First BanCorp in Puerto Rico Could Emerge as a Buyer ... or a Seller

Register now

Now that its private-equity injection is almost a done deal, First BanCorp's natural next move would be to consolidate power in Puerto Rico. Unless it sells itself instead.

Analysts fell into two camps after last month's disclosure that Thomas H. Lee Partners would invest $180 million in First BanCorp as part of a broader $500 million capitalization. Some believe the capital may help the island's second-largest bank become an acquirer. But many others say the $15.1 billion-asset company will still end up selling.

Michael Diana, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald, is among those who believe a sale of First BanCorp could reshape the banking landscape in Puerto Rico. In a note to clients written shortly after news of the private-equity deal, he said one outcome could be that Bank of Nova Scotia of Toronto swoops in to buy First BanCorp, "which could create a duopoly with rational pricing."

If that happened Popular Inc. and Bank of Nova Scotia would collectively control 65% of the island's deposits, based on June 2010 data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Or, Diana said, Doral Financial Corp. could resurrect talks with First BanCorp, which spurned an offer from its smaller competitor last November. A Doral-FirstBanCorp deal would have a similar impact as one involving Bank of Nova Scotia: the $38.74 billion-asset Popular and the $8.46 billion-asset Doral would control 68% of Puerto Rico's deposits.

Calls to First BanCorp and Doral were not returned. A spokeswoman for the $583.61 billion-asset Bank of Nova Scotia would not comment.

Gladue says a Doral-First BanCorp merger would "take a large chunk of expenses out, and that would help the combined institution be profitable almost right off the bat." The likelihood of such as deal would be much greater if First BanCorp is unable to complete its recapitalization with Thomas H. Lee, he says.

Most analysts believe the private-equity deal will go through. Observers say First BanCorp has a solid franchise in a market with just eight banks left.

First BanCorp is also raising more capital than the $350 million the Treasury Department required it to bring in as part of an exit from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. (The Treasury plans to convert its preferred stock in the company into common stock in conjunction with the private-equity deal.)

Joe Gladue, an analyst at B. Riley & Co., says that a solid capital cushion will help First BanCorp weather more quarterly losses — it lost $28 million in the first quarter — and weakness that still plagues Puerto Rico. "Having that added capital is a good thing," he says.

If unable to attract more outside investors, First BanCorp could evolve into a consolidator, though it is unclear which banks it could target. Analysts would not rule out the possibility, because the company has some allure with mainland investors thanks to its scale.

"They do have solid market share, so it fits one profile that PE looks for," Gladue said.

Analysts agreed that regardless of whether First BanCorp completes its raise, consolidation may be on the way. Consolidation has been a constant in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the financial crisis as a result of three bank failures last year.

In April 2010 Popular absorbed 46 branches and $8.5 billion in loans from the collapse of Westernbank to tighten its grip as the island's biggest bank. Within a month, the $6 billion-asset R&G Premier Bank was sold to Bank of Nova Scotia and the $2.6 billion-asset Eurobank was sold to the $47.18 billion-asset Oriental Financial Group Inc.

The island's economy was in the doldrums even before the U.S. economy stalled, and unemployment stood at 16% in May, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some bankers are cautiously optimistic that the economy is recovering, however slowly. Doral, Popular and Oriental all made profits in the first quarter, but nowhere near amounts that would signal Puerto Rico's economy is picking up.

"We feel more comfortable about managing future losses … because the [mainland] economy is cooperating," Jorge Junquera, Popular's chief financial officer, said in an interview last week. But in Puerto Rico, he said, it's still trouble.

Gladue agrees: "Nobody has any expectation that there will be significant growth in Puerto Rico's economy anytime soon."


For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Puerto Rico