Visa program could help bank recapitalize

February 26, 2012

Raising money may become a little easier for local banks, if Mahnaz Khazen has her way. The founder of U.S. Immigration Investment Center, a San Jose, Calif.-based firm, wants to use a little-known immigration program to recapitalize distressed community banks in the Washington area.

The program, known as EB-5, grants visa to immigrants in exchange for an investment of $500,000 to $1 million in a U.S. business. Immigrants who can demonstrate that the investment created or preserved at least 10 full-time U.S. jobs are granted permanent resident status after two years.

A favorite of developers and local governments, the program has never been used for investment in banks, according to federal regulators. But Khazen, who last month opened an office in the District, has arranged for five foreign investors to pour money into Gaithersburg’s Harvest Bank of Maryland via the program.

Deploying capital in a community bank made the most sense to Khazen, who figured the investment could have exponential impact through lending.

“Banks can help small businesses achieve their dreams, and provide FHA loans and VA loans to help the community,” said Khazen, a former mortgage banker. As a result, “we can achieve the goal of reinvestment and generation of jobs on an even larger scale.”

Khazen trolled the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s troubled bank list for candidates, after forming her firm in August. She reviewed some of the hardest hit banks in Florida and on the West Coast at first, but switched focus to regions with stronger economies.

“Having the right demographic and location helps in turning around a bank,” she said. What’s more, foreign investors could have their visa revoked, if the business fails within two years.

Khazen turned her attention to the Washington area, where she was introduced to Stacey Conti, a consultant hired to help Harvest raise money.

The bank has been hemorrhaging money for several years because of a portfolio of mortgages it purchased from now defunct Countrywide Home Loan in 2006. Harvest, with $164.3 million in assets, is considered undercapitalized, a regulatory determination based on leverage and risk ratios. It has been trying to raise $16 million to recapitalize the bank for the past 24 months.

Former banker Mehrdad Elie in October 2010 offered to buy $5 million in common stock contingent on Harvest raising the remaining amount from other investors. Other investors, including Rockville financier Robert Senko, have floated money to the bank. And Khazen has wrangled another group of investors to buy some of Harvest’s $25 million in troubled loans, a deal that if approved by regulators could help the bank to reach its goal.

“We are three quarters of the way to $16 million, and we have some people that are deep in due diligence that we hope to hear from soon,” said John McDonnell, chairman and acting chief executive of Harvest. “Once we get there, we have to submit the structure of the recapitalization to the regulators. It will take a while for approval, but I’m feeling pretty good about our prospects.”

In the meantime, Khazen is scouting other area banks for investment, though she would not provide names.

“If the Harvest application gets approved, then we’ll be ready to take the next step. We do have the funds and the applicants,” Khazen said, noting that she has received over 200 inquiries from foreign investors.

Established in 1990, the EB-5 visa program is limited to 10,000 applications a year. According to the State Department, nearly 3,500 visas were issued through the program in fiscal 2011, up from 1,900 the prior fiscal year. About 43,280 jobs have been created and $2.2 billion invested since the inception of the program, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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