Pandemic Challenges, Strengthens Bank’s Deal Integration

One bank found that the Covid-19 pandemic actually accelerated its deal integration, creating a stronger pro-forma institution to serve clients after overcoming a number of unexpected hurdles.

The coronavirus crisis has thrown a wrench in bank mergers and acquisitions, challenging everything from due diligence to pricing to regulatory and shareholder approvals. Only two bank deals were announced in May, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence; potential buyers and sellers seem to be focusing on assisting customers while they wait for a normalized environment. But Sandy Spring Bancorp found itself with no choice but to adapt its deal integration with Rockville, Maryland-based Revere Bank, even as both banks shifted to a remote work environment.

For us, it’s very important to understand that not just the successful integration, but a successful acquisition is centered around finding the right partner to begin with,” says Sandy Spring President and CEO Daniel Schrider. “And it’s really important … to find an organization that either complements what we do or provides access to a different market that maybe we’re not in, but has a shared vision around client relationships.”

The Revere team was well-known to Sandy Spring, with executives serving on their state bank association as well as competing against each other for local deals. After talking for about 18 months, they announced their merger agreement in September 2019; the deal pushed the Olney, Maryland-based bank above $10 billion in assets.

For months, deal integration proceeded as expected. The banks kicked off internal communication campaigns to keep both groups informed of the timeline, process and upcoming changes, and increase comradery before merger close. They formed 20 cross-functional teams of employees from both companies that tackled specific integration-related tasks or objectives, which met through mid-February.

“Both companies had tremendous first quarters. We were very excited about bringing the two organizations in a new structure and pulling the trigger on a number of things, based upon our ability to be together,” he says. “Then obviously, things came to a screeching halt.”

Once the pandemic closed physical offices, Sandy Spring used video and electronic communication to continue integration work. The pro-forma executive team created welcome videos featuring Schrider, along with digital and virtual orientations, instead of the usual face-to-face interactions.

But the integration encountered yet another unexpected challenge: the Paycheck Protection Program. The Small Business Administration loan program began accepting applications on April 3, two days after the Revere acquisition closed.

All of a sudden, two companies were faced with trying to solve the problems that many of their clients are having,” Schrider says. “That actually accelerated our integration.”

The newly combined teams, which pride themselves on being relationship focused, worked together to fulfill the unsolicited loan demand. They hosted daily PPP calls and involved more than 200 employees to process applications from customers at both banks. The undertaking combatted any inertia they may have felt about actually combining and functioning as one company.

“In a strange way, we’re probably in a better place today than we would have been, absent a pandemic, from the standpoint of being together,” he says. “Even though we’re not physically together.”

Sandy Spring believes picking a bank partner with similar values and staying focused on its strategy helped the pro-forma institution navigate deal-specific challenges. For instance, the all-stock deal for Revere originally carried a price tag of $460.7 million when it was announced in September; at close, it was valued at $287 million based on Sandy Spring’s quarter-end stock price, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence. Schrider says potential buyers and sellers should avoid fixating on absolute deal price, and instead consider the relative value and potential upside of the combined entity’s shares.

So far, the only integration activities that the pandemic has paused are reorganization efforts the bank believes are best done in person, including the planned appointment of Revere co-CEO Ken Cook as executive vice president. The systems conversion and branch consolidation are still on track for the third quarter. Until then, the pro-forma institution will continue to integrate while serving clients during the pandemic.

“It’s been a wild ride but a good one,” Schrider says.

Pending, Future Bank M&A Challenged by Coronavirus Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated bank M&A, throwing prospective buyers and sellers into limbo.

The crisis and economic fallout have made mergers and acquisitions an even-more tenuous proposition for banks that find themselves in the middle of a uniquely challenging operating environment. Industry experts believe that activity may come to a standstill for the time being but see opportunity for patient buyers once it thaws.

“I think it’s kind of high drama in every situation, if you put yourself on the board of either side of these transactions,” says Curtis Carpenter, principal and head of investment banking at Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking. “I’m really surprised that more deals have not fallen apart, quite frankly.”

Deals that have held together so far are most likely situations where both parties have been equally impacted by the economic shutdown and believe that the transaction’s merits will remain unchanged once the pandemic subsides, he says.

But the selloff in the equity markets has weighed on valuations for stock-based deals, making them untenable for some parties. Increasing credit risk, low interest rates, net interest margin compression and high unemployment are all headwinds for bank earnings, creating a potential ceiling on stock valuations. The average share price of an acquirer with an outstanding transaction has dropped about 20% in the last three months, says Crowe partner Rick Childs. If a transaction was all stock, the discount is fully included in the price; a split between cash and stock dilutes the selloff discount.

