As would-be buyers sift through targets in Pennsylvania and New York, banks in some sleepier parts of those states have a new cachet.
Rural regions, mostly to the west, could benefit from a surge in economic development over the next 20 years, thanks to the Marcellus Shale, which experts consider one of the world's biggest natural gas fields. Though it's the big banks that are working with energy companies, smaller institutions still expect huge opportunities, some risks aside, to serve ancillary businesses and consumers.
"I think banks that are in that market, for the first time in a long time, can garner a greater multiple because of their location along the shale," said Jason O'Donnell, an analyst at Boenning & Scattergood Inc.
Many of these banks are already getting set to capitalize on an industry that, by one estimate, could create 212,000 jobs and generate $18.8 billion in economic value by 2020 in Pennsylvania alone.
"This has the potential of being something really unbelievable," Stephen Gurgovits, the president of F.N.B. Bancorp in Hermitage, Pa., said in an interview this week.
Earlier this month, F.N.B. bought Comm Bancorp of Clarks Summit, Pa., improving its access to drilling activities near Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, two cities on the eastern edge of the shale that are expected, along with Williamsport and Pittsburgh to the west, to receive the biggest economic benefits. Analysts said such deals will become more common as drilling activities pick up.
Long overshadowed by the Philadelphia-dominated markets to the Southeast, which had stronger economic growth and higher median household income, the more rural parts of Pennsylvania are now getting more attention from buyers, O'Donnell said. "It's sort of leveling the playing field in Pennsylvania."
The shale formation stretches in a northwesterly direction from West Virginia up to the eastern part of central New York. Although the shale's existence has been known for decades, new drilling technology and updated estimates about the shale's size have led to a flood of activity in the past two years.
Pennsylvania is the focal point for now. New York also has considerable potential, but the state still has a moratorium on the type of drilling required to access the shale's deep-gas reserves.
"It's been a depressed area following the collapse of the steel industry … so this has really allowed the area to revitalize itself," said David Darst, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities Inc.
Researchers at Penn State University said the shale — believed to contain up to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — could lead to decades of drilling, and have an effect similar to that of the Barnett or Haynesville shales, located in the northeast corner of Texas.
"I think the relative size of this could be much larger," Darst said.
F.N.B., S&T Bancorp Inc. and First Commonwealth Financial Co., both in Indiana, Pa., and Northwest Bancshares Inc. in Warren, have the greatest exposure and stand to benefit the most, Darst said. WesBanco Inc. in Wheeling, W.Va., and First Niagara Financial Group, Community Bank System Inc. and NBT Bancorp, all in New York, also have significant access, he said.
Large energy and oil service firms such as Halliburton, Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources have made sizable investments, with financing from big banks and foreign firms.
Community banks are taking the lead serving suppliers, trucking firms, construction companies, warehouses, hotels, restaurants and others.
Some also expect wealth management opportunities, as landowners collect millions of dollars for letting energy firms drill.
"The smaller banks will be feeding off the ancillary businesses in much the same way that, with the California Gold rush, it wasn't necessarily the miners that made a lot of money, but Levi Strauss sure did selling the pants to them," said Rick Weiss, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott. "The smaller banks will be able to take advantage."
Bankers said they are seeing benefits.
Mark Tryniski, the chief executive at Community Bank System, said during an October conference call that deposits at the bank's branches in northeast Pennsylvania had grown markedly — in some cases by double digits.
In a third-quarter earnings call, Todd Brice, S&T's president, said commercial real estate vacancies were declining, manufacturing activity was picking up, companies were hiring again and car sales had been strong.
Rents have doubled in some counties where drilling has occurred and housing is scarce. Gurgovits at F.N.B. said it's nearly impossible to find hotel rooms, which are booked months — and sometimes years — in advance for companies to house temporary drilling workers brought in from Texas and Oklahoma.
"For the first time, it's giving western Pennsylvania a real economic opportunity that we haven't had in the past," Gurgovits said.
Analysts said the shale phenomenon is likely to affect acquisitions first as banks expand into markets where drilling is taking place.
After its recent expansion, Gurgovits said F.N.B. is eyeing deals near Pittsburgh, where drilling is also concentrated.
Some companies are planning for the potential of new drilling. Community Bank System announced a deal in October to buy Wilber Corp. in Oneonta — the heart of the shale region in New York — with hopes that the state will soon lift its drilling moratorium.
The strategy does pose risks.
Tim Kelsey, an agricultural economics professor at Penn State, said it's unclear how long the development could last or how many wells can be drilled.
Environmental groups have also raised concerns, about the impact on water quality, wildlife and vegetation in the remote locations where the wells are built.
"What we don't know long-run is, since this is resource-based economic development, when the gas is gone, the gas is going to be gone," Kelsey said. "So are businesses and others going to be using business in ways that, when the gas is gone, the communities are better off? Or are they going to be focused on the short run?"
O'Donnell said that to combat some of the uncertainty, he would like to see more specifics from banks on how they plan to capitalize on the drilling industry, rather than simply relying on a general boost from improving economic conditions.
"There isn't a lot of discussion … about how to kind of benefit from the energy side," O'Donnell said. "It's sort of a very loose, vague strategy."