Earnings Are High but Bank Stock Prices Are Low

Banks are doing very well, if you look at credit quality and profitability. But tell that to investors.

Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee raised the target federal funds rate by 75 basis points, the third hike of that magnitude in a row, to combat inflation.

The market has punished equities lately in response, but even more so, bank stocks, probably in anticipation of a recession that may have arrived. The S&P 500 fell 21.61% in 2022 as of Friday, Sept. 23, but the S&P U.S. large cap bank index was down 25.19% in that same time frame, according to Mercer Capital using S&P Global Market Intelligence data. By asset size, large banks have seen the biggest declines so far this year.

Going back further in time, the cumulative return for U.S. bank stocks in general, as measured by the S&P U.S. BMI Banks index, was down 5.30% as of Sept. 22 from the start of 2020, compared to a gain of 21.55% for the S&P 500.

Investors’ dim view of bank stocks belies the underlying strengths of many of these banks. Bank net income of $64.4 billion in the second quarter was higher than it had been in the same quarter of 2018 and 2019, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Since 2019, in fact, bank profitability has been going gangbusters. Rising interest rates improved net interest margins, a key profitability statistic for many banks. Plus, loan growth has been good.

And credit quality remains high, as measured by the noncurrent loan and quarterly net charge-off rates at banks, important bank metrics tracked by the FDIC. Despite weaknesses in mortgage and wealth management, this combination of variables has made many banks more profitable than they were in 2018 or 2019.

“Earnings are excellent right now, and they’re going to be even better in the third and fourth quarter as these margins expand,” says Jeff Davis, managing director of Mercer Capital’s financial institutions group.

Investors don’t seem to care. “It’s been a real frustration and a real incongruity between stock prices and what’s going on with fundamentals,” says R. Scott Siefers, managing director and senior research analyst at Piper Sandler & Co. “You’ve had a year of really great revenue growth, and really great profitability, and at least for the time being, that should continue. So that’s the good news. The bad news is, of course, that investors aren’t really as concerned with what’s going on today.”

Worries about a possible recession are sending investors away from bank stocks, even as analysts join Davis in his prediction of a pretty good third and fourth quarter for earnings this year. The reason is that investors view banks as sensitive to the broader economy, Siefers says, and think asset quality will deteriorate and the costs of deposits will rise eventually.

The place to see this play out is in two ratios: price to earnings and price to tangible book value. Interestingly, price to tangible book value ratios have remained strong — probably a function of deteriorating bond values in bank securities’ portfolios, which is bringing down tangible book values in line with falling stock prices. As a result, the average price to tangible book value as of Sept. 23 was 1.86x for large regional bank stocks and 1.7x for banks in the $10 billion to $50 billion asset range, according to Mercer Capital.

Meanwhile, price to earnings ratios are falling. The average price to earnings ratio for the last four quarters was 10.3x for large regional banks, and 11.4x for mid-sized bank stocks. (By way of comparison, the 10-year average for large cap bank stocks was 13.4x and 14.6x for mid cap bank stocks, respectively.)

For bank management teams and the boards that oversee them, the industry is entering a difficult time when decisions about capital management will be crucial. Banks still are seeing loan growth, and for the most part, higher earnings are generating a fair amount of capital, says Rick Childs, a partner at the tax and consulting firm Crowe LLP. But what to do with that capital?

This might be the perfect time to buy back stock, when prices are low, but that depletes capital that might be needed in a recession and such action might be viewed poorly by markets, Childs says. Davis agrees. A lot of companies can’t or won’t buy back their own stock when it’s gotten cheap, he says. “If we don’t have a nasty recession next year, a lot of these stocks are probably pretty good or very good purchases,” he says. “If we have a nasty recession, you’ll wish you had the capital.”

It’s tricky to raise dividends for the same reason. Most banks shy away from cutting dividends, because that would hurt investors, and try to manage to keep the dividend rate consistent, Childs says.

And in terms of lending, banks most certainly will want to continue lending to borrowers with good credit, but may exercise caution when it comes to riskier categories, Davis says. Capital management going forward won’t be easy. “If next year’s nasty, there’s nothing they can do because they’re stuck with what’s on the balance sheet,” he says. The next year or two may prove which bank management teams made the right decisions.

