Expectations +/- Capacity

photo (21)
Heading up to 8 at the Four Seasons

The topic of a seller’s expectations and a buyer’s capacity is particularly relevant in light of what Cathy Nash and Jim Wolohan of Citizens Republic Bancorp shared earlier today.   Given that our economic environment is challenging, valuations are depressed and size and scale matter now more than ever, we turned our attention to matters like pricing expectations and the overall state of our financial community by welcoming Ben Plotkin, Vice Chairman of Stifel, to the stage.

Noticeably absent from the bank M&A market in 2012 were the “mega-deals” of years past that have often helped stimulate takeover activity. As I wrote about earlier today, the market made a modest rebound last year, with 230 acquisitions of healthy banks totaling $13.6 billion. But while there were only 150 bank deals in 2011—the third lowest volume since 1989—they totaled $17 billion.  While low levels of loan growth and continued net interest margin compression continue to challenge banks, there is “good news” according to Ben:

  • Profitability has improved (*primarily due to credit leverage);
  • Capital levels are at 70-year highs;
  • Valuations have improved significantly; and
  • M&A discussions are elevating.

To this last point, Ben cites capital access (or the lack thereof) as the driver of consolidation. Thanks to recent stock appreciation, potential buyers enjoy an increased capacity to pay meaningful premiums for smaller institutions and still preserve tangible book value.  As a result, larger institutions with access to the capital markets will most likely pursue M&A in order to overcome their more organic growth challenges.  

On the flip side, smaller institutions, especially those perceived by the investment community as not being able to earn their cost of equity and unable to access the marekets, may consider an “upstream” partnership.  In closing, Ben reiterated that asset growth is essential in order to create the revenue necessary to overcome the cost of doing business.

As with Cathy and Jim, our thanks to Ben for sharing his time and thoughts with us this morning.

The Strategy to Sell

earplugs at the Four Seasons in Chicago
Needed for the wind here in Chicago… not our speakers

Each year, Bank Director hosts a two day “peer exchange” for CEOs and Chairmen of financial institutions from across the U.S.  This year’s event, held in Chicago at the Four Seasons, kicked off this morning with a spirited presentation by Cathy Nash, the former President & CEO of Citizens Republic Bancorp and Jim Wolohan, the former Chairman of the bank.  I spent some time talking with Cathy and Jim before their presentation; what follows are the highlights of their talk on re-building, and subsequently selling, a bank.

In 2012, there were 230 acquisitions of healthy banks totaling $13.6 billion.  Yes, this equates to more takeovers than the year before, but they were generally smaller in size. While the largest transaction was the $3.8 billion buyout of Hudson City by M&T, the Akron, Ohio-based FirstMerit acquisition of Flint, Michigan’s Citizens Republic garnered quite a lot of attention.

When the deal was announced last September, it was as a stock-for-stock exchange worth $912 million at the time of the announcement (*to put this in perspective, last week’s acquisition of Provident New York by Sterling Bancorp came in at $344 million).  The price to Citizens’ tangible book value at the time of the announcement was 130% — and the combined entity will have roughly $24 billion in assets across five Midwestern states, 415 branches and more than 5,000 employees.

Against this backdrop, we asked this dynamic duo to share their experiences with their peers, starting with how a CEO works with the board to create a successful strategic plan.  According to Cathy, you need to come to the table with options.  Jim elaborated on her point, sharing the bank’s board explored organic growth, a partnership or outright sale of the bank and a combination of organic growth coupled with M&A under Cathy’s leadership.  Both executives knew the bank needed to return to sustainable quarterly profitability; when neither felt they could match their peers’ median returns in an appropriate time frame, a decision started to come into focus.  If they couldn’t deliver more than the cost of capital to their shareholders, exploring a sale had to take the lead. 

The two also explained how to know when it’s time to pare back your offerings to your customers.  According to Jim, shrinking the bank’s asset size once Cathy took the reins from $14 billion to just under $10 billion made sense thanks to rules and regulations like the Durbin amendment found in Dodd-Frank. In Michigan, as the economy soured, the soft and hard costs of growth made the decision slightly easier to bear.  But their focus on the long-term return on equity and investment drove much of their strategy to get ahead by going small(er).

Thanks to Cathy and Jim for opening up.  The decision to buy another bank often takes center stage at events like these, and their honesty in addressing both their struggles and excitement certainly set the tone for today’s program.

##

More to come this afternoon; specifically, an update on the state of the financial industry specific to the 43 institutions (21 of which are public) joining us at this year’s Bank Chairman/CEO Peer Exchange.