American banks face more pain, huge shift

on Jul10
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Two financial experts discuss the Fed's next steps and the future of the U.S. banking system

The whirlwind weekend in late April that saw the country’s biggest bank take over its most troubled regional lender marked the end of one wave of problems — and the start of another.

After emerging with the winning bid for First Republic, a lender to rich coastal families that had $229 billion in assets, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon delivered the soothing words craved by investors after weeks of stomach-churning volatility: “This part of the crisis is over.”

But even as the dust settles from a string of government seizures of failed midsized banks, the forces that sparked the regional banking crisis in March are still at play.

Rising interest rates will deepen losses on securities held by banks and motivate savers to pull cash from accounts, squeezing the main way these companies make money. Losses on commercial real estate and other loans have just begun to register for banks, further shrinking their bottom lines. Regulators will turn their sights on midsized institutions after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank exposed supervisory lapses.  

What is coming will likely be the most significant shift in the American banking landscape since the 2008 financial crisis. Many of the country’s 4,672 lenders will be forced into the arms of stronger banks over the next few years, either by market forces or regulators, according to a dozen executives, advisors and investment bankers who spoke with CNBC.

“You’re going to have a massive wave of M&A among smaller banks because they need to get bigger,” said the co-president of a top six U.S. bank who declined to be identified speaking candidly about industry consolidation. “We’re the only country in the world that has this many banks.”

How’d we get here?

The sudden collapse of SVB in March showed how quickly a bank could unravel, dispelling one of the core assumptions of the industry: the so-called stickiness of deposits. Low interest rates and bond-purchasing programs that defined the post-2008 years flooded banks with a cheap source of funding and lulled depositors into leaving cash parked at accounts that paid negligible rates.

“For at least 15 years, banks have been awash in deposits and with low rates, it cost them nothing,” said Brian Graham, a banking veteran and co-founder of advisory firm Klaros Group. “That’s clearly changed.”

‘Under stress’

Some of those pressures will be visible as regional banks disclose second-quarter results this month. Banks including Zions and KeyCorp told investors last month that interest revenue was coming in lower than expected, and Deutsche Bank analyst Matt O’Connor warned that regional banks may begin slashing dividend payouts.

JPMorgan kicks off bank earnings Friday.

“The fundamental issue with the regional banking system is the underlying business model is under stress,” said incoming Lazard CEO Peter Orszag. “Some of these banks will survive by being the buyer rather than the target. We could see over time fewer, larger regionals.”

Walking wounded

While SVB and First Republic saw the greatest exodus of deposits in March, other banks were wounded in that chaotic period, according to a top investment banker who advises financial institutions. Most banks saw a drop in first-quarter deposits below about 10%, but those that lost more than that may be troubled, the banker said.

“If you happen to be one of the banks that lost 10% to 20% of deposits, you’ve got problems,” said the banker, who declined to be identified speaking about potential clients. “You’ve got to either go raise capital and bleed your balance sheet or you’ve got to sell yourself” to alleviate the pressure.

A third option is to simply wait until the bonds that are underwater eventually mature and roll off banks’ balance sheets – or until falling interest rates ease the losses.

But that could take years to play out, and it exposes banks to the risk that something else goes wrong, such as rising defaults on office loans. That could put some banks into a precarious position of not having enough capital.

‘False calm’

Orszag referred to the last few weeks as a “false calm” that could be shattered when banks post second-quarter results. The industry still faces the risk that the negative feedback loop of falling stock prices and deposit runs could return, he said.

“All you need is one or two banks to say, ‘Deposits are down another 20%’ and all of a sudden, you will be back to similar scenarios,” Orszag said. “Pounding on equity prices, which then feeds into deposit flight, which then feeds back on the equity prices.”

Deals on the horizon

Bigger banks have more resources to adhere to coming regulations and consumers’ technology demands, advantages that have helped financial giants including JPMorgan steadily grow earnings despite higher capital requirements. Still, the process isn’t likely to be a comfortable one for sellers.

But distress for one bank means opportunity for another. Amalgamated Bank, a New York-based institution with $7.8 billion in assets that caters to unions and nonprofits, will consider acquisitions after its stock price recovers, according to CFO Jason Darby.

“Once our currency returns to a place where we feel it’s more appropriate, we’ll take a look at our ability to roll up,” Darby said. “I do think you’ll see more and more banks raising their hands and saying, `We’re looking for strategic partners’ as the future unfolds.”

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