Lawsuit Could Stall Thrift Conversions

Article excerpt

Lawsuit Could Stall Thrift Conversions

Two depositors in Bell Federal Savings have filed a lawsuit that could have far-reaching implications for thrifts that intend to raise capital by converting to stock-company form.

The conversion of depositor-owned thrifts to stock institutions has been the thrift industry's primary conduit of capital this year. During the first nine months, 43 mutual thrifts together raised $511.4 million of equity through initial public offerings of common stock.

Alleging that managers of Chicago's Bell Federal have disguised their true purpose and understated asset values, the lawsuit asks a federal judge to halt plans for conversion. The depositors claim that the deal is intended to "take" the institution's $159 million of equity "without compensation and to place much of it in the hands of senior management."

OTS Is Concerned

An adverse ruling would be "bad news for the one program bringing capital into the thrift industry," said Rosemary Stewart, the former director of enforcement for the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Normally, corporations try to maximize the proceeds of a stock offering. But in a thrift conversion, the price may be set a bit low to to increase the likelihood that investors, mostly depositors, employees, and insiders, will show a profit after the issue is distributed. Without such pricing, conversions could be more difficult under some market conditions.

In fact, some advisers argue that a period of weak prices may be the best time to do a conversion.

What riled the two Bell Federal depositors were the terms of the proposed conversion. Although no outside group of depositors can buy more than a 1% stake in successor Bell Bancorp, directors and officers could walk offwith 14.5% of the stock in the restructured company.

Imbalance Charged

Any appreciation in the newly issued shares, therefore, would disproportionately reward insiders, said Aron Robinson, a lawyer representing Bell depositors. And an apparent undervaluation of a key asset seems certain to provoke such an outcome, his clients allege.

For example, management values the lease on its downtown headquarters at $2.5 million; the two litigants, $25 million.

It was this sort of apparent pricing disparity that touched off controversy in the June conversion of Cragin Federal Bank for Savings, also of Chicago. …