For those wanting to get in or out of the Florida banking market, NationsBank Corp.'s two recent Miami acquisitions sends a clear message: Do it now.
For a buyer who wants a Florida institution with some bulk, the pickings are few. As for a seller, the high prices offered today might not last.
The result has been frenetic trading in the stock of Florida's remaining independent banks and thrifts in recent days. The stock of Seacoast Banking Corp. of Stuart, for example, surged $2 to a 52-week high of $20 in the days following NationsBank's acquisitions.
"There has been a froth of activity that has got everybody stirred up," said Dennis S. Hudson 3d, chief executive of Seacoast. "I can imagine retail investors calling their brokers and saying, 'Buy me a bank in Florida."'
The two recent NationsBank deals - for CSF Holdings Inc. and Intercontinental Bank - expand the already huge gap between the largest Florida-based bank, Barnett Banks Inc. at $41 billion of assets, and a host of small banks, nearly all of which have under $1 billion of assets.
As a result, takeover speculation now shifts to a dwindling group of institutions in the $500 million to $2 billion-asset range, including BankAtlantic Bancorp of Miami, Home Financial Corp. of Hollywood, First Palm Beach Bancorp of West Palm Beach, and Seacoast.
While most of these institutions have professed to maintaining their independence, they will likely take a harder look at their plans as a result of NationsBank's actions, analysts said.
"You have to be tempted, given this market, to consider allying yourself with a bigger player," said Thomas F. Theurkauf, senior vice president at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in New York. "The last several months have proven to be a very opportune time to sell."
Mr. Theurkauf and other analysts said that the Florida banking market is likely reaching the end of its current earnings growth cycle. Increased deposit competition and stunted loan growth anticipated in the coming quarters could result in far lower prices than what NationsBank and First Union Corp. have offered their recent targets, analysts said.
The acquisitions activity benefits the remaining independents by creating a seller's market. Home Financial intends to take advantage of this by soliciting offers next fall, it said. It converted from a mutual to a stock thrift last fall in order to have this option, it said.
But some of these small banks said that now more than ever it makes sense to remain on their own.
"Based on our size ($1.7 billion of assets), we are certainly a natural candidate," said Alan B. Levan, chief executive of BankAtlantic. "But since there are so few of us left in the state, our future is golden as an independent bank."
Mr. Levan said his bank is already benefiting from its status: displaced customers from recently acquired thrifts and banks, including Intercontinental, are already knocking on its doors.
"All I know is that our phones are ringing off the hook," he said. "These are customers that made the choice to bank with an independent community bank."
A high price, however, can apparently make even the most independent- minded bankers sing a different tune. Charles B. Stuzin, chairman and president of the $4.7 billion-asset CSF, for example, had repeatedly declared his intention to refuse takeover offers.