The U.S. banking industry is caught in one of the worst crises in history. The momentous failure of Washington Mutual underscores how bad things have gotten: the bank's $307 billion asset base sharply exceeds the formerly largest failure of $40 billion Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust in 1984.
Pressure from the ongoing liquidity crisis has pushed bank multiples down considerably, to the point that bargain hunting investors are out on the prowl. Prior to the present crisis, community banks were selling for somewhere between 2 and 3.6 times book value. Now, multiples have dropped below 2, hovering at about 1.85 times. The dip has created a scratch-and-dent sale of sorts, as investors can swoop in and purchase flawed community banks at a low price.
In early September for example, Yadkin Valley Financial Corp. announced that it would purchase American Community Bancshares Inc. and its American Community Bank subsidiary. The price tag on the deal was $92 million, just 168 percent of American Community Bancshares' book value.
In volatility there is opportunity
Prospective bank investors are recognizing that the best bargains can be had during the worst of times. Of course, the sale-priced banks do not come without significant problems that need to be worked out-but those problems are reflected in the pricing. So a cool-headed investment team with a clear strategy does have the opportunity to create substantial value.
Investors should be prepared to face stiff competition on the best deals. The low multiples have caught the attention of investor groups of all types, from local community organizers to international investors. Most of these groups, by and large, appear to be focused on buying up the damaged goods, rather than building up from scratch.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast
The old military quote, "slow is smooth and smooth is fast," articulates what's needed to take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace today. The successful investor group will need to wade through competition from other investors, an increasingly stringent regulatory environment, the due diligence necessary to understand the bank's underlying problems and how much it will cost to fix them and, of course, the present liquidity crunch.
Preparing to purchase a bank under any condition is an effort that takes commitment and concentration. The added complexity created by today's environment is not to be taken lightly; in other words, this isn't the type of deal that can be phoned in. A team must be carefully assembled to provide sufficient levels of experience, talent and drive. The strategy must deliberate and focused. And, finally, the execution must be, above all, efficient.