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Beneficial Bank: Weak stock offering; 'fraudulent texts'

BNCL shares fall as subscriptions fall below target

Shares of Beneficial Mutual Bancorp traded lower this morning after the bank, the largest still based in Philadelphia, said depositors and employees have signed up to buy fewer than the 55 million shares the company had targeted in its plan to convert to 100 percent shareholder ownership.

"A lot of people don't want to buy bank stocks right now," given low interest rates and slow loan and earnings growth, veteran local stock-watcher Robert Costello of Costello Asset Management, Huntingdon Valley, told me. "There haven't been a lot of banks these past few years that long-term investors have made money on. They have to be sold at prices that reflect reality."

Beneficial did score subscriptions for the minimum 46.75 million shares the Federal Reserve said it needed for its underwriters to go through with the sale. But given the level of interest (they were prepared to sell up to 63.25 million shares but got interest in fewer than 55 million), Beneficial says its underwriters, led by Sandler O'Neill + Partners, won't conduct a "firm committment" share sale.

In firm committment sales, investment bankers typically agree to buy all the shares on offer, giving investors more confidence the shares will hold and gain value. Without a "firm commitment," companies typically run a "best offer" sale that could leave some shares unsold, dragging down the price.

I called Beneficial to ask if the bank is worried they won't find enough interested investors, and was put on hold while an automated recording played, urging customers to ignore the "fraudulent text messages" they have been receiving. "It's been one episode after another," CEO Gerry Cuddy told me, adding that TD Bank and other lenders have faced similar attacks, and reiterating that the bank hasn't lost customer information in the attack.

Citing the SEC-mandated "quiet period" regarding the share sale, Cuddy declined comment on that subject.

Owners of Beneficial Mutual and subsidiary Beneficial Bank will vote on the proposed share sale plan in meetings on Dec. 15.