Liberty Bancorp stock reached new 52-week highs last week in extremely heavy trading, after executives of the Oklahoma City bank said at a meeting in New York that it was mulling a sale.
One investment banker who attended said Liberty's chief financial officer, Mischa Gorkuscha, indicated a decision on whether to sell the $2.6 billion-asset bank could be reached this fall.
The stock surged to $35.75 a share before falling back slightly by week's end. Trading volume on Tuesday and Wednesday was nearly 20 times the daily average of 20,100 shares.
While hardly surprising in an age of rapid bank consolidation, Liberty's talk of a sale marks a shift from its previous emphasis on cleansing its books of nonperforming assets dating from the 1980s oil bust.
Observers say Liberty would be a choice morsel for many expanding regional banks, including Boatmen's Bancshares, which has the No. 3 market share in Oklahoma; Norwest Corp.; and First Bank System Inc.
The apparent shift in strategy may be have been spurred by in-state rival BOK Financial Corp.'s decision to take a 5.2% stake in Liberty last May, although the Tulsa-based bank maintained the stake was for investment purposes only.
BOK seems to have bought its stake from one of Liberty's directors and largest shareholders, Robert Torray. Mr. Torray sold 489,205 shares April 28, and BOK on May 5 bought the same number of shares.
Partly as a result of last week's meetings in New York with market makers and analysts, interest in the stock has been on the rise.
"This was a company that nobody knew a lot about, but now we are starting to get more phone calls," said Scott Edgar, an analyst with Sife Trust Fund, which owns 75,000 Liberty shares.
"This means they are looking to create a higher visibility and make public their intentions of looking for alternatives for the bank," he said.
Mr. Gorkuscha said in an interview that the trip to New York and the high trading volume thereafter was nothing out of the ordinary, and that the bank had looked at "strategic alternatives" ever since its 1988 recapitalization. He dismissed the jump in trading volume, saying the stock is so thinly traded that any activity results in a huge percentage change.
Nevertheless, Tuesday and Wednesday were far and away the two most active trading days of the year - even outstripping the volume on the day BOK sparked takeover rumors by announcing it had bought the 5.2% stake.
Liberty, having recovered from last decade's disastrous energy loans, would be a logical entry vehicle into Oklahoma. Nonperforming assets are now less than 1% of all loans, down from nearly 4% in 1990. And return on assets is up past 1%, from 0.1% in 1990.
Also making Liberty attractive is an efficiency ratio that remains bloated by today's standards, at 85.71% at the end of the first quarter. This implies potential cost savings for an acquirer.