HARROD, Ohio (Reuters) - After completing a credit review in a half-hour phone call, a BMO Harris Bank underwriter cleared $12 million in loans for Ohio corn and soybean producer Greg Kruger in 2013.
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Kruger had initially asked for a $2 million loan to build a grain elevator. But the Chicago-based bank, one of the largest U.S. farm lenders, ended up selling him a $5 million loan for the elevator and another $7 million to finance crops, machinery and debt consolidation, according to documents in the Ohio foreclosure case the bank filed to seize Kruger's farm.
When Kruger offered to supply receipts of sold grain and other standard documentation, his loan officer told him not to bother. "'Don't worry. We'll make the numbers work'," Kruger, 67, recalled the officer saying.
Five years later, after aggressively expanding its U.S. farm loan portfolio, the bank called in Kruger's loans as corn and soy prices collapsed and the United States was starting a trade war with China. As the U.S. agricultural economy sours and farmers’ financial woes pile up, BMO Harris is leaving behind a trail of farmers such as Kruger who have lost nearly everything.
The bank, a subsidiary of Canada's Bank of Montreal, has struggled to recoup some of its investments through a slew of bitter legal fights, according to a Reuters review of court documents and bank regulator data, as well as interviews with dozens of U.S. farmers, bankers, and former and current BMO Harris employees.
"BMO Harris did push for growth, and they've had some of those deals blow up spectacularly in their faces," said John Blanchfield, founder of Agricultural Banking Advisory Services, a consulting firm.
The plight of BMO Harris and its customers reflects broader distress in the U.S. farm sector. Farmers are struggling to pay back their loans or obtain new ones. Shrinking cash flow is pushing some to retire early and a growing number of producers to declare bankruptcy, according to farm economists and legal experts.
BMO Harris may yet face more defaults, judging by its high level of delinquent loans. At the end of June, nearly 13.1% of its farm loan portfolio was at least 90 days late or had stopped accruing interest because the lender doubts the money will be paid back - compared to 1.53% for all U.S. farm loans at banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). BMO Harris had the highest rate among the 30 largest FDIC banks, according to a Reuters analysis of loan data the banks reported to the regulator.
Ray Whitacre, head of BMO Harris Bank's U.S. diversified industries unit, said in a statement that the bank's distressed loans do not represent "the overwhelming majority" of its borrowers' experiences. The Bank of Montreal and its U.S. businesses have been in farm lending for more than a century, he said. The bank takes a long-term view of helping farmers through "all stages of the economic cycle," Whitacre said.
BMO Harris spokesman Patrick O’Herlihy attributed the high delinquency rates to the bank’s lending in the upper Midwest, where dairy and grain operators have faced serious financial challenges. Sam Miller, BMO Harris' managing director of agriculture banking, said the bank is keeping a closer eye on its customers with cash-flow shortages and lending to fewer mid-sized operators. "We have to be more vigilant in underwriting the risk," Miller said in an interview.
The bank declined to comment on any individual loans or borrowers, or on the prospect that it could face additional defaults based on its delinquency rates.
The bank's exposure to the farm sector reached a peak of $1.59 billion in 2018. Most other major banks have been scaling back their farm-loan portfolios since about 2015, as prices fell due to a global grains glut, according to the Reuters analysis of FDIC data.
Among the BMO Harris deals that went belly-up was $43 million in farm operating loans to McM Inc, run by Ronald G. McMartin Jr. in North Dakota. The farm filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2017.
BMO Harris secured a $25 million loan with McM's grain, cattle and other farm crops, along with other assets. McM agreed to use the sale of these crops to pay the bank back, according to a copy of the loan.
During the bankruptcy proceedings, BMO Harris' attorneys told the court it was unable to locate all the crops backing its loans, alleging that McM had sold some of the crops to pay other creditors first. Court documents also show the bank had not audited some of the farm's financial statements. An outside consultant later found McM's accounts receivable and inventory was overstated by at least $11 million, according to court filings. Neither McMartin nor his attorney responded to requests for comment.
Some experts and bankruptcy attorneys representing former BMO Harris customers say the bank issued too many loans for too long that farmers simply could not pay back. The problems, they said, stem from the aggressive practices of some loan officers and a lack of oversight by bank auditors.
Michael and Byron Robinson borrowed $2.