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The Football Fan’s Guide to M&A Transactions

With both college and professional (not to mention fantasy) football in full swing, we find many conversations with clients drifting to topics from the
gridiron at this time of year.  Given that many of us are devoting a significant amount of our personal time to following our favorite teams, many times business points are best illustrated at this time of year by using football analogies.

Certain sports agents have posited that the highest achieving football coaches could easily run Fortune 500 companies but instead chose to coach football for a living.  While that point is debatable, we can certainly draw from the talking points of today’s best coaches in setting a framework for approaching a merger transaction.  While we can’t deliver Nick Saban, Bill Belichick, or Kirby Smart to your boardroom, use these sound bites to your advantage in setting the tone for how your board addresses an M&A transaction.

    1. Trust the process. “The Process” has become a hallmark of the University of Alabama’s championship dynasty.  Coach Saban focuses on the individual elements that yield the best results by the end of the season.  Similarly, a well-planned process can be trusted to yield the best long-term results.  This simple point is among the easiest for boards to miss.  We are often concerned when clients engage in “opportunistic” M&A activity.  Instead, we prefer to see a carefully planned process that includes the following fundamental elements:
      * Parameters around the profile that potential partners should have, including market presence, lines of business, and size;
      * Clearly defined financial goals and walkaway points; i.e., those metrics beyond which no deal can be justified;
      * For sellers, the forms of consideration that will be acceptable (i.e., publicly-traded stock, privately-held stock, or cash); and
      * Selection of qualified advisors.
    2. Self-scout. Great football teams have an honest self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and grasp them on a deeper level than their opponents.  Buyers and sellers should also have a frank assessment of their shortcomings.  In planning for the M&A process, those weaknesses should be addressed in advance to the extent possible.  To the extent they cannot be fixed in advance of embarking on an M&A process, parties should provide a transparent assessment of their weaknesses to potential partners.  Doing so enhances credibility and builds trust in the other facets of due diligence.
    3. Know the tendencies of your opponent. On the other side of self-scouting is a great team’s ability to understand and address the weaknesses of its opponents.  While we never advise clients to think of M&A partners as adversaries, advance due diligence of a potential partner to identify their needs can certainly help lead to a successful transaction.  At its core, a good M&A transaction is about giving a potential partner something it does not have and cannot build for itself.  To the extent that parties can identify the needs of potential partners in advance of their initial conversations, they can speak directly to those needs at the outset, thus positioning themselves as an optimal partner in a crowded M&A field.
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2017 Bank M&A Statistics

2017 Bank M&A Statistics

January 3, 2018

Authored by: Robert Klingler

It looks like we’ll end 2017 with a total of 263 bank and thrift transactions, representing a slight increase in the number of deals over 2016 (250), but well below 2014 and 2015 levels (307 and 294, respectively).  However, in light of the decline in total number of banks (and the dearth of de novo activity), 2017 basically equaled 2014 and 2015 transaction activity, with approximately 4.5% of institutions at the beginning of the year exiting through a business combination.  (2016’s 250 transactions represented approximately 4.0% of the outstanding banks at the beginning of 2016.)

Until and unless we see more de novo activities, it seems unlikely that we will return to 300 transactions in any given year.  However, on an annualized basis, the fourth quarter of 2017 saw 296 transactions!  Were 2018 to keep up that pace, over 5% of the remaining banks in the country would need to sell.  Each institution’s decision to sell remains subject to a number of unique considerations, but, if anything, it would seem the percentage of institutions selling in any given year would likely decline rather than increase going forward.

We are strong proponents of the proposition that “banks are sold, not bought.”  The fact that there remain a number of institutions looking to grow by completing acquisitions is thus unlikely to fundamentally change the number of transactions in any particular year.  Conversely, the age and stage of banks in the industry (and that of their management teams) remains a critical component of many sale determinations.  As we continue to see a shrinking universe of financial institutions, it stands to reason that we will also continue to see a decline in the number of institutions that decide a sale is the right strategic decision in any particular year.

