With strong revenues, one of the nation's most pristine credit card portfolios, and a pile of cash, Simmons First National Corp. is ready and eager to expand.
But acquisition premiums for banks have soared recently and Simmons, praised by one analyst as "totally disciplined," has found it hard to line up a deal at a price it is willing and able to pay.
The plight of the Pine Bluff, Ark., banking company is shared by numerous other independence-minded small regional banks at a time when institutions are selling out for as much as 280% of their book value
"If you're going to be a player in today's market, you've got to pay a very full price," said Frank Anderson, analyst at Stephens Inc. "The question you've always got to ask is, Is it worth it? Simmons' management asks that question all the time, and because of that they've refused to make some deals they otherwise might have."
Traditionally Wall Street has punished banks that paid heavily for mergers. Shares of NationsBank Corp., for example, dropped 12% after the bank announced a deal for Boatmen's Bancshares.
But of late investors seem to have decided that spending heavily in the pursuit of consolidation is no vice.
On Nov. 4, Southern National Corp. raised the ever-growing ante for mergers by saying it would pay 2.8 times book value to purchase United Carolina Bancshares.
Investors didn't seem to care about the price. Southern National stock dropped $1.75 on the day of the deal, to $33.50, but by week's end had recovered to $35.875, a 52-week high.
Similarly, Mercantile Bancorp. hasn't suffered much for also agreeing to pay 2.8 times book value for Mark Twain Bancshares. Mercantile stock fell $2, to $50, on Oct. 28, the day the deal was announced. The bank's stock closed at $49.25 on Nov. 8.
To try to make itself more attractive to banks it would like to buy, Simmons announced a 3-for-2 stock split two weeks ago. The idea was to increase the stock's liquidity and increase trading activity, said bank president J. Thomas May.
Making more shares available to market should make the stock easier to sell, something investors at a smaller bank would look at when considering a merger involving stock.
Mr. May said his bank, which has $857 million in assets, is looking at merging with small banks in Arkansas and neighboring states. The bank has also opened a new branch in northwestern Arkansas to deploy some of its excess cash.
"To go out of state, they'd really have to find something that makes a lot of sense for them," said Christopher Kelley, analyst at Morgan Keegan & Co., Memphis. "And Mercantile and Boatmen's have already taken up a lot of the competition."
With practically every week bringing news of a stratospherically priced bank merger, analysts say it's getting harder for Simmons to find an appropriate bank that's priced in line with its disciplined approach to banking.
"No question they're frustrated," Mr. Anderson said. "But this bank has a small group of shareholders, and they've always looked long-term."
Still, market conditions may force the bank into making a decision about its future.
"If they don't feel comfortable expanding," said an analyst, "really what they should do is sell out."