How to Find the Right Title Service Provider

In a highly competitive market, bank title service providers can have a tangible impact on business outcomes. Below are several considerations for selecting a title provider who can help institutions navigate today’s challenging market.

Stability
It’s important to know that the title provider your bank selects remains consistent, whether the market is up or down. Decades of experience, minimal claims and strong financial backing all contribute to the stability of a settlement service provider. “There’s an element of risk lenders can avoid by working with a title partner that has a history of producing instant title with minimal claims. How long have they been doing it?” says Jim Gladden, senior vice president of origination strategy at ServiceLink. “What does their track record look like?”

Service
Each file matters. After all, a home is likely your borrower’s biggest investment; making sure a purchase, refinance or home equity transaction goes smoothly is critical. For that reason, it’s important to ensure that title service providers take the unique needs of the bank’s team and borrowers into account, and prioritizes each transaction.

One way to do that is to work with a firm that dedicates individuals to working with the same lenders and loan officers, so they can understand the unique expectations each of them has, according to Kristy Folino, senior vice president of origination services at ServiceLink.

Prioritizing the Borrower Experience
The real estate lending industry is increasingly competitive; attracting and retaining borrowers is critical. Investigate how different title providers think about your borrowers, and whether their service ethos and technology prioritize the borrower throughout the transaction.

Check out the 2022 ServiceLink State of Homebuying Report to learn more about today’s borrowers. Dave Steinmetz, president of origination services at ServiceLink, says the study suggests a growing number of buyers embrace technology.

“Many are open to new pathways to achieve homeownership. This indicates there is an opportunity for lenders to provide more targeted resources and guidance to buyers throughout their home buying journey.”

Operational Efficiency
In leaner times, banks need to maximize margins on each transaction. Consider where your title service provider has automated their processes, and how that shows up in your bottom line. For example, instant title technology speeds decisioning and enables shorter rate lock periods by quickly clearing the way to the closing table. In fact, many lenders are surprised at how many of their loans qualify for fast-tracking through the instant title process.

Integrating technology and approaches like instant title into your processes could allow you to improve your workflows. Using instant title complexity decisions can help prioritize clear-to-close files, getting them to the closing table faster.

Scalability
In the past few years, the mortgage industry has seen how quickly volumes can change. In this volatile environment, it’s critical to partner with settlement service providers who can flex up or down with their financial institution partner as the market necessitates. The size of a provider’s signing agent panel impacts their scalability — as does their ability to allocate vendors to your operations at critical times, like month’s end.

Geographic Footprint
Being able to use one provider for transactions in all 50 states can simplify bank operations. Partnering with a title service provider with national scope ensures that a bank and its borrowers have a consistent experience, wherever they’re located. Gladden pointed out that national coverage is especially important for lenders with portfolios that are geographically diverse.

Security
Strict adherence to local, state and federal guidelines is critical to ensuring compliant transactions. Security around data must be airtight to protect lenders and their customers from potential breaches or other security incidents.

“Each title provider uses a platform that is aggregating both public and nonpublic consumer information. It’s important to know how that information is protected,” says Gladden.

Data quality
It’s important to look at the sources of title service providers’ data. While speed is essential, assurances from your title providers about data quality is paramount, particularly when it comes to instant title.

“The product is only as good as the data source, so the quality and depth of the data is the biggest factor to look out for. Instant title providers may all be racing toward the same goal, but the methodologies we’re using to get there — whether technologies, processes or the decisions we’re making — differ significantly,” says Sandeepa Sasimohan, vice president of title automation at ServiceLink.

Breadth of product offering
When you’re considering adding to your slate of providers, consider what value can be gained by onboarding a particular vendor. Banks that partner with organizations that offer a comprehensive suite of services — including uninsured and insured title products, flood and valuations — can benefit from increased efficiencies.

These considerations ladder up to one critical theme: partnership. Your title service provider should be a strategic ally who works alongside you to navigate market conditions.

