An M&A Checklist for BOLI, Compensation Programs

As bank M&A activity continues to pick up, it is crucial that buyers and sellers understand the implications of any transaction on bank-owned life insurance portfolios, as well as any associated nonqualified deferred compensation (NQDC) programs, to mitigate potential negative tax consequences.

Identify and Review Target Bank’s BOLI Holdings
The first step is for buyers to identify the total cash surrender value of sellers’ BOLI portfolio and its percentage of regulatory capital. The buyer should identify the types of products held and the amount held in each of the three common BOLI product types:

  • General account
  • Hybrid separate account
  • Separate account (registered or private placement)

In addition to evaluating historical and current policy performance, the buyer should also obtain and evaluate carrier financial and credit rating information for all products, as well as underlying investment fund information for any separate account products.

Accounting and Tax Considerations
From an accounting standpoint, the buyer should ensure that the BOLI has been both properly accounted for in accordance with GAAP (ASC 325-30) and reported in the call reports, with related disclosures of product types and risk weighting. Further, if the policies are associated with a post-retirement split-dollar or survivor income plan, the buyer should ensure that the liabilities have been properly accrued for.

The structure of the transaction as a stock sale or asset sale is critical when assessing the tax implications. In general, with a stock sale, there is no taxable transaction with regard to BOLI — assets and liabilities “carry over” to the buyer. With an asset sale (or a stock sale with election to treat as asset sale), the seller will recognize the accumulated gain in the policies and the buyer will assume the policies with a stepped-up basis.

Regardless of the type of transaction, the buyer needs to evaluate and address the Transfer for Value (TFV) and Reportable Policy Sale (RPS) issues. Policies deemed “transferred for value” or a “reportable policy sale” will result in taxable death benefits. Prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the transfer for value analysis was fairly simple: In a stock transaction, the “carryover basis” exception applies to all policies, whether or not the insured individual remained actively employed. In an asset sale, policies on insureds who will be officers or shareholders of the acquiring bank will meet an exception.

The Jobs Act enacted the notion of “reportable policy sales,” which complicated the tax analysis, especially for stock-based transactions now requiring much more detailed analysis of the type of transaction and entity types (C Corp vs S Corp). It is important to note that the RPS rules are in addition to the TFV rule.

Review Risk Management of BOLI
The Interagency Statement on the Purchase and Risk Management of BOLI (OCC 2004-56) establishes requirements for banks to properly document both their pre-purchase due diligence, as well as an annual review of their BOLI programs. The buyer will want to ensure this documentation is in good order. Significant risk considerations include carrier credit quality, policy performance, employment status of insureds, 1035 exchange restrictions or fees and the tax impact of any policy surrenders. Banks should pay particular attention to ensuring that policies are performing efficiently as well as the availability of opportunities to improve policy performance.

Identify and Review NQDC plans
Nonqualified deferred compensation plans can take several forms, including:

  • Voluntary deferred compensation programs
  • Defined benefit plans
  • Defined contributions plans
  • Director deferral or retirement plans
  • Split dollar
  • Other

All plans should be formally documented via plan documents and agreements. Buyers should ascertain that the plans comply with the requirements of Internal Revenue Code Section 409A and that the appropriate “top hat” filings have been made with the U.S. Department of Labor.

General Accounting and Tax Considerations
Liabilities associated with NQDC programs should be accounted for properly on the balance sheet. In evaluating the liabilities, banks should give consideration to the accounting method and the discount rates.

Reviewing historical payroll tax reporting related to the NQDC plans is critical to ensuring there are no hidden liabilities in the plan. Remediating improperly reported payroll taxes for NQDC plans can be both time consuming and expensive. Seek to resolve any reporting issues prior to the deal closure.

Change in Control Accounting and Tax Considerations
More often than not, NQDC plans provide for benefit acceleration in the event of a change in control (CIC), including benefit vesting and/or payments CIC. The trigger may be the CIC itself or a secondary “trigger,” such as termination of employment within a certain time period following a CIC. It is imperative that the buyer understand the financial statement impact of the CIC provisions within the programs.