Half of the eight deals that have been terminated since the start of the year were impacted by the coronavirus crisis, Childs says. The largest of the terminated deals was the proposed $3.3 billion merger between the $36 billion Texas Capital Bancshares, based in Dallas, and Independent Bank Group, which is based in McKinney, Texas, and has $16 billion in assets. Several more have been postponed or renegotiated.

Buyers may try to argue that stock declines are temporary, though some are choosing to renegotiate. San Diego-based Southern California Bancorp, which has $852 million in assets, disclosed in April that it had renegotiated its October 2019 merger agreement with CalWest Bancorp. It lowered its all-cash offer by 19% for the Rancho Santa Margarita, California-based bank, to $25.9 million. The acquisition of the $226 million bank closed June 1.

But there is still risk for cash buyers and other parties committing to closing a deal. For years, credit had been so clean that buyers risked “giving lip service” to doing due diligence on a seller, Childs says. Now, acquirers must take pains to understand the potential risks they might be buying, especially as banks process deferrals and loan forgiveness applications for the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Deals may also take longer to close during the pandemic because regulators have limited capacity, though not in every case. Childs is involved in some delayed deals because regulators have shifted their attention away from applications to assisting banks with changing policies and emerging issues or questions. Banks that have announced delays are adding an average of two additional months, he says.

However, some banks have managed to receive timely, or early, approvals. CenterState Bank Corp., which has $19 billion in assets and is based in Winter Haven, Florida, disclosed that it had received all regulatory approvals ahead of schedule for its merger with South State Corp., which has $17 billion in assets and is based in Columbia, South Carolina.

While the environment may be challenging for pending deals, it could be productive for prospective ones. Childs says cash buyers may find management teams with an increased interest in selling because of crisis fatigue and the anticipation of a long road to economic recovery, which could lead to compelling valuations. Carpenter counters that sellers may not want to accept a cash deal because it would be a permanent discounted valuation. Accepting equity gives the seller’s shareholders a way to ride out the recovery and could make a lower initial valuation more palpable. Both Childs and Carpenter are working on deals that have yet to be announced.

Buyers that have stock may want to include struggling fintechs in their search for potential targets, Childs says. Fintechs may have superior technology or capabilities that could add a business line or increase a buyer’s capabilities, but face funding or capital challenges because of the economic crisis.

“Either taking a significant ownership stake or buying it outright might be a heck of a deal for you, and your stock is probably going to be better than their stock,” he says.

In the meantime, Childs advises banks to trim the fat from their financial statements. If a bank has been on the fence about assets, business lines or portfolios it owns, now is an opportunistic time to sell them and raise cash. It is also a good time for cash buyers to establish credit lines or loan arrangements they may use to finance a deal, but cautioned stock buyers against raising equity capital until prices recover.

“I think we’ll have a few more deals called off between now and their expected closing dates, but probably what we’ll see is very few announced deals unless we come back in a big way,” Childs says. “We may end up having a great fourth quarter because of pent-up demand, but there will probably be a dip in the middle part of the year.”

The Biggest Priorities for Banks in Normal Times

Banks are caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States.

As they care for hurting customers in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, they cannot forget the fundamentals needed to steer any successful bank: maintaining discipline in a competitive lending market, attracting and retaining high-quality talent and improving their digital distribution channels.

Uncovering bankers’ biggest long-term priorities was one of the purposes of a roundtable conversation between executives and officers from a half dozen banks with between $10 billion and $30 billion in assets. The roundtable was sponsored by Deloitte LLP and took place at Bank Director’s annual Acquire or Be Acquired conference at the end of January, before the brunt of the new coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Kevin Riley, CEO of First Interstate BancSystem, noted that customers throughout the $14.6 billion bank’s western footprint were generally optimistic prior to the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Washington, Oregon and Idaho at the time were doing best. With trade tensions and fear of an inverted yield curve easing, and with interest rates reversing course, businesses entered 2020 with more confidence than they entered 2019.

The growth efforts reflect a broader trend. “In our 2020 M&A Trends survey, corporate respondents cited ‘efficiency and effectiveness in change management’ and ‘aligning cultures’ as the top concerns for new acquisitions,” says Liz Fennessey, M&A principal at Deloitte Consulting.

A major benefit that flows from an acquisition is talent. “More and more, we’re seeing M&A used as a lever to access talent, which presents a new set of cultural challenges,” Fennessey continues. “In the very early stages of the deal, the acquirer should consider the aspects core to the culture that will help drive long-term retention in order to preserve deal value.”

One benefit of the benign credit environment that banks enjoyed at the end of last year is that it enabled them to focus on core issues like talent and culture. Tacoma, Washington-based Columbia Banking System has been particularly aggressive in this regard, said CEO Clint Stein.

