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FRB Lifts Threshold for Financial Stability Review

In its March 2017 approval of People United Financial, Inc.’s merger with Suffolk Bancorp (the “Peoples United Order”), the Federal Reserve Board eased the approval criteria for certain smaller bank merger transactions by expanding its presumption regarding proposals that do not raise material financial stability concerns and providing for approval under delegated authority for such proposals.  The Dodd-Frank Act amended Section 3 of the Bank Holding Company Act to require the Federal Reserve to consider the “extent to which a proposed acquisition, merger, or consolidation would result in greater or more concentrated risks to the stability of the United States banking or financial system.”

In a 2012 approval order, the Federal Reserve established a presumption that a proposal that involves an acquisition of less than $2 billion in assets, that results in a firm with less than $25 billion in total assets, or that represents a corporate reorganization, may be presumed not to raise material financial stability concerns absent evidence that the transaction would result in a significant increase in interconnectedness, complexity, cross-border activities, or other risks factors.  In the Peoples United Order, the Federal Reserve indicated that since establishing this presumption in 2012, its experience has been that proposals involving an acquisition of less than $10 billion in assets, or that results in a firm with less than $100 billion in total assets, generally do not create institutions that pose systemic risks and typically have not involved, or resulted in, firms with activities, structures and operations that are complex or opaque.

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Pinnacle Financial’s Acquisition of BNC Bancorp

Our new podcast recording studio features fake palm trees and an oaken barrel (off camera), neither of which likely materially impacts Episode 9 of The Bank Account.  Nonetheless, Jonathan and I enjoyed the change in scenery as we discussed the just announced $1.9 billion merger of Pinnacle Financial Partners, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and BNC Bancorp, headquartered in High Point, North Carolina.

In addition, we recorded the episode with a new microphone.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure the new microphone makes us sound any smarter, but it definitely improves the sound quality!

In anticipation of our presentation of a bank merger simulation at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference this coming weekend, Jonathan and I spend this episode walking through the details of the transaction and looking at what signals it may send to future transaction activity in the Southeast generally, and North Carolina specifically.

the-bank-accountPlease click to subscribe to the feed on iTunes, Android, Email or MyCast. It is also now available in the iTunes and Google Play searchable podcast directories.

You can also follow-us on Twitter for updates between podcast episodes @RobertKlingler and @hightowerbanks.

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Economies of Scale Encourage Continued Consolidation

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis just published a short summary of research by economists with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City concluding that compliance costs weigh “quite a bit” more heavily on smaller banks than their larger counterparts in the community banking segment.  Looking specifically at banks under $10 billion in total assets (where additional Dodd-Frank-related burdens are triggered), the study found that the ratio of compliance costs as a percentage of total noninterest expenses were inversely correlated with the size of the bank.  While banks with total assets between $1 and $10 billion in total assets reported total compliance costs averaging 2.9% of their total noninterest expenses, banks between $100 million and $250 million reported total compliance costs averaging 5.9% and banks below $100 million reported average compliance costs of 8.7% of non-interest expenses.

While nominal compliance costs continued to increase as banks increased in size (from about $160 thousand in compliance expense annually for banks under $100 million to $1.8 million annually for banks between $1 and $10 billion), the banks were better able to absorb this expense in the larger banks.  Looked at another way, the marginal cost of maintaining a larger asset base, at least in the context of compliance costs, decreases as the asset base grows.

With over 1,663 commercial banks with total assets of less than $100 million in the United States as of March 31, 2016 (and 3,734 banks with between $100 million and $1 billion), barring significant regulatory relief for the smallest institutions, we believe we will continue to see a natural consolidation of banks.  While we continue to believe there is no minimum size that an institution must be, we also consistently hear from bankers in the industry that they could be more efficient if they are larger… and the research bears them out.