In addition to the financial statement impact, C corps must also contend with what can be complicated taxation issues under Internal Revenue Code Section 280G, as well as any plan provisions addressing the tax issues of Section 280G. S corps are not subject to the provisions of Section 280G. For additional insight into the impacts of mergers on NQDC programs, see How Mergers Can Impact Deferred Compensation Plans Part I and How Mergers Can Impact Deferred Compensation Plans Part II. 

Insurance services provided through NFP Executive Benefits, LLC. (NFP EB), a subsidiary of NFP Corp. (NFP). Doing business in California as NFP Executive Benefits & Insurance Agency, LLC. (License #OH86767). Securities offered through Kestra Investment Services, LLC, member FINRA/SIPC. Kestra Investment Services, LLC is not affiliated with NFP or NFP EB.
Investor Disclosures: https://bit.ly/KF-Disclosures

How Banks Can Leverage Niche With M&A

After a year of formidable industry change, bank merger and acquisition activity is beginning to bounce back.

July’s 19 announced transactions brings this year’s total to 116 deal announcements so far, compared with 111 overall in 2020, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence. Financial institutions are looking to make strategic investments; post-pandemic, that means building seamless digital experiences at a lower cost remains a top priority.

This is a prime opportunity for banks to revisit the outdated traditional playbook of converting newly acquired customers. The conventional model of post-M&A communication is packed with marketing jargon like “commitment” and “service,” followed by a barrage of letters that make it difficult for customers to know what to expect from their new financial partner.

The goal of this approach has always been to reduce churn. But it has led to stagnant or low growth in wallet share and overlooked chances to build stronger relationships. One in four customers surveyed by BankingExchange took some form of action due to an acquisition: 5% closed their account, and an additional 22% eventually opened an account with another financial entity. Customers are increasingly willing to bank elsewhere if their financial needs are not being met.

Financial institutions need a new conversion playbook to keep old customers happy and new customers engaged. Banks should look beyond generic tactics and think like brands to make the M&A process smoother. This approach means the institution isn’t thinking about messaging as a box to check, focusing instead on the customer experience and brainstorming fresh and creative ways to communicate. Brand identity and emotion play a critical role in customer retention. According to a Deloitte study, over 35% of respondents who switched banks cited emotional reasons — they felt their bank was too large to care about their financial needs anymore.

Embracing a new acquisition model requires a proactive approach to post-merger communications and strategy. Framing a compelling story, integrating complex technology and bringing together multiple teams is achievable — but takes time and attention to detail.

A Fresh Approach to the M&A Playbook
Post-deal communications require a fresh approach to connecting emotionally and digitally with new customers. Forming deeper connections and reaching new opportunities for growth requires starting with an innovative model that leverages niche-focused products and services to create a greater affinity with the growing customer base.

Although a niche strategy isn’t an entirely new concept, it’s one of the most undervalued assets used by banks today. “Superior customer value occurs when a company can offer either a unique bundle of value, a comparable value at a lower cost than the competition or a combination of differentiated value and low cost,” research shows. Delivering tailored financial products to niche customer segments allows banks to build a brand that appeals to a new category of customers, creating a lasting connection and brand affinity.

Engaging a niche audience doesn’t mean your bank changes its foundation; it means focusing more deeply on an underserved segment of your newly acquired customer base to deliver a more robust and connected experience. Start by identifying these underserved markets with data to determine what opportunities exist. Maybe there’s a high concentration of gig workers who could benefit from new or newly combined digital bank offerings. As the acquiring bank, you could build an experience that meets these needs and the needs of other gig workers in your current customer base and communities.

This is a prime opportunity to jumpstart research, initiate conversations and craft meaningful marketing strategies that will delight your new audience. The standard welcome letter will not generate the same excitement as a bespoke campaign inviting gig workers to take part in building innovative products that will empower them to manage and grow their finances. This proactive approach demonstrates your dedication to providing top-notch customer services and solidifies your commitment to investing in each individual member.