The $14.1 billion bank added three new people to its executive committee this year, with a heavy emphasis on technology. The first is the bank’s chief digital and technology officer, who focuses on innovation, information security and digital expansion. The second is the bank’s chief marketing and experience officer, who oversees marketing efforts and leads both a new employee experience team and a new client experience team. The third is the director of retail banking and digital integration, whose responsibilities include oversight of retail branches and digital services.

Riley at First Interstate has employed similar tactics, realigning the bank’s executive team at the beginning of 2020 to add a chief strategy officer. The position includes leading the digital and product teams, data and analytics, as well as overseeing marketing, communications and the client contact center.

The key challenge when it comes to growth, particularly through M&A, is making sure that it improves, as opposed to impairs, the combined institution’s culture. “It is important to be deliberate and thoughtful when aligning cultures,” says Matt Hutton, a partner at Deloitte. “It matters as soon as the deal is announced. Don’t miss the opportunity to build culture momentum by reinforcing the behaviors you expect before the deal is complete.”

Related to the focus on growth and talent is an increasingly sharp focus on environmental, social and governance issues. For decades, corporations were operated primarily for the benefit of their shareholders — a doctrine known as shareholder primacy. But this emphasis has begun to change and may accelerate alongside the unfolding health crisis. Over the past few years, large institutional investors have started promoting a more inclusive approach known as stakeholder capitalism, requiring companies to optimize returns across all their stakeholders, not just the owners of their stock.

The banks at the roundtable have embraced this call to action. First National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, publishes an annual community impact report, detailing metrics that capture the positive impact it has in the communities it serves. Columbia promotes the link between corporate social responsibility and performance. And First Interstate, in addition to issuing an annual environmental, social and governance report, has taken multiple steps in recent years to improve employee compensation and engagement.

Despite the diversity of business lines and geographies of different banks, these regional lenders shared multiple common priorities and fundamental focuses going into this year. The coronavirus crisis has certainly caused banks to change course, but there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when they and others are able to return to these core focuses.

How to Respond to LendingClub’s Bank Buy

For me, the news that LendingClub Corp. agreed to purchase Radius Bancorp for $185 million was an “Uh oh” moment in the evolution of banking and fintechs.

The announcement was the second time I could recall where a fintech bought the bank, rather than the other way around (the first being Green Dot Corp. buying Bonneville Bank in 2011 for $15.7 million). For the most part, fintechs have been food for banks. Banks like BBVA USA Bancshares, JPMorgan Chase & Co and The Goldman Sachs Group have purchased emerging technology as a way to juice their innovation engines and incorporate them into their strategic roadmaps.

Some fintechs have tried graduating from banking-as-a-service providers like The Bancorp and Cross River Bank by applying for their own bank charters. Robinhood Markets, On Deck Capital, and Square have all struggled to apply for a charter. Varo is one of the rare examples where a fintech successfully acquired a charter, and it took them two attempts.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a publicly traded fintech like LendingClub just decided to buy the bank outright. But why does this acquisition matter to banks?

First off, if this deal receives regulatory approval within the company’s 12 to 15 month target, it could forge a new path for fintechs seeking more control over their banking future. It could also give community banks a new path for an exit.

Second, banks like Radius typically leverage technology that abstract the core away from key digital services. And deeper pockets from LendingClub could allow them to spend even more, which would create a community bank with a dynamic, robust way of delivering innovative features. Existing smaller banks may just fall further behind in their delivery of new digital services.

Third, large fintechs like LendingClub don’t have century-old divisions that don’t, or won’t, communicate with each other. Banks frequently have groups that don’t communicate or integrate at all; retail and wealth come to mind. As a result, companies like LendingClub can develop and deploy complementary banking services, whereas many banks’ offerings are limited by legacy systems and departments that don’t collaborate with each other.

The potential outcome of this deal and other bifurcations in the industry is a new breed of bank that is supercharged with core-abstracted technology and a host of innovative, complementary technology features. Challenger banks loaded with venture capital funds and superior economics via bank ownership could be potentially more aggressive, innovative and dangerous competitors to traditional banks.

How should banks respond?

Start by making sure that your bank has a digital channel provider that enables the relatively easy and cost-effective insertion of new third-party features. If your digital channel partner can’t do this, it’s time to draft a request for proposal.

Next, start identifying and speaking to the myriad of enterprise fintechs that effectively recreate the best features of the direct-to-consumer fintechs in a white-label form for banks. Focus on solutions that offer a demonstrable path to revenue retention, growth and clear cost savings — not just “cool” features.

After coming up with a plan, find a partner to help you market the new services either through  the third-party vendors you select or another marketing partner. Banks are notorious for not doing the best job of marketing new products and features to their clients. You can’t just build it and hope that new and existing customers will come.