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Building a Better Mousetrap: Executing a Merger of Equals

With merger activity on the rise during 2014, some boards of directors are considering whether the time is right for their financial institution to find a strategic partner. These boards, particularly those serving institutions with less than $1 billion in assets, may believe their banks need to gain size and scope to maintain a competitive footing. However, these boards may also want to maintain the strategic direction of the institution or capture additional returns on their shareholders’ investment. For these boards, a merger of equals with a similarly-situated financial institution may hold the greatest appeal, as a combined institution could gain greater competitive resources and additional return for its investors than if it were to remain an independent institution. Although a merger of equals may be appealing to both management and the board, the particular circumstances required to execute such a transaction can often be elusive. A merger of equals may involve structural considerations that are slightly different from other acquisitions:

  • Geography. The merging institutions typically have complementary, rather than overlapping, market areas. Some commonality among the markets is helpful, but significant overlap can eliminate many of the synergies associated with a merger.
  • Competitive Advantages. A merger of equals may make sense for financial institutions that have different specialties or expertise. For example, a bank with a high volume of commercial real estate loans may be able to diversify into C&I by finding the right merger partner. Deposit pricing can also create attractive opportunities, with low-cost deposits from slower-growing markets funding loan growth in an adjacent market.
  • Enhanced Currency. Mergers of equals are usually stock deals, allowing the shareholders of each institution to maintain their investment in the combined company. The goal is for the value of the combined entities’ stock to receive an uptick in value at the conclusion of not only the initial merger, but also upon the ultimate sale of the combined institution.
  • Management Integration. Combining the management teams and the boards into an effective team for the surviving bank without bruising egos can be challenging. However, a common goal and meaningful relationships between members of the leadership team of the two institutions can be helpful in finding a path forward.

If two like-minded banks are able to identify each other, negotiating the terms of the transaction can be a complex process, as many management and cultural issues must be resolved prior to entry into the merger agreement. Who is going to be the chief executive officer of the combined institution? Who is going to be on the board? Often, new employment agreements will be negotiated in order to lock in the new management team through the integration of the two institutions. The merger partners should also use the negotiation process to formulate an identity for the resulting bank. While a strategic plan for the combined institution is not a component of the merger agreement, a merger of equals demands that the two merger partners work together to chart a future course for the combined company. Unlike other acquisitions, where the work of integration will begin in earnest following the signing of the merger agreement, formulating a management team, as well as the strategic and business plans of the combined bank, starts at the negotiating table in a merger of equals.

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M&A: How to Review Deals at the Board Level

Many bank boards are considering a sale of their institution for a variety of reasons—heightened regulatory burdens, board and management fatigue, or an opportunity to partner with a growing bank are just a few. But while the financial crisis has taught important lessons about bank management, for many bank directors, the sale of their financial institution is uncharted territory. As you typically only have one opportunity to get it right, directors considering a sale should focus first on establishing a sound process around the board table.

Although it is rational for directors to worry more about specific aspects of the proposed deal than procedural matters, we have found that establishing an appropriate process for considering a possible transaction is often a prerequisite for success on the business issues. Moreover, in today’s world of heightened scrutiny of board actions, Directors cannot neglect procedure and expect to fulfill their duties of loyalty and due care.  In most states, fulfilling those duties gives directors the benefit of the business judgment rule, which insulates directors from liability provided the decision is related to a rational purpose.

In the context of a sale, most directors can meet their duty of loyalty by acting in good faith to achieve the best result for the company and its shareholders and by disclosing any conflicts of interest to the board prior to the beginning of the deliberations. But with respect to the duty of care, establishing a thorough process leading to a sale is key. A recent court case decided in Georgia provides a helpful roadmap.

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Should Banks Settle When They are Hit with an M&A Lawsuit?

