By Jake Bernstein
U.S. Century Bank rocketed into being in 2002, with investors pouring in $30 million over three months. Four years later, the Miami-based bank boasted assets of more than $1 billion, had consistently shown a profit, and had won plaudits from banking analysts such as BauerFinancial and glowing reviews from The Miami Herald and other local media.
In 2009, as the financial crisis hit, the bank received a vote of confidence from the federal government when it won a $50.2 million loan under the federal Trouble Assets Relief Program, or TARP — money earmarked for healthy banks. It was the most TARP money given to a single Florida bank. “This represents an important recognition for U.S. Century Bank as it acknowledges our strength, stability and good standing as a strong and healthy financial institution,” said Ramon Rasco, the bank’s chairman in a press release announcing the TARP loan.
In fact, U.S. Century was ailing when it received the TARP loan. Today, U.S. Century teeters on the edge of collapse as it operates under an extraordinary consent order, issued in June by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Sweeping in scope, the consent order demands an overhaul including changes in top executives, a review of all loans, implementation of a program to guard against money laundering, and an increase in the bank’s capital.
The rise and fall of U.S. Century, while certainly more extreme than most banks, exemplifies the fast-and-loose banking culture that led to the financial crisis, which continues to drag down the U.S. and world economy. It also epitomizes both the failure to regulate the banking sector during the pre-crisis boom years and the slipshod approach to the bailout that followed the bust. Above all, it’s about losers and winners. The losers are taxpayers and local residents grappling with the ill effects of suburban sprawl. The winners appear to be a group of wealthy and politically connected businessmen who created a bank that served as their own corporate ATM, funneling tens of millions of dollars to ventures in which they had a stake.
“Insider loans” — loans to directors or officers of the bank — at their peak exceeded 94 percent of U.S. Century’s total equity capital. While high levels of insider lending are not uncommon in the early years of a bank startup, at U.S. Century they continued for years. Many of these loans were for speculative real estate projects, some of which are now defunct or gravely troubled.
Compared to all commercial banks in the United States, U.S. Century was in the top 7 percent for insider loans as a proportion of total loans, according to an analysis of insider lending from 2005 through June 2011 done for ProPublica by banking analyst Trepp LLC. During 2005, the bank had one of its most prolific periods of insider lending; it was in the top quarter of one percent, ranking 20th out of 7,954 commercial banks in the nation at that time.
|Note: In the second quarter of 2005, there were 7,954 commercial banks; in 2011 there were 6,776.Sources: Call Reports/Trepp LLC|
U.S. Century declined to answer specific questions from ProPublica due to their “tenor” which it believes indicated a “very negative agenda.”
Instead it responded to repeated requests for comment with a statement that read in part:
“Recognized as one of the largest community banks remaining in this region, we are proud to have helped many business owners establish and grow their businesses and have played an important role in fueling South Florida’s economy. As with most banks, since the beginning of this economic recession, we have been impacted by declining real estate values. Some of the banks affected by the recession, including the nation’s largest banks, were eligible for and received TARP funds. We were one of those institutions and the US Treasury approved our application strictly on the merits.”
Insider loans constituted only one red flag that was visible by 2009. By August of that year, when the first TARP disbursement landed at the bank, U.S. Century had higher nonperforming and delinquent loans compared to a peer group of banks that only had domestic offices and assets of $1 billion or more. It had set aside less for loan losses than its peers. Its concentration in construction and commercial real estate loans — key sources of problems for small banks — was particularly high.
“It is hard to imagine a more obviously reckless and foolish use of TARP funds than U.S. Century in 2009,” says Richard Newsom, a former FDIC bank examiner who has looked at the bank’s public financials. “Contrary to TARP guidelines, this bank was in deep, likely fatal, trouble when it received TARP funds. It should have been subject to an enforcement action in mid 2009, not awarded $50 million in taxpayer dollars.”
Indeed, almost as soon as U.S. Century received the TARP money, its financials plummeted. Net income plunged to negative $44 million by the end of the 2009. Loan losses went up to $186 million from $108 million in September. Capital set aside as reserves also dropped, while the bank’s reliance on risky brokered deposits, called “hot money” because it is short-term and flighty, grew. Within three months of U.S. Century receiving the TARP funds in August 2009, Treasury officials were exchanging emails discussing the likelihood that the bank would not make its first dividend payment. The bank paid a dividend to the Treasury Department that November of $745,312, but as of June 2011 it had missed more than $4 million in payments to Treasury, according to a report from the TARP inspector general.
