Shares of Imperial Bancorp in Inglewood, Calif., have surged 11.3% in a down market in the last two weeks as investors become more convinced that the company is likely to be taken over.
Speculation about $6.4-billion-asset Imperial was fueled on Tuesday after Charlotte A. Chamberlain, a bank analyst at Jefferies & Co. in Los Angeles, sent a report to clients on Tuesday, calling the banking company "a likely target for U.S. Bancorp, Bank of America Corp., and Comerica."
Ms. Chamberlain said in an interview that the most likely acquirer of the three would be U.S. Bancorp, which bought 1,974,700 shares, or 4.75%, of Imperial in the last six months, according to an Aug. 9 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. U.S. Bancorp did not respond to questions about the filing, which also noted that U.S. Bancorp had positions in City National Corp. of Beverly Hills, Pacific Capital Bancorp of Santa Barbara, Calif., and Westamerica Bancorp., of San Rafael, Calif.
Daniel Mathis, president and chief operating officer of Imperial, said, "We have always taken the position, which is about 34 years old, that we do not have a for-sale sign on the bank or bank holding company. But we will do what is in the best interest of our shareholders. We do not have a strategy of staying independent at all costs or of proactively selling the institution."
Mr. Mathis was also quick to dismiss any rumors about Imperial selling. "People have been saying that we are an acquisition target for literally decades. That is old news."
In her report, Ms. Chamberlain said that U.S. Bancorp itself bought the Imperial shares that they were not bought on behalf of any of the mutual funds managed by the bank or Piper Jaffray, the brokerage subsidiary of U.S. Bancorp.
Using a multiple of three to four times book value, Ms. Chamberlain said Imperial could sell for $31 to $40 a share, adding that a merger announcement is probably six to 12 months away.
Companies buying equity stakes in other companies with the idea of later acquiring them is a common strategy, market experts said.
"A toehold investment in a number of banks makes sense," said Robert J. Rogowski, principal at Columbia Financial Advisors, an investment bank in Seattle, who said that he heard speculation about Imperial last week. "If you buy an equity stake in another bank at the current price and the bank is sold, you make a profit in your investment. And if you are on the hunt and you have a stake in a company that you want to acquire that others do not have, then that gives you an edge in the bidding."
Ms. Chamberlain and other analysts said that a deal between the two banks would "make sense." U.S. Bancorp has said it will continue on its steady acquisition pace in California. The company has also made it known that it is interested in banks and not thrifts. A week ago the company said that it would buy Peninsula Bank of San Diego for $104 million. In May it announced it would purchase Western Bancorp in Newport Beach, Calif., for $907 million.
Imperial is a strong middle-market lender that focuses on technology, entertainment, and health care. It is also one of the few sizable banking companies left in California's quickly consolidating bank market. But it ran into trouble that was due to problems in its subprime lending affiliate. Imperial Bancorp sold off its remaining shares in the affiliate, Imperial Credit Industries Inc. of Torrance, Calif., in July.
If U.S. Bancorp bought Imperial, it would be "a big step forward for U.S. Bancorp in business banking," Ms. Chamberlain said, adding that U.S. Bancorp could easily expand Imperial's already strong middle-market lending. U.S Bancorp's Piper Jaffray could also help expand the company's lending relationships into lucrative initial public offering and merger and acquisition assignments, the analyst said.
Imperial's "emerging growth" lending unit has 600 high-technology, late-stage venture capital borrowers focused on software, telecommunications, and the World Wide Web, she pointed out in the report.