Bank Consolidation Predictions Overblown, U.S. Bancorp's Davis Says

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Richard Davis is not buying into the hypothesis that the banking industry is on the cusp of a mass consolidation.

Though most industry experts predict that regulatory and competitive challenges will force scores of banks to sell themselves, the U.S. Bancorp (USB) chairman and chief executive says that if the long-awaited consolidation didn't occur when many banks were struggling, it's not going to happen when they are making money again.

"If the boards have decided to carry that cross this far, then they are going to wait," for the best possible deal, Davis said Tuesday at an investor conference in Boston.

There are roughly 7,100 banks in the U.S. and many experts have predicted that the number could fall by 1,000 or even 2,000 over the next few years.

The reason, these experts say, is that there are too many banks chasing too few quality customers and that the only way to meaningfully grow revenues and profits is through acquisitions. There's also a widely held belief that small banks will need to merge with larger companies because they can't afford the costs that come with additional regulation.

Davis believes that very small banks will continue to team up to try to gain scale, but said that he expects most larger community banks and smaller regionals "to stay out of the gunfight," at least for the next year.

As Davis sees it, there's still a wide disparity between what buyers are willing to pay and what sellers are willing to accept, and he does not see that gap closing any time soon. The $351 billion-asset U.S. Bancorp looks at a lot of potential acquisitions, but that it is not about to pay what sellers are asking, he said.

"These [banks] are so unbelievably outside the range of what we think they are worth," Davis said at the conference hosted by Citigroup.

Until prices are more to his liking, U.S. Bancorp is likely to focus on acquisitions of ancillary businesses, such as payments firms and trust companies. (It has made three such deals over the last few months.)

The Minneapolis company is also in the midst of building a national wealth management operation and is about halfway to its goal of opening wealth offices throughout the country.

Still, even when U.S. Bancorp does get around to buying banks again, don't expect it to do anything transformational. Davis said that while he is scouting for opportunities, he is not interested in buying anything so big that it threatens to disrupt U.S. Bancorp's culture.

"If you overreach, you lose the ability to protect that culture," he said.

His remarks coincide with recent speculation that, if Royal Bank of Scotland decided to sell Citizens Financial Group in Providence, R.I., U.S. Bancorp would be among the possible suitors. Some have said it would be a good match, while others have said that U.S. Bancorp is cool to the idea of a Northeastern expansion.

"We will look at everything," Davis said Tuesday, "but we don't need to do a bank deal."

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