Do you need $1 billion in assets to survive?

Community bankers at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference this week in Scottsdale are hearing over and over again: you need to have more than $1 billion in assets to survive.

But is that true? And what about those community bankers who think they will survive just fine, thank you, despite the increased costs of government regulation and an earnings environment where big banks seem to have all the advantages.

Bill Hickey, co-head of investment banking at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, caused some consternation Monday morning when he told a crowd of nearly 300 bankers that they needed at least $1 billion to survive, explaining that the costs of regulation following Dodd-Frank’s passage is going to make it tough to make a profit as a small community bank.

A small bank will have to add employees to handle all the compliance issues and added paperwork for everything from Dodd-Frank to existing legislation such as the Bank Secrecy Act, he said later.

Alan Walters, the president of First Commercial Bank, a $275-million asset institution in Jackson, Mississippi, said organizations such as his will survive if they have a good niche.

He said speakers at the conference throwing around the $1 billion minimum are “way off the mark.” His bank will survive by providing a personal touch in competition with bigger banks such as Wells Fargo and Regions Bank, he said. People like it if their bankers know them by name, he said.

Where his bank has trouble competing with the big banks is providing loans at the $15 million range and above, but he said he focuses on small businesses and professionals such as doctors and lawyers with the funding they need to operate their offices.

Many banks are not expected to survive the next few years, in part because of increased regulation but also because many banks want to improve efficiency in the face of increased costs and low margins.

John Duffy, the chairman and CEO of investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, predicted that there will be 5,000 banks by the end of the decade, about 3,000 fewer than now.

Several bankers also said they thought regulators want the nation to have fewer banks. Former Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who also spoke at the conference Monday, said he never heard regulators say they want fewer banks in all his five year tenure at the OCC, which ended last year.

John Freechack, an attorney who advises financial institutions for Barack Ferrazzano, provided some reassurance to small, community bankers.

He said people have been predicting the demise of community banks for 20 or 30 years. In particular, the cost of new technology in banking was supposed to have put many of them out of business by now.

“From a board’s perspective, you need to make a determination of whether or not you’re going to be able to survive,’’ he said.  But he added after the session: “This is a very resilient industry.”

That would be good news for a lot of community bankers. About 90 percent of all the banks in this country have less than $1 billion in assets, according to James McAlpin, a partner in law firm Bryan Cave LLP.

Will 2011 be the year for bank stocks?

The bad news seems endless. Unemployment remains high. Bad real estate loans continue to hurt banks. Increased government regulation and caps on fees will hurt bank income in the future. And yet, so many bank analysts are so bullish on bank stocks in 2011.


Profitability is returning or will return this year to many mid-sized or small banks, several analysts say.

Stronger banks will be able to buy weaker rivals and grow market share. Even the investors of struggling banks stand to gain after years of misery. Their banks will get bought out at premiums compared to the disappointing prices of the last two years. 

Here is a review of what bank analysts are saying about the outlook for bank stocks in 2011 and their favorite picks:

mmosby.jpgMarty Mosby, a bank analyst at Guggenheim Partners in Memphis,
 says he thinks all of the 15 large-cap banks he covers will be profitable by the middle of this year and he projects a 30 percent stock market gain on average for his group, which includes Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based BB&T Corp., Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, and San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. 

“We believe 2011 will be the year of the recovery,’’ he says. “We will finally see banks return to the norm.”

Some banks will be better off than others in the new normal, of course.  Banks such as Wells Fargo & Co., Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group and New York-based BNY Mellon have revenue potential and strong capital, he says, which means they could buy other banks or increase dividends, always a plus for the many dividend-starved investors out there. PNC Financial Services Group reported today record profits of $3.4 billion for 2010.

Jim Sinegal, associate director of equity research at Chicago-based
Morningstar, Incexpects his top picks such as New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo to return 25 to 30 percent gains for investors. He hedges that a bit by saying it may happen in the next year—or two.

“We don’t see any surprises ahead that could derail something,’’ he says. “We’ll see a slow and steady improvement. Credit is slowly and steadily improving. A lot of banks already are benefiting from that. The worst loans on their balance sheets have already been charged off.” 

He even likes Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America, even though other analysts are just too worried about an ongoing investigation into the bank’s foreclosure processes to recommend the stock. 

“We think the best values can be found in recovering banks,’’ he explains. “We think the stock is cheap.”

Bank of America was trading at $14.37 per share Thursday midday on the New York Stock Exchange.

jharralson.jpgJefferson Harralson, managing director in Atlanta for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, says smaller banks might have a more difficult time seeing stock market gains this year than big banks. They could be hit hard by new regulations that limit fee income. New restrictions on debit card fees charged to merchants could limit that source of income by as much as 75 to 80 percent, he says. 

Plus, many small and even regional banks have not paid back the government for the Troubled Asset Relief Program money, which could weigh on stock prices this year as well. Investors worried the bank will be forced to raise more capital to pay back TARP won’t be eager to buy those banks.

kitzsimmons.jpgKevin Fitzsimmons, managing director at Sandler O’Neill & Partners in New York, says 36 percent of the group’s bank stocks have a buy rating, compared to 26 percent in January of last year. 

He also thinks there will be more risk in small bank stocks this year, because the heavy weight of regulation will move to smaller banks, as in rolling downhill, as regulators begin forcing those banks to recognize their problem loans.

“This is not going to be smooth going (for all banks),’’ he says. “(The market) will be selective.”

The good news is all that new regulatory pressure on small banks could lead more banks to sell out—for a premium this time.

Sinegal said recent acquisitions have netted prices at two times tangible book value for the acquiring bank, as opposed to no premium or 1.5 times book value during the last year.

“There is more optimism that the worst is behind us,’’ Fitzsimmons says. “There has been optimism that some banks will be able to go out and acquire more banks and the acquired banks can be bought at some sort of premium.”