De Novo Logjam “Open”?

No sooner do we post an article about how the dearth of new bank charters appears to be a critical (if not the critical) factor in the phenomenon known as “the incredibly shrinking community banking universe” than out of the chute pops a new community bank (paid subscription required).

Primary Bank is just the second new bank to be approved in more than four years, and charts a potential path for other applicants to follow. The approval, which was reported last week, came more than a year after regulators signed off on Bank of Bird-in-Hand in Pennsylvania in late 2013.

“This does now open the logjam. Now the [Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.] has a process, and as long as future applicants follow that process, they should be in good shape,” said Donald Musso, president and chief executive of the consulting firm FinPro, which worked with the new bank’s organizers to move the application.

Musso said he is in conversations with four other clients possibly interested in filing de novo applications, although nothing is official yet.

The regulators are “working really hard in trying to open the doors for new de novos to form, but the standards are pretty high,” he added. “You need $20 million-plus of new capital, which is a lot of capital. You’ve got to have enough capital to make it to profitability.”

“A lot of capital.” Ya’ think? When I started working on de novo bank charters, back when Andrew Jackson was trying to bring down the Bank of the United States, you needed a tenth of that amount. Of course, a dollar went a lot farther then, as my buddy Tom Sawyer5 used to say.

American Banker reporter Joe Adler correctly observes that two banks in four years “hardly makes a trend.” He also notes that the community in which the new bank is located suffered the sale of local banks, leaving it “local bank free.” Also, the new CEO is a heavyweight in the banking industry and a former governor of New Hampshire is a board member. The bank’s business plan appears to be conservative, focusing on small business loans, with no home mortgages and, I assume (although the article does not state this), little or no commercial real estate lending and certainly not much acquisition and development lending.

Consultant Byron Richardson also notes that private equity investors do not appear to be chomping at the bit to dive into de novo banks.

Richardson said a critical obstacle to new-bank formations lately has been finding investors willing to earn a slow rate of return in the face of heavy capital requirements and other regulatory burdens.

“A founder or organizer is not just going to put their money in a mattress,” he said. “Part of the equation is: How much capital will the regulators require? But then with the cost of complying with the regulatory burden… how much money can the bank itself earn?”

On the other hand, the lead investor in Primary Bank said that he wasn’t phased by the “regulatory burden”.

“There has obviously been some concern with Dodd-Frank and regulations, and some people say, ‘That’s why there’s not banking activity,'” [William] Greiner said. “Our going forward is testament to the fact that we can see opportunity. We’re not focused on some of the noise per se.”

Unless, of course, the “noise” raises to the level of a diving-bombing Stuka. We’ll see how the bank continues to ignore the regulatory burden “noise” as time marches on. Focusing on business rather than consumer loans is one way to lower the noise level.

Another factor involved in this de novo that may limit the pool of potential investors is the large number in the group.

“Most banks start with five, eight, maybe 10 individuals…. I felt it was important, given the environment, to have a bigger, broader group. We talked about having potentially 50 investors in that initial round,” he said. (They ultimately raised an initial $3 million from 133 individuals.) “I thought if we could get 50 community leaders, business owners, professionals, to come and take a stake in this bank, it would make a statement that it’s not a club… but really a community-based initiative,” he added.

I agree with Greiner that the FDIC loves that aspect. Broad-based community investment groups tend to be more conservative, more focused on the long-term needs of the local business community that the bank will serve than on using the bank to make profits, ratchet up stock values through growth of assets and ROE, and cashing out in five years or so. If that’s going to be a requirement going forward, however, it will dampen the enthusiasm of a number potential capital sources.

While this latest approval may, indeed (as Musso asserts), “open the logjam,” we’ll see how wide that opening is, and whether it remains open. At present, color me “skeptical.” We may see a few more of these in the next couple of years, but I simply don’t yet see a wave on the horizon that yet appears to be worth riding.

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