Friday, April 26, 2013

Too Small to Succeed in Banking

Conventional wisdom: The onslaught of new banking laws, regulations, and regulatory activism requires scale to absorb costs. Or, the rapid pace of technological change and the sophistication of hackers requires resources not found in small community banks.

There is truth to conventional wisdom. But with all generalities, there are exceptions. And in banking, lots of exceptions. How do I tell the $250 million in asset client that I just visited that they are too small to make it, even though they sport a 1.47% ROA? The financial institution landscape is littered with banks and credit unions like my client.

Almost two years ago I wrote that bank shareholders were changing. (see The Coming Bank Consolidation) Community bank investors used to be the local insurance agent, mortician, and family that sits next to us in church. Today, many of traditional bank investors put their money in mutual funds, and leave the investing up to fund managers. No longer does the local barber show up at our annual meetings complaining about the pastries. Instead, professional money managers call to tell us how to run the bank.

As we migrate towards greater institutional ownership, stock liquidity is becoming increasingly important. Occasionally money managers call me with their criteria for their fund. One criteria is typically float and volume. Under 10,000 shares trading volume you say.... fuggedaboutit! 

My firm is occasionally called upon  to value banks that don't trade. Part of the valuation includes a discount for the lack of liquidity. Not a term foreign to other industries, by the way. In determining the discount, we look to trading markets to see the discounts applied, if any, to thinly traded bank stocks compared to their high volume brethren.

I recently ran an analysis of banks that trade over 10,000 shares per day, to those that trade 500-10,000 shares per day. The results are in the table below.

I controlled for financial performance (greater than 1% ROA), and asset quality (less than 2% NPAs/Assets). Of course, more performance and market data factor into trading multiples, but I couldn't control for everything. The result: Low Trading Volume financial institutions trade at a price/tangible book ratio of 110.5%, and a price/earnings ratio of 12.1x, compared to High Trading Volume FIs at 160.6% and 13.2x respectively.

What do I think community banks can do about the disparity?

1. Get a real investor relations program. Bankers think we should actively court investors when we need capital. Not so. Trading multiples are a direct result of supply and demand. If you want greater multiples, build demand... always.

2. Focus on retail investors. Community bankers think they can tap the institutional market. Investment banking firms tell them so. The truth is, institutions willing to invest in a bank that trades 2,000 shares per day are typically those that expect to exit the stock by selling the bank. How else can they exit your stock at such low trading volume? One benefit of having local, retail investors is they tend to have greater patience when implementing strategic change. To institutional investors, you are a number on a spreadsheet. If you take institutional money, plan their exit before they invest anything.

3. Perform. There is a positive correlation between financial performance and condition, and trading multiples, period. 

Banks that trade at low trading volumes trade at lower multiples and may be shut out of the institutional market for capital. Those that don't build retail investor demand for their shares may be required to sell if they need capital. You may be too small to succeed, but not because you can't deliver superior performance. But because nobody will invest in your bank.

~ Jeff

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