One of the more intriguing story lines of the banking industry’s consolidation since the financial crisis is the persistent belief that federal regulators privately want a more concentrated industry with fewer banks because it would be easier for them to supervise, and they signal their support for this laissez-faire policy every time they approve an acquisition.
Consider this comment from a respondent to our 2017 Bank M&A Survey: “Regulators are actively trying to reduce the number of charters, to reduce their workload and to give them control, with fewer institutions to supervise. While they do not openly admit it, every agency has admitted to me that they would prefer fewer institutions. This will cause more consolidation.” Implicit in this perception is the assumption of regulatory bias against the thousands of small banks that dot the industry landscape. The aforementioned respondent to our survey was a director at a bank with less than $500 million in assets.
Are the regulators really guiding the industry’s consolidation with a hidden hand? Looking back to the mid-1980s, I think it’s impossible to argue that the last five presidents and 11 secretaries of the Treasury (not to mention numerous federal regulators) were opposed to the idea of consolidation as the industry shrunk from 14,884 insured institutions in 1984 to 6,058 as of June 2016, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The most intense period of consolidation was probably a 20-year period, beginning in 1984, where the industry shrank to just 7,842 insured institutions by the end of 2003—nearly a 50 percent reduction!
I found this observation in a 2005 article in FDIC Banking Review, entitled “Consolidation in the U.S. Banking Industry: Is the Long, Strange Trip About to End?” “Over the two decades 1984 to 2003, the structure of the U.S. banking industry indeed underwent an almost unprecedented transformation—one marked by a substantial decline in the number of commercial banks and savings institutions and by a growing concentration of industry assets among a few dozen extremely large financial institutions. This is not news.” And if it wasn’t news in 2005, it certainly shouldn’t be news today.
I think a more interesting question is whether the collective governmental brainpower seriously considered the systemic ramifications of a more concentrated industry—especially the creation of megabanks like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp. Those three institutions, along with Citigroup, rank as the four largest U.S. banks and collectively held 40 percent of the industry’s total deposits and 42 percent of its total assets as of September 2016, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
It was the fear that a large bank would fail during the financial crisis, worsening the situation even further, that led to the controversial and much criticized industry bailout and provided the emotional fuel in Congress to pass the Dodd-Frank Act. Even today, approximately seven years after the crisis passed, we are still debating whether another unofficial governmental policy from years past—too big to fail—could be deployed in times of emergency despite the efforts of the framers of Dodd-Frank to kill it once and for all. I would say that Washington ended up getting exactly what it had wanted over the last three decades—a more concentrated industry with fewer banks—but doesn’t seem to be very comfortable with the outcome.
Another interesting question is when will consolidation end? It’s taken as gospel that the four megabanks will not be allowed to do any more acquisitions because they’re already too large, and most of the M&A activity in recent years has been in the community bank sector, where individual banks do not pose a systemic threat to the economy. But is there a number at which point the regulators, Congress or some future presidential administration would say enough? A more concentrated industry poses systemic risks of its own, so does Washington reverse its laissez-faire policy when we reach 5,000 banks, or 3,500, or even 2,000?
If anyone in Washington has an answer to that question, I’d love to hear it. Then again, President-Elect Trump fits the description of a laissez-faire capitalist as well as anyone, so maybe he’ll let the banking industry seek its own final number.