Financial Advisory

The Real Reason for Bank Scale: Trading Multiples

By: Jeffrey P. Marsico

“Get big or get out.” “You must be twice the size that you are to succeed.” These are bromides that some industry talking heads might be telling you. I hear it and read it frequently. And in today’s social media, non fact-based opinion society, if you say it enough, people may start to believe it.

I moderated a strategic planning retreat with a bank that achieved top quartile financial performance. Their growth was solid too. Their asset size was less than $500 million. A director challenged me: Does our size matter so long as we continue to perform the way we have performed? My answer: Not really, with one exception.

Trading multiples. I referenced this phenomenon in a 2013 blog post, Too Small to Succeed in Banking. In that post I opined, “As we migrate towards greater institutional ownership, stock liquidity is becoming increasingly important.” What I said then likely remains true today. Institutional owners (funds, etc.) now own two-thirds of shares outstanding in publicly traded US banks.

But why does this matter to my sub $500 million in assets bank client?

So I ran some charts for you (courtesy of S&P Global Market Intelligence).

The bottom table was a bonus so readers can see that at the end of 2017 bank p/e’s relative to the S&P 500 p/e surpassed their 10-year median in every asset category. Significantly so for banks $500 million to $5 billion in assets. So, on a relative basis, valuations are higher. 2008 was an anomaly because the S&P 500 companies traded at stratospheric p/e’s because they had no “e”.

Back to my main point. Over the past 10 years, banks that have less than $500 million in total assets have traded at lower price-to-tangible book multiples. In every year. And the differences in multiples match up nicely by asset size. The price-to-earnings chart is a little murkier based on the choppiness of earnings. However, investors tend to value smaller financial institutions more on book value than earnings. A good earner, like my client, tend to trade at relatively low p/e’s because they have great earnings.

Does that sound right? Earn better, and get rewarded with a lower p/e?

Fair is in the eye of the beholder. If you remove nearly 2/3 of the potential shareholder base because you have little daily trading volume, then you have less buyers seeking your shares. Supply and demand.

And that is where the economies of scale argument has merit. If you intend to remain independent, and continue to perform well and grow sufficiently, then you are likely delivering total returns acceptable to shareholders. Even without trading multiple expansion.

But if you would like to acquire a nearby financial institution, and you are trading at lower trading multiples than other would-be acquirers, you would be at a disadvantage. Your “currency” isn’t worth as much as your larger competitors. Which may also make you vulnerable to an aggressive buyer’s offer to buy you, if the buyer is large and has much better trading multiples than your bank.

Fortunately, unsolicited offers are not common in our cordial industry. But we shouldn’t rely on it.

~ Jeff