Banks that take advantage of the new growth opportunities in today’s M&A landscape can move to a truly innovative approach that leverages data analytics to identify, differentiate and deliver value, leading to greater affinity and sustainable growth. Banks are poised to foster deeper trust in their new customers by building brands that deliver focused financial services for specific needs, ultimately creating lifetime value.

Motivation for Mergers Will Grow as Interest Rates, Loan Growth Stay Low

The pace of announced mergers among rated U.S. banks has accelerated and is likely to gain steam.

The limited prospect of material loan growth makes asset growth via mergers and acquisitions increasingly attractive. And as we anticipated, more banks are favoring large transformational deals. We expect the industry will continue to consolidate in the second half of 2021. Greater size and efficiency will remain primary drivers of consolidation in the face of continued low interest rates, as will the imperative to invest in new technologies at scale.

  • There was a substantial jump in transformational M&A activity during the second quarter. Four sizable deals were announced in the period, and each envisions an enlarged entity that benefits from greater diversification and economies of scale. All four transactions promise eventual benefits for creditors, but each presents significant execution risk that is an immediate credit negative.
  • The main drivers of consolidation will continue for the next 12 to 18 months. Interest rates are unlikely to rise until 2023, increasing the likelihood of a jump in M&A activity. Technology upgrades will require substantial investment, which prospective cost savings from acquisitions can help fund. And loan growth will remain subdued because of the massive deposit holdings of U.S. companies and households.
  • Difficulty forecasting business activity and loan growth, as well as rising bank share prices, may have held back some deals. The value of an acquisition target is harder to gauge in an uncertain economic and market environment, which likely helped slow overall sector consolidation in 2020 and first quarter 2021, but nonetheless did not prevent the prominent deals we highlight in this report.

Data Considerations for Successful Deal Integration

Bank M&A activity is heating up in 2021; already, a number of banks have announced deals this year. Is your bank considering a combination with another institution?

Banks initiate mergers because of synergies between institutions, and to achieve economies of scale along with anticipated cost savings. Acquiring institutions typically intend to leverage the newly acquired customer base, but this can be difficult to execute upon without a data strategy.

Whether your bank is considering are buying or selling, it has never been more important to evaluate whether your data house is in order. Unresolved acquisition data challenges can result in poor customer experiences, inaccurate reporting and significant inefficiency after the merger closes. What causes these types of data challenges?

  • Both institutions possess massive volumes of data and multiple systems, while disparate systems prevent a holistic view of the combined entity. In a merger, the acquirer does not have access to the target’s data until legal close, and data is not consolidated until the core conversion is completed.
  • Systems are often antiquated, and it is difficult to access high-value customer data. Data integrity is often an issue that impedes anticipated synergies that could promote revenue generation.
  • Absence of enterprise knowledge or insight into target’s customer portfolio. This makes it difficult to identify growth opportunities and plan the strategy for the combined institution. It also creates a barrier to pivoting in the event a key relationship manager leaves the institution.

Baltimore-based Howard Bancorp has conducted five successful acquisitions in the last eight years. Steven Poynot, Howard’s CIO, recommends looking internally first and getting your house in order prior to any merger. “If you don’t understand all of the pieces of your bank’s data and portfolio well, how are you going to overlay your information in combination with the other bank’s data for reporting?”