The Promise and the Peril of Director Term Limits

Bank boards seeking to refresh their membership may be tempted to consider term limits, but the blunt approach carries several downsides that they will need to address.

Term limit policies are one way that boards can navigate crucial, but sensitive, topics like board refreshment. They place a ceiling on a director’s tenure to force regular vacancies. Bringing on new members is essential for banks that have a skills or experience gap at the board level, or for banks that need to transform strategy in the future with the help of different directors. However, it can be awkward to implement such a policy. There are other tools that boards can use to deliver feedback and ascertain a director’s interest in continued service.

The average age of financial sector independent directors in the S&P 500 index was 64.1 years, according to the 2021 U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index. The average tenure was 8.3 years. The longest tenured board in the financial sector was 16 years.

“I believe that any small bank under $1 billion in assets should adopt provisions to provide for term limits of perhaps 10 years for outside directors,” wrote one respondent in Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey.

The idea has some fans in the banking industry. The board of directors at New York-based, $121 billion Signature Bank, which is known for its innovative business lines, adopted limits in 2018. The policy limits non-employee directors to 12 years cumulatively. The change came after discussions over several meetings about the need for refreshment as the board revisited its policies, says Scott Shay, chairman of the board and cofounder of the bank. Some directors were hesitant about the change — and what it might mean for their time on the board.

“In all candor, people had mixed views on it. But we kept talking about it,” he says. “And as the world is evolving and changing, [the question was: ‘How do] we get new insights and fresh blood onto the board over some period?’”

Ultimately, he says the directors were able to prioritize the bank’s needs and agree to the policy change. Since adopting the term limits, the board added three new independent directors who are all younger than directors serving before the change, according to the bank’s 2022 proxy statement. Two are women and one is Asian. Their skills and experience include international business, corporate governance, government and business heads, among others.

And the policy seems to complement the bank’s other corporate governance policies and practices: a classified board, a rigorous onboarding procedure, annual director performance assessments and thoughtful recruitment. Altogether, these policies ensure board continuity, offer a way to assess individual and board performance and create a pool of qualified prospects to fill regular vacancies.

Signature’s classified board staggers director turnover. Additionally, the board a few years ago extended the expiring term of its then-lead independent director by one year; that move means only two directors leave the board whenever they hit their term limits.

Shay says he didn’t want a completely new board that needed a new education every few years. “We wanted to keep it to a maximum of a turnover of two at a time,” he says.

To support the regularly occurring vacancies, Signature’s recruitment approach begins with identifying a class of potential directors well in advance of turnover and slowly whittling down the candidates based on interest, commitment and individual interviews with the nominating and governance committee members. And as a new outside director prepares to join the board, Signature puts them through “an almost exhausting onboarding process” to introduce them to various aspects of the bank and its business — which starts a month before the director’s first meeting.

But term limits, along with policies like mandatory retirement ages, can be a blunt corporate governance tool to manage refreshment. There are a number of other tools that boards could use to govern, improve and refresh their membership.

“I personally think term limits have no value at all,” says James J. McAlpin Jr., a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

He says that term limits may prematurely remove a productive director because they’re long tenured, and potentially replace them with someone who may be less engaged and constructive. He also dislikes when boards make exceptions for directors whose terms are expiring.

In lieu of term limits, he argues that banks should opt for board and peer evaluations that allow directors to reflect on their engagement and capacity to serve on the board. Regular evaluation can also help the nominating and governance committee create succession plans for committee chairs who are near the end of their board service.

Perhaps one reason why community banks are interested in term limits is because so few conduct assessments. Only 30% of respondents to Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, which published May 16, said they didn’t conduct performance assessments at any interval — many of those responses were at banks with less than $1 billion in assets. And 51% of respondents don’t perform peer evaluations and haven’t considered that exercise.

For McAlpin, a board that regularly evaluates itself — staffed by directors who are honest about their service capacity and the needs of the bank — doesn’t need bright-line rules around tenure to manage refreshment.

“It’s hard to articulate a reason why you need term limits in this day and age,” he says, “as opposed to just self-policing self-governance by the board.”