Finally, leverage the assets you already have: physical branches, a mobile banking app that should be one of the top five on a user’s phone, and pricing advantage over fintechs. Most fintechs won’t be given long runways by their venture capital investors to lose money in order to acquire clients; at some point, they will have to start making money via pricing. Banks still have multiple ways to make money and should use that flexibility to squeeze their fintech competitors.

Change is the only constant in life — and that includes banking. And it has never been more relevant for banks that want to stay relevant in the face of rapidly developing technology and industry-shifting deals.

The Uncertain Impact of COVID-19 on the Bank M&A Playbook

As banks across the country grapple with market and economic dynamics heavily influenced by COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, separating data from speculation will become difficult.

The duration and ultimate impact of this market is unknowable at this point. The uncertain fallout of the pandemic is impacting previously announced deals and represents one of the biggest threats to future bank M&A activity. It will force dealmakers to rethink risk management in acquisitions and alter the way deals are structured and negotiated.

As we have seen in other times of financial crisis, buyers will become more disciplined and focused on shifting risk to sellers. Both buyers and sellers should preemptively address the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their business and customers early in the socialization phase of a deal.

We’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of potential issues that banks should consider when doing deals in this unprecedented time:

  • Due Diligence. Due diligence will be more challenging as buyers seek to understand, evaluate and quantify the ways in which the coronavirus will impact the business, earnings and financial condition of the target. Expect the due diligence process to become more robust and protracted than we have seen in recent years.
  • Acquisition Funding. Market disruption caused by the virus could compromise the availability and pricing of acquisition financing, including both equity and debt financing alternatives, complicating a buyers’ ability to obtain funding.
  • Price Protections. For deals involving publicly traded buyer stock, the seller will likely be more focused on price floors and could place more negotiating emphasis around caps, floors and collars for equity-based consideration. However, we expect those to be difficult to negotiate amid current volatility. Similarly, termination provisions based upon changes in value should also be carefully negotiated.

In a typical transaction, a “double trigger” termination provision may be used, which provides that both a material decline in buyer stock price on an absolute basis (typically between 15% and 20%) and a material decline relative to an appropriate index will give the seller a termination right. Sellers should consider if that protection is adequate, and buyers should push for the ability to increase the purchase price (or number of shares issued in a stock deal) in order to keep the deal together and avoid triggering termination provisions.

  • Representations and Warranties. As we have seen in other economic downturns, expect buyers to “tighten up” representations and warranties to ensure all material issues have been disclosed. Likewise, buyers will want to consider including additional representations related to the target business’ continuity processes and other areas that may be impacted by the current pandemic situation. Pre-closing due diligence by buyers will also be more extensive.
  • Escrows, Holdbacks and Indemnities. Buyers may require escrows or holdbacks of the merger consideration to indemnify them for unquantifiable/inchoate risk and for breaches of representations and warranties discovered after closing.  
  • Interim operating covenants. Interim operating covenants that require the seller to operate in the ordinary course of business to protect the value of their franchises are standard provisions in bank M&A agreements. In this environment we see many banks deferring interest and principal payments to borrowers and significantly cutting rates on deposits. Sellers will need some flexibility to make needed changes in order to adapt to rapidly changing market conditions; buyers will want to ensure such changes do not fundamentally change the balance sheet and earnings outlook for the seller. Parties to the agreement will need focus on the current realities and develop reasonable compromises on interim operating covenants.
  • Investment Portfolios and AOCI. The impact of the rate cuts has created significant unrealized gains in most bank’s investment portfolio. The impact of large gains and fluctuations in value in investment securities portfolios will also come into focus in deal structure consideration. Many deals have minimum equity delivery requirements; market volatility in the investment portfolio could result in significant swings in shareholders’ equity calculations and impact pricing.
  • MAC Clauses. Material Adverse Change (MAC) definitions should be carefully negotiated to capture or exclude impacts of the coronavirus as appropriate. Buyers may insist that MAC clauses capture COVID-19 and other pandemic risks in order to provide them an opportunity to terminate and walk away if the target’s business is disproportionally affected by this pandemic.
  • Fiduciary Duty Outs. Fiduciary duty out provisions should also be carefully negotiated. While there are many variations of fiduciary duty outs, expect to see more focus on these provisions, particularly around the ability of the target’s board to change its recommendation and terminate because of an “intervening event” rather than exclusively because of a superior proposal. Likewise, buyers will likely become more focused on break-up fees and expense reimbursements when these provisions are triggered.
  • Regulatory approvals. The regulatory approval process could also become more challenging and take longer than normal as banking regulators become more concerned about credit quality deterioration and pro forma capitalization of the merged banks in an unprecedented and deteriorating economic environment. Buyer should also consider including a robust termination right for regulatory approvals with “burdensome conditions” that would adversely affect the combined organization.

