Bank Consolidation: Under the Hammer

A wave of M&A deals is expected to hit the industry—eventually.

Like plane-crash survivors forced to eat their fellow passengers, investment bankers have found some sources of nourishment amid the wreckage of the banking industry. Helping weakened institutions to raise capital has produced a useful stream of fees. Goldman Sachs, a tediously successful investment bank, notched up a 72% increase in equity-underwriting revenues in the second quarter, much of it from other banks. But many have their eyes on an even bigger prize: the wave of M&A deals that is expected, eventually, to result from the credit crisis.

That a big shake-out is coming is in little doubt. Weaknesses in funding and business models have been laid horribly bare. Some franchises were too focused on the wrong markets. Wachovia, America’s fourth-largest bank, has suffered from outsize exposure to California’s imploding housing market and is a potential takeover target. Others face regulations that threaten their profits. The Wall Street banks are bracing for tougher capital and liquidity requirements as the price for access to the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve. Others still are questioning whether they have the right mix of businesses. The integration of volatile investment banking and staid wealth management at UBS and Credit Suisse, two Swiss banks, is the subject of much alpine soul-searching. Allianz, a German insurer, has apparently lost patience with its foray into investment banking, and is restructuring its Dresdner Bank subsidiary.

Rumours fly about the blockbuster deals that may soon be done. Lehman Brothers, a Wall Street bank that is desperately fighting to restore confidence in its prospects, is at the centre of many of them. Barclays, Deutsche Bank, HSBC and Royal Bank of Canada are among the names to have been bandied about as predators in recent weeks. UBS, which has been hit by massive write-downs on mortgage-backed securities, is also the subject of whispers—with Barclays, Deutsche and HSBC again to the fore. Bright-eyed bankers peddle ideas for other combinations. How about Lehman’s Wall Street clout and Standard Chartered’s emerging-markets network? Or HSBC and Merrill Lynch?

Short of an implosion to rival that of Bear Stearns in March, however, the rumours are unlikely to become real deals for the time being. For sellers, shares have fallen so steeply that deals are only for the truly desperate. Lehman, where the employees own lots of the equity, has a strong reason not to sell out while prices are so low. UBS is badly bloodied, but has raised lots of capital and said on July 4th that it will come close to breaking even in the second quarter. In Germany the long-awaited sale of Postbank, a retail bank, is reportedly sticking on the optimistic price expectations of Deutsche Post, its parent.

More importantly, buyers are scarce. “There are so few people with strong hands to play,” says Huw van Steenis, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. Those banks that do have the firepower to make purchases have plenty of reasons to sit tight.


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