Gauging the current bank M&A market takes perspective.
Investment bankers and others have cursed their crystal balls for months that deal activity has fallen short of bullish expectations. Plenty of impediments lie ahead. Those points aren't news.
But to be fair, many of the key stats in bank M&A are up — even if modestly so.
The number of deals, their dollar values and pricing data have risen in 2012, according to a report from Wunderlich Securities on Thursday.
There were 79 open-bank deals through May 31, up from 65 at this point in 2011, the report says. There hadn't been that many deals from January to May since 2007, when there were 127.
Meanwhile, deal values through May 31 were $3.96 billion, or up 38% from a year earlier.
The median deal price through the end of May was $27.8 million, more than double the $10.5 million median figure during the comparable period last year.
Those valuation figures are slightly surprising, considering that through April it looked like the story for the year would be that the number of deals would rise but the values drop compared with last year because the sellers had been small.
No doubt the increase in the number of deals worth $50 million or more last month — to six, including Hilltop Holdings' $520 million offer for PlainsCapital — had an impact.
Pricing has improved by at least two key measures, too: the median price-to-tangible-book value paid for a bank through May 31 was 1.2 times, compared with 1.1 times in the same period in 2011.
The median price-to-earnings paid, in turn, has fallen to 20.2 times from 22.9 times. If buyers are paying higher multiples to equity but lower multiples to earnings, that suggests that earnings are improving.
Pricing is still low by historical standards, but the improvement is notable, says Jeremy Lucas, an analyst with Wunderlich.
So, do these upticks through spring mean the big consolidation wave is upon us? Not exactly.
Wunderlich is forecasting that full-year 2012 deal volume will likely be on par with the 162 deals that occurred in 2011, he says. Activity will slow amid weak job growth, fears about the European banking crisis and uncertainty over which party will be in power next year, he says. All those factors can weaken demand for bank stocks, which, in turn, can suppress bankers' appetite for dealmaking.
"It basically looks like we're going to go through the same thing we went through the last two summers," he says. "Greece has become kind of a concern again."
Wunderlich earlier this year had forecast as many as 200 deals occurring.
Thomas Michaud, the chief executive at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said that while activity seems to be occurring in fits and starts, the net result is that the industry is still shrinking.
Speaking at American Banker's M&A Symposium last month in New York, Michaud reiterated that last year's deal total (KBW counted 170 last year, slightly more than Wunderlich did) was the lowest since at least 1980. But he noted that deal activity was ahead of last year's pace and predicted there would be 186 deals this year.
"The certainty is that the industry is always consolidating," he said in trying to put the bank M&A market in perspective. "The question is at what pace."