While bank M&A may be challenging in the current environment, we believe that ample strategic opportunities will ultimately arise, particularly for cash buyers that can demonstrate patience. Credit marks will be complex if the current uncertainty continues, but valuable franchises may be available at attractive prices in the near future.

How Consolidation Changed Banking in Five Charts

Over the past 35 years, few secular trends have reshaped the U.S. banking industry more than consolidation. From over 18,000 banks in the mid-1980s, 5,300 remain today.

Consolidation has created some very large U.S. banks, including four that top $1 trillion in assets. The country’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase & Co., has $2.7 trillion in assets.

Historically, very large banks have been less profitable on performance metrics like return on average assets (ROAA) and return on average tangible common equity (ROTCE) than smaller banks. The standard theory is that banks benefit from economies of scale as they grow until they reach a certain size, at which point diseconomies of scale begin to drag down their performance.

This might be changing, according to interesting data offered Keefe, Bruyette & Woods CEO Thomas Michaud in the opening presentation at Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference. The rising profitability of large publicly traded banks and one of the underlying factors can be seen in five charts from Michaud’s presentation.

Profitability is High

Profitability
Banking has been highly profitable since the early 1990s — except, of course, for that big dip starting in 2006 when earnings nosedived during the financial crisis. The industry’s profitability reached a post-crisis high in the third quarter of 2018 when its ROAA hit 1.41%. Keep in mind, however, this chart looks at the entire industry and averages all 5,300 banks.

Banking 2016

Sweet Spot of Profitability
Banking is also highly differentiated by asset size: many very small institutions at the bottom of the stack,  four behemoths at the top. Michaud’s “sweet spot” in banking refers to a specific asset category that allows banks to maximize their profitability relative to other size categories. They have enough scale to be efficient but are still manageable enterprises. In 2016, this sweet spot was in the $5 billion to $10 billion asset category, where the banks’ pre-tax, pre-provision income was 2.32% of risk weighted assets.

Banking 2019

Sweet Spot Shifts
It’s a different story three years later. In 2019, the category of banks with $50 billion in assets and above captured the profitability sweet spot, with pre-tax, pre-provision income of 2.43% of risk weighted assets. What’s especially interesting about this shift is that, by my count, there are just 31 U.S. domiciled banks in this size category. (I excluded the U.S. subsidiaries of foreign banks, but included The Goldman Sachs Group and Morgan Stanley.) Of course, these 31 banks control an overwhelming percentage of the industry’s assets and deposits, so they wield disproportionate power to their actual numbers. But what I find most interesting is that as a group, the biggest banks are now the most profitable.

Big Banks

Big Bank Profitability
Even the behemoths have stepped up their game. You can see from the chart that KBW expects five of the six big banks — Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan, Wells Fargo & Co., Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs — to post ROTCEs of 12% or better for 2019. And some, like JPMorgan and Bank of America, are expected to perform significantly better. KBW expects this trend to continue through 2021, for the most part. What’s behind this improved performance? Buying back stock is one explanation. For example, between 2017 and 2021, KBW expects Bank of America to have repurchased 27.6% of its outstanding stock at 2017 levels. But there is more to the story than that.

bank share

Taking Market Share
The 20 largest U.S. banks have aggressively grown their national deposit market share – a trend that seems to be accelerating. Beginning during the financial crisis in 2008, the top 20 began gaining market share at a faster rate than the rest of the industry. The differential continues to widen through at least the third quarter of last year. But the financial crisis ended over a decade ago, so a flight to safety can no longer explain this trend. Something else is clearly going on.

Consumers across the board are increasingly doing their banking through digital channels. Digital banking requires a significant investment in technology, and this is where the biggest banks have a clear advantage. Digital has essentially aggregated local deposit markets into a single national deposit market, and the largest banks’ ability to tap this market through technology gives them a significant competitive advantage that is beginning to drive their profitability.

Having too much scale was once a disadvantage in terms of performance — that may no longer be the case. Banking increasingly is becoming a technology-driven business and the ability to fund ambitious innovation programs is quickly becoming table stakes.

When the Earnings Get Tough, the Mergers Get ‘Strategic’

Pressure on earnings and a continued evolution in bank operations could give rise to more “strategic mergers,” according to presenters during the first two days of Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference.

Deal activity, specifically “strategic mergers,” could accelerate in 2020 because of slowing growth and continued momentum in the space, say presenters ranging from the heads of investment banks to CEOs who had undertaken or announced their own transformational mergers. Factors like declining interest rates and a decreasing number of potential partners could motivate executives to look to acquisitions to leverage capital, add growth or find scale and efficiencies.