The Missing Piece in Community Bank M&A

The community bank space is consolidating at a blistering pace, but buyers may be overlooking a key consideration when thinking about mergers and acquisitions. Prospective buyers should consider how other footprints complement growth opportunities against their own, lest they make critical and expensive mistakes. In this video, Kamal Mustafa, chairman of the Invictus Group, explains why bank buyers should assess a target’s footprint, and how to value the industries and lending opportunities within a new market.

  • Market Considerations and Assessments
  • Focusing on Industries, Not Loans
  • Target Valuations

Keeping the Digital Accelerant Going

Digital transformation and strategy are further examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired, launched today on BankDirector.com. Click here to access the content.

The coronavirus pandemic has been an accelerant for digital bank transformations. Banks must now keep that fire going.

“There’s never been a more important time for bank executives to think strategically,” says Cornerstone Advisors cofounder Steve Williams. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation plans by about two to three years, he estimates. It will soon be up to opportunistic bankers to continue that transformation in order to better position their institutions for the future and increase shareholder value during what could be a prolonged economic recovery.

The pandemic’s impact on physical spaces like branches underscored the importance of digital channels, capabilities and products. No longer was it acceptable for institutions to tack digital offerings onto existing branch initiatives and force customers to do a cross-channel dance: Open an account or loan in the branch but service it online, for instance.

Going forward, outperformers will be the banks that successfully overhaul or transform legacy tech, expenses, buildings, organizational structures and vendor contracts into next-generation capabilities. Williams says smarter banks are led by executive teams with a focused strategy, that leverage data strategically and actively manage vendor partnerships, rather than relying on their core processors. They also attract the talent and skills that the bank will need in the future, rather than just filling the vacancies that exist today.

The first place that banks direct their energies and attention to continue their digital momentum is the legacy branch network, says Tim Reimink, a managing director at Crowe. Branches are expensive to operate, have been closed for an extended period of time and were potentially underperforming prior to the pandemic. Banks also have the data to prove that customers will continue banking with them if locations are closed, and that many are now comfortable using digital channels.

“Every single location must be evaluated,” says Crowe Senior Manager Robert Reggiannini. Executives should weigh the market opportunity, penetration and existing wallet share of small businesses and consumer customers, as well as how the branch fits in with the rest of the network. Rationalizing the network frees up capital to redeploy into digital transformation or other areas of operation that need greater investment in the post-pandemic economy.

Certainly some banks have gotten that message. It wasn’t uncommon to see banks across the country announce double-digit rationalizing efforts, often announcing they would cut 20%. In December 2020 alone, banks opened 43 branches but permanently closed 240, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. For the year, they opened 982 locations and closed 3,099.

Reducing the branch network will necessitate changes in how bank staff interact with customers, Reggiannini adds. Banks should not assume tellers at a branch will find the same success in the digital chat environment, call center or at in-person meetings conducted outside of the branch.

He says banks should train staff in developing the skills needed to service a customer outside of a branch and consider how they will manage and measure staff for flexibility and productivity. “Engagement with customers is going to be critical going forward,” Reggiannini says.

The branch network, and the foot traffic and relationships they used to attract, have been under pressure from digital banks, often focused on consumer and retail relationships. But Williams warns that the pandemic underlined the vulnerability of commercial relationships. Numerous fintechs competed successfully against banks in issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration, and a number of businesses are shifting more of their relationships to payment processors like Stripe and Square.

“Disruption will come to business banking – not as fast as retail banking but it’s coming,” Williams says. “If we lose the deposit and business relationship with commercial customers, will banks be able to keep their returns? We don’t think so.”

The Choice Facing Every Bank

Has your executive team been approached by leaders of another bank interested in an acquisition? It likely means your bank is doing something right. But, now what?

Many CEOs’ visceral response to being asked to consider a deal is to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” and continue running the bank. While this may be the correct response, this overture is a chance for leadership to objectively revisit the bank’s strategic alternatives to determine the best option for its shareholders and other stakeholders.