U.S. Century is headquartered in Miami-Dade County, an area with a rich history of real estate bubbles and financial excesses. Six Miami-Dade-based banks have failed since the most recent financial crisis began, according to the FDIC’s failed bank list.
The FDIC, as the primary federal regulator of U.S. Century, performed a viability study on the bank and approved its application to receive the $50.2 million TARP loan. The FDIC won’t release information about their examinations of U.S. Century, making it hard to know if the agency had concerns about the health of U.S. Century or to evaluate the merits of granting the bank a TARP loan. The Treasury Department released some documents relating to the TARP loan, and they do not indicate any concerns.
The FDIC also won’t say if any enforcement agreement existed with the bank prior to the June 2011 consent order.
The FDIC does not comment on an “open and operating” bank nor on TARP deliberations, says agency spokesman David Barr. As for U.S. Century’s TARP loan, he said, “It is Treasury that makes the ultimate decision on TARP funding.”
A spokesman for the Treasury said, “As a matter of practice we don’t comment on specific institutions.”
Tangled Web of Insider Loans
The men behind U.S. Century were not new to banking. While they were primarily real estate developers, they had founded a previous bank in Miami called Ready State. They built the bank through the 1990s, until it had assets of about $600 million. Then the group sold it to Union Planters Bank (now Regions Financial Corporation) in 1998 for an undisclosed sum.
In 2002, when about 400 investors cobbled together the initial $22 million to launch U.S. Century, the offering went so quickly that the bank rapidly raised another $8 million, making it one of the most successful efforts at raising capital for a startup bank in Florida history. A second stock offering in 2003 raised an additional $37.2 million. By the end of 2006, it had more than a billion dollars in assets and net income of $13 million.
One of the driving forces behind the meteoric early growth of U.S. Century was Sergio Pino, who served as vice-chair of the bank’s board of directors. Pino owns the shiny seven-floor office building that houses U.S. Century. The building, which Pino built for about $15 million and completed in 2007, also serves as the headquarters for his real estate development company Century Homebuilders of South Florida. A search of Florida corporate records reveals more than 100 companies in which Sergio Pino is listed as an officer. The companies feature names such as Century Prestige I, Century Prestige II, Century Prestige III, Century Five Inc., Century Six Inc., Century Park II, Century Land Development Corporation, Century Shopping Centers and Century 77 Acres. While not all of the companies have the word “century” in the name, the majority do.
Pino did not respond to numerous requests to comment.
Pino’s companies have often received insider loans from U.S. Century. Unraveling how much money his companies have received is virtually impossible through a search of public records, but the outlines of some loans can be reconstructed.
In January 2010, Pino and his wife signed an agreement with U.S. Century that lists previous loans they received from the bank — one for $1.63 million and another for $6.45 million — both for a development called Century Laguna on a commercial block in Coral Gables. The bank also executed what the agreement calls a “future advance, consolidation, mortgage modification and spreader agreement” in December 2006 worth $15.73 million. Separately, the bank made a personal loan to Pino related to the property for $500,000.
In other examples, the bank director’s role is not as clear cut.
In 2005, a firm called 46 Acres, Limited Liability Company, acquired a property at the edge of Miami-Dade County, with plans to turn it into a thriving subdivision. An affidavit filed with the county lists Pino as a member of the firm’s management committee. It’s the only record publicly available online in which Pino’s name appears associated with the transaction. In March 2007, U.S. Century Bank issued a loan to 46 Acres, LLC for $26.2 million with $209.8 million available. The property was used as collateral for the loan.
Three years later in September 2010, 46 Acres was dissolved, according to corporate records. Today, the property the failed company once owned is an enormous empty lot surrounded by chain link fences. Across the street are low-income neighborhoods. On the property sits a rusting open-sided warehouse. Outside the fence stands a for-sale sign. The land is owned by U.S. Century, according to a real estate agent associated with it and an adjacent property owner, part of a growing portfolio of troubled real estate assets owned by the bank.