Five solutions to merger data challenges include:

  • Create a data governance strategy before a deal is in the works. Identify the source and location of all pertinent data. Evaluate whether customer data is clean and up to date. Stale customer information such as old land line phone numbers and inaccurate email addresses yield roadblocks for relationship managers attempting to use data effectively. If your bank does identify data issues, implement a clean-up project based on a data governance policy framework. This initiative will benefit all banks, not just those looking to merge.
  • Develop an M&A integration plan that sets expectations and goals. Involve the CIO quickly and identify tools needed for the integration. Make a strategic determination of what data fields need to be integrated for reporting purposes. Acquire tools to allow for enterprise reporting and to highlight sales opportunities. Partner with vendors who understand the specific challenges of the banking industry.
  • Unify Disparate Systems. Prioritize data integration with a seamless transition for customers as the top priority. Plan for mapping and consolidating data along with reporting for the combined institution. Take product and data mapping beyond what is needed for the system mapping required for core integration. Use the information gleaned from the data to support product analytics, risk assessment, business development and cross selling strategies. The goal is to combine and integrate systems quickly to leverage the data as an asset.
  • Discourage Data Silos. Make data available and easily accessible to all who need it to do their jobs. Banking is a relationship business, and relationship managers need current customer relationship information readily available to them.
  • Analyze. Once the data has been consolidated, analyze and leverage it to identify opportunities that will drive revenue.

In a merger, the sooner that data is combined, the earlier decisions can be made from the information. As data silos are removed and data becomes easily accessible across the organization, data becomes an enterprise-wide asset that can be used effectively in the bank’s strategy.

Navigating Four Common Post-Signing Requests for Additional Information

Consolidation in the banking industry is heating up. Regulatory compliance costs, declining economies of scale, tiny net interest margins, shareholder liquidity demands, concerns about possible changes in tax laws and succession planning continue driving acquisitions for strategic growth.

Unlike many industries, where the signing and closing of an acquisition agreement may be nearly simultaneous, the execution of a definitive acquisition agreement in the bank space is really just the beginning of the acquisition process. Once the definitive agreement is executed, the parties begin compiling the information necessary to complete the regulatory applications that must be submitted to the appropriate state and federal bank regulatory agencies. Upon receipt and a quick review of a filed application, the agencies send an acknowledgement letter and likely a request for additional information. The comprehensive review begins under the relevant statutory factors and criteria found in the Bank Merger Act, Bank Holding Company Act or other relevant statutes or regulations. Formal review generally takes 30 to 60 days after an application is “complete.”

The process specifically considers, among other things: (1) competitive factors; (2) the financial and managerial resources and future prospects of the company or companies and the banks concerned; (3) the supervisory records of the financial institutions involved; (4) the convenience and needs of the communities to be served and the banks’ Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) records; (5) the effectiveness of the banks in combating money laundering activities; and (6) the extent to which a proposal would result in greater or more concentrated risks to the stability of the United States banking or financial system.

During this process, the applicant and regulator will exchange questions, answers, and clarifications back and forth in order to satisfy the applicable statutory factors or decision criteria towards final approval of the transaction. Each of the requests for additional information and clarifications are focused on making sure that the application record is complete. Just because information or documents are shared during the course of the supervisory process does not mean that the same information or documents will not be requested during the application process. The discussions and review of materials during the supervisory process is separate from the “application record,” so it helps bank management teams to be prepared to reproduce information already shared with the supervisory teams. A best practice for banks is to document what happens during the supervisory process so they have it handy in case something specific is re-requested as part of an application.

Recently, we consistently received a number of requests for additional information that include questions not otherwise included in the standard application forms. Below, we review four of the more common requests.

1. Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Regulators are requesting additional information focused on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Both state and federal regulators are requesting a statement on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that discusses the impact on capital, asset quality, earnings, liquidity and the local economy. State and federal agencies are including a request to discuss trends in delinquency loan modifications and problem loans when reviewing the impact on asset quality, and an estimate for the volume of temporary surge deposits when reviewing the impact on liquidity.

2. Additional, Specific Financial Information. Beyond the traditional pro forma balance sheets and income statements that banks are accustomed to providing as part of the application process, we are receiving rather extensive requests for additional financial information and clarifications. Two specific requests are particular noteworthy. First, a request for financial information around potential stress scenarios, which we are receiving for acquirors and transactions of all sizes.

Second, and almost as a bolt-on to the stress scenario discussion, are the requests related to capital planning. These questions focus on the acquiror’s plan where financial targets are not met or the need to raise capital arises due to a stressed environment. While not actually asking for a capital plan, the agencies have not been disappointed to receive one in response to this line of inquiry.

3. List of Shareholders. Regardless of whether the banks indicate potential changes in the ownership structure of an acquiror or whether the consideration is entirely cash from the acquiror, agencies (most commonly the Federal Reserve), are requesting a pro forma shareholder listing for the acquiror. Specifically, this shareholder listing should break out those shareholders acting in concert that will own, control, or hold with power to vote 5% or more of an acquiring BHC. Consider this an opportunity for both the acquiror and the Federal Reserve to make sure control filings related to the acquiror are up to date.

4. Integration. Finally, requests for additional information from acquirors have consistently included a request for a discussion on integration of the target, beyond the traditional due diligence line of inquiry included in the application form. The questions focus on how the acquiror will effectively oversee the integration of the target, given the increase in assets size. Acquirors are expected to include a discussion of plan’s to bolster key risk management functions, internal controls, and policies and procedures. Again, we are receiving this request regardless of the size of the acquiror, target or transaction, even in cases where the target is less than 10% of the size of the acquiror.

These are four of the more common requests for additional information that we have encountered as deal activity heats up. As consolidation advances and more banks file applications, staff at the state and federal agencies may take longer to review and respond to applications matters. We see these common requests above as an opportunity to provide more material in the initial phase of the application process, in order to shorten the review timeframe and back and forth as much as possible. In any event, acquirors should be prepared to respond to these requests as part of navigating the regulatory process post-signing.

2021 Compensation Survey Results: Fighting for Talent

Did Covid-19 create an even more competitive landscape for financial talent?

Most banks increased pay and expanded benefits during the pandemic, according to Bank Director’s 2021 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Newcleus Compensation Advisors. The results provide a detailed exploration of employee benefits, in addition to talent and culture trends, CEO performance and pay, and director compensation. 

Eighty-two percent of respondents say their bank expanded or introduced remote work options in response to Covid-19. Flexible scheduling was also broadly expanded or introduced, and more than half say their bank offers caregiver leave. In addition, most offered bonuses to front-line workers, and 62% say their bank awarded bonuses tied to Paycheck Protection Program loans, primarily to lenders and loan production staff.     

And in a year that witnessed massive unemployment, most banks kept employees on the payroll.

Just a quarter of the CEOs, human resources officers, board members and other executives who completed the survey say their bank decreased staff on net last year, primarily branch employees. More than 40% increased the number employed overall in their organization, with respondents identifying commercial and mortgage lending as key growth areas, followed by technology.

The 2021 Compensation Survey was conducted in March and April of 2021. Looking at the same months compared to 2020, the total number of employees remained relatively steady year over year for financial institutions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

Talent forms the foundation of any organization’s success. Banks are no exception, and they proved to be stable employers during trying, unprecedented times.

But given the industry’s low unemployment rate, will financial institutions — particularly smaller banks that don’t offer robust benefit packages like their larger peers — be able to attract and retain the employees they need? The majority — 79% — believe their institution can effectively compete for talent against technology companies and other financial services companies. However, the smallest banks express less confidence, indicating a growing chasm between those that can attract the talent they need to grow, and those forced to make do with dwindling resources. 

Key Findings

Perennial Challenges
Tying compensation to performance (43%) and managing compensation and benefit costs (37%) remain the top two compensation challenges reported by respondents. Just 27% say that adjusting to a post-pandemic work environment is a top concern.

Cultural Shifts
Thirty-nine percent believe that remote work hasn’t changed their institution’s culture, and 38% believe the practice has had a positive effect. However, one-quarter believe remote work has negatively affected their bank’s culture.

M&A Plans
As the industry witnesses a resurgence of bank M&A, more than half have a change-in-control agreement in place for their CEO; 10% put one in place in the last year.

