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Regulators slow to approve Betsy Cohen, Vernon Hill bank deals

"The Federal Reserve has been busy"

More than 100 U.S. banks have failed this year. None were around Philadelphia, where lenders who made it through the merger mania of the 1990s apparently ignored the subprime boom, and lent only to people who didn't really need to borrow. And yet: At least two local banks that had expected to complete acquisitions by now are still waiting for Washington's go-ahead.

The Bancorp Bank, of Philadelphia and Wilmington, said last summer it would to pay a bargain-basement $9 million for bankrupt Chicago-based subprime lender American Home Mortgage Holdings' federal savings bank unit and $100 million in loans back in June. But the deal still hasn't been approved. "The Federal Reserve has been busy," spokesman Andres Viroslav told me."We, among others, are still waiting to hear a response to our application."

Meanwhile, Republic First Bank of Philadelphia looks set to blow past yet another deadline in its planned merger with Metro Bank (formerly Commerce of PA) up in Harrisburg. The combination was supposed to clinch by June, by August, by October; it's sliding toward next year.

Like Bancorp, Republic says the deal's been held up by those busy Washington regulators. "That sounds strange to me," bank investor Cengiz Searfross of New York-based DSC Capital told me. "We've seen a lot of deals close that have some complexity," like United Financial Bancorp's takeover of Commonwealth National Bank in New England last week. "Two different regulators were involved, and it closed in a six-month time frame."

By contrast, the Metro deal "has taken more than a year," Searfross noted. Republic investor Vernon Hill "is steamrolling ahead." As Metro hires executives who used to work for him at the former Commerce Bancorp (now TD Bank), Hill's been promoting another planned Metro Bank in England.

Bancorp stock is up sharply so far this year; most big-bank stocks are flat; Republic and Metro are down more than 50 percent. In advance of Republic's annual meeting Dec. 23, the delay has investors like Searfross speculating on whether the bank will be required to raise more capital before the merger's approved. The Fed doesn't talk about deals until they're concluded.