Community banks across the country are grappling with the realization that superregionals like BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks decided last year to combine to form Truist Financial in a bid for scale — and what those decisions mean for their own prospects, says Gary Bronstein, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. In a nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during one session, 48% of respondents believe their bank will be an acquirer during the year, with a plurality seeking to either acquire core deposits or gain scale.

One reason could be that loan growth among small and mid-cap banks has been slowing since 2015, says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud. His firm is modeling no earnings per share growth for these banks in 2020 because of net interest margin compression. At the same time, banks’ net income has been bolstered by share repurchases: excluding buybacks, earnings per share would be lower by 6% in 2020, and log no growth in 2021.

Bigger banks have been thinking about how to achieve meaningful, strategic change that can jumpstart internal transformation and external results. Enter the “strategic merger,” Michaud says, which his firm defines as transactions where the target owns 25% or more of the pro-forma company. Many of these recent deals have been among regionals and were structured as mergers-of-equals, which helped define M&A activity in 2019.

The MOEs are back. That was a popular method of consolidation in 2019, and I believe we’re going to see more of it,” he says. “It is the major theme as to how this industry is consolidating.”

Indeed, for the second year in a row, the conference coincided with an MOE announcement — this time, between Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp and Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. to form a Southeastern institution with $34 billion in assets.

The financial attractiveness of these deals is undeniable, say investment bankers and executives: the no-premium deals carry low dilution and quick tangible book value earn-back periods as well as double-digit earnings per share accretion and enviable returns on tangible common equity. The logic seemed to resonate with attendees: 61% of respondents during the nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during a session indicated they would consider an MOE during the year.

“These deals are being structured to make these companies more profitable … and to build better companies,” he says.

Michaud wasn’t the only presenter convinced that MOE interest and momentum will continue this year. Joe Berry, managing director and co-head of depositories investment banking at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, points out the potential stock outperformance of certain MOEs and other strategic mergers, especially after they announce capital actions.

But recording the eye-popping results from a strategic merger only comes about after the “soft issues” are hammered out, Berry says. The MOE announcement between TCF Financial Corp. and Chemical Financial Corp., which occurred during the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, was motivated partially by a desire to achieve scale to serve larger credits, says David Provost, executive chairman at TCF Bank. The bank is now based in Detroit and has $45.7 billion post-merger. But first, executives needed to negotiate a “reverse divorce” to determine the new name and headquarters location.

It then comes down to who gets the dog, and you both love the dog. That’s the CEO title,” he says. Deal filings indicated that Provost “was going take the dog for 18 months and then [President and CEO Craig Dahl] was going to take the dog. In the end, I decided to give up the dog and create $1 billion in value for shareholders.”

The MOE catalyst has not been limited to regional banks. Randy Greene, president and CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Bay Banks of Virginia, says an MOE transformed his bank. The 2016 deal allowed two more-rural based banks to combine and move to a more-urban area; Bay Banks now has $1.1 billion in assets.

But bankers contemplating an MOE must also ensure that internal expansion doesn’t erode the strategic financial gains of the deal. BJ Losch, CFO at $43.3 billion First Horizon National Corp., says the bank is trying to “become bigger without becoming big” as part of its MOE with Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.

An MOE allows a bank to “build Star Wars from an IT perspective, but then you become big —like the bigger banks that you want to be more nimble than,” he says.

The MOE spared Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon and IBERIA from needing an “upstream” buyer, says fellow panelist Daryl Byrd, IBERIA’s current president and CEO, who will serve as the pro forma bank’s executive chairman. The dearth of potential buyers has emerged as a competitive dynamic for institutions of all sizes, including the $31.7 billion bank.

“It’s a musical chair game and you don’t want to be left without a chair. And we recently lost two very big chairs,” he says.

Michaud points out that many of the companies involved in these strategic mergers are “really good banks in their own right,” deserving of their independence. These executives do not need to find a merger partner but believe the transactions’ defensive attributes will allow them to keep up with digital transformations and changes in the bank space down the road.

He says executives are asking, “‘If we don’t do this, what’s the industry going to look like in three to five years? How relevant are we going to be and how much are we going to … make sure our shareholders have a long-term play here?’”

The Measure of a “Good” Deal

What makes a good bank deal? Depends on who you ask.

Mergers and acquisitions are a vital strategic undertaking for banks, and consolidation trends continue to shape the industry. To that end, I asked four presenters speaking at Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference the same question: “What is the most important metric of a bank deal? And what is the most important thing that can’t be measured?”

