A Florida investment fund may be close to buying BankUnited Financial Corp., a Coral Gables thrift company that warned last month it could fail if it did not raise capital quickly.
Sources familiar with the matter say that Vanquish Capital Group LLC of Delray Beach has agreed to invest $500 million in BankUnited, gaining majority control of the $14.2 billion-asset company. Under terms yet to be finalized, toxic assets — mainly payment option adjustable-rate mortgages — would be removed from BankUnited's balance sheet and housed in a vehicle co-run by Vanquish.
The private-equity groups W.L. Ross & Co. LLC and Cerberus Capital Management LP are also said to be part of the investment group.
Messages left Wednesday for officials at BankUnited and Vanquish were not returned.
The deal, if it goes through, would dramatially change BankUnited's fortunes — and perhaps protect the Deposit Insurance Fund from another costly failure.
With defaults on option ARMs piling up, BankUnited has been seeking to raise roughly $400 million of capital since last spring. It said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing last month that it was negotiating with potential investors, but it warned that it may not ultimately find the capital it needs to avoid insolvency.
"We are in negotiations with a fund to raise capital and restructure our balance sheet," BankUnited said in the Dec. 16 filing. "If such negotiations are not successful, there is substantial doubt about our ability to continue as a going concern."
That same day it said it expected to report a loss of $327 million for its fiscal fourth quarter, which ended Sept. 30. It lost nearly $118 million a quarter earlier.
Sources said a Vanquish deal for BankUnited would involve no government assistance, though regulatory officials are encouraging the parties.
A spokesman for the Office of the Thrift Supervision, which would have to sign off on the new owner, said Wednesday that he was unaware of a deal, and that the regulator had not received any applications.
As the financial crisis has unfolded, the three largest institutions to fail have been thrifts — the $307 billion-asset Washington Mutual Bank, the $31 billion-asset IndyMac Bank, and the $12.8 billion-asset Downey Savings and Loan. Wamu and Downey in particular were done in largely by defaults on option ARMs.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has absorbed loan losses at many failed institutions to make the companies more appealing to potential buyers. BankUnited's troubled assets would be separated, as well, but in this case, they would be put into a private-sector structured investment vehicle.
According to its Web site, Vanquish specializes in the structured credit and fixed-income markets. Its interest in BankUnited, the largest banking or thrift company based in Florida, is another sign of private equity's mounting pursuit of distressed bank assets.
The agreement could also give hope to several other banking companies that have said recently that their days could be numbered if they fail to secure investments.
This month the FDIC announced that it had a deal in place to sell IndyMac, which failed in July, to a consortium of investors led by Steve Mnuchin, the head of Dune Capital Management LP.
Regulators, eager to keep the government from having to manage a glut of assets, have already loosened some requirements to get more nonbank players into the industry.
"OTS, in particular, and all the regulators generally are pushing very hard to bring new capital into the system, probably for a lot of reasons, number one being the uncertainty in the economy environment, and number two in showing Congress and the American people progress in recapitalizing the industry," said Kip Weissman, a partner at Luse Gorman Pomerenk & Schick PC in Washington.
"By and large … public markets are closed for most bank capital raises. So where do you look? Private-equity money is there," he said.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently created a "shelf charter" to allow potential buyers to be pre-approved for charter authority, and the FDIC said it would modify the process for qualifying bidders on failed banks to draw more potential buyers.
"There is no doubt that the primary regulators continue to look at new sources of capital for the industry," said Stuart Stein, a partner at Hogan & Hartson LLP, who heads the law firm's financial services and corporate governance groups. "Private equity and other specialty finance parties are certainly looking at banks as being a good route for alternative funding sources for their business."
BankUnited's shares closed at 30 cents Wednesday, down 5.5%.