‘Everybody Else Left or They Died:’ California Bank Grows Simply by Surviving

From his office just outside Los Angeles, Dominic Ng watched as California banks fell like dominoes — first crypto-friendly Silvergate Capital Corp. down near San Diego in early March, then Silicon Valley Bank up north days later, followed by San Francisco’s First Republic Bank at the beginning of May.

(Bloomberg) — From his office just outside Los Angeles, Dominic Ng watched as California banks fell like dominoes — first crypto-friendly Silvergate Capital Corp. down near San Diego in early March, then Silicon Valley Bank up north days later, followed by San Francisco’s First Republic Bank at the beginning of May.

Once the regional-banking turmoil eased, Ng found himself head of the biggest surviving California-chartered bank. The deposit base at his Pasadena-based East West Bancorp Inc. grew by $921.4 million, or 2%, in the months after the collapse of its peers. With $68.5 billion in total assets, East West is the only state bank with more than $50 billion in assets, a level that triggers closer scrutiny by state regulators.

“I didn’t grow that much,” Ng, 64, said in an interview shortly before crosstown rival PacWest Bancorp agreed to a takeover by smaller competitor Banc of California Inc. as part of the fallout from this year’s upheaval. “It’s just that everybody else left, or they died.” 

It marks further growth for East West, which started out in 1973 as a small thrift catering to Chinese immigrants. Under Ng’s three-decade tenure as chairman and chief executive officer, it’s evolved into a conduit for commerce between the US and China. The failures of its fellow California lenders, meanwhile, reduces options for businesses seeking access to capital and financial services in the most populous US state.

Despite being the country’s largest economy, California has fewer regional banks than Georgia, and total assets in California-chartered lenders stand at about the same level as those in Utah banks. While banking giant Wells Fargo & Co. is headquartered in San Francisco, it operates under a national charter, meaning state regulators have little oversight of the lender and the firm is less hyper-focused on local clients.

“When you have a bank in the state, you’re going to have more deals in the state,” said Mehrsa Baradaran, a banking law professor at the University of California at Irvine. “It’s a loss of taxes, of expertise and the types of sophisticated regional deals that you want to be making.”

East West is well-positioned for growth after the tumult, said Jared Shaw, a Wells Fargo analyst who has an overweight rating on the bank, the equivalent of a buy recommendation. Along with strong liquidity and capital, East West isn’t hamstrung by the stricter capital rules set to kick in for banks with more than $100 billion in assets.

“If you look at their profitability, you look at their strong growth profile and their funding, they’re in a good position,” Shaw said in an interview.

This year’s turmoil is only the latest in a years-long contraction for California’s banking sector. Ng himself has scooped up rivals, with East West acquiring more than a half a dozen competitors since the company began trading in early 1999. In 2009, Ng took over San Francisco-based United Commercial Bank, adding $10.4 billion in assets.

East West now has more than 120 locations in the US and Asia, operating in markets including New York, Texas and Massachusetts in the US, and Shanghai and Shenzhen in China. The bank had more than 3,000 employees, including 230 in China and Hong Kong, as of Dec. 31.

East West shares rose 0.8% to $53.41 at 9:52 a.m. in New York, and have declined 28% in the past year, compared with a 7.8% decline for the S&P 400 Midcap Financials Index.

Ng said his bank is now in a “sweet spot” to expand into new business areas abandoned by lenders including Silicon Valley Bank and First Republic.

“For decades we’ve been competing with some very competitive neighborhood bankers out there,” he said on an earnings conference call last month. “Today they’re gone. So we have just so much less competition.”

In the second quarter, earnings per share rose to $2.20, up 21% from a year earlier. It missed analysts’ expectations by a just a penny, and the results indicate that East West isn’t feeling the sort of pain that’s hit some of Ng’s competitors.

As East West’s prominence has grown, Ng has become one of California’s best-known bankers. He was appointed to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Advisory Council a year ago, and he’s been photographed at celebrity-studded events. Within the entertainment industry, his bank is known for financing films including the Oscar-wining Everything Everywhere All at Once and television hits Yellowstone and Orange Is the New Black.

“East West Bank has specialized experience and expertise in the Asian media space, especially China, so they’re very helpful in working with us on projects in the region,” said Brian Goldsmith, chief operating officer at Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., which produced Orange Is the New Black.

But as Ng has become better-known, he has also come under attack from Congressional Republicans, including Lance Gooden of Texas and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, accusing him of ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Democrats have rallied behind Ng, who was born in Hong Kong and is a naturalized US citizen, dismissing the accusations as “profiling” and the type of claims “trafficked on extreme-right outlets with extensive histories of spreading misinformation.”

Ng declined to comment. He’s told LAist that the accusations are baseless and “disheartening.”

Outside of political attacks, Ng has also faced skepticism from analysts who had questioned his conservative approach to capital allocations — a strategy that has helped his bank weather decades of ups and downs in the banking industry and survive this year’s turmoil. 

“You don’t know how many times I went through an earnings call or maybe a meeting with a portfolio manager or analyst that just browbeat me to death,” Ng said. “I usually just took the beating and moved on.”

(Updates with share price in 11th paragraph.)

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