The Great Recession, although now fading into history, was certainly devastating to financial markets in general and banking institutions specifically. However, the strategic response to the crisis by financial institutions, coupled with legislative initiatives that drastically altered the regulatory landscape, has resulted in a fundamental reboot of the banking industry. Balance sheets have largely been scrubbed of troubled assets, capital and loan loss reserves are at all-time highs, and earnings are approaching pre-crisis levels. There are many environmental factors at work that point to continued strong performance from banking institutions across the board.
While regulatory changes enacted in the Dodd-Frank Act have improved the overall health of the banking sector, the Dodd-Frank Act also forced banks to change their capital structure, bringing an abrupt halt to the $60 billion Trust Preferred Securities ("TruPS") market. Post-financial crisis, large banks have had easier access to the capital markets, yet it has been more challenging for smaller banks to raise or replace capital, whether in the public or private markets, as potential investors are more scarce. Thus, community bank sub-debt issuance is on the rise due to renewed interest from investors after a long drought. The current market inefficiency leads to a unique opportunity for sophisticated investors who can identify relative value in the space.
At the same time, larger banks continue to acquire smaller banks in order to achieve the much-needed scale required to survive in the new utility model of banking that regulators are encouraging – and mandating. As the Federal Reserve moves to a neutral stance and with earnings growth likely at cyclical highs, M&A will continue to accelerate. We are seeing evidence of this as M&A activity has continued despite recent stock market volatility.
Additionally, industry consolidation generally has had a very favorable impact on the value of bank debt, especially those securities issued by smaller institutions, which tend to be acquired by larger and stronger banks. In most merger/acquisition scenarios, the acquirer assumes the liabilities and continues to service any outstanding debt of the acquired institution. The outcome is often an upgrade in the overall perceived credit quality of the acquired debt, leading to substantial price appreciation.
Community bank sub-debt should provide stable performance with low volatility considering the banking sector’s strong capital bases and credit quality underpinned by solid economic fundamentals. In addition, the rising issuance of bank sub-debt, particularly by smaller banks, presents a compelling opportunity to find relative value.