The response of the interviewees — a community bank CEO, two attorneys and an investment banker — were kept secret from each other. Their unique and varied responses belie their perspectives and experiences when it comes to bank M&A, and hopefully can shed some light on how others in the industry think about, and measure, a “good” deal.

Before Announcement
For Curtis Carpenter, principal and head of investment banking at Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking, the most important criteria to getting a good deal done comes down to location. “Geography is the most reliable characteristic to getting the deal done in today’s market. Where a bank is located is driving deals more than ever,” he says.

He points out that institutions in high-growth areas have a “high probability” of commanding a strong price, whereas a robust, profitable bank in a rural area with declining demographics may be challenged to get a deal done at a reasonable valuation.

For buyers, coming up with a reasonable purchase price and accurately assessing a seller’s asset quality are the most important elements in a good deal, says Bob Monroe, a partner at Stinson LLP.

“If you buy a bunch of junk, you’re going to get a bunch of junk, and you generally won’t have a successful deal,” he quips.

To account for the uncertain performance of acquired loans, Monroe says buyers will either not acquire certain assets or set up an escrow account that is equal to the present value of the assets in question so they can get worked out.

Frank Sorrentino III, chairman and CEO of ConnectOne Bancorp in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, says it was difficult to try to nail down an answer, even though “I knew what the question was going to be.”

Sorrentino has guided the $6.2 billion bank through three deals since 2014, and initially felt that a good deal can be measured by the market’s response. But he says the market might pan some deals that it doesn’t “fully digest or understand” because the deal may not generate immediate value at announcement.

For Sorrentino, good deals are ones that provide better internal opportunities for the pro forma bank and create additional value.

“I don’t care which metric you use, I don’t care what spreadsheet you use for your modeling — at the end of the day, are you creating more value? There are various components to values: some are financial, some are nonfinancial, but I think it really comes down to value,” he says. “Are you adding 1 and 1 and getting something north of 2?”

At, and After, Announcement
During Day 1 of the conference, Keefe, Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud highlighted that the premium that acquirers have offered sellers has declined since 2010. Part of that decline has come from a decline in potential buyers, but he added that investor concern around the pro forma company’s earnings per share and tangible book value growth has imposed discipline on deals.

One metric that Carpenter says can indicate a good deal is the performance of the buyer’s stock after the merger is announced, relative to the valuation the seller received.

The most measurable tangible metric for grading the success of a bank sale would be price to tangible book value, and then how that stock performs in the 12 months after announcement,” he says. This is especially important for prospective sellers that would consider a merger that includes stock.

Peter Weinstock, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, extends this to the second full year after a merger is consummated. Weinstock wrote in an email that the most important metric is the pro forma bank’s earnings per share accretion in that second year.

“While tangible book value earn-back is much ballyhooed — and has lately been a metric that has led to some good deals not being done — the true success of the deal is measured in what it does for the acquirer’s profitability once the majority of cost savings and synergies are achieved,” he wrote.

Sorrentino cautions that value creation doesn’t always carry a time stamp, and that bankers should resist short-term thinking or relying solely on metrics when assessing the value of a company or a deal.

“Sometimes the value is not necessarily created on financial terms. There could be value created [in a deal] because of talent, or because of the business lines you’re taking on,” Sorrentino says, adding that technological capabilities, efficiencies and cultural elements can also be acquired in a deal. “Everyone wants to look at the EPS accretion at announcement or tangible book value dilution. It may not be that simple.”

After Close
There is some agreement as to the most important unmeasurable aspect of a good deal. The consensus coalesces around integration and the cultural fit of the two banks. Buyers must manage the deal integration in a way that incentivizes and excites the seller’s employees, lest they look for other opportunities.

“Being able to fit your culture in with the seller’s culture is extremely important, because otherwise you’ll have a flat tire running down the road,” Monroe says. “It won’t be smooth.”

Adding to that, Weinstock wrote that the buyer’s “willing[ness] to spend the leadership time, devote the financial resources and risk overcommunicating” in order to integrate the banks’ operations, vision and culture is the most important immeasurable metric of a good deal.

For sellers, the hardest thing for banks to measure in a deal is how it will affect their employees, Carpenter says. Executives at selling banks often hope that a deal only furthers the opportunities and careers of its employees, as well as benefits the selling bank’s community. One way prospective buyers can help sellers with this concern is by putting the prospective seller in touch with former CEOs of previously acquired banks.

“More often than not in this environment, [deals] really come down to one buyer courting a seller, or you’ve reduced the number of bidders down. The seller is wondering ‘Is this a good deal? Can we trust this guy?’” Carpenter says. “The buyer can offer up, ‘Here’s two people that ran banks we bought, call them and asked them how it went.’”

Michaud says banks considering engaging in M&A should “start at the end,” identifying what they want a deal to achieve.

