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Bank deals: Who will vanish next?

The Penn Liberty deal tied up cash for 7%/year

When Penn Liberty Bank's 400 or so Main Line shareholders got a $21.75 cash-and-stock offer from Wilmington-based WSFS Financial Corp. Monday, analysts like Matt Schultheis at Boenning & Scattergood and Joe Gladue at Merion Capital called it a high price and a coup for Penn Liberty founders Pat Ward and Brian Zwaan.

But then again: Seen from the hopes of the mid-2000s, when investors put down $12 for unlisted Penn Liberty shares in hopes of rich future profits, the modest 7% annual return "is not a good return for an investment that was illiquid" all that time, notes Ted Peters, the suburban-Philadelphia banker who skippered Bryn Mawr Trust Corp.'s enlargement-and-survival campaign, and now runs the $15 million Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund of bank stock investments.

It's a far cry from the 600%/7-year returns Peters' former National Bank of the Main Line delivered way back in the boom years, though also a big recovery from recession-year pricing. WSFS is a strong buyer, Peters agreed: "If I were a Penn Liberty shareholder I'd hold onto that stock." Bluestone is up 15% so far this year, as 3 of its 18 bank stocks have been sold at premium prices -- Naugatuck of CT, Cheviot of OH, C1 of FL. (Bluestone is not currently in WSFS.)

Can WSFS make Penn Liberty's suburban franchise grow? CEO Ward, who is joining WSFS, "is a great guy, very competent," Peters says. President Zwaan, also joining WSFS, is similarly able and client-connected and may help the bank lure the investment and business owner customers it needs to make the premium price pay off..

But the price, though a coup for Penn Liberty in today's humbled bank-shares market, still represents "a lot of dilution for WSFS," Peters adds. "It's going to take them five years, they say, to earn this back. They are really trying to build out their Pennsylvania franchise."

More deals in the works? "To be a bank with less than $2 billion (in loans and other assets) is very difficult," Peters told me. " Regulatory compliance and technology are getting really expensive. If they can't grow past that, they have to start looking for partners." Larger banks -- $10 billion and more -- are under pressure to sell, too.

Where does that leave the surviving several-billion-dollar banks around Philly? "Univest -- that's run by the Mennonites, they will want to keep that bank, at least a while longer. Beneficial -- that's still the Irish Catholic bank, I'll be surprised if they sell. Firstrust - that's 100% owned by the Green family, they are making a lot of money, why would they sell?" And his old bank? "I would never sell Bryn Mawr Trust. I loved coming to work at that bank. It's not really a candidate to sell.

"I could see WSFS as a seller in the next few years," Peters added. "I could see BB&T coming in and making an offer." He expects sub-$2 billion banks -- like First National of Newtown in Bucks County, or Downingtown National in Chester County -- are likely to get offers first.