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Does This Small Banking Merger Herald a Trend?

By Eric Volkman - Jan 21, 2016 at 5:06PM

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CNB Financial reaches a deal to buy out a small Ohio bank shortly after two regional players make their own acquisitions.

Most companies spent their post-holiday period cleaning up from the office party; Pennsylvania-based banking group CNB Financial (CCNE 0.39%)used it to make a big purchase. In the dying days of 2015, the company announced it had acquired a small, privately held peer, Lake National Bank.

Let's take a look at the deal and see what it might -- or might not -- portend for the sector going forward. And since it follows closely behind a pair of other regional/local banking group deals, whether this means merger and acquisition activity in the sector is about to heat up.

Dipping into the Lake
The two companies have signed a definitive agreement for CNB Financial to pay just under $25 million to acquire Lake National Bank.

The latter is fairly small in terms of assets, with a bit over $152 million as of last September. That's a far cry from CNB Financial's figure of almost $2.3 billion as of its most recently reported quarter. And Lake National has only two branches.

But the appeal of the company as an acquisition has less to do with size and balance sheet and more with geography. In its press release heralding the purchase, CNB Financial quoted CEO Joseph Bower as saying that his company was "excited to continue expansion of our franchise in Ohio by entering the Mentor market in the greater Cleveland area."

Both Lake National branches are located in Mentor -- until now. Although CNB Financial has a small presence in Ohio, it hasn't held any assets near Cleveland -- the state's second-largest city. In addition to that proximity, Mentor is home to many of the small and medium-sized businesses CNB Financial specializes in providing services for.

The acquisition is subject to approval from Lake National's shareholders. It also must pass the scrutiny of the relevant regulatory bodies.

Merger mania?
The CNB Financial/Lake National deal comes on the heels of two other notable tie-ups in the banking industry, both of which were larger but still on a regional/local level. The first was M&T Bank's $5.5 billion buyout of Hudson City Bancorp in October and the other was New York Community Bancorp's roughly $2 billion purchase of fellow Empire State lender Astoria Financial.

So are we about to see some kind of spike in banking M&A deals?

I wouldn't say so. The M&T Bank/Hudson City merger was actually agreed to in 2012, but the Federal Reserve expressed concern that the acquirer's anti-money laundering controls were insufficient, and strongly encouraged improvement of same in order to earn its approval. Patient M&T Bank spent three years and tens of millions of dollars on doing so, only after which the Fed's green light was turned on.

As for NYCB/Astoria, the latter bank might not have been for sale had it not been for the machinations of activist investor Basswood Capital Management, which very much wanted it to "take steps to enhance shareholder value" -- like a sell-off, for instance.

Both deals, then, were the product of unique circumstances, so we can't say that banking M&A is starting to boil. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of small financials across the country that might be better served combining, rather than sticking it out alone. 

Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. Nor does The Motley Fool. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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