Why Charlotte could soon be headquarters to only 3 banks

Why Charlotte could soon be headquarters to only 3 banks

CHARLOTTE, NC (Deon Roberts/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte might still be Bank Town, but the number of banks actually headquartered here keeps getting smaller. By the end of 2017, the figure could be down to only three if two pending consolidation deals go through as planned.

Decades of industry mergers and acquisitions have shaved away local names, many of them smaller, community lenders. Now, two more Charlotte brands, Park Sterling and Capital Bank, are expected to disappear in combinations that were announced last month within a week of each other.

[Charlotte's Capital Bank to be acquired by Tennessee's First Horizon]

After those deals close by the fourth quarter, Bank of America, NewDominion Bank and Carolina Premier Bank will be the only banks still headquartered in the city of Charlotte if no new banks are established here. By comparison in 2007, Charlotte was home base to eight banks – a list that included Wachovia, which nearly collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis before San Francisco-based Wells Fargo bought it.

Of course, the region still counts the presence of dozens of banks and credit unions, and Charlotte is still considered a major banking center, thanks to the headquarters of Bank of America. Also, the region's deep bench of banking talent is regularly cited by financial services companies in announcing plans to open locations or expand here.

But some are watching the dwindling number of Charlotte-based banks with a wary eye. One worry is fewer community banks might mean less access to loans for small businesses.

"Who may be cut off are really the smaller commercial real estate developers," said Richard Parsons, former risk executive for Bank of America who retired from the company in 2011.

Here's a look at the issue:

What's behind these consolidations?

Bankers and industry observers cite a variety of factors for the recent wave of consolidations in the banking industry.

The lists includes the desire for banks to get bigger to spread higher regulatory costs across a larger asset base, at a time when low interest rates are constraining their profitability. In the case of some banks, the option to sell is also attractive at a time when their senior leadership is nearing retirement age, others say.

Recent price jumps in bank stocks has added to the appeal of such deals, said Peter Gwaltney, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association. Bank stocks have soared since last year's election of President Donald Trump.

"Which means the buyers of banks have strong currency, because what you're seeing is stock-for-stock acquisitions. So acquiring banks have good currency to pursue acquisitions," Gwaltney said.

He noted the U.S. was chartering about 100 banks on average per year leading up to the crisis – "and it stopped."

"I don't know when the last bank in the U.S. was chartered," he said.

Gwaltney said the number of North Carolina-chartered banks has fallen by about 48 percent since December 2009, through failures, mergers and other actions. The North Carolina Commissioner of Banks, which issues charters for state banks, now lists 59 institutions on its website.

Who wins? Who loses?

Bankers involved in consolidations have cited benefits to customers, such as new products or services acquired through the transactions. Bigger banks might also be able to afford more sophisticated mobile-banking apps and other consumer technology than smaller banks.

Others note potential downsides.

Eliminating community banks removes a primary lending source for small businesses and firms. Community banks also tend to offer lower fees than big banks, as well as better interest rates on credit cards, saving accounts, certificates of deposit and other products.

Bank of America, with $2.2 trillion in assets, offers services to small business but it's also focused on serving customers nationwide and large companies around the world. NewDominion and Carolina Premier, which have about $575 million in assets combined, are primarily focused on smaller customers.

Small banks also play a "very important" role in providing commercial real estate projects loans that larger banks deem too risky, said Parsons, the former Bank of America executive. Such projects might involve building a shopping center that doesn't have a big-name anchor tenant, he said.

Though the loss of smaller banks might mean fewer loans carrying such risks, "the minus is I think some businesses will find less access to credit," Parsons said.

Others point out there has been debate about whether consolidation of community banks leads to reduced access to loans for small businesses.

What's next for Charlotte?

Parsons and others said Charlotte consumers and businesses will still have plenty of access to loans, even with fewer locally headquartered banks around.

But they also expect the consolidation trend to continue across the U.S., potentially affecting Charlotte, which industry officials say remains attractive to banks looking for new markets to enter.

"I predict that over the next three years we will average over a 6 percent reduction in the number of banks in the U.S.," Parsons said. "The pace of mergers in the U.S. is as fast as it has ever been."

"The mega banks, whether you love them or hate them, they are gaining share," he said.

Trump has vowed to overhaul 2010's Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law, especially raising the hopes of community bankers for fewer regulations and their associated costs. But it remains to be seen what affect that will have on future consolidations.

NewDominion CEO Blaine Jackson said with so much consolidation sweeping the industry, his community bank gets asked by applicants during job interviews whether NewDominion will be the next to sell.

Jackson said there are no such plans for NewDominion, which was founded in 2005 and is headquartered in midtown's Metropolitan development.

"Our strategy is not to grow this bank and sell it," said Jackson, chief executive since 2015. "Our strategy is to be the one doing the acquiring."