Calls to Jose Boschetti, the only person listed in corporate records as an officer of 46 Acres, were not returned.
These transactions are typical of those that can be found in public records. Pino or other bank officers are often connected to companies that receive loans from U.S. Century. Public records show the bank loaned millions of dollars to bank officers, their family members and companies associated with both.
In March of this year, Pino resigned from the board. He told the South Florida Business Journal, “My company needs me,” referring to his real estate development firm. He also said that his loans from U.S. Century were being paid on time.
Development v. the Environment
Many of U.S. Century’s insider loans appear to be for real estate development projects, placing the bank and its officers smack in the middle of one of Florida’s hottest controversies: suburban development versus conservation of one of America’s preeminent natural resources, the Everglades.
At least six of the bank’s current or past directors have pushed to expand Miami’s urban development boundary, and several own sizeable tracts outside the boundary. Put in place to safeguard the Everglades and to funnel growth to the urban core, the boundary has been steadily eroded by the county commission, to the chagrin of environmentalists. Two U.S. Century directors won approval to build up to the boundary in 1999 as part of a development. A few years later, several of the bank’s directors, including Pino, were also involved in a proposed 961-acre residential development in western Miami-Dade County called Parkland that would have required moving the boundary line. After the housing bust the Parkland proposal seems stalled.
Alan Farago, conservation chair of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Everglades, said U.S. Century’s executives “figured out how to mesh the large gears of finance to the smaller gears of local zoning and permitting; in other words creating an entire apparatus to gin up growth at the expense of the Everglades.”
Many of U.S. Century’s officers have been prolific political donors. In the ten years of the bank’s existence, the directors have given more than $350,000 for federal races alone, with most of the money going to Republicans. No U.S. Century director has ever been charged with legal wrongdoing related to campaign financing, but the bank itself was involved in a controversial transaction with Marco Rubio before he became Florida’s junior senator.
Rubio received a loan in 2006 from the bank while serving as Florida’s state house speaker. A story broken by the Miami Herald in April 2008 revealed that the bank lent Rubio a home equity loan of $135,000 shortly after he bought his house. Rubio had purchased his home for $550,000. But a month after buying it, the house was appraised at $735,000. The $185,000 gain in equity in just 37 days paved the way for the U.S. Century loan. Rubio initially failed to disclose the loan on his public financials. Rubio and U.S. Century have consistently denied wrongdoing.
Struggling to Survive
Since receiving the TARP loan in 2009, U.S. Century has been on a sharp downward slide.
A bank spokesman said U.S. Century CEO Octavio Hernández is scouring the U.S. and international sources for capital. The consent order that was signed in June lays out timetables by which it must comply with the various demands, such as four months to raise capital, two months to implement a conflict of interest policy and two months to establish new procedures to monitor money laundering. Those timetables have come due. “We have complied with many of the requirements of our consent order and we will continue to comply with and satisfy all of its requirements,” the bank said in its statement to ProPublica.
In June, BauerFinancial gave U.S. Century its lowest rating, a zero, the last step before failure.
The picture the BauerFinancial report paints is grim. Commercial real estate represents more than half of the bank’s portfolio compared to less than 14 percent for similar banks. Nonperforming assets as a percentage of total assets is almost 14 percent for U.S. Century compared to less than 3 percent for peers. At the end of June, the bank reported almost $373 million in loans that were either nonperforming or were 30 days past due. The Texas ratio, a formula that measures nonperforming assets against capital and reserves is 237 percent compared to 26 percent for its peer group.
“When the Texas ratio substantially exceeds 100 percent, there is a high correlation with future failure,” says Newsom, the former FDIC bank examiner.
The FDIC consent order mandates that U.S. Century increase its total capital by a little more than $57 million, according to a review by banking analyst Trepp. This does not include the $50 million it also owes TARP. The bank is trying to sell off its foreclosed property, but it is taking considerable losses. It recently sold a half-acre site on trendy Fisher Island for $2.4 million, 40 percent less than the mortgage it foreclosed, according to the South Florida Business Journal. If the bank does not comply with the FDIC mandates or is unable to raise capital, it could be pushed into a forced sale or taken over by the FDIC. Either way, the agency would probably end up taking losses on the bad loans in addition to the $50.2 million in TARP money taxpayers would lose.