There seems to be broad consensus that the way bank mergers are assessed should be updated. The question facing bank regulators and the industry is how. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently grappled with the question in a Bank Merger Symposium it hosted on Feb. 10.
“There is a robust ongoing debate about the effects of bank mergers on competition, on U.S. communities, and on financial stability,” said Ben McDonough, senior deputy comptroller and chief counsel at the OCC, at the symposium’s opening, delivering remarks prepared for Acting Comptroller Michael Hsu. “At the same time, many experts have raised questions about the ongoing suitability of the current bank merger standards at a time of intense technological and societal change.”
I wrote about how community banks and regulators think about mergers and acquisitions from a competitive perspective for the first quarter 2023 issue of Bank Director magazine. The competitive analysis conducted by regulators is arguably antiquated and overly focused on geography and on bank deposits, which has become less relevant in the face of digital innovation.
“Regulators are beginning to revise M&A rules, but it’s unclear what impact that will have,” I wrote. “Everyone wants the market to remain competitive — the question is what vision of competition prevails.”
Regulators assess a deal application for the competitive effects of the proposed merger, and the convenience and needs of the communities to be served. The framework they use was last updated in 1995 and has its roots in a 1960s Supreme Court case and the Herfindahl-Hirschman index, or HHI, which was developed in the mid-1940s and early 1950s.
The measurement is calculated by squaring the market share of each firm in the market and then calculating the sum of the resulting numbers; four firms with shares of 30, 30, 20 and 20 have an HHI of 2,600, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The HHI ranges from zero, which is a perfectly competitive market, to 10,000, or a perfect monopoly. Deals that increase a market’s HHI by more than 200, or where the HHI exceeds 1,800 post-merger, can trigger a review. The bank HHI calculation uses bank deposits as a proxy for bank activity within geographic markets that the Federal Reserve has drawn and maintained.
Hsu highlighted HHI in his opening comments at the symposium as a “transparent, empirically proven, efficient, and easily understood measure of concentration,” but said the decades-old metric may have become “less relevant” since the 1995 update.
He pointed out how the “growth in online and mobile banking and rise of nonbank competitors” has made HHI, which uses bank deposits as the basis for its calculation, “a less effective predictor of competition.”
M&A activity in rural banking markets is especially impacted by the HHI calculation. More than 60% of defined geographic banking markets in 2022 were already above the 1,800 threshold, according to a speech from Federal Reserve Governor Michelle Bowman in the same year — meaning any bank deal that would impact those markets could merit further scrutiny.
Some of themes around potential changes to the bank merger application process included “updated and clearly defined concentration, competition and systemic risk analysis,” along with new requirements around “increase[ing] transparency and tools to enforce community benefits commitments,” wrote Ed Mills, managing director of Washington policy for investment bank Raymond James & Associates, in a Feb. 13 note.
Mills wrote that proposed updates to bank merger guidance “are likely coming soon,” but expects the more extensive changes that seek to “build a better mouse trap” to be a much longer process. His firm believes that current pending mergers are likely to be approved, and that slower approvals don’t necessarily indicate a moratorium. His report occurred in the same week that Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon Corp. extended its agreement to sell to Toronto-based TD Bank Corp., which will create a $614 billion institution, from Feb. 27 to May 27, 2023. That would make the sale occur more than a year after announcement.
It’s still not clear where the agencies will land, and how their changes will impact community bank deal approvals, if at all. But for now, there seems to be consensus that geographic markets and bank deposits may not be the truest measures of competition, before or after a deal.