Consider a few: Talmer Bancorp, whose leading investor is vulture capital legend Wilbur Ross, has seen its assets explode by 7,763 percent over the past five years (from the second quarter of 2009 to the same period in 2014) thanks to seven bank acquisitions, four of which included government assistance, according to SNL Financial. Talmer, which now has $5.6 billion in assets, is the successor to First Michigan Bancorp and went public in 2014.
Another huge winner has been State Bank Financial, which also has scooped up seven banks and boosted its assets by 7,316 percent to $2.58 billion, according to SNL.
Each of the top 20 fastest-growing banks is in either the small- or mid-cap space, and most have used M&A as the primary engine. Several, such as FCB Financial, were established purely as shell companies to gobble up troubled banks. In all, the group has done 64 deals during the five-year period, SNL said. Of that number, 23 came with government help.
It's all been part of a trend that has seen the number of banks decline precipitously since the end of the crisis, with much of the losses coming at the community end. Total banks from the end of 2008 through the middle of 2014 fell from 7,566 to 6,164, a decline of about 18 percent.
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While on the acquisition binges, stocks in these banks have generally gained significantly yet underperformed broader bank benchmarks such as the KBW Bank Index, which is up about 150 percent over the time period.
However, when analysts look to future industry growth they see an emerging story: Slow-footed larger banks that will struggle under a regulatory yoke to be able to deploy cash easily and efficiently vs. smaller, more nimble institutions that have grown while cementing community relationships. Perhaps most importantly, the smaller institutions are the favorites of industry regulators since the too-big-to-fail nightmare of the past decade.
"The execution, the quality of services—all those factors come into play for the smaller banks, whereas the big guys can't get it done," Whalen said. "They have effectively private bankers managing relations with iPads. These people don't sit in a branch all day. They're out in the field."
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From an investing standpoint, Whalen said the opportunity is primary for the retail crowd as larger institutional investors shy away from the lightly traded stocks because they aren't liquid enough for trading purposes.
The investing choices also lie with the acquirers, as the banks being bought up are often private institutions whose shares aren't available on exchanges.
Jefferson Harralson, managing director at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, has a list of "teacher's pet" stocks that he said investors looking to cash in on the M&A movement should keep in mind. Here are a few: