Take my money, please.
That's what some community bankers itching to repay bailout funds are telling the government.
But regulators, with their reputations on the line and anxiety about the future, are forcing some banks to hold on to much of the capital. In recent months, some banks that wanted to fully repay the Troubled Asset Relief Program were allowed to return a fraction.
"We demonstrated we could pay back all of our Tarp and still have a total risk-based capital ratio over 10%," said David Wadlington, the chief financial officer of Magna Bank in Memphis.
"But regulators are operating with an abundance of caution. They told us they were reluctant to give permission that would allow total risk-based capital to be below 12%," he said.
As of Jan. 4, 65 companies had returned $162 billion of Tarp funds, according to data provided by SNL Financial. Most redeemed all of their outstanding shares, but an increasing number are making partial payments.
Besides Magna, the nearly $22 billion-asset City National Corp. in Los Angeles repaid half of the $400 million it was issued and the $167 million-asset FPB Financial Corp. in Hammond, La., repaid $1 million, or almost a third of the government's investment.
Industry watchers cited several reasons why they expect to see more partial repayments from community and regional banks in the coming year.
Regulators want to ensure banks have enough capital if the economy takes a second turn downward. And most bankers will acquiesce to the government's demands, figuring a partial repayment at least reduces their dividend payments to the Treasury Department.
"People are being cautious, to say the least," said Chip MacDonald, a partner at the Jones Day law firm in Atlanta. "I think the last thing they want to see is this bank is in capital trouble or fails two years after repaying Tarp. That is their nightmare."
Ultimately, regulators would like to see healthy banks move the Tarp funds off their balance sheets and build capital, MacDonald said.
"They are being like Solomon and splitting the baby — saying, 'You are strong enough to repay some of it, but we want to see how capital looks at a later date.' It is a cautious approval, but it is a time when regulators are cautious," MacDonald said.
One reason regulators may be more comfortable with smaller banks repaying in pieces is that those banks have a tougher time raising capital, several sources said.
"Smaller banks don't have access to capital like big banks do," said Paul Miller, an analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co. "Regulators are saying they are not going to force you to raise capital, but you have to find a way to replace it."
Not all the partial repayments are due to regulators holding banks back.
Some banks chose to limit themselves. For example, the $1.5 billion-asset Peapack-Gladstone Financial Corp. in Peapack-Gladstone, N.J., announced Tuesday that it was repaying 25% of the $28.7 million it accepted.
Frank Kissell, Peapack's chairman and chief executive, said it is waiting for future earnings to pad capital before more of the Treasury's investment is repaid.
"The decision to pay it back piecemeal now is a conservative approach," Kissell said. "There is still some uncertainty in the economy. Wall Street and Main Street are dealing with two different economies, apparently. With that uncertainty, we thought it was best to pay it back as we build capital through earnings."
Others have taken similar routes. The $14 billion-asset Valley National Bancorp in Wayne, N.J., redeemed $75 million on June 3, repaying the remaining $100 million on Dec. 23.
And the $5 billion-asset WestAmerica Bancorp in San Rafael, Calif., redeemed half of its shares Sept. 2 and the other half on Nov. 18.
Several banks that recently made partial payments would only say they expect to repay the remainder this year.
City National, which raised $550 million last year by issuing equity and debt to repay Tarp, declined to comment for this article, citing a blackout period before quarterly earnings.
Analysts following the company said City National could afford to repay the entire $400 million investment.
"In my view, they have more than adequate capital to repurchase the entire $400 million," said Aaron James Deer, a managing director at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP.
But other analysts said that paying some of the investment back now and some later could benefit the company.
"It may be more advantageous to wait six months until earnings accretion is reflected in the share price" before raising capital to fully repay Tarp, said Christopher Nolan, an analyst at Maxim Group LLC in New York City.
"The idea is they could issue shares at a higher premium," he said.
As for Magna, regulators let the $465 million-asset company repay 25% of its $14 million in aid. Magna argued that it had the wherewithal to repay more.
Wadlington said its total risk-based capital ratio will exceed 14% at the end of the fourth quarter — far higher than regulators' stated minimums for well-capitalized status, he said. Magna's noncurrent loans in the third quarter represented 1.62% of total loans, with a loss allowance covering 82.95% of those noncurrent loans, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. figures. And the bank, which was profitable in every quarter last year, expects profitability to continue in 2010.
"I can't think of any good reason offhand that they wouldn't want us to pay it all back," Wadlington said.