As far as Kelly King is concerned, only six banking companies are locks to make it through the next decade.

King, the chairman and chief executive of BB&T, on Tuesday resurrected the theory of a banking oligopoly. The view, often espoused by his predecessor John Allison, holds that the banking landscape will be dominated by a handful of major players with smaller institutions filling in the gaps.

During BB&T's annual meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., King told attendees that he expects three $1 trillion-asset banks to exist in five to 10 years: Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Below them, he believes there will be five to seven large regionals that survive. "Banks like BB&T, U.S. Bancorp and PNC," King said.

"That can be a really good place" for BB&T, he said.

His timing was interesting, given all the chatter among bankers, politicians and regulators about too big to fail banks and corralling systemic risk. Regionals must get to $300 billion to $500 billion in assets in order to compete with the national banks, King said.

What made his comments particularly noteworthy were the banks that he left off the list. The glaring omission was Citigroup, which had $1.9 trillion in assets at March 31. Also missing: Fifth Third, KeyCorp, SunTrust Banks and Regions Financial.

Allison had long been critical of Citi's existence. "It [nearly] failed twice last year and even more times during my career," he said in January 2009 after retiring as BB&T's CEO. "That's not good, and it creates a challenge."

During Allison's time leading BB&T, analysts speculated about the company's interest in mergers of equals, tossing out Fifth Third in Cincinnati and Regions in Birmingham, Ala., as possible partners. Allison said in 2006 that he had reached out to Regions "but we couldn't make the price work."

King would not discuss any companies other than BB&T during an interview after the meeting, though he said survival will largely depend on each bank's ability to serve their markets. "What is your strategic proposition going forward?" he added. "Is the company creating — or is it able to create — a value proposition in the marketplace that is substantially competitive enough to grow organically or through acquisition partnerships?"

Efficiency will also play a role. He said during his remarks to shareholders that banks must get their efficiency ratios down into the low 50s to be considered high performers. "It starts with the asset size and the economies that go with that," he added in the interview.

BB&T clearly has an idea of what its role will look like. "You won't see banks like us becoming truly national, but you could see us in the Midwest all the way right down to Texas," he said. BB&T entered Texas in 2009 after buying the failed Colonial Bank.

-- This article first appeared on American Banker.



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