In May, Northeast Bank became the fourth banking organization in two years to eliminate its holding company. Northeast joins Zions Bancorporation, N.A., BancorpSouth Bank and Bank OZK in forgoing their holding companies.
All of the restructurings were motivated in part by improved efficiencies that eliminated redundant corporate infrastructure and activities. The moves also removed a second level of supervision by the Federal Reserve Board. Bank specific reasons may also drive the decision to eliminate a holding company.
Zions successfully petitioned to be de-designated as a systemically important financial institution in connection with its holding company elimination. In its announcement, Northeast replaced commitments it made to the Fed with policies and procedures relating to its capital levels and loan composition that should allow for more loan growth in the long run.
Banks are weighing the role their holding companies play in daily operations. Some maintain the structure in order to engage in activities that are not permissible at the bank level. Others may not have considered the issue. Now may be a good time to ask: Is the holding company worth it?
Defined Corporate Governance
Holding companies are typically organized as business corporations under state corporate law, which often provides more clarity than banking law for matters such as indemnification, anti-takeover protections and shareholder rights.
Holding companies provide flexibility in structuring strategic transactions because they can operate acquired banks as separate subsidiaries. This setup might be desirable for potential partners because it keeps the target’s legal and corporate identity, board and management structure. But even without a holding company, banks can still preserve the identity of a strategic partner by operating it as a division of the surviving bank.
Additional Governance Requirements
A holding company’s status as a separate legal entity subjects it to additional corporate governance and recordkeeping requirements. A holding company must hold separate board of directors and committee meetings with separate minutes, enter into expense-sharing and tax-sharing agreements with its bank subsidiary and observe other corporate formalities to maintain separate corporate identities. In addition, the relationship between the holding company and its subsidiary bank is subject to Section 23A and Section 23B of the Federal Reserve Act, an additional regulatory compliance burden.
Additional Regulatory Oversight
Holding companies are also subject to the Fed’s supervision, examination and reporting requirements, which carry additional compliance costs and consume significant management attention. The Fed also expects bank holding companies to serve as a source of financial strength to their subsidiary banks, an expectation that was formalized in the Dodd-Frank Act.
Diminished Capital Advantages
Historically, holding companies could issue Tier 1 capital instruments that were not feasible or permissible for their bank subsidiaries, such as trust preferred securities and cumulative perpetual preferred stock. They also enjoyed additional flexibility to redeem capital, an advantage that has largely been eliminated by the Basel III rulemaking and Fed supervisory requirements. A holding company with existing grandfathered trust preferred securities or with registered DRIPs may find them useful capital management tools. Holding companies with less than $3 billion in consolidated assets that qualify under the Small Bank Holding Company and Savings and Loan Holding Company Policy Statement are not subject to the Fed’s risk-based capital rules. These companies are permitted to have higher levels of debt than other holding companies and banks.
Broader Activities, Investments
Bank holding companies, especially those that elect to be financial holding companies, can engage in non-banking activities and activities that are financial in nature through non-bank subsidiaries that are bank affiliates. In some cases, these activities may not be bank permissible, such as insurance underwriting and merchant banking. The Fed also has authority to approve additional activities that are financial in nature or incidental or complementary to a financial activity on a case-by-case basis.
Bank holding companies can also make passive, non-controlling minority investments that do not exceed 5 percent of any class of voting securities in any company, regardless of that company’s activities. By comparison, banks are limited to making investments in companies that are engaged solely in bank-permissible activities or must rely on authorities such as community development or public welfare authority to make investments. Banks may also have limited leeway authority to invest in specific securities or types of securities designated under the applicable state banking law or by the applicable state banking regulator.
Banks that are not interested in activities or investment opportunities available to holding companies may be less concerned about eliminating the structure. But an organization that engages in activities at the holding company level that are not permissible for banks or that desires to maintain its grandfathered rights as a unitary savings and loan holding company may not wish to eliminate its holding company.
Operating without a holding company would result in more streamlined regulatory oversight, corporate governance and recordkeeping processes. But a holding company provides the flexibility to engage in activities, to make investments and to create structures that a bank may not. Bank boards should weigh these costs and benefits carefully against their strategic and capital management plans.