This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. Dec. 5 to add information about changes to the stock price on Tuesday and at 11:45 a.m. to correct the spelling of Laurence Bensignor’s last name in some references.
Bethesda-based EagleBank’s shares rebounded Monday after a steep drop Friday in the wake of an online report alleging the bank’s chairman received ownership stakes in businesses in exchange for favorable, potentially risky loans from the bank.
Laurence Bensignor, the bank’s general counsel, told Bethesda Beat Monday that some parts of the online report were true, but the facts were manipulated to attempt to show wrongdoing when there was none.
The report was written and posted by Aurelius Value, which does not identify who is behind it on its website, only that it exists to conduct “due diligence into publicly traded companies.”
“We don’t know if it’s a person, outfit or what,” Bensignor said. “They’re anonymous. They hide behind a pseudonym.”
The lengthy online report begins with a disclaimer to readers that the details “cannot be guaranteed as to their accuracy or completeness.” It also notes whoever is behind it has likely shorted the stock to make money if the stock price declines. A request for comment from Aurelius wasn’t immediately returned Monday.
Bensignor said EagleBank receives monthly reports about stock activity, the most recent of which showed short positions were up 36 percent in November compared to October.
The Aurelius report claims EagleBank Chairman and CEO Ronald Paul helped guide favorable loans to companies he invested in with his own private company, The Ronald D. Paul Companies, or other entities he controls, such as his private family trust, Potomac Investment Trust.
The report cites legal documents in two cases, as well as real estate and property records, to attempt to show the connections. The Aurelius report concludes that Paul might be encouraging EagleBank to provide risky commercial development loans to his own outside business interests.
“Not only do these activities dramatically heighten Eagle’s overall risk profile, but they could potentially trigger severe regulatory penalties,” the report notes.
EagleBank, which trades on the Nasdaq, responded with two press releases over the weekend. In a release Sunday evening, the company rejected the allegations in the report. The company said that loans the bank makes to insiders—such as Paul—face additional scrutiny and have a history of success.
“Eagle’s portfolio of loans to insiders is part of the bank’s long successful history, and is not a recent change in practice,” the statement says. “Eagle has always been a business-oriented community bank with significant commercial real estate lending. The vast majority of board members have a deep understanding of the market and the risk in this area. In fact, that significant background and knowledge of effective underwriting, market conditions and market participants has resulted in the company experiencing low levels of credit losses over the bank’s entire 19 year history.”
Bensignor on Monday said the bank has not lost a dollar on any loans provided to businesses that Potomac Investment Trust has also invested in and that Paul does not vote on whether to provide these loans.
Bensignor added that the company has experienced revenue growth 35 quarters in a row.
“We are the largest community bank in metro Washington,” Bensignor said. “We are the most profitable bank headquartered in Maryland. We are a strong bank and shame on these short sellers for implying otherwise.”
He said that the $7.15 rise in the bank’s share price from a Monday open of $49.95 to $57.10 reflects “confidence” in the bank. As of 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, the bank’s shares were down $1.35 per share.
After the report was published online Friday, the bank’s stock dropped in one day from around $64.90 to a low of $46.20.
Despite Monday’s price increase, pressure remains on the bank to weather the allegations. Three different law firms on Monday issued press releases announcing they were investigating potential securities fraud at the bank for potential class-action lawsuits on behalf of shareholders.
Bensignor said the bank expects additional criticism from Aurelius and whoever wrote the report.
“We’ll see what comes next. This may be a bumpy ride,” Bensignor said. “The playbook of short sellers is usually not one and done. We certainly have confidence that over time, the stock will once again reflect the stellar financial performance the stock has had.”
Since 2012, the bank’s shares have gradually risen from around $18 to around $60 in recent months before sharply declining Friday.
The business news website BisNow reported Monday that FIG Partners equity analyst David Bishop said he believes the bank’s loans have been properly vetted and the firm was maintaining its target share price of $76.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania-based Merion Capital Group issued a positive report about the bank Monday, referring to the Aurelius allegations as “a jumble of disconnected details, innuendos and unrelated items flavored with lots of negative sounding, meaningless adjectives.”
A third investment analysis, by New York-based Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, described Aurelius’ conclusions as “wrong” and described the report as “overblown,” according to The Washington Business Journal.