Commercial Loan Demand
More than one-quarter of respondents say their bank has adjusted incentive plan goals for commercial lenders, anticipating more demand. Ten percent expect reduced demand; 60% haven’t adjusted their goals for 2021.

CEO Performance
Following a chaotic and uncertain 2020, a quarter say their board exercised more discretion and/or relied more heavily on qualitative factors in examining CEO performance. More than three-quarters tie performance metrics to CEO pay, including income growth (56%), return on assets (53%) and asset quality (46%). Qualitative factors are less favored, and include strategic goals (56%) and community involvement (29%).

CEO Pay
Median CEO compensation exceeded $600,000 for fiscal year 2020. CEOs of banks over $10 billion in assets earned a median $3.5 million, including salary, incentives, equity compensation, and benefits and perks. 

Director Compensation
More than half of directors believe they’re fairly compensated for their contributions to the bank. Three-quarters indicate that independent directors earn a board meeting fee, at a median of $1,000 per meeting. Sixty-two percent say their board awards an annual cash retainer, at a median of $21,600. 

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

Deal Integration Can Transform Finance, Risk and Regulatory Reporting

A number of banks announced mergers and acquisitions in 2020, capitalizing on growth opportunities against a forbidding backdrop of chronically low interest rates and anemic economic growth during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The deals ranged from more moderately sized with a few headline-grabbing mega-mergers —a trend that expected to continue through 2021.

The appeal of M&A for regional and superregional institutions in the United States is that the right transaction could create big benefits from economies of scale, and enhance the proforma company’s ability to gain business. While the number of deals announced in this environment are modest, the stakes involved in contemplating and executing them certainly are not. Nor is the work that banks will face after a combination. Once the transaction has been completed, the hard work begins.

A Closer Look From Regulators
One potential outcome is added scrutiny from the authorities; a new merged entity, with more assets and a broader range of activities, could have more complex risk calculations and reporting obligations to deal with.

Overall, regulators have sharpened their focus on banks during and after the merger process by performing additional audits, more closely scrutinizing key figures and ensuring that the M&A plan is being adhered to. Even if there are no significant changes to a firm’s profile with regulators, or if any needed changes in risk and reporting obligations are manageable, the formidable task of combining the operations of two organizations remains. A single, seamless whole must be assembled from two sets of activities, two work forces with their own culture and two sets of technological assets.

Merging the Parts, Not Just the Wholes
None of these issues is distinct from the others. Consider the technology: The proforma company will have to contend with two data systems — at least. Each company’s data management architecture has staff that makes it run using its own modus operandi developed
over years.

And that is the best-case scenario. Joining so many moving parts is no small feat, but it provides no small opportunity. Deal integration forces the constituent institutions to reassess legacy systems; when handled correctly, it can assemble a comprehensive, fully integrated whole from existing and new tech to meet the combined entity’s compliance and commercial needs.

Creating the ideal unified finance, risk and reporting system starts with an honest evaluation of the multiple systems of the merging partners. Executives should take particular care to assess whether the equipment and processes of the merged entity are better than the acquirer’s, or have certain features that should be incorporated.

Management also should consider the possibility that both sets of legacy systems are not up to present or future challenges. It could be that the corporate combination provides an opportunity to start over, or nearly so, and build something more suitable from the ground up. Another factor they should consider is whether the asset size of the new unified business warrants an independent verification process to supplement the risk and regulatory reporting program.

Understanding What You Have and What You Need
To get the evaluation process under way for the operational merger, a bank should list and assess its critical systems — not just for their functionality, but with respect to licensing or other contractual obligations with suppliers to determine the costs of breaking agreements.

Managers at the combined entity should look for redundancies in the partners’ systems that can be eliminated. A single organization can have a complicated back-end systems architecture, with intricate workarounds and many manual processes. Bringing together multiple organizations of similar complexity can leave the combined entity with expensive and inflexible infrastructure. A subledger and controlling functions can simplify this for finance, risk and regulatory reporting functions. They can consolidate multiple charts of accounts and general ledgers, relieving pressure on the general ledgers. Organizations in some cases can choose to migrate general ledgers to a cloud environment while retaining detailed data in a fat subledger.

