(In paragraph seven, corrects to remove stock symbol for BankUnited, which is prIVately held)
NEW YORK/CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - As the oil from the BP Plc (BP.L) gusher laps onto U.S. Gulf Coast shores, it is also muddying the prospects of Southern bank mergers.
The worst offshore spill in U.S. history is likely to have a broad impact on banks serving communities in the region, hurting consumer credit and real estate values, both residential and commercial. Every Gulf state — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas — has been soiled by the spill.
This could add to problems at banks like Columbus, Georgia-based Synovus Financial Corp (SNV.N), which also has exposure to Florida.
But the disaster also is also likely to bring billions of dollars to the region from clean-up efforts and claims paid by BP and insurance companies.
More than two months into the spill, however, the net effect for local economies remains unclear, and buyers are likely to wait on the sidelines for now, banking experts said.
“If you are an acquirer, are you going to double-down if you are already in the Gulf, or are you going to enter the Gulf just because of the spill? I don’t think so,” said Chip MacDonald, a financial institutions lawyer at Jones Day. “It is affecting people’s ability to raise capital down there because people are saying, ‘There is a risk.’”
Miami Lakes, Florida-based BankUnited, which wants to buy banks to grow, does not see the spill creating fresh opportunities, Chief Executive Officer John Kanas said.
“I don’t think that this is doing permanent damage to those institutions — enough so that one would expect that to result in some M&A,” Kanas said. “I don’t think it will have a bearing on our thinking.”
BankUnited, with $11 billion in assets, is backed by a consortium of private equity firms that include WL Ross & Co, Carlyle Group CYL.UL and Blackstone Group (BX.N).
While markets like Florida are considered desirable over the long term as Americans retire and move to warmer climates, they have also been hurt badly by the real estate downturn. The oil spill could push some already weak banks there over the edge.
“The failures might happen anyway, but the spill sure doesn’t help it,” said Sterne Agee bank analyst Peyton Green.
This weakness could prove to be an opportunity for would-be buyers to get deals at a bargain rate.
“The deals are going to be relatively small,” Green said, “but they will be meaningful for the banks looking for an entry into the state.”
Green and his colleagues at the Birmingham, Alabama-based brokerage last week listed Synovus, Mobile, Alabama-based BancTrust Financial Group BTFG.O, Jackson, Mississippi-based Trustmark Corp (TRMK.O) and New Orleans-based Whitney Holding Corp WTNY.O among banks that stand to lose from the spill.
Among would-be acquirers, the analysts named Little Rock, Arkansas-based Bank of the Ozarks OZRK.O, Gulfport, Mississippi-based Hancock Holding Co HBHC.O, Lafayette, Louisiana-based Iberiabank Corp (IBKC.O) and MidSouth Bancorp
“We are closely monitoring the situation, but it is too early to predict the effect it will have on us,” BancTrust Chief Financial Officer Mike Johnson said.
Late on Tuesday, Whitney announced a $5 million reserve for spill-related losses, saying the disaster “tempered our optimism” for the second half of the year.
A spokeswoman for Trustmark said its credit risk was limited to Florida’s panhandle region, and the bank did not see it as a long-term issue.
Synovus declined to comment. The other banks were not immediately available.
For now, the oil spill could actually slow the number of banks that go over the edge and are auctioned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp as regulators may provide some breathing room to those hurt by the spill.
“The regulators are committed to working with the industry to respond to issues that arise in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill and to minimize disruption and burden on banks and credit unions in affected areas,” U.S. bank regulators said in a joint statement on Wednesday.
Jones Day’s MacDonald said the FDIC would also probably get better bids for failed banks when people have more insight into the impact of the spill, which could be months from now.
“I don’t think anybody is saying, ‘Hey it’s such a great opportunity,’ because prices were already cheap,” MacDonald said. “What brings back bank M&A is some stability and vision going forward as to balance sheet risk. And an event like the oil spill is just the opposite.”
Reporting by Paritosh Bansal and Joe Rauch; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn