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Bank merger is likely first of many in South

NEW ORLEANS — A deal reached last month to combine two 100-plus-year-old banks in the South could be a sign of things to come across the region.

Analysts and bank executives believe Hancock Holding Co.'s proposed $1.5 billion acquisition of Whitney Holding Corp., announced Dec. 22, is likely one of the first of many combinations among Southern banks.

Banks are being squeezed by continued economic uncertainty. Revenue is down from a decreased demand for loans, both commercial and consumer. At the same time, banks are facing increased expenses because of new regulations ordered in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown.

"Any time you have that combination, you're going to have consolidation in the industry," said banking analyst Peyton Green of Sterne Agee & Leach.

Michael Rose, a banking analyst with Raymond James, said the economic downturn has left the U.S. with too many banks — about 8,000 nationwide — and he expects that number to shrink in the future through combinations.

"In the South, the earnings recovery is going to be a little bit slower because of the credit overhang. With the higher capital requirements, it's going to force more to the altar," Rose said.

It took Hancock of Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans-based Whitney — two rivals along the Gulf Coast — more than a century to get together.

Whitney was formed in 1883 as the smallest of 13 banks in New Orleans. Hancock was born in 1899 as Hancock County Bank in Bay St. Louis, Miss., with $10,000 in capital. Both banks enjoyed growth, endured the Great Depression — with Hancock eventually landing in Gulfport — and maneuvered their way through two world wars.

Then both dramatically expanded their reaches.

Whitney acquired 27 banking companies in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas from 1985 through 2008. Hancock shot out along the Gulf Coast, first jumping to Louisiana with the 1990 purchase of American Bank of Baton Rouge and additional buyouts in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The Hancock-Whitney combination will have about $20 billion in total assets, $16 billion in deposits and $12 billion in loans, along with 305 branches and about 5,000 employees. Executives of both companies said Hancock's consumer loan emphasis along with Whitney's commercial loan business will make a strong merger after more than a century of separation.

"This is something that had been talked about, kicked around for 100 years," said Hancock chief executive Carl Chaney. "It's like a lot of things. You have to wait until the stars are aligned."

Chaney said myriad post-recession developments will push other combinations.

Banks took money through a federal program aimed at either propping them up or providing more capital for loans — known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Whitney, which has been fighting problem real estate loans in Florida, issued $200 million in preferred stock to the U.S. Treasury to participate in the loan program. Hancock plans to redeem that stock from the government.

"As the economy heats up a bit, it's natural for banks to want to take advantage of the opportunities that are in their markets," Chaney said. "Banks with TARP will not be able to do that, so that will drive some of the consolidations."

Bank merger is likely first of many in South 01/23/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 23, 2011 3:30am]

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