2017 reflected, consistent with recent trends, a continued increase in the average price-to-book multiple paid in bank transactions.  While the average price-to-book multiple in 2014, 2015 and 2016 were each approximately 1.3 times book, average pricing in 2017 rose to almost 1.6x book.  This level of pricing likely continues to serve as a negative deterrent to de novo formation, as it’s much easier to build a broadly attractive investment model if it includes a sale for 3x book in 5 years (or less).  Looking at a more granular, quarterly, level, it would appear that the 2017 increase is likely tied to the “Trump bump” in bank stock prices.  The average price-to-book multiple rose to 1.4x in the fourth quarter of 2016 (which included pre-and post- Trump bump prices), and then jumped up 1.5x to 1.6x for each quarter in 2017.

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Acquire or Be Acquired 2018 M&A Simulation

We are looking forward to running the M&A Simulation at Bank Director’s 2018 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference with our friends at FIG Partners.  This is the second year we’ve teamed up with FIG Partners to present a simulation of the community bank merger and acquisition sale process.  We’ve identified the basics of this year’s fictional banks, and are looking forward to another exciting simulation.

The simulation is an exclusive session at Acquire or Be Acquired, is open to 45 bank attendees only and fills up quickly.  If you’re planning to attend AOBA and want to ensure your spot in the simulation, please contact us.  If you’re interested in attending and haven’t already registered the conference, please contact us to receive our sponsorship code for a $400 discount.

The 2017 simulation involved competing bidders for a billion dollar community bank, identified as Bank A.  Bank B, a $1.3 billion institution, offered a merger of equals opportunity, hoping that one plus one could equal three, while Bank C, a $6 billion institution with strong organic growth, was able to win the hearts and minds of Bank A with a strong all stock offer.  The simulation ultimately mirrored what we often see, small buyers must be very creative or seek opportunities that are not coveted by larger, more highly valued public buyers. See our write-up of the 2017 M&A Simulation for additional information.

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Dealing with an Unsolicited Offer

On the latest episode of The Bank Account, in preparation #SharkWeek, Jonathan and I discuss unsolicited offers and some of the approaches for bank boards to deal with them.  Topics covered include:

  • Senator Warren’s declaration that OCC Acting Comptroller Keith Noreika is a “swamp thing;”
  • unsolicited versus hostile approaches;
  • approaches to sell a bank, including full auctions, limited auctions, and negotiated transactions;
  • the need to have a current strategic plan and an understanding of the financial impact of such plan;
  • the-bank-accountthe value of having a Policy for Corporate Change to ensure discussions about offers to acquire the bank find their way to the boardroom for discussion by the full board;
  • dealing with an unsolicited offer in the middle of a negotiated transaction; and
  • the value of having experienced advisors, like Bryan Cave LLP, at your side as you address these issues.

You can also always follow us on Twitter.

Jonathan is @HightowerBanks and I’m @RobertKlingler.  Our producer, Sam Katz, is @SamathaJill1.

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FRB Lifts Threshold for Financial Stability Review

In its March 2017 approval of People United Financial, Inc.’s merger with Suffolk Bancorp (the “Peoples United Order”), the Federal Reserve Board eased the approval criteria for certain smaller bank merger transactions by expanding its presumption regarding proposals that do not raise material financial stability concerns and providing for approval under delegated authority for such proposals.  The Dodd-Frank Act amended Section 3 of the Bank Holding Company Act to require the Federal Reserve to consider the “extent to which a proposed acquisition, merger, or consolidation would result in greater or more concentrated risks to the stability of the United States banking or financial system.”

