Fifth Third Bancorp says it is still interviewing chief financial officer candidates — a search that began in May — and observers say a new CFO cannot arrive soon enough, since that executive could play a vital role in the company's plan to divest businesses to shore up capital.
In what was already a buyer's market, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy underscored the depths of uncertainty in the financial system and waning interest in making deals before the Wall Street turmoil eases, analysts said.
"It's clearly not the best time at all to be selling," Mark Fitzgibbon, director of research at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP, said in an interview Wednesday. "There are a limited number of companies who can buy, if they even want to right now. So I think any seller is starting from a position of weakness."
Analysts have speculated that Fifth Third could seek buyers for its payment processing business or its asset management arm.
Mr. Fitzgibbon also said there are talented would-be CFOs to be found. However, "in an environment like this, it has to be very difficult to convince somebody of the merits of the opportunity."
Kevin Kabat, Fifth Third's chairman and chief executive, says he is confident his company will prove the exception.
"Sales processes are under way," he said at a conference last week in New York, though he did not specify which businesses he wants to divest.
"We've seen strong interest from a number of buyers and expect to receive attractive values," Mr. Kabat told the analysts. "We expect to close these transactions over the next several quarters."
Debra DeCourcy, a Fifth Third spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the Cincinnati company is "into the interview process" for a new CFO. "The process is going well." She said she could not elaborate further.
Christopher G. Marshall resigned as the CFO in May. Daniel T. Poston, Fifth Third's controller, will fill the CFO role on an interim basis until a successor is found.
The unfavorable market conditions and general gloom enveloping the financial sector could have Fifth Third executives privately wondering if they missed the boat on divestitures, two analysts said. The company announced its capital-raising plan in June and said about a month later that it had interested buyers for some of its units, but it did not sign any deals at the time. The analysts asked not to be named to avoid alienating the company.
Wall Street analysts have speculated that the $115 billion-asset Fifth Third will sell the processing unit, because it could fetch a good price, and because other banking companies have pursued similar divestitures. Analysts also have speculated that Fifth Third could sell its asset management unit for the same reasons.
Mr. Kabat said last week that the businesses it plans to divest account for about 10% of its "normalized" earnings. Both the processing and the asset management would meet that criterion.
The lack of a permanent CFO, at time when banking companies in general are struggling and Fifth Third in particular is coming off a $202 million second-quarter loss (driven by failing mortgages in Florida), could keep Mr. Poston focused squarely on week-to-week operations. And that fact, analysts said, punctuates the urgency of hiring a successor.
Nancy Bush, the president of NAB Research LLC, said in an interview Wednesday that Fifth Third might have to look beyond the banking sector to find an ideal candidate.
"I think good people are out there, but they just might have to come from nontraditional sources — the insurance industry, hedge funds, others in finance, but just not necessarily banks," she said. "But I think we need some more nontraditional hires."
Other companies, citing the integral role of the CFO, especially in a down cycle, wasted little time hiring a new one this year from outside the banking sector.
This month Wachovia Corp. hired David K. Zwiener, an executive from Carlyle Group, to succeed Thomas J. Wurtz, who resigned in July. Mr. Zwiener's background includes roles in insurance, manufacturing, and private equity. Bank of Hawaii Corp. selected Kent Lucien, the former CFO of the now-defunct Honolulu real estate and agriculture firm C. Brewer & Co. Ltd., as its finance chief in July. He had held the job on an interim basis since Dan Stevens left in late April.
In the second quarter Fifth Third sold $1.1 billion of convertible preferred stock and slashed its dividend to save $1.2 billion through the end of next year. It said its Tier 1 capital ratio was 8.5% at June 30.
But last week Mr. Kabat said divesting businesses to raise another $1 billion remains a critical final step in his company's plans to guard against further loan losses and capital deterioration. The plan as a whole is "intended to allow us to withstand significant continued deterioration in the credit environment, which at the present time we can't rule out as a possibility."
The need to raise capital amplifies the pressure Fifth Third faces.
Standard & Poor's Corp. put Fifth Third's long-term credit on watch for a possible downgrade this month, citing its exposure to "deterioration in Florida's residential construction and housing market."