Whatever choices executives make, a finance, risk and reporting system should have the latest technology, preferably based in the cloud to ensure it will be adaptable, flexible and scalable. Systems integration is critical to creating a unified financial institution that operates with optimal productivity in its regulatory compliance, reporting efforts and general business.
Integrating systems helps to assure standardization of processes and the accuracy, consistency,
agility and overall ease of use that result from it.

The Three Pillars for Success in Peer Mergers

Recent trends indicate that many bankers are considering adding significant scale by targeting peer institutions for outright acquisition.

These transactions, which we call “peer mergers,” are comparable to so-called “merger of equals,” except that the management team, operational structure and culture of the acquiring institution will mostly remain the same for the combined institution. This avoids the most obvious difficulty with successfully executing a merger of equals: combining two institutions without one side of the equation feeling “less equal” than the other. Peer mergers still carry plenty of their own risks, but keeping the management team and operational structure mostly intact is appealing and can greatly reduce the need to cut redundancies post-merger by eliminating them at the outset. Here are three key concepts to keep in mind when considering such a merger.

Choose a Good Strategic Fit

Why are we doing this deal? Will we be solving challenges or creating new ones? Is the combined institution greater than the sum of its parts?
Choosing to do a peer merger may be as straightforward as needing to add scale. However, banks desiring scale to fortify their balance sheet and gain operational and regulatory efficiencies may find that the wrong partner creates more headaches than it solves. Long-term solutions may be more difficult to manage at a larger combined institution, especially if there is a significant clash in cultures. In most cases, identifying a target needs to be about more than just scale. Does the merger gain entry into high-growth markets, meaningfully diversify credit risk, add complementary products and teams, or create significant synergies and efficiencies? Does your bank need to merge in order to accomplish those goals, or are there simpler, cleaner alternatives?

Get Ahead of Challenges

What are the challenges posed by the merger? How can those challenges be addressed? How quickly can those challenges be overcome?
We always recommend to our clients to be as proactive as possible about identifying and solving issues as early as they can in the acquisition negotiation process. This is even more true in a peer merger, where the consequences of a miscalculation are amplified by the transaction’s scale. The merger agreement doesn’t need to be signed to start this process. In fact, addressing issues prior to execution may very well reveal even deeper problems than due diligence would have otherwise shown, and allow for solutions or protections to be negotiated into the merger agreement. Especially try to hammer out the compensation of the potentially retained management personnel as early as possible; you don’t want to find out post-signing that key personnel aren’t as keen on staying with the combined institution as you’d thought — especially if that would trigger change in control payments.

Look Down the Road

What are our long-term strategic goals, and how does the merger get us closer to them? What will the combined institution look like 3 to 5 years from now? How does this benefit our shareholders?
Forecasting what the combined institution will look like in the long term involves much more than looking at pro formas and financial projections. Will your operational structure be able to handle the combined institution’s business volume at closing? Will it be able to five years down the road without a difficult and expensive overhaul? Will you be operating in your target markets, or will further geographic growth be needed and how will you achieve it? Will you cross asset size thresholds that trigger more onerous regulatory oversight in the near future?

Another important consideration is the impact on your shareholders — both the old and the new. Consider how you will give your shareholders the ability to cash out their investments. Will you conduct stock buybacks? Is a public listing on the table? Do you give target shareholders the opportunity to cash out at closing?

Both the potential benefits and risks of a typical merger are magnified in a peer merger, due to the scale of the transaction. With extensive strategic and operational foresight and careful navigation of the potential pitfalls, peer mergers offer a way to quickly add scale and supercharge your bank.

Positive Outlook for Bank M&A as the Pandemic Subsides

Will there be an acceleration of bank merger and acquisition activity in 2021 and beyond?