“It needs to be all of these things to work: well-priced, strategic merit and be logical, earn-back that fits within the barrier. It can’t be complex and have a lot of noise, it must be accretive or investors will want to know why you did it, and it needs to be well-structured too so everyone stays in their seat and is there to execute,” he says. “If you do all of these things, you can create a lot of shareholder value.”

Industry Perspectives at Acquire or Be Acquired 2020

People, Products & Performance – In this interview with Bank Director CEO Al Dominick, John Eggemeyer shares his thoughts on what drives performance.
Super-Connected Customers – Data, payments and other technology-related issues were top of mind for bankers at the 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference.
Who Gets the Dog? – On the heels of the CenterState Bank Corp./South State Corp. merger, Al Dominick evaluates a core cultural issue around these deals.
Spotlight on M&A – Drivers of M&A, balancing organic growth with acquisitions, and nonbank deals were key topics discussed from the stage at Acquire or Be Acquired.
Exploring Opportunities – Bank Director CEO Al Dominick shares three important takeaways from the first day of the 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired conference.
Technology’s Impact – Hear how banking industry leaders view today’s quickly evolving technology landscape.
Focus on Consolidation – Big mergers of equals and tech deals defined the banking market in 2019.

On the Docket of the Biggest Week in Banking

Think back to your days as a student. Who was the teacher that most inspired you? Was it because they challenged your assumptions while also building your confidence?

In a sense, the 1,312 men and women joining me at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix for this year’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference are in for a similar experience, albeit one grounded in practical business strategies as opposed to esoteric academic ideas.

Some of the biggest names in the business, from the most prestigious institutions, will join us over three days to share their thoughts and strategies on a diverse variety of topics — from lending trends to deposit gathering to the competitive environment. They will talk about regulation, technology and building franchise value. And our panelists will explore not just what’s going on now, but what’s likely to come next in the banking industry.

Mergers and acquisitions will take center stage as well. The banking industry has been consolidating for four decades. The number of commercial banks peaked in 1984, at 14,507. It has fallen every year since then, even as the trend toward consolidation continues. To this end, the volume of bank M&A in 2019 increased 5% compared to 2018. 

The merger of equals between BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks, to form Truist Financial Corp., was the biggest and most-discussed deal in a decade. But other deals are worth noting too, including marquee combinations within the financial technology space.

In July, Fidelity National Information Services, or FIS, completed its $35 billion acquisition of Worldpay, a massive payment processor. “Scale matters in our rapidly changing industry,” said FIS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Gary Norcross at the time. Fittingly, Norcross will share the stage with Fifth Third Bancorp Chairman and CEO Greg Carmichael on Day 1 of Acquire or Be Acquired. More recently, Visa announced that it will pay $5 billion to acquire Plaid, which develops application programming interfaces that make it easier for customers and institutions to connect and share data.

Looking back on 2019, the operating environment proved challenging for banks. They’re still basking in the glow of the recent tax breaks, yet they’re fighting against the headwinds of stubbornly low interest rates, elevated compliance costs and stiff competition in the lending markets. Accordingly, I anticipate an increase in M&A activity given these factors, along with stock prices remaining strong and the biggest banks continuing to use their scale to increase efficiency and bolster their product sets.

Beyond these topics, here are three additional issues that I intend to discuss on the first day of the conference:

1. How Saturated Are Banking Services?
This past year, Apple, Google and Facebook announced their entry into financial services. Concomitantly, fintechs like Acorns, Betterment and Dave plan to or have already launched checking accounts, while gig-economy stalwarts Uber Technologies and Lyft added banking features to their service offerings. Given this growing saturation in banking services, we will talk about how regional and local banks are working to boost deposits, build brands and better utilize data.

2. Who Are the Gatekeepers of Customer Relationships?
Looking beyond the news of Alphabet’s Google’s checking account or Apple’s now-ubiquitous credit card, we see a reframing of banking by mainstream technology titans. This is a key trend that should concern bank executives —namely, technology companies becoming the gatekeepers for access to basic banking services over time.

3. Why a Clear Digital Strategy Is an Absolute Must
Customer acquisition and retention through digital channels in a world full of mobile apps is the future of financial services. In the U.S., there are over 10,000 banks and credit unions competing against each other, along with hundreds of well-funded start-ups, for customer loyalty. Clearly, having a defined digital strategy is a must.

For those joining us at the Arizona Biltmore, you’re in for an invaluable experience. It’s a chance to network with your peers and hear from the leaders of  innovative and elite institutions.

Can’t make it? We intend to share updates from the conference via BankDirector.com and over social media platforms, including Twitter and LinkedIn, where we’ll be using the hashtag #AOBA20.