“I’m from the Treasury, and I’m here to help”
Ronald Reagan famously said that the “nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’” But according to a report from SNL, the government may actually help banks when it forces them to add directors to their boards. Every bank CEO’s worst nightmare is having the government name directors to his or her board. Usually, banks pack their boards with clients or prominent people that offer prestige and potential business leads, but little substantive oversight. At the smaller banks that SNL is focusing on, that often amounts to people like the owner of the local car dealership, or the owner of the local golf equipment seller. (For a stereotypical example of a community bank’s directors, consider the board of Smithtown Bancorp, which was sagging under the weight of failed loans before being taken over by People’s United Bank in 2010.)
The Treasury, on the other hand, tends to appoint people with actual banking experience, who can do what board members are supposed to do: keep an eye on management for the benefit of shareholders. The government only does so for banks that have lost their way: the Treasury has the right to name directors to boards of banks that received bailout money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and that missed six quarters of dividend payments. Typically, these appointees are bankers with more than 20 years of experience.
By SNL’s reckoning, the banks with Treasury-appointed directors have racked up median stock gains of 50.38 percent since taking on the new board members, compared with a median gain of 28.22 percent in an index of bank stocks.
Of course there may be other reasons for this outperformance – for example, it may be that small bank stocks in general have outperformed larger bank stocks over the relevant time frame, or that relatively weak banks have been in greater demand from value investors betting on an improving economy. But it may also be that the government has found a fix for the principal-agent problem at banks that have stumbled into trouble.