Stay the Course
Boards must objectively identify where their bank is in its life cycle — be it turn-around, growth or stability — and what will be needed to successfully compete at the next stage. Ultimately, they must determine if the bank can drive more long-term shareholder value staying independent than it could with a partner. They must also weigh the risk of remaining independent against the potential reward.

Directors should prepare five-year projections, ideally with the help of a financial advisor, that assume the bank continues to operate independently. They should forecast growth and profitability that reasonably reflect current marketplace dynamics and company strategy, and are generally consistent with past performance. Consider opportunities to lower funding costs, consolidate or sell unprofitable branches, add lines of business, or achieve economies of scale through acquisitions or organic growth. However, be cognizant of market headwinds: low interest rate environment, slower projected loan growth, increasing cost of technology and cybersecurity, regulatory burden, competition, demographic trends, upcoming presidential election and so on. The board should also consider organizational issues such as succession planning — a major issue for many community banks. How do these factors impact the future performance of your institution? Will your bank be able to meet shareholder expectations?

Merge with Peer
Peer mergers have been a hot topic of late. The bank space has seen several high-profile transactions: the merger between BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks to form Truist Financial Corp.; Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon National Corp. and Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.; Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. and Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp.; and McKinney, Texas-based Independent Bank Group and Dallas-based Texas Capital Bancshares.

The opportunity to double assets while achieving economies of scale can drive significant shareholder value. But these transactions can be tough to nail down because both parties must be willing to compromise on key negotiation topics. Which side selects the chairman? The CEO? How will the board be split? Where will the company be headquartered? What will be the name of the future bank?

Peer mergers can be risky propositions for banks, as cultures don’t always match and integration can take several years. However, the transaction can be a windfall for shareholders in the long run.

Sell
A decision to sell almost always generates the greatest immediate value for shareholders. Boards must ascertain if now is the right time, or if the bank can do better on its own.

Whether or not selling creates the highest long-term value for shareholders depends on several factors. One factor is the consideration mix, if any, between stock and cash. Cash gives shareholders the flexibility to invest and diversify the net proceeds as they see fit, but capital gains will be taxed immediately. Stock consideration is generally a tax-free exchange, when structured correctly, but it is paramount to select the right partner. Look for a bank with a strong management team and board, a proven track record of building shareholder value and a plan to continue to do so. That partner may not offer you the highest price today, but will most likely deliver a better return to shareholders in the long run, compared to other potential acquirers. Furthermore, a partner that is likely to sell in the near-term could provide a double-dip — a potential homerun for your shareholders.

It is crucial to consider what impact a sale would have on other stakeholders, like employees and the community. Prepare your bank to sell, well in advance of any conversations with potential acquirers. Avoid signing new IT contracts with material termination costs; it is an opportune time to sell when core processing contracts are nearing expiration. In addition, review existing employment agreements and consider establishing a severance plan to protect employees ahead of time.

Being approached by a potential acquirer gives your bank an opportunity to objectively reflect on its strategy and potentially adjust it. Even if your bank hasn’t been contacted by a potential acquirer, the board should still review the bank’s strategic alternatives annually, at a minimum, and determine the best path forward.

Four Interesting Insights from Two Very Interesting Bankers

The greatest benefit of being a writer is that you get to talk with lots of interesting people. It’s a constant education. Particularly if you appreciate the opportunity and structure your conversations accordingly.

My style is to conduct broad interviews across a range of topics, whether all the topics are germane to the piece I’m working on at the moment or not. This has helped me construct a mental model of banking, but it also means that a lot of material is left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

With this in mind, I decided to revisit some of the conversations I’ve had with bankers over the past few months to share the most interesting insights.

Foremost among these is a series of conversations with Robert and Patrick Gaughen, the CEO and president, respectively, of Hingham Institution for Savings, a $2.6 billion bank based in the Boston metropolitan area.

Since the Gaughens gained control of Hingham in 1993, following a two-year proxy contest with its former managers, it has generated a total shareholder return of more than 5,400%, according to my math. That’s more than double the total return of other well-run banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PNC Financial Services Group.

