Now that the Supreme Court has settled the issue of regional interstate banking pacts, the mating game between banks has begun in earnest, from the Middle Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico.
Barely a week after the Supreme Court ruled in the matter two weeks ago, merger plans were announced by four regional bank companies in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
The court ruled that states may enter into regional interstate banking compacts and that they have the right to bar participation by bank holding companies outside their region. The ruling was a setback for New York's Citicorp and other money center banking institutions that had challenged the regional banking pacts.
Now that the issue is settled, virtually every large banking institution in states where regional reciprocal laws have been passed, or are likely to be approved, has become a serious suitor or the object of a takeover. A common expression heard in banking circles today is: "Everybody is talking to somebody," meaning bank executives are feeling each other out about possible mergers or acquisitions.
Indeed, it was a familiar refrain at the recent convention of the D.C. Bankers Association (DCBA) in West Virginia. Bankers attending the convention -- some of them associate DCBA members from Maryland and Virginia -- declined to be specific about their plans, if any, for regional interstate banking. Several agreed, nonetheless, that the Supreme Court's decision will accelerate merger discussions among bankers in the Southeast.
Maryland, Virginia and several other states already have passed laws that permit reciprocal interstate banking in the Southeast. In the meantime, a committee of the D.C. City Council reported out a similar bill just prior to the Supreme Court's decision. The full council is expected to approve the banking bill shortly.
Thus, the scramble is on among the larger regional banks to secure a stronger position in the marketplace, either through intrastate or regional interstate mergers with institutions of comparable size, or through acquisitions of smaller, but profitable, banks. It is, as several local bankers have observed, a question of survival for regional banks that heretofore have been dominant in their respective markets. The question is especially important for D.C. banks, the largest of which has assets of only $5 billion.
"It is my opinion that there are no surviving D.C. banks," the chief executive officer of a District bank said recently. "When you look at the $3 billion banks or the $5 billion banks, it's obvious they can't survive in this environment. The handwriting's on the wall, and everybody's talking to each other. Everybody wants to get stronger and be in position to compete with these money center banks and the nonbanks."
The same executive figures it will take assets of at least $10 billion for a regional bank to compete in either a regional interstate banking environment or, if Congress approves, full interstate banking. Obviously, no D.C. bank comes close to that theoretical asset level. The combined assets of Washington's five largest bank holding companies total approximately $16 billion. Two proposed interstate mergers announced last week by regional banks in the Southeast would create two new institutions with assets of approximately $15 billion each.
That doesn't rule out a smaller combination by a D.C. bank and one from another state. A merger agreement between Richmond's United Virginia Bankshares Inc. and Washington's NS&T Bankshares Inc. is proceeding as planned and would produce an institution with a mere $7 billion in assets, but UVB's "three-legged" expansion strategy includes a merger at some point with a Maryland bank.
Mergers and acquisitions apparently will have to be put on a back burner by investors who recently agreed to buy No. 4 Washington Bancorp from the United Mineworkers of America. Informed sources say investors in the parent of the National Bank of Washington want more time to grow as an independent bank before they consider an interstate merger.
Third-ranked First American Bankshares can survive the transition to regional interstate banking, according to one banking official here. "It can't survive as a $4 billion institution, though," he cautioned. But shielded by a grandfather clause in federal banking laws, First American Bankshares and its predecessor have operated banks in four states and the District for several years. Thus, it is uniquely situated to increase its assets, the official conceded.
That leaves Riggs National Corp. and American Security Corp., the two largest D.C. banks. While no outsider is privy to their plans, it's a cinch their officials have picked up the pace of banking's high-stakes board game.
"I would venture to say that one of the jobs of the chief financial officer at every regional institution is to look at their balance sheets and build a computer model [of a merger] with other banks," said a local bank executive. "All of the regionals are doing just that now."