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Buyer Community> Trade Intelligence> Financial Markets> INTERVIEW-UPDATE 3-BankUnited sees opportunity in property bust
Source: Reuters

INTERVIEW-UPDATE 3-BankUnited sees opportunity in property bust

Published: 24 May 2009 17:27:39 PST

* New BankUnited CEO says there are no "panicky customers"

* CEO, banking veteran John Kanas, says no layoffs planned

* Sees big opportunity in collapsed Miami property market (Adds details of consortium stakes, regulator comments)

MIAMI, May 22 - The collapsed Miami property market that helped trigger the failure of BankUnited presents a big opportunity for the recapitalized Florida-based lender in the hands of new owners, its chief executive said on Friday.

BankUnited's 85 branches reopened to "business as usual" after the U.S. government closed the bank on Thursday and sold it to investors, and there was no sign of panic among customers, said banking industry veteran John Kanas, who also took over as BankUnited Financial Corp chairman.

Bank regulators seized the lender and sold it to some of the most powerful private equity firms in the world, including WL Ross & Co, Carlyle Group, Blackstone Group, and Centerbridge Partners. They put up $900 million of capital in the rescue.

Trading in the stock was halted on the NASDAQ exchange on Friday.

Ross, Carlyle and Blackstone each took stakes of between 20 percent and 24.9 percent, a source familiar with the consortium told Reuters on Friday.

The failure is the largest this year, and will cost the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp an estimated $4.9 billion.

The failed BankUnited, the largest Florida-based bank, had $12.8 billion of assets and $8.6 billion of deposits. A congressional aide told Reuters that BankUnited also backdated capital contributions last year that allowed the bank to make its financial books look healthier.

Kanas told Reuters in an interview that the bank's collapse was rooted in a "toxic" mortgage product called a payment option ARM and was closely linked to the Miami property bust, which has seen house and condo values plunge following a boom that doubled prices in the space of a few years.

"It certainly bears heavily on their problems," Kanas said. "I couldn't quantify it and give you the numbers but certainly a great deal of the erosion of this credit product is directly linked to the rapid decline, precipitous even, of real estate values in the Miami area."

"STAGGERING" LOSSES

BankUnited's prior management issued $10 billion in option ARMs, believing the product could serve as the foundation for expansion, said Kanas, the former head of North Fork Bank.

"That product turned out to be highly toxic and brought with it a staggering amount of losses. That was really associated more with their mortgage company and their mortgage origination group," he said. "It had little to do with the bank, but it took the bank down with it."

About 15 percent of those loans, $1.5 billion, was targeted at Latin American buyers looking to invest in the once-booming Miami property market, he said.

Kanas said the new BankUnited would stick with its core strength, as a local lender.

"A lot of that (toxic) lending was done out of state and that's certainly where the larger mistakes were made," he said. "We intend to do none of that."

The precipitous decline of property values in Miami has created "significant" opportunities for such a lender, but BankUnited's new management team had not set any specific target for local lending, Kanas said.

BankUnited, a smaller player in a Florida market dominated by giants like Bank of America and Wachovia, now has an advantage over competitors because it is "overcapitalized" and completely independent, with no federal government TARP money.

"We don't expect this market to pick up any time soon," he added. "But there are a lot more lending opportunities now that values have been substantially deflated."

Florida banks are still seeing loan losses, but are generally weathering the downturn well, said Linda Charity, director of Florida's Division of Financial Institutions, which oversees state-chartered banks.

"In some parts of the state, we're starting to hear that maybe we're close to finding a bottom," she said.

Kanas said BankUnited plans no immediate layoffs among its workforce of 1,100.

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