Gulf bank merger gets soggy reception

December 22, 2010, 8:12 PM UTC

A little bank merger wave is starting to lap up onshore, but there are few signs this tide will lift the industry’s many leaky boats.

On Wednesday we got news of the third decent-size banking sector buyout in a week, when Hancock Holding (HBHC) of Gulfport, Miss., said it would buy Whitney Holding (WTNY) of New Orleans for about $1.4 billion in stock.

A deal not immediately well received

Hancock, which runs the 112-year-old Hancock Bank, said the deal will create “the premier banking franchise in the Gulf South,” with 305 branches in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“We believe this agreement presents an unprecedented opportunity to enhance shareholder value and strengthen the financial options available to individuals and businesses from Texas to Central Florida,” said Hancock chief Carl J. Chaney.

But in an echo of a deal announced to much ado last Friday, shares of Hancock tumbled amid. The stock was off 6% in early action, putting Hancock — which completed another buyout just last year — down 21% for 2010.

One certain winner should the deal go through is the U.S. taxpayer. As part of the deal Hancock will repay the U.S. Treasury’s $300 million loan to Whitney, made two years ago at the depth of the financial meltdown.

The Hancock agreement marks the third deal in the past week that would involve the acquisition of a bailout recipient. Last Friday, Bank of Montreal (BMO) agreed to buy Milwaukee’s Marshall & Ilsley (MI), a tottering regional bank that has $1.7 billion in TARP loans outstanding. This week Toronto Dominion (TD) announced a deal for Chrysler Financial, which received billions in federal assistance but settled its debts in May.

The year-end deal rush comes after a long dry spell for banking industry mergers. The BMO deal sent investors briefly rushing back into the market for regional banks such as Regions (RF) of Alabama and KeyCorp (KEY) of Ohio, on the hope that the deal meant their shareholders weren’t necessarily doomed to a series of Wilmington-style takeunders.

But the BMO deal has been widely viewed as expensive, which has put a brake on whatever regional rally might have been taking hold. Bank of Montreal shares have dropped 7% since the announcement of that transaction, cutting the value for M&I shareholders and cooling the takeover hopes of investors in the likes of Regions.

“The negative shareholder reaction puts a damper on expectations that the BMO/M&I announcement might mark the beginning of a new wave of bank merger deals,” Gimme Credit analyst Kathy Shanley wrote in a note to clients this week.

There are signs of the same dynamics playing out early Wednesday. Hancock dropped 6%, while Whitney surged 29% — but to just $14 and change, leaving it more than half a buck short of the implied takeover price and suggesting there’s some doubt the deal will go through.