table stake needed to provide an integrated digital ecosystem are compelling many bank executives to differentiate themselves via technology and digital channels growth. Investors typically place a premium on digital-forward banks, driving up multiples for banks with efficient ecosystems of digital capabilities. The hunt for digital capabilities may provide an opportunity to not only add scale, but also transform legacy banks into agile, digital-first banks of the future.

Bank boards and executives should remain cognizant of above trends as they progress through their strategic M&A planning. Their resulting decisions — to be buyer, seller or an observer on the sidelines — may shape bank M&A activity in the second half of 2019 and into 2020.

Moreover, while the banks continue to assess the potential impact of the current expected credit loss (CECL) standard, the general market consensus is CECL may require a capital charge. As such, M&A credit due diligence should be treated as an investment in reducing future losses, even though the loan quality is currently viewed as benign. Successfully driving value from acquisitions while mitigating risks requires a focused lens on M&A strategy with the right set of tools, teams and processes to perform due diligence, execute and integrate as needed.

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What’s Trending at Acquire or Be Acquired 2019

Smart Leadership – Today’s challenges and opportunities point to one important solution: strong boards and executive teams.
Predicting The Future – Interest is growing around mergers of equals, commercial deposits and shifting team dynamics.
Board-Level Concerns – Three characteristics define the issues facing bank directors.
Spotlight on Diversity – Diverse backgrounds fuel stronger performance.
Digging into Strategic Issues – The end of the government shutdown could yield more IPOs.

Consolidating Technology for a Merger of Equals


merger-4-24-19.pngMergers of equals are gaining in popularity, judging by the flurry of recently announced deals, but a number of tough decisions about technology have to be made during the post-merger integration phase to set up the new bank for success.

After every deal, management teams are under a great deal of pressure to realize the deal’s projected expense savings as quickly as possible. While the average industry timeline to select and negotiate a core processing contract is nine months, a bank merger team has about a third of that time—the Cornerstone framework estimates 100 days—to choose not just the core, but all software as well, and to renegotiate pricing and contract terms for the most critical systems so that integration efforts can begin.

Start with the Core
A comparison of core systems is often the first order of business. These five factors are the most relevant in determining which solution will provide the best fit for the post-merger institution:

  • Products and services to be offered by the continuing bank. If one institution has a huge mortgage servicing portfolio or a deeper mix of commercial lending, complex credits and treasury management, the core system will need to support those products.
  • Compatibility and integration with preferred digital banking solutions. If one or both merger partners rely on the delivery channel systems offered by their core providers, the integration team should evaluate the core, online and mobile solutions as a bundled package. On the other hand, if the selection process favors a best-of-breed digital channel solution with more-sophisticated service offerings, that decision emphasizes the need for a core system that supports third-party integration.
  • Input from system users. The merger team must work closely with other departments to evaluate the functionality of the competing core systems for their operations and interfacing systems.
  • Contractual considerations. The costs of early contract termination with a core, loan origination, digital channel or other technology provider can be significant, to the point of taking priority over functionality considerations. If it is going to cost $4 million to get out of a digital banking contract, the continuing organization may be better off keeping that system, at least in the near-term.
  • Market trends. Post-merger, the combined bank will be operating at a new scale, so it may be instructive to look at what core systems other like-size financial institutions have chosen to run their operations.

A lot of factors come into play when the continuing bank is finalizing what that solution set looks like, but at the end of the day, it is about functionality, integration, cost and breadth of services.

Focus on the Top 20
The integration team should use a similar process to select the full complement of technology required to run a modern financial institution. Cornerstone suggests ranking the systems currently in operation at both banks by annual costs, based on accounts payable data sorted by vendor in descending order. Next, identify contract lifecycle details to compare the likely costs of continuing or ending each vendor relationship, including liquidated damages, deconversion fees and other expenses.

That analysis lays the groundwork to assess the features, functionality and pricing of like systems and rank which options would be most closely aligned with customer service strategies, system capabilities and cost efficiencies. It might seem that an objective, side-by-side comparison of technology systems should be a straightforward exercise, but emotions can get in the way.

A lot of people are highly passionate and have built their bank on being successful in the market. That passion may come shining through in these discussions—which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Working with an expert third party through the processes of system selection and contract negotiations can help provide an objective perspective and an insider’s view of market pricing. An experienced business partner can help technology integration teams and executives set up effective decision-making processes and navigate the novel challenges that may arise in realizing a central promise in a merger of equals—to create value through vendor cost reductions.