The short answer is yes.

As the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, we expect bank M&A activity to rebound, both in terms of branch and whole-bank acquisitions. Banks and their advisors have evolved since the pandemic’s onset forced office closures and the implementation of a new remote working environment. In the past year, institutions and their boards of directors improved technology and online banking capabilities in response to customer needs and expectations. They also gained substantial experience providing banking products and services in a remote environment. This familiarity with technology and remote operations should cause acquirors and sellers alike to reconsider where they stand in the M&A market in 2021 and beyond.

We see a number of factors supporting an improved M&A market in 2021. First, many acquirors and potential deals were sidelined in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic’s uncertainty setting in and the markets were in turmoil. We expect a number of these deals to be rekindled in mid- to late-2021, if they haven’t already resurfaced. We also expect a robust set of acquirors to return to the market looking to add deposits, retail and commercial customers, lending teams, and additional capabilities.

Second, there remains a growing number of small banks struggling to compete that would likely consider potential merger partners with similar cultures and in similar geographic markets. Similarly, risk management and compliance costs continue to challenge bank managers amid tough competition from community banks, credit unions and other non-bank financial institutions. Some small banks have also struggled to provide the digital offerings that have become commonplace since the pandemic began. These challenges are sure to have smaller banks considering merger partners or new investors.

Third, larger banks are looking to grow deposits and market share as they look to compete with more regional players that have the necessary compliance infrastructure and digital offerings. We expect these more regional players to use acquisition partners as a way to grow core deposits and increase efficiencies. Acquiring new deposits and customers also affords these regional banks the ability to cross-sell other products that smaller banks may not have been able to offer the same customers before — increasing revenue in a sustained low-interest rate environment.

Finally, the low-interest rate environment has opened the capital markets to banks of all sizes looking to raise subordinated debt, which may support community bank M&A. Many subordinated debt offerings are priced in the 4% to 5% range, and often are oversubscribed within just a few days. Banks have found these offerings to be an attractive tool to pay off debt with higher interest rates, fund investments in digital infrastructure, provide liquidity to shareholders through buyback programs and seek branch or whole-bank acquisition targets.

We are already seeing activity pick up in bank M&A, and expect that as the economy — and life itself — begins to normalize in 2021, more transactions to be announced. The prospects for an active merger market in 2020 were cut off before spring arrived. This year, as we approach spring once again, the M&A market is not likely to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the outlook is certainly much more optimistic for bank M&A.

With Sector Primed to Consolidate Further, Large Mergers Magnify Opportunity, Risk

The highly competitive and regulated US banking industry has grown increasingly concentrated over the past few decades, and continued ultralow interest rates will spur increased consolidation over at least the next two years, particularly among small and midsized banks that rely heavily on net interest income. Mergers and acquisitions (M&A) offer these banks opportunity to achieve greater scale, efficiency and profitability, a credit positive, but also introduce execution and integration risks that can erode these benefits.

Low interest rates are not the sole driver of consolidation but they increase the likelihood of a jump in M&A activity. The pace of sector consolidation slowed in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic subdued business activity. But small and mid-sized banks retain a particular motivation to pursue M&A because their earnings potential rests more heavily on net interest income, which is hobbled in the current low interest rate environment. Other motivations for M&A include opportunities to cut expenses and the need to obtain and invest in emerging technologies.

In-market transactions present the greatest cost-saving opportunities. Acquisition targets that present the opportunity for efficiency gains have greater relative value. They are also easier for management teams to assess and evaluate, particularly because loan growth and business activity remain hard to forecast in the present economic environment. Branch reductions are a primary means of reducing expenses.

Banks have warmed up to larger deals and so-called ‘mergers of equals.’ The attractiveness of these transactions has grown in the past couple of years, partly because of favorable equity market response. However, execution risk grows with the size of a transaction because issues such as cultural fit become more prominent, with the potential to erode the credit benefits of the combination.

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