With some of the biggest banks in the nation buying investment banking firms, some smaller banks are feeling pressure to build their own securities businesses through acquisitions.
Take First of America Bank Corp. The $22 billion-asset Kalamazoo, Mich., company was one of at least three Midwest banks that wanted to buy privately held Roney & Co. in Detroit, sources said.
Comerica Inc., also of Detroit, was said to have been interested as well. But First Chicago NBD Corp. won out; Roney agreed Tuesday to a takeover.
Bankers Trust New York Corp., NationsBank Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. have all bought investment banking firms this year, but smaller companies such as First of America may be the next wave seeking such acquisitions.
In an interview Tuesday, Susan Currier, president and chief executive officer of First of America Securities, acknowledged that it wants to expand its underwriting business, which contributed just under 1% of the parent's $232 million profit in the first nine months of this year.
First of America has been able to underwrite municipal bonds, mortgage- related securities, and commercial paper since 1994, she said, but wants to be able to underwrite corporate debt and equity to serve its customers.
But no application has been made to the Federal Reserve for expanded powers. First of America officials said they believe one would be approved more quickly if they had a deal pending.
The company could build a business internally, Ms. Currier said, but would also consider buying a boutique firm. "We would like to do something in the next year," she added.
First of America is most interested in corporate debt underwriting because the competition for making commercial loans has increased over the past several years. Companies are no longer just looking for business loans, Ms. Currier said; they want the full range of products that a securities firm can offer.
But First of America is largely a consumer and retail-oriented bank. Expanding its investment banking powers would be a new strategy.
Analysts were divided about whether the plan made sense.
"It's not clear why a bank that historically has been retail in nature wants to expand in an area that is traditionally more institutional," said Michael Mayo, an analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.
There is a shortage of small investment banking firms to buy, and there may be competition for those few firms, Mr. Mayo said. Indeed, analysts were hard-pressed to name a regional Midwest investment banker apart from Roney that First of America could purchase.
Fred Cummings, an analyst with McDonald & Company Securities in Cleveland, said an investment bank could enhance the retail brokerage business for First of America in addition to making it more competitive as a commercial lender. "It could round out their product offering," he said.
Mr. Cummings also noted it may be easier to expand through an acquisition. "You can grow very rapidly through acquisition as opposed to building internally," he said.
Still, Mr. Mayo said he would be concerned if First of America spent heavily on a firm. "It's the choice, to buy or build," he said. "The relevant question is: Why do they feel compelled to do either in a big way?"
But the fact that First of America is considering expanding such a business underlines the changes that Richard F. Chormann has brought to the company in his nearly two years as chairman and chief executive officer.
On Mr. Chormann's watch, First of America has sold 30 small-town branches in Michigan and Illinois, the company's $1.1 billion-asset Florida thrift, and pieces of its mortgage banking and credit card operations.
"They've been divesting, but now they're in a building mode," said Mr. Cummings.