Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA has been mentioned as a possible buyer of distressed banks in the United States, but the company's top U.S. executive said Wednesday that it is unlikely to pursue acquisitions until next year.
Jose Maria Garcia Meyer, the president of BBVA USA, said the parent company first plans to invest an unspecified amount to improve technology platforms at Compass Bank, which BBVA bought last September, and is testing new compensation structures for top managers. By yearend the Madrid company plans to introduce a marketing campaign to reinforce its newly minted BBVA Compass brand.
"We are trying to build a complete platform for growing BBVA in the United States," Mr. Meyer, who is also Compass Bank's chairman, said in an interview. "If we are able to do this, we will have plenty of opportunities in the future. We must demonstrate that everything else is going well. We will make the decision to acquire more banks in 2009."
Asked about the possibility of accelerating its acquisition strategy, specifically in view of market speculation that the $797.8 billion-asset Spanish company might have an interest in buying the big Seattle thrift, Washington Mutual Inc., Mr. Meyer said flatly, "We are not looking for any acquisitions today."
(Derek Aney, a spokesman for the $320 billion-asset Wamu, said Wednesday that the company does not comment on merger speculation.)
BBVA is approaching the end of a four-stage integration of its U.S. retail bank operations that was begun after its purchase of Compass. Last month it converted its Texas State Bank's 61 branches, and the conversion of former Laredo National Bank branches is slated for November. The signs on all of its 477 branches will be changed early next year. Mr. Meyer said the integration has gone well so far. The company is ahead of schedule on achieving the first $100 million of bottom-line improvements forecast for 2008, he said.
The U.S. unit is starting to shift its focus to internal improvements, Mr. Meyer said. Though short on details, he said the technology initiative should improve its understanding of customer behavior, a key factor in its new strategy emphasizing clients over products. "It will be critical to selecting the right channel mix, while becoming more productive and efficient," he said.
BBVA is training more managers to implement its universal banking model, which stresses collaboration among business lines. Compensation is being adjusted to promote "global goals" over business lines and to incorporate customer reviews gleaned from planned surveys, he said. An advertising drive will focus on principles, people, and innovation. "We have a lot of things to do this year," Mr. Meyer said.
Javier Bernat, an analyst at Caja Madrid, said BBVA seems to have its priorities in place for the United States. "In some ways it might be an audacious move to make a relevant acquisition in the U.S. before they have clearly tested their own banking business model," he said in an interview. "I am pretty sure that BBVA has put its eyes on some other regional banks, mainly in Texas, but a relevant deal may have to wait." Mr. Bernat said BBVA may want to avoid large U.S. purchases so it can raise its dividend while weathering higher credit costs in the United States and Spain.
Though cautioning that BBVA is not immune to worsening credit, Mr. Meyer said that credit quality continues to hold up "pretty well" in most markets. Commercial real estate in Jacksonville, Fla., remains the company's primary problem, contributing 91% of the growth in nonperforming assets since Dec. 31. BBVA has responded by tightening lending practices in Jacksonville, though he would not elaborate. Elsewhere, Mr. Meyer said, BBVA has made few drastic changes in lending standards where it feels equipped to benefit from other banks' capital and liquidity limits. "We have gained access to high-level customers we wouldn't have had in the past," he said. BBVA Compass' average loan book grew 8% in the second quarter from a year earlier, to $35.8 billion, including double-digit increases in mortgages and corporate lending.
Deficiencies remain in U.S. operations, in terms of products and services. Areas that remain largely untapped include the parent company's relationships with international clients and companies working with alternative energy. There are also opportunities in online banking, he said.
Mr. Meyer will soon have an opportunity to show off Compass Bank's progress; he is playing host to the parent company's board meeting late this month.
The itinerary is to include tours of the Birmingham corporate offices and a trip to see its Houston operations.