One thing that strikes you when talking with the Gaughens is the depth and sophistication of their banking philosophy. All bankers understand banking. But some understand it on a deeper level than others — that’s the Gaughens.

They approach the industry as investors, or capital allocators, instead of bankers. This seems to be a product of the fact that both Robert Gaughen and his father — Patrick’s grandfather — practiced law before becoming de facto bankers in order to protect investments they had made in banks.

This may seem like a vacuous nuance, but it isn’t. It’s always tempting to subordinate the process of capital allocation to operational processes. After all, if your operations aren’t profitable, you won’t have excess capital to allocate.

What true capital allocators appreciate, however, is that the distinction between capital allocation and operations is nebulous. Everything can be viewed through the prism of capital allocation — from how many employees you hire to which technologies you implement to whether you increase your dividend or repurchase stock.

In this respect, capital allocation is less of a mechanical process than it is a mindset, concentrating one’s attention on measuring the return on each incremental decision.

Another interesting insight that came up in our conversations is the importance of studying other industries. Not only the importance of doing so, I should say, but why it’s so important to do so.

The drive to constantly learn is something that many people preach, but few people practice. This is an element of leadership that can’t be overstated. It serves as the common denominator underlying the performance of the most successful CEOs in banking.

It’s well known that banking is an acutely competitive and commoditized industry, and that those characteristics compress profit margins. But there are two other forces that lead to a lack of differentiation as well.

As Patrick points out, high consultant reuse and an overbearing regulatory schema contribute to a high degree of homogeneity in terms of the way banks are run. The net result is that studying other banks can be less fruitful than one might think.

This isn’t to say that a mastery of banking isn’t critical — it is. But after accumulating a critical mass of knowledge about best practices within banking, the incremental return from intermittently studying other industries, it seems, will exceed the return of concentrating exclusively on banking.

The final point that both Gaughens stress relates to the importance of skin in the game, or executive and director ownership of stock. In their case, their immediate and extended family owns upwards of 40% of Hingham’s outstanding stock. This provides a powerful incentive to care not only about the return on their capital, but also the return of their capital.

Many companies talk about the mystical benefits of alignment between executives and shareholders, as well as having employees that act like owners. But there is simply no substitute for having actual skin in the game. It hones one’s appreciation for the virtues of extraordinary banking, from efficiency to risk management to disciplined growth.

None of this is to say that the Gaughens have everything figured out; they would be the first to admit they don’t. But their philosophy and approach to banking is not only unique, but also tried and true.

Using Succession Planning to Unlock Compensation Challenges

compensation-9-16-19.pngSuccession planning could be the key solution boards can use to address their biggest compensation challenges.

Succession planning is one of the most critical tasks for a bank’s board of directors, right up there with attracting talented executives and compensating them. But many boards miss the opportunity of allowing succession planning to drive talent retention and compensation. Banks can address two major challenges with one well-crafted plan.

Ideally, succession planning is an ongoing discussion between executive management and board members. Proper planning encourages banks to assess their current talent base for various positions and identify opportunities or shortfalls.

It’s not a static one-and-done project either. Directors should be aware of the problems that succession planning attempts to solve: preparing future leaders, filling any talent voids, attracting and retaining key talent, strategically disbursing training funds and ultimately, improving shareholder value.

About a third of respondents in the Bank Director’s 2019 Compensation Survey reported that “succession planning for the CEO and/or executives” was one of the biggest challenges facing their banks. More popular challenges included “tying compensation to performance,” “managing compensation and benefit costs,” and “recruiting commercial lenders.”

But in our experience, these priorities are out of order. Developing a strategic succession planning process can actually drive solutions to the other three compensation challenges.

There are several approaches boards can use to formulate a successful succession plan. But they should start by assessing the critical roles in the bank, the projected departure dates of those individuals, and information and guidance about the skills needed for each position.

Boards should be mindful that the current leaders’ skill sets may be less relevant or evolve in the future. Susan Rogers, organizational change expert and president of People Pinnacle, said succession planning should consider what skills the role may require in the future, based on a company’s strategic direction and trends in the industry and market.