Toward that end, the due diligence process should identify about 20 contracts—for the core, online and mobile banking, treasury management, card processing and telecom systems, to name a few—to target for renegotiation in advance of the official merger date. A bank has hundreds of vendors to help run the enterprise, but it should focus most of the attention on the top 20. The bank can drive down costs through creative economies of scale by focusing on those contracts that are the most negotiable.

With its choice of two solutions for most systems and the promise of doubling volume for the selected vendors, the new bank can negotiate from an advantageous position. But its integration team must work quickly and efficiently to deliver on market expectations to assemble an optimal, cost-effective technology infrastructure—without cutting corners in the selection process and contract negotiations.

Think of this challenge like a dance. It is possible to speed up the tempo, but it is not possible to skip steps and expect to end up in the right place. The key components—the proper due diligence, financial reviews and evaluations—all still need to happen.

Download the free white paper, “Successfully Executing a Merger of Equals,” here.

Takeaways from the BB&T-SunTrust Merger


merger-2-27-19.pngIn early February, BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks, Inc. announced a so-called merger of equals in an all-stock transaction valued at $66 billion. The transaction is the largest U.S. bank merger in over a decade and will create the sixth-largest bank in the U.S. by assets and deposits.

While the transaction clearly is the result of two large regional banks wanting the additional scale necessary to compete more effectively with money center banks, banks of all sizes can draw important lessons from the announcement.

  • Fundamentals Are Fundamental. Investors responded favorably to the announcement because the traditional M&A metrics of the proposed transaction are solid. The transaction is accretive to the earnings of both banks and BB&T’s tangible book value, and generates a 5-percent dividend increase to SunTrust shareholders. 
  • Cost Savings and Scale Remain Critical. If deal fundamentals were the primary reason for the transaction’s positive reception, cost savings ($1.6 billion by 2022) were a close second and remain a driving force in bank M&A. The efficiency ratio for each bank now is in the low 60s. The projected 51 percent efficiency ratio of the combined bank shows how impactful cost savings and scale can be, even after factoring in $100 million to be invested annually in technology.
  • Using Scale to Leverage Investment. Scale is good, but how you leverage it is key. The banks cited greater scale for investment in innovation and technology to create compelling digital offerings as paramount to future success. This reinforces the view that investment in a strong technology platform, even on a much smaller scale than superregional and money center banks, are more critical to position a bank for success.
  • Mergers of Equals Can Be Done. Many have argued that mergers of equals can’t be done because there is really no such thing. There is always a buyer and a seller. Although BB&T is technically the buyer in this transaction, from equal board seats, to management succession, to a new corporate headquarters, to a new name, the parties clearly went the extra mile to ensure that the transaction was a true merger of equals, or at least the closest thing you can get to one. Mergers of equals are indeed difficult to pull off. But if two large regionals can do it, smaller banks can too.
  • Divestitures Will Create Opportunities. The banks have 740 branches within 2 miles of one another and are expected to close most of these. The Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Miami markets are expected to see the most branch closures, with significant concentrations also occurring elsewhere in Florida, Virginia, and the Carolinas. Deposit divestitures estimated at $1.4 billion could present opportunities for other institutions in a competitive environment for deposits. Deposit premiums could be high.
  • The Time to Invest in People is Now. Deals like this have the potential to create an opportunity for community banks and smaller regional banks particularly in the Southeast to attract talented employees from the affected banks. While some banks may be hesitant to invest in growth given the fragile state of the economy and the securities markets, they need to be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves.
  • Undeterred by SIFI Status. The combined bank will blow past the new $250 billion asset threshold to be designated as a systemically important financial institution (“SIFI”). While each bank was likely to reach the SIFI threshold on its own, they chose to move past it on their terms in a significant way. Increased scale is still the best way to absorb greater regulatory costs – and that is true for all banks.
  • Favorable Regulatory Environment, For Now. Most experts expect regulators to be receptive to large bank mergers. Although we expect plenty of public comment and skepticism from members of Congress, these efforts are unlikely to affect regulatory approvals in the current administration. It is possible, however, that the favorable regulatory environment for large bank mergers could end after the 2020 election, which could motivate other regionals to consider similar deals while the iron is hot.
  • Additional Deals Likely. The transaction may portend additional consolidation in the year ahead. As always, a changing competitive landscape will present both challenges and opportunities for the smaller community and regional banks in the market. Be ready!

Merger of Equals: Does 1 + 1 = 3?


merger-9-12-16.pngGiven today’s burdensome regulatory environment and complex business climate, many banks are evaluating different strategic alternatives as a means to grow. Mergers of equals (MOEs) are not always at the forefront of discussions when bank executives consider strategic alternatives, due to the social and cultural issues that can present roadblocks throughout the negotiation process.

