A few years ago, comparing the potential of bank start-ups to that of bank acquisitions might have quickly led an investor to believe that de novo was the way to go. But as desperation and uncertainty in the industry rise, seller price expectations have fallen. Combine this trend with regulators’ increased scrutiny of new bank applications, and the scales are tipping in favor of buying a bank, rather than starting a new one.
Selective purchase, short timeline
Investing groups have two ways to go in a bank purchase: participate in an FDIC-assisted transaction or buy a bank without the government’s help. In an FDIC-assisted transaction, the buyer can acquire deposits, branches and, maybe most importantly, customer relationships, without getting stuck with bad assets. This is an advantage, but the buyer must also contend with public opinion related to the former bank’s failure. Once the transaction becomes public, those purchased deposits may shrink as customers head elsewhere.
Assisted transactions also present a very short window of opportunity. The FDIC notifies and collects blind bids from suitors within just a few weeks. Further, due diligence and negotiations occur before any public announcement is made.
Trends in the FDIC’s “Problem List” indicate that the availability of FDIC-assisted transactions will likely increase this year. As of the end of the first quarter, the problem list included 305 banks and thrifts. That’s up from 252 at the end of the year and 171 in September of 2008.
Taking the bad with the good
Many insured institutions will remain off the problem list, but will seek a change in ownership or additional capital anyway. Opportunistic organization groups that are willing to dig in and evaluate asset quality, stability of deposits, and the competitive landscape, among other things, could turn up some workable deals. Unlike the assisted transaction, the unassisted deal rarely presents the chance to buy assets selectively. But, if the publicity is properly managed, buyers can minimize customer defections related to the “failed bank” stigma.
Clearly, due diligence in these transactions must be extensive. In the current environment, pricing cannot be justified by multiples; buyers are tasked with looking beyond book value and earnings to evaluate a bank’s incremental earnings power. This is no small task, given the uncertainty about economic conditions, collateral values and the regulatory environment. Since due diligence may actually lead to more questions than answers, buyers must be highly disciplined in valuating their prospective targets and ready to walk away from deals that don’t make sense.
FactSet Mergerstat LLC has reported that at least 285 U.S. financial institutions were sold last year, which is just 54 percent of the number of transactions reported in 2007.