The skills and experiences that got you where you are today likely won’t get you where you need to go in the future. We need to prepare future leaders for what’s ahead rather than what’s behind,” she said.

Once a board has identified potential successors, it can now design compensation plans that align their roles and training plans with incentives to remain with the organization. Nonqualified benefit plans, such as deferred compensation programs, can be effective tools for attracting and retaining key bank performers.

According to the American Bankers Association 2018 Compensation and Benefits Survey, 64% of respondents offered a nonqualified deferred compensation plan for top management. Their design flexibility means they can focus on both longer-term deferrals to provide retirement income or shorter-term deferrals for interim financial needs.

Plans with provisions that link benefits to the long-term success of the bank can help increase performance and shareholder value. Bank contributions can be at the board’s discretion or follow defined performance goals, and can either be a specific dollar amount or a percentage of an executive’s salary. Succession and training goals can also be incorporated into the plan’s award parameters.

Such plans can be very attractive to key employees, particularly the young and high performing. For example, assume that the bank contributes 8% of a $125,000 salary for a 37-year-old employee annually until age 65. At age 65, the participant could have an account balance equal to $1,470,000 (assuming a crediting rate equal to the bank’s return on assets (8%), with an annual payment of $130,000 per year for 15 years).

This same participant could also use a portion of the benefit to pay for college expenses for two children, paid for with in-service distributions from the nonqualified plan. Assume there are two children, ages three and seven, and the employee wants $25,000 a year to be distributed for each child for four years. These annual $25,000 distributions would be paid out when the employee was between ages 49 and 56. The remaining portion would be available for retirement and provide an annual benefit of $83,000 for 15 years, beginning at age 65.

Boards could use a plan like this in lieu of stock plans that have similar time horizons. This type of arrangement can be more enticing to younger leaders looking at shorter, more mid-term financial needs than a long-term incentive plan.

And many banks already have defined benefit-type supplemental retirement plans to recruit, retain, and reward key executives. These plans are very popular with executives who are 45 and older, because they provide specific monthly distributions at retirement age.

It is important that boards craft meaningful compensation plans that reward older and younger executives, especially when they are vital to the bank’s overall succession planning efforts and future success.

How Subchapter S Issues Could Snag a Sale


acquisitions-5-2-19.pngNearly 2,000 banks in the U.S. have elected Subchapter S tax treatment as a way of enhancing shareholder value since 1997, the first year they were permitted to make the election. Consequently, many banks have more than 20 years of operating history as an S corporation.

However, this history is presenting increasingly frequent challenges during acquisition due diligence. Acquirers of S corporations are placing greater emphasis on due diligence to ensure that the target made a valid initial Subchapter S election and continuously maintained eligibility since the election. Common issues arising during due diligence typically fall into two categories:

  • Failure to maintain stock transfer and shareholder records with sufficient specificity to demonstrate continuous eligibility as an S corporation.
  • Failure by certain trust shareholders to timely make required Qualified Subchapter S Trust (QSST) or Electing Small Business Trust (ESBT) elections.

A target’s inability to affirmatively demonstrate its initial or continuing eligibility as an S corporation creates a risk for the acquirer. The target’s S election could be disregarded after the deal closes, subjecting the acquirer to corporate-level tax liability with respect to the target for all prior periods that are within the statute of limitations. This risk assessment may impact the purchase price or the willingness of the buyer to proceed with the transaction. In addition, the target could become exposed to corporate tax liability, depending on the extent of the compliance issues revealed during due diligence, unless remediated.

Accordingly, it is important for S corporation banks to ensure that their elections are continuously maintained and that they retain appropriate documentation to demonstrate compliance. An S corporation bank should retain all records associated with the initial election, including all shareholder consents and IRS election forms. S corporation banks should also maintain detailed stock transfer records to enable the substantiation of continuous shareholder eligibility.

Prior to registering a stock transfer to a trust, S corporation banks should request and retain copies of all governing trust instruments, as well as any required IRS elections.

It is also advisable to have the bank’s legal counsel review these trust instruments to confirm eligibility status and any required elections. Banks that are relying on the family aggregation rules to stay below the 100 shareholder limitation should also keep records supporting the family aggregation analysis.

While S corporation banks have realized significant economic benefits through the elimination of double taxation of corporate earnings, maintaining strong recordkeeping practices is a critical element in protecting and maximizing franchise value, especially during an acquisition. Any S corporation bank that is contemplating selling in the foreseeable future should consider conducting a preemptive review of its Subchapter S compliance and take any steps necessary to remediate adverse findings or secure missing documentation prior to exploring a sale.

A Better Way to Value Deposit-Driven Deals


deposits-4-1-19.pngThere’s no doubt that the focus these days on acquisitions centers around deposits. When surveyed at the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, 71 percent of attendees said that a target’s deposit base was the most important factor in making the decision to acquire. This suggests that targets with excess liquidity (low loan-to-deposit ratios) will be highly valued in the market going forward.

This strategic objective is out of whack with traditional deal valuation metrics.

The two primary traditional deal metrics are tangible book value (TBV) payback period and earnings per share (EPS) accretion. Investors expect every deal to meet the benchmarks of a low TBV payback period (ideally less than three years) and be accretive to EPS, according to a presentation from Keefe Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud.

These are earnings-based metrics, and targets with low loan-to-deposit ratios have lower earnings because they have larger securities portfolios relative to loans. Therefore, traditional consolidation modeling will undervalue those targets with longer payback periods and lower accretion. Potential acquirers will struggle to justify competitive prices for these highly valued targets.

Why are deals that clearly create shareholder value by strengthening the buyer’s deposit base not reflected by the deal metrics du jour? Because those metrics are flawed. How can you justify a deposit-driven deal to an investor base that is focused on TBV payback and EPS accretion? By abandoning traditional valuation methods and using forward-looking, common sense analytics that capture the true value of an acquisition.

Traditional consolidation methodology projects the buyer and seller independently, then combines them with some purchase accounting and cost savings adjustments. Maybe the analyst will increase consolidated loan growth generated from the excess deposits acquired. This methodology does not capture the true value of the acquired deposits.

The intelligent acquirer should first project its own financials under realistic scenarios, given current market trends. Industry deposit growth has already begun to slow, and the big banks are taking more and more market share. If the bank were to grow loans organically, it must be determined:

  • How much of the funding would come from core deposits and how much would require brokered deposits or other borrowings like Federal Home Loan Bank advances and repurchase agreements? This change in funding mix will drive up incremental interest expense.
  • How many of the bank’s existing depositors will shift their funds from low cost checking and savings accounts to higher cost CDs to capture higher market rates? This process will increase the bank’s existing cost of funds.
  • What will happen to my deposit rates when my competitors start advertising higher rates in a desperate play to attract deposits? This will put more pressure on the bank’s existing cost of funds.
  • How many of my existing loans will reprice at higher rates and help overcome increasing funding costs? Invictus’ BankGenome™ intelligence system suggests that, while the average fixed/floating mix for all banks in the US is 60/40, the percentage of floating rate loans actually repricing at higher rates in the next 12 months is much lower because the weighted average time between loan reset dates is more than six quarters.

Standalone projections for the buyer must adequately reflect the risks inherent in the current operating environment. These risks will affect a bank’s bottom line and, therefore, shareholder value. This process will create a true baseline against which to measure the impact of the acquisition. Management must educate its investors on the flaws in legacy analytics, so they can understand a deal’s true value.

In the acquisition scenario, the bank is acquiring loan growth with existing core deposit funding attached. And if the target has excess deposits, the acquirer can deploy those funds into additional loans grown organically without the funding risks due to current market trends. The cost differential between the organic growth and acquisition scenarios creates real, tangible savings. These savings translate to higher incremental earnings from the acquisition, which alleviate TBV payback periods and EPS accretion issues. Traditional deal metrics may be used as guideposts in evaluating an acquisition, but a misguided reliance on them can obscure the true strategic and financial shareholder value created in a transaction.

Every target should be analyzed in depth, with prices customized to the acquirer’s unique balance sheet and footprint. Don’t pass on a great deal because of flawed traditional methodologies.