Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. — Non-Florida bankers have long viewed this state as an orange just waiting to be squeezed.
Its financial institutions -- growing rapidly in one of the sunniest economies in the nation -- are regarded as especially juicy.
So several out-of-state bankers are positioning themselves in the Florida market so that if and when Congress or Florida allows interstate banking, they will be more than tourists in the state.
For example, late last fall Chemical New York, the parent of Chemical Bank, announced it would invest in Florida National Bank, the state's fourth-largest, with the intention of buying the bank once interstate banking was permitted.
Since then, Southeast Banking Corporation, the state's largest bank, headquartered in Miami, announced it would buy Florida National for $270 million , entering into what is sure to be a long and costly legal battle for Florida National's assets. Florida National, for its part, says it would rather team up with Chemical Bank, whose bid is worth at least $315 million.
Still other banks are finding ways to get their toes wet in Florida's warm banking waters. North Carolina National Bank (NCNB), for instance, through a bank it already owns, Orlando-based Trust Company of Florida, has purchased First National Bank of Lake City, Fla. NCNB's chairman, Thomas Storrs, has indicated his bank is actively looking for ways to expand in the state. (NCNB bought the Trust Company of Florida prior to legislation preventing out-of-state banks from moving into the state.)
Continental Illinois Corporation has applied for permission to open up an industrial savings bank in Dade County. And eight banks have received permission to set up trust companies to provide personal financial services to state residents. Many of these new trust operations and applications, says Lewis Carr, a lobbyist for the Florida Bankers Association (FBA), are a way for out-of-state banks to tap the lucrative Florida market.
Realizing it couldn't hold off the out-of-state banking hordes forever, the FBA last week endorsed the introduction of interstate banking by 1987 and regional interstate banking by 1984. Legislation permitting such banking, if other states permit Florida banks to set up shop in their states as well, is working its way through the Legislature in Tallahassee. One aspect of the legislation could benefit Florida bank shareholders: Out-of-state banks could only enter the Florida market through mergers or acquisitions. Anticipating the higher Florida-bank stock prices implied by takeovers, some Wall Street analysts have been looking for potential merger targets.
''Only a year ago,'' Mr. Carr comments, ''the FBA opposed such legislation; but now it recognizes if it's going to happen it might as well take place in an orderly fashion.''
Whether Congress decides to take up legislation to allow interstate banking is another matter. Bankers here would rather see Congress permit them to underwrite money-market funds, says Hans Tews, president of Sun Bank, based in Orlando. ''This should be a priority,'' Mr. Tews says.
(Interstate banking can take place as long as individual states allow it. So far, Delaware and South Dakota permit it.)
The Federal Reserve Board must be also heard at some point. It has yet to issue an opinion on interstate banking, or any of the various interstate deals announced so far. One Wall Street analyst says the Fed wishes ''the subject would go away.''
Why have the bankers decided to doff their pin stripes for shorts in the Sunshine State?
According to Paul Mackey, an analyst at Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Inc., the bankers are interested in the state because ''it's the fastest-growing state in the country.'' Not only is the state's population increasing, but its per capita income is also rising. ''Florida is the right place to be for both the retail business and the middle-sized corporate business,'' Mr. Mackey says. ''It's no longer just a tourist-based ecomomy - there's also manufacturing.''
Analyst James Wooden of Merrill Lynch, however, tempers the enthuasiasm by noting that ''the quality of Florida's growth is slightly lower than Texas.''
John Eggemeyer, senior vice-president and chief financial officer of Chemical Bank, agrees growth is the reason the bank is trying to get its foot in the door in Florida. ''Growth is projected to be strong in Florida through the year 2000, '' he notes.
Chemical, seeking to enter the Florida market, offered $315 million for nonvoting, preferred stock in Florida National, a Jacksonville-based bank. It would have the option to buy the voting stock at 1.5 times book value, should interstate banking be allowed. But the move is temporarily enjoined by a court. Chemical's aim is to tap ''the higher end of the retail-banking market and the medium-sized corporation,'' Mr. Eggemeyer says. If the acquisition takes place, he adds, it will be only part of the bank's strategy. ''We will be moving aggressively on other fronts.''
Last April, a Venezuelan investment company, C. A. Cavendes, Sociedad Financiera, purchased 32 percent of Florida National's stock. It subsequently explored the sale of the stock to different banks. Among those seriously interested were Marine Midland, a New York bank; NCNB; Chemical Bank; and Southeast Banking Corporation.
Cavendes decided to sell its interest to Southeast, which began battling Chemical for control. The battle has turned nasty.
Among other charges, Southeast accuses Florida National Bank (FNB) officials of trying to preserve their own jobs. Southeast calls the bank's past management ''inefficient.'' It also calls a statement by Chemical that its offer has a higher ''present value'' fraudulent, since it depends on law changes. In its complaint Southeast states: ''Chemical cannot know when, if ever, it will be lawful for it to proceed to acquire ownership of (FNB), and therefore no value. . .can be definitely ascribed to a Chemical-(FNB) merger.''