It is vital to the success of a MOE that both parties come to terms on these issues early in the process to minimize the execution risk. When both parties of a MOE develop and align the structure of the transaction as well as the vision of the combined entity, MOEs can be executed successfully.

Historically, these issues have hindered MOE activity. Since 1990, MOEs have made up only 2.43 percent of total M&A transactions, reaching their peak (by number of deals) in 1998 before dropping off with the entire M&A market during the 2008 financial crisis. We are now seeing a resurgence in MOEs. As of Aug. 30, 2016, there have been seven MOEs this year making up 4.41 percent of total M&A activity in the community banking space. The banking industry has become increasingly more competitive in recent years, underscored by net interest margin compression as well as increased regulatory and compliance expenses. MOEs serve as an excellent alternative to cut costs, increase earnings, and gain size and scale.

In our eyes, successful MOEs cannot be forced; they are a marriage that must develop naturally between two institutions and their executives that have an amicable past with one another. They are most successful when the two banks’ philosophies and strategic visions align. While not every bank may be a fit for a MOE partner, we recommend that executives give consideration to merger opportunities, as a well-executed MOE can significantly enhance shareholder value.

MOEs present a significant opportunity to gain immediate size and scale that otherwise may not be achievable through small bank acquisitions. Achieving this size and scale will have a direct impact on the bottom line as the increasing regulatory burden can be spread across the firm while generating cost savings through the reduction of repetitive back office staff, overlapping branches, data processing contracts, and marketing expenses. Moreover, this will further enhance shareholder value through the pooling of talent and increased earnings stream generated by the bank, ultimately providing an opportunity for a higher takeout multiple in the event of a sale of the combined enterprise.

The market performance of MOE parties has reflected the positive impact that MOEs can have. When comparing the stock performance since January 2010 of both the accounting acquirer and accounting target (a merger of equals always has, for accounting purposes, an acquirer and a target), on average they have both outperformed their peers, beating the SNL US Bank & Thrift index three months after the announcement by 1.9 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively. Moreover, the pro forma bank has outperformed the SNL US Bank & Thrift index at both one- and two-year time frames after the mergers have closed; the average stock price change of the pro forma bank one-year post closing is 15.9 percent compared to 8.9 percent for the SNL US Bank & Thrift index and over two years is 22.0 percent compared to 13.3 percent.

Additionally, the combined enterprise has also performed well financially. The average pro forma bank has increased both return on average assets (ROAA) and return on average equity (ROAE) one and two years after the transaction closing.

Average Pro Forma Bank Before and After a Merger of Equals

merger-graph.png

Source: S&P 500 Market Intelligence
Note: ROAA and ROAE for acquirer and target are as of the quarter prior to transaction announcement. Includes select MOE transactions from 1/1/2010 to 8/28/2016 in which the accounting buyer is publicly traded; includes 12 transactions. Transactions in which ROAA and/or ROAE are not available for specific time periods are excluded from average ROAA and/or ROAE calculations.

When a MOE is well executed it can bolster earnings, gain scale, increase efficiency and improve products and practices, ultimately creating a stronger combined institution. In these cases, the whole is greater than the sum-of-the-parts and 1 + 1 = 3.

Four Predictions for Bank M&A in 2016



M&A pricing and shareholder activism are both on the rise as 2015 comes to a close. In this video, Peter Weinstock, a partner at Hunton & Williams LLP, outlines his predictions for bank M&A in 2016.

  • Will sellers command a higher price in 2016?
  • How will deals be structured?
  • Will there be more shareholder activism?
  • Where will community banks find growth opportunities?

Building a Better Mousetrap: Executing a Merger of Equals


10-6-14-bryan-cave.pngWith merger activity on the rise during 2014, some boards of directors are considering whether the time is right for their financial institution to find a strategic partner. These boards, particularly those serving institutions with less than $1 billion in assets, may believe their banks need to gain size and scope to maintain a competitive footing. However, these boards may also want to maintain the strategic direction of the institution or capture additional returns on their shareholders’ investment. For these boards, a merger of equals with a similarly-situated financial institution may hold the greatest appeal, as a combined institution could gain greater competitive resources and additional return for its investors than if it were to remain an independent institution. Although a merger of equals may be appealing to both management and the board, the particular circumstances required to execute such a transaction can often be elusive. A merger of equals may involve structural considerations that are slightly different from other acquisitions:

  • Geography. The merging institutions typically have complementary, rather than overlapping, market areas. Some commonality among the markets is helpful, but significant overlap can eliminate many of the synergies associated with a merger.
  • Competitive Advantages. A merger of equals may make sense for financial institutions that have different specialties or expertise. For example, a bank with a high volume of commercial real estate loans may be able to diversify into C&I by finding the right merger partner. Deposit pricing can also create attractive opportunities, with low-cost deposits from slower-growing markets funding loan growth in an adjacent market.
  • Enhanced Currency. Mergers of equals are usually stock deals, allowing the shareholders of each institution to maintain their investment in the combined company. The goal is for the value of the combined entities’ stock to receive an uptick in value at the conclusion of not only the initial merger, but also upon the ultimate sale of the combined institution.
  • Management Integration. Combining the management teams and the boards into an effective team for the surviving bank without bruising egos can be challenging. However, a common goal and meaningful relationships between members of the leadership team of the two institutions can be helpful in finding a path forward.

If two like-minded banks are able to identify each other, negotiating the terms of the transaction can be a complex process, as many management and cultural issues must be resolved prior to entry into the merger agreement. Who is going to be the chief executive officer of the combined institution? Who is going to be on the board? Often, new employment agreements will be negotiated in order to lock in the new management team through the integration of the two institutions. The merger partners should also use the negotiation process to formulate an identity for the resulting bank. While a strategic plan for the combined institution is not a component of the merger agreement, a merger of equals demands that the two merger partners work together to chart a future course for the combined company. Unlike other acquisitions, where the work of integration will begin in earnest following the signing of the merger agreement, formulating a management team, as well as the strategic and business plans of the combined bank, starts at the negotiating table in a merger of equals.

Accordingly, executing a merger of equals can be very difficult. These transactions require each party to approach most matters with trust and with a clean slate, because there is no presumption that one institution’s process is better than the other. Having full buy-in from the respective management teams is essential, as the process for building a new bank can be tedious and can challenge long-standing practices in each institution. But it is through this hard work that a merger of equals can be so powerful, for it provides an opportunity to incorporate the best ideas and people from two successful organizations into a single institution.

So while the successful execution of a merger of equals can be challenging, with the right partner and commitment from the management and boards of directors of each bank, it can result in a bank that is greater than its two component institutions. Innovation is never easy, but building a better institution for your customers and shareholders rarely is.

The Merger Window for Small Regional Banks is Already Closing


3-3-14-Jefferies.pngLast year I wrote an article for BankDirector.com entitled “Winning Over Shareholders with a Well-Constructed Merger.” In it, I laid out several suggestions for boards on how to structure a merger transaction that investors support. Also at this time last year, several investment bankers who presented at the Acquire or Be Acquired Conference advocated reasonably priced stock-for-stock mergers as the best M&A alternative for community and regional banks. In an instance of investment bankers correctly predicting a trend (many would say a rare instance), 2013 was in fact characterized by a series of well-structured mergers which produced a dramatic improvement in shareholder reaction to bank M&A.

Banks under $10 billion in assets have had an unprecedented opportunity to pursue merger transactions while larger regional banks have remained on the sidelines.

The preferred transaction structure of 2013 and early 2014 has been the friendly all stock (or nearly all stock) merger with the following characteristics:

  • two banks of similar size
  • exchange ratio and financial projections that produce shared long term upside
  • price to tangible book value premiums below historic bank M&A averages
  • meaningful non-financial deal terms for seller
  • continuity of interest for both sides rather than a full change of control

I think there are a number of factors that will change the bank M&A environment as we move through 2014. In general, I expect a more competitive environment to emerge as the number of willing buyers gradually increases and the ability of sellers to pick the “friendliest” potential merger partner decreases. There will be more focus on price by selling shareholders and greater scrutiny of merger transactions, especially those labeled as mergers of equals (MOEs).

This is not to disparage the shared upside merger model or the many excellent transactions that have been announced in the past year. Rather, it is to caution boards that they will need to adjust their M&A planning as the environment changes.

Boards should consider the following environmental changes:

  • Large regional banks (assets greater than $20 billion) will gradually become more active in traditional bank M&A assuming a successful round of regulatory stress testing and capital reviews.
  • Banks that have already announced and integrated a recent merger and benefited from increased market valuation and balance sheet capacity are better positioned to be aggressive pursuing their next target and will be less likely to make major concessions on non-financial issues.
  • Investors have become more tolerant of buyers paying market premiums.
  • Banks that have not been able to execute a well-received M&A transaction will be under increased pressure to find a deal that works.
  • Fewer potential buyers are feeling restrained by concerns over regulatory approval.
  • The overall health of the industry continues to improve and more banks are able to consider acquisitions.

Also, a potential risk to M&A transactions is the possibility of an interloper disrupting an announced transaction. Boards need to consider a gradual increase in the number of potential buyers and in the capacity of these buyers to pay a meaningful premium. This risk remains limited but it is increasing.

For many healthy banks in good markets there has been only one viable buyer or merger partner. This situation will change and a merger may be more difficult to justify to shareholders if they perceive that a higher price is available from another bank.

Thus, selling banks may find more willing buyers and higher prices than was the case in the past several years. However, they will have less ability to merge with their preferred long term partner if that partner cannot be competitive on price.

Buying banks will encounter more competition and those with weaker relative multiples or less balance sheet capacity will not be able to structure deals that work.

The level and nature of M&A activity that we will see in 2014 and beyond is of course governed by many difficult to predict factors. For instance, a volatile bank stock market is always detrimental to deal activity. Also, if any of the 2013 vintage deals run into integration problems, investor receptivity to new deals will decline.

The window of available deals for smaller banks may be closing, but likely will remain open for at least the first half of 2014. However, boards should not be lulled into assuming that they can execute their preferred merger at any time and in any market. Do it while you can.

Getting to Strong: Should Your Bank Acquire?


2-28-14-KPMG.pngWith the number of bank mergers thus far in 2014 marginally ahead of the pace set in the same period last year, it is tempting to think that this could be the year when the much-anticipated mergers and acquisitions (M&A) wave finally materializes. SNL Financial reported that 14 deals were announced in January, two more than the 12 in the same period last year, and—perhaps more interestingly—the median price-to-tangible book ratio of the deals had risen 43 basis points to 140.86 percent, compared to January 2013.

As encouraging as that report might be, no one at this point can say with any confidence that the M&A engine is primed to roar. Nevertheless, KPMG LLP’s view of the marketplace allows us to suggest that, if nothing else, it makes sense for hundreds of banks and thrifts to merge, acquire or form strategic alliances. Let’s list a handful of factors we believe auger well for the M&A pace to pick up:

Not a week has gone by in the past several months, it seems, without any of us hearing about the growing popularity of a “merger of equals’’ in the industry as a way for the smaller-asset banks to combine strengths to compete with bigger, stronger banks. After all, that “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em’’ posture fits with one of the key findings of KPMG LLP’s 2013 Community Banking Outlook Survey. A hefty 77 percent of respondents in the November 2013 survey said they believe a bank must achieve an asset level of at least $1 billion or more to remain independent in today’s market.

Then, there are the other reasons in the litany of drivers arguing that smaller banks join with peers or sell to bigger brethren in more deals: the escalating costs associated with staying in compliance with regulatory demands, the attractiveness of spreading into new geographies where specific demographics would make sense for expansion, and the attractiveness of acquiring a competitor that holds rich talent to drive new sources of revenue or to enhance technological capabilities.

On the flip side, it’s always prudent to be aware of “deal fever,’’ a desire to do a deal just to do a deal— which can be brought on by a sometimes poorly thought out plan to buy or sell just because others around you are doing deals. Our belief is that the chances of a successful deal are enhanced when the board and management team maintain a rigorous target-selection process that strictly focuses on strategic alignment. There must be a fit, a focus, and a follow through—without shortcuts.

As part of our panel discussion at Bank Director’s recent Acquire or Be Acquired conference, Roberto Herencia, chairman at FirstBancorp and FirstBank Puerto Rico, also reminded us that, because banks are sold, and not bought, acquirers will need to sharpen their business cases. An acquirer, therefore, must frequently convince a reluctant target that a sale make sense for both parties, and equally must respect the emotions of the sellers as much as dollar and cents, because of the role that smaller banks play in the fabric of smaller communities.

That said, we also believe that deals today must be game changers, given that so much time and effort is required in the current highly regulated environment, and that many targets may still struggle with possible toxic assets on the books. Such realities, in our view, mean most of the sellers will be in the $500-million to $2.5-billion asset range, which encompasses about 1,000 banks.

Through it all, we would argue that bank directors must have comfort that management presents the board with documentation that a target is aligned with the bank’s strategic objectives, that the deal has passed through the critical pre-signing phase where significant value drivers have been vetted, and that there has been an aggressive focus on risk and synergy implications. Further, no deal can be successful without the board having evidence that an effective governance structure— complete with realistic processes—has been established.