In virtually every transaction involving a publicly traded entity these days, a purported shareholder class action challenging the fairness of the merger has become almost inevitable. While these actions ostensibly seek monetary relief, such as an increase in the merger consideration, most of them ultimately settle on terms that call for some additional disclosures to the shareholders in advance of the vote on the transaction, and, of course, an attorneys fee award for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  There are two primary reasons for these settlements.  First, the risk, however small, of having a large transaction enjoined or otherwise disrupted is often seen as outweighing the relatively minimal nature of the settlement relief.  Second, a settlement is not without its benefits, as, once approved by the Court, the settling defendants can obtain a full and complete release of any claims that were or could have been brought by the shareholders in connection with the merger transaction.  So long as these two dynamics remain in place, the settlement of the majority of these merger and acquisition cases will continue to be the norm. The Courts, however, particularly in Delaware, have begun to show a healthy skepticism about the plaintiffs lawyers’ application for fees in these cases.  Ultimately, it will be the plaintiffs lawyers’ ability to obtain a profitable fee award that will determine the extent to which these cases remain so prevalent.

An abbreviated version of this response was first published on BankDirector.com.

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2013: A Window of Opportunity for S Corporation Asset Sales

In general, when an S corporation sells its assets, the gain on sale flows through to, and is reportable by, the shareholders and is not subject to a corporate level tax.  In the case of an S corporation that previously was a C corporation, however, such S corporation is subject to a corporate level tax on its “built-in gain” if the asset sale occurs during the “recognition period.”

Generally, an asset’s built-in gain is the amount of gain that would be recognized if the corporation sold such asset immediately before it converted to an S corporation and the recognition period is the first ten years following the conversion to an S corporation.  The recognition period was shortened to seven years for sales occurring during a taxpayer’s 2009 and 2010 tax years and to five years for sales occurring during a taxpayer’s 2011 tax year.  The recently enacted American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended this shortened five-year recognition period for any built-in gains recognized during either the 2012 or 2013 tax years.  For the 2014 and later tax years, the recognition period will again be ten years, unless legislation to the contrary is passed before then.  Thus, an S corporation that converted from a C corporation at least five years ago should consider the tax benefits of an asset sale occurring in 2013 to avoid the corporate level tax on built-in gain.

If you would like to discuss how this matter may affect your bank, please contact a member of Bryan Cave’s Financial Institutions or Tax Advice and Controversy client service groups.  We also encourage you to attend our 2013 S-Corp Conference.

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The Bank Director’s Approach to M&A: Stay Out of Hot Water

In today’s environment, many bank directors are faced with difficult strategic decisions regarding the future of their organizations. We have been involved in many great board discussions of whether it is best for the bank to continue to grind away at its business plan in this slow growth environment or to look for a business combination opportunity that will accelerate growth. There is rarely a clear answer in these discussions, but some guidelines are helpful: All directors must respect the conclusion of the full board of directors and follow the appropriate process established by the board with respect to merger opportunities.

Over the years, we have seen a number of instances in which one or more bank directors conduct merger discussions with potential partners without bringing the opportunity to the full board of directors immediately. In many cases, these directors are acting in good faith and simply leveraging relationships they have with other bankers or bank directors. In other cases, these directors may feel the need to engage in these discussions because they disagree with the full board’s strategy of remaining independent. However, all directors should understand that it is in the bank’s best interest, and the director’s own personal best interest, not to take matters into their own hands without authorization by the board of directors.

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First Banks, Inc. Announces Successful Trust Preferred Consent Solicitation

In its earnings release issued on January 28, 2011, First Banks, Inc. (the “Company”) announced the successful completion of its consent solicitation addressed to the holders of the trust preferred securities issued by First Preferred Capital Trust IV (the “Trust”). The securities are listed on The New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “FBSPrA.” As a result of the consent solicitation, the Company was able to effect amendments to the related indenture, trust agreement and guarantee agreement that are designed to provide additional capital planning flexibility for the Company.

