In announcing banking aspirations, MetLife Inc. raised the prospect that it will be predator rather than prey in the expected consolidation of the banking and insurance industries.
The insurance giant said late Thursday it had formed a unit in its Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. to consider the best way to introduce banking products, prompting heated debate over what route would be best.
Though some insurance experts said the company could use an Internet strategy to market banking products without taking on merger risks such as clashes between insurance and bank cultures, others said that course would be too slow, and that a brick-and-mortar presence is critical in establishing credibility with consumers.
"You still need a certain type of physical presence to get people to think of you as a convenient provider if things go wrong," said Chris Maxwell, principal of Maxwell Associates in Rock Hall, Md
"For a while yet, the ability to go to a physical location is going to play into the selection process of a good number of people," he said.
Bank and insurance consultant Carmen Effron saw benefits for MetLife in buying into the business. "If you look at it as simply what's the fastest way to get there from here, it would be faster for them to buy an existing bank," said Ms. Effron, president of C.F. Effron Co. in Westport, Conn. That way "you buy existing infrastructure and expertise."
Mr. Maxwell said he thought MetLife should target superregional banks.
"They are a nationwide company, so I don't think they want to buy a bank that dominates in one market," he said. "There are plenty of strong regional banks, and with bank stock prices being pretty low, there are possibilities."
But MetLife, despite more than $14 billion of market capitalization and $2.8 billion of cash on hand, would be hard pressed to find a suitable target among regional banks, said James Overholt, a senior consultant at Milliman & Robertson, Chicago.
Bank One, though its stock is depressed, has $35 billion of market capitalization, and U.S. Bancorp has $20 billion, Mr. Overholt noted. Among banking companies with capitalization closer to MetLife's is Wachovia Corp., at $13 billion. But Mr. Overholt questioned whether shareholders at a high-return institution like Wachovia would be interested in linking up with MetLife, whose returns are better than most insurers' but still below banks'.
What is more, mergers have their risks.
"Would you put the existing MetLife agents into the branch? What do you do with the existing Met offices?" asked Kenneth Kehrer, president of Kenneth Kehrer Associates. "Are you going to send the customers back and forth between a Met bank and their agencies? That wouldn't make sense."
But Mr. Maxwell said he thought the cultural clashes shouldn't deter MetLife from buying a bank.
"There is always a cultural divide between companies. But you can certainly get around it," Mr. Maxwell said. "You could leave the insurance agents where they are and have multiple distribution channels."
According to Mr. Kehrer, it might make more sense for MetLife to create an Internet banking presence first. "Then the company can offer lending and transactional services and have it done by the existing agents," Mr. Kehrer said. "It makes use of what MetLife already has, and it's much less expensive than purchasing a bank."
MetLife is not about to tip its hand.
"We have to decide if it would be best to buy a bank, pursue a thrift, have brick-and-mortar, have the bank be Internet-based, or a little of all of this," said John Calagna, a spokesman for MetLife, adding that the process is in its earliest stages.
"Whatever they choose to do, they better move quickly, because the war is on," Mr. Overholt said. "My sense is MetLife knows they want to be in the game but they don't know yet where they want to go."