In a 2012 approval order, the Federal Reserve established a presumption that a proposal that involves an acquisition of less than $2 billion in assets, that results in a firm with less than $25 billion in total assets, or that represents a corporate reorganization, may be presumed not to raise material financial stability concerns absent evidence that the transaction would result in a significant increase in interconnectedness, complexity, cross-border activities, or other risks factors.  In the Peoples United Order, the Federal Reserve indicated that since establishing this presumption in 2012, its experience has been that proposals involving an acquisition of less than $10 billion in assets, or that results in a firm with less than $100 billion in total assets, generally do not create institutions that pose systemic risks and typically have not involved, or resulted in, firms with activities, structures and operations that are complex or opaque.

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Pinnacle Financial’s Acquisition of BNC Bancorp

Our new podcast recording studio features fake palm trees and an oaken barrel (off camera), neither of which likely materially impacts Episode 9 of The Bank Account.  Nonetheless, Jonathan and I enjoyed the change in scenery as we discussed the just announced $1.9 billion merger of Pinnacle Financial Partners, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and BNC Bancorp, headquartered in High Point, North Carolina.

In addition, we recorded the episode with a new microphone.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure the new microphone makes us sound any smarter, but it definitely improves the sound quality!

In anticipation of our presentation of a bank merger simulation at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference this coming weekend, Jonathan and I spend this episode walking through the details of the transaction and looking at what signals it may send to future transaction activity in the Southeast generally, and North Carolina specifically.

the-bank-accountPlease click to subscribe to the feed on iTunes, Android, Email or MyCast. It is also now available in the iTunes and Google Play searchable podcast directories.

You can also follow-us on Twitter for updates between podcast episodes @RobertKlingler and @hightowerbanks.

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Economies of Scale Encourage Continued Consolidation

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis just published a short summary of research by economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City concluding that compliance costs weigh “quite a bit” more heavily on smaller banks than their larger counterparts in the community banking segment.  Looking specifically at banks under $10 billion in total assets (where additional Dodd-Frank-related burdens are triggered), the study found that the ratio of compliance costs as a percentage of total noninterest expenses were inversely correlated with the size of the bank.  While banks with total assets between $1 and $10 billion in total assets reported total compliance costs averaging 2.9% of their total noninterest expenses, banks between $100 million and $250 million reported total compliance costs averaging 5.9% and banks below $100 million reported average compliance costs of 8.7% of non-interest expenses.

While nominal compliance costs continued to increase as banks increased in size (from about $160 thousand in compliance expense annually for banks under $100 million to $1.8 million annually for banks between $1 and $10 billion), the banks were better able to absorb this expense in the larger banks.  Looked at another way, the marginal cost of maintaining a larger asset base, at least in the context of compliance costs, decreases as the asset base grows.

With over 1,663 commercial banks with total assets of less than $100 million in the United States as of March 31, 2016 (and 3,734 banks with between $100 million and $1 billion), barring significant regulatory relief for the smallest institutions, we believe we will continue to see a natural consolidation of banks.  While we continue to believe there is no minimum size that an institution must be, we also consistently hear from bankers in the industry that they could be more efficient if they are larger… and the research bears them out.

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Building a Better Mousetrap: Executing a Merger of Equals

With merger activity on the rise during 2014, some boards of directors are considering whether the time is right for their financial institution to find a strategic partner. These boards, particularly those serving institutions with less than $1 billion in assets, may believe their banks need to gain size and scope to maintain a competitive footing. However, these boards may also want to maintain the strategic direction of the institution or capture additional returns on their shareholders’ investment. For these boards, a merger of equals with a similarly-situated financial institution may hold the greatest appeal, as a combined institution could gain greater competitive resources and additional return for its investors than if it were to remain an independent institution. Although a merger of equals may be appealing to both management and the board, the particular circumstances required to execute such a transaction can often be elusive. A merger of equals may involve structural considerations that are slightly different from other acquisitions:

  • Geography. The merging institutions typically have complementary, rather than overlapping, market areas. Some commonality among the markets is helpful, but significant overlap can eliminate many of the synergies associated with a merger.
  • Competitive Advantages. A merger of equals may make sense for financial institutions that have different specialties or expertise. For example, a bank with a high volume of commercial real estate loans may be able to diversify into C&I by finding the right merger partner. Deposit pricing can also create attractive opportunities, with low-cost deposits from slower-growing markets funding loan growth in an adjacent market.
  • Enhanced Currency. Mergers of equals are usually stock deals, allowing the shareholders of each institution to maintain their investment in the combined company. The goal is for the value of the combined entities’ stock to receive an uptick in value at the conclusion of not only the initial merger, but also upon the ultimate sale of the combined institution.
  • Management Integration. Combining the management teams and the boards into an effective team for the surviving bank without bruising egos can be challenging. However, a common goal and meaningful relationships between members of the leadership team of the two institutions can be helpful in finding a path forward.

If two like-minded banks are able to identify each other, negotiating the terms of the transaction can be a complex process, as many management and cultural issues must be resolved prior to entry into the merger agreement. Who is going to be the chief executive officer of the combined institution? Who is going to be on the board? Often, new employment agreements will be negotiated in order to lock in the new management team through the integration of the two institutions. The merger partners should also use the negotiation process to formulate an identity for the resulting bank. While a strategic plan for the combined institution is not a component of the merger agreement, a merger of equals demands that the two merger partners work together to chart a future course for the combined company. Unlike other acquisitions, where the work of integration will begin in earnest following the signing of the merger agreement, formulating a management team, as well as the strategic and business plans of the combined bank, starts at the negotiating table in a merger of equals.

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M&A: How to Review Deals at the Board Level

Many bank boards are considering a sale of their institution for a variety of reasons—heightened regulatory burdens, board and management fatigue, or an opportunity to partner with a growing bank are just a few. But while the financial crisis has taught important lessons about bank management, for many bank directors, the sale of their financial institution is uncharted territory. As you typically only have one opportunity to get it right, directors considering a sale should focus first on establishing a sound process around the board table.

Although it is rational for directors to worry more about specific aspects of the proposed deal than procedural matters, we have found that establishing an appropriate process for considering a possible transaction is often a prerequisite for success on the business issues. Moreover, in today’s world of heightened scrutiny of board actions, Directors cannot neglect procedure and expect to fulfill their duties of loyalty and due care.  In most states, fulfilling those duties gives directors the benefit of the business judgment rule, which insulates directors from liability provided the decision is related to a rational purpose.

In the context of a sale, most directors can meet their duty of loyalty by acting in good faith to achieve the best result for the company and its shareholders and by disclosing any conflicts of interest to the board prior to the beginning of the deliberations. But with respect to the duty of care, establishing a thorough process leading to a sale is key. A recent court case decided in Georgia provides a helpful roadmap.

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Should Banks Settle When They are Hit with an M&A Lawsuit?

In virtually every transaction involving a publicly traded entity these days, a purported shareholder class action challenging the fairness of the merger has become almost inevitable. While these actions ostensibly seek monetary relief, such as an increase in the merger consideration, most of them ultimately settle on terms that call for some additional disclosures to the shareholders in advance of the vote on the transaction, and, of course, an attorneys fee award for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  There are two primary reasons for these settlements.  First, the risk, however small, of having a large transaction enjoined or otherwise disrupted is often seen as outweighing the relatively minimal nature of the settlement relief.  Second, a settlement is not without its benefits, as, once approved by the Court, the settling defendants can obtain a full and complete release of any claims that were or could have been brought by the shareholders in connection with the merger transaction.  So long as these two dynamics remain in place, the settlement of the majority of these merger and acquisition cases will continue to be the norm. The Courts, however, particularly in Delaware, have begun to show a healthy skepticism about the plaintiffs lawyers’ application for fees in these cases.  Ultimately, it will be the plaintiffs lawyers’ ability to obtain a profitable fee award that will determine the extent to which these cases remain so prevalent.

An abbreviated version of this response was first published on BankDirector.com.

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