The amendments relate primarily to covenants restricting the Company’s activities during a period in which interest and dividend payments have been deferred in accordance with the terms of the securities. They provide an “exchange exception” to covenants against the Company’s or its subsidiaries’ acquisition of their capital stock during a deferral period, which the Company entered in September 2009. As a result of the amendments, the Company and its subsidiaries and affiliates may issue capital stock during a deferral period in exchange for or upon conversion of outstanding Company, subsidiary or affiliate capital stock or for outstanding Company indebtedness ranking pari passu with or junior to the debentures. The amendments also eliminate a covenant against the Company’s acquisition of any of the trust preferred securities issued by the Trust or less than all of the related debentures during deferral. These and other amendments are attached as exhibits to the Company’s Current Report on Form 8-K filed with the SEC on January 27, 2011 .

In the earnings release, the Company reported that the success of the consent solicitation better positions the Company to consider certain potential capital planning strategies to improve the its regulatory capital ratios and further strengthen its overall financial position.

Bryan Cave represented First Banks in the consent solicitation and has significant experience in dealing with trust preferred securities.

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When All Appropriate Inquiry Isn’t Enough

Court Highlights the Significance of Other Factors in the Bona Fide Prospective Purchaser Defense

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Anyone who has been involved in a real estate transaction relating to commercial or industrial property has likely dealt with conducting “All Appropriate Inquiry” into the site, which generally includes the preparation of a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and may include Phase II sampling work. All Appropriate Inquiry (“AAI”) is one necessary component of the “bona fide prospective purchaser” (“BFPP”) defense established under the 2002 Brownfields amendments to Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (“CERCLA”). The BFPP defense is intended to protect property owners from liability for contamination that clearly occurred prior to their period of ownership. However, conducting AAI is not the only prerequisite to establishing a BFPP defense. The BFPP requirements beyond AAI are highlighted in Ashley II of Charleston, LLC v. PCS Nitrogen, et al., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 104772 (D.S.C. Sep. 30, 2010), one of the first cases to address in detail the BFPP defense.

In this case, Ashley purchased property that had a long history of industrial use. In conjunction with that purchase, Ashley’s environmental consultant performed Phase I and Phase II work. After the purchase, Ashley demolished many of the above-ground improvements on the property. When liability for contamination at the property was addressed, a significant battle between several potentially responsible parties arose. Ashley sought to take advantage of the BFPP defense to avoid liability. The elements of the BFPP defense are, in summary: (a) disposal of hazardous substance occurred prior to acquisition; (b) the purchaser conducted AAI; (c) the purchaser provided all required notices with respect to the discovery or release of any hazardous substance; (d) the purchaser exercises appropriate care with respect to hazardous substances found; (e) the purchaser cooperates with agencies; (f) the purchaser complies with institutional controls; (g) the purchaser complies with information requests or administrative subpoena; (h) the purchaser is not affiliated with a potentially responsible party. In the end, the court closely scrutinized each element of the test and determined that Ashley was not a BFPP.

All Appropriate Inquiry

Significantly, this is one of the first cases to address the proper conduct of AAI. The court found that although there were “inconsistencies” between the Phase I reports and the relevant ASTM standard, those inconsistencies lacked significance. The Court stated that “[w]hat is important is that Ashley acted reasonably; it hired an expert to conduct AAI and relied on that expert to perform its job properly.” Because the Court did not explain what the “inconsistencies” are, it is difficult to determine how strictly a Phase I must comply with ASTM. Interestingly, no federal agencies were involved in this case. EPA has stated that they will insist on very strict compliance with the ASTM standards in order to find that AAI was conducted. This case may (or may not) take some wind out of that sail. While strict compliance with the ASTM standards is still highly recommended, this case provides some potential relief for past transactions where the acquiring party is trying to mount a BFPP defense but the adequacy of its AAI is called into question due to the absence of strict compliance with the ASTM.

Appropriate Care

The court did find that Ashley failed to prove that it exercised appropriate care with respect to known contamination when it did its demolition work. In doing this work, Ashley did not clean out and fill in known underground sumps and concrete pads, which failure could have exacerbated known releases and contamination. Ashley also failed to prevent debris piles from accumulating, and failed to investigate and remove the debris piles on a timely basis. Ashley also failed to maintain run off controls.

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