Buzz about a potential sale of Comerica has died down — at least for the time being — now that a prominent activist investor has slashed its stake in the struggling energy lender.
Hudson Executive Capital — run by JPMorgan Chase alums Doug Braunstein and Jim Woolery — disclosed last week that it scaled back its investment in Dallas-based Comerica by more than half, to about 0.3%. The firm had pushed the bank in recent months to turn things around or put itself on the block.
The retreat appeared to confirm widespread doubts that the $71 billion-asset bank could find an interested buyer. Comerica said last month that it would boost returns, instead, by eliminating costs in the coming years.
More important, Comerica's highly publicized bout with Hudson has made a splash in an industry where investor complaints are typically handled behind closed doors. Equity analysts say the pressure by activists — including their very public criticism of management at Comerica's annual meeting this spring — pushed the bank to undertake a surprisingly aggressive restructuring plan.
So if there is a lesson for other underperforming banks, it's this: Take a cue from Comerica's management team and be prepared to move quickly, or even before the spotlight is turned on.
Major cost-cutting at Comerica "would have happened eventually," said Brian Klock, an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, citing its lackluster earnings in recent quarters. "But I'm not sure it would have been as accelerated."
The plan would provide a sizable boost to profits within two years, said Klock. Other regional banks, such as Zions Bancorp. and Regions Financial, have announced similar cost-cutting measures but under lower-profile circumstances.
Comerica unveiled its restructuring plan July after hiring Boston Consulting Group in April. Under the proposal, the bank expects to generate $230 million in additional income by the end of 2018 by cutting about 9% of its staff and closing about 40 of its 475 branches.
"I don't think [Comerica] would have done it as meaningfully and quickly without this pressure," said Brett Rabatin, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, discussing Hudson's impact on the company. "I don't know if they would have been as aggressive."
As Comerica embarks on the turnaround — an initiative it has called Gear Up — there is no question it has been caught in a whirlwind the last year.
Consider the recent turnover in its management team. In July 2015 Lars Anderson resigned as vice chairman of the business bank to join the $144 billion-asset Fifth Third Bancorp. Comerica named Patrick Faubion his successor at the time, but the bank disclosed this summer he will step down at yearend.
In January, Curtis Farmer — president at the bank and a likely successor for Chief Executive Ralph Babb — will assume control of the business bank, which includes the company's struggling energy business.
Additionally, Karen Parkhill resigned as chief financial officer in May to take a job with Medtronic, the medical device company in Dublin. David Duprey, previously Comerica's general auditor, succeeded Parkhill.
But many such changes at Comerica were overshadowed by speculation about potential sale.
An official from Hudson — which boosted its stake in Comerica in February — was among a number of investors who stood up during the company annual meeting in April and questioned the bank's ability to remain independent. Several investors expressed frustrations with the company's track record of dwindling returns.
During the second quarter, for instance, return on common equity dropped to 5.44% from 7.21% a year earlier. Several big banks — including MUFG Union Bank and U.S. Bancorp — were named as potential buyers.
Shares of Comerica have climbed since the beginning of the year amid the chatter about a potential sale and the activist pressure.
Comerica's stock has risen nearly 40% since early February. By comparison the KBW Bank Index has increased by about 11% over the same period.
Hudson did not respond to a request for comment, though the firm still reportedly leans toward a sale. Samlyn Capital, which had an official speak out at the annual meeting, has also dumped its shares, according to Bloomberg.
Comerica declined to comment on "what any shareholder bought or sold," a company spokesman said.
Investors, meanwhile, have been largely supportive of the bank's plan to boost returns over the next two years rather than exploring a sale. "They are doing what they can to fix the situation," Rabatin said.
Still, while the chatter about a potential sale has fizzled for now, it could return.
"Some investors are still going to say, 'You could have realized the value of this franchise,' " Rabatin said. "Some people will lament that they should have looked for a partner."