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By Michael Kon, CFA

Wilshire Bancorp (NASDAQ:WIBC) is one of our favorite turnaround plays in regional banking. With a new management team at the helm, plenty of reserves for loan losses, and a record level of capital, Wilshire is positioned to return to high profitability. While its focus on the Korean-American market isolates it from the competitive pressures of mainstream banks, its low-cost operating model serves it well when competing with other ethnic banks. The stock trades nearly 40% below our fair value estimate, an unwarranted discount considering Wilshire's successful turnaround and the quality of its franchise.

Wilshire entered the financial crisis and the Great Recession in a slightly better shape than most California banks of a similar size. The bank had more capital and fewer problem loans than many peers and in June 2009, was even chosen by the FDIC to acquire the failed Mirae Bank, a privilege reserved only for banks that score high on periodic regulatory reviews.

However, in early 2009, the bank's nonperforming loans began to creep up and by 2010, the level of nonperforming loans exceeded that of most peers. While Mirae Bank came with a sizable portfolio of nonperforming loans, Wilshire's legacy loans also started to weaken, becoming a major cause for concern. What exacerbated the problem, in our view, was management's lack of action in light of the worsening credit quality. While Wilshire's peers were selling bad credit and jettisoning weak assets at market prices, management stayed put and failed to introduce a credible loan workout plan.

As a result of management's neglect to address the bank's problem loans, during the second half of 2009 and through 2010 nonperforming loans trended well above its ethnic peers and other California banks. Even more troubling was management's failure in managing the bank's capital. Despite the mounting credit problems, Wilshire's management ignored the bank's growing need to raise capital and continued to argue that capital wasn't an issue because regulatory capital ratios were still above the official requirements. While nonperforming loans were rising, the bank's common equity plunged almost 40%.

To make matters worse, Wilshire was bleeding capital when most of its California peers were building their own. By the first quarter of 2011, Wilshire's tangible common equity deteriorated to half of the level reported by most peers, reaching 3.9% of total tangible assets--a troubling level, in our view. The bank's regulators noticed the deterioration in Wilshire's financial health and slapped it with a memorandum of understanding, a regulatory action reserved for banks that exhibit financial weakness.

Despite Credit Woes, Wilshire's Business Model Was Never Broken

Despite its credit woes, we think Wilshire still has a viable and attractive business model. Underwriting practices aside, Wilshire's focus on the Korean-American population in Southern California provides it with several advantages over mainstream banks: Unlike the general population, the bank's clients value the relationship with an ethnic bank and usually don't shop around for the best available rate. Wilshire's clients tend to be more entrepreneurial than the general population; the rate of small-business owners among the bank's clients is double the U.S. average. Most of the bank's clients live in proximity to one another, reducing the need to build many branches. The Korean-American population is more educated than the general U.S. population, which leads to a higher saving rate (double the U.S. average) among the bank's clients; since clients tend to keep a sizable portion of their savings in CDs, the bank benefits from a stable deposit base. Serving the Korean-American population enables Wilshire to benefit from trade with South Korea, America's sixth-largest trading partner. We think these advantages led Wilshire to earn higher returns on assets during the period that preceded the financial crisis and could help it return to profitability once credit issues are fully resolved.

Turnaround Efforts Bear Fruit

After sitting on its hands during 2010, Wilshire's board finally woke up in early 2011 and launched an aggressive turnaround program to resolve its credit issues. In February, Wilshire replaced its CEO. Jae Whan Yoo joined Wilshire after successfully leading one of its largest competitors through a similar credit turnaround. In May, the bank raised $100 million by issuing new shares to the public. This doubled the bank's common equity and boosted its capital ratios to record levels. In September, the bank appointed Jack Choi as its new chief credit officer.

Also during 2011, Wilshire changed its credit risk management: It separated the loan production and underwriting functions, established an enterprise risk management department, created a cross-team credit task force to improve credit quality and reduce problem assets, and increased its in-house lending limit to single borrowers. With these actions, Wilshire scrapped its previous underwriting practices and adopted a more robust credit culture. We think this had an immediate impact on the bank's performance. Nonperforming loans in the following quarters declined and the flow of new problem loans began to ebb.

While nonperforming loans dropped 50% from their peak, reserves for loan losses actually increased 33% during the same period and exceeded the level reported by peer ethnic banks and other competitors in California in the second half of 2011. Thanks to management's turnaround efforts, Wilshire ended the third quarter of 2011 with more capital, more reserves, and fewer problem loans than most of its main peers.

Wilshire still has work to do, as its nonperforming assets remain above 3%, higher than its historical levels, and returns on assets and equity still trend below past levels. That said, we believe the bank's comeback in 2011 will make the hurdles ahead of it seem not as hard to overcome.

While bank stocks came under pressure on fears of another recession and a spillover from the European sovereign debt crisis, Wilshire's stock cratered more than 50%. Ironically, this sell-off occurred as the bank's financial health strengthened and performance started to improve. We believe the market is ignoring Wilshire's successful turnaround and prospects. We value the stock at $6 per share, while it trades around $3.80--a decent discount, especially given the successful credit turnaround and the quality of the bank's franchise.

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Source: Wilshire Will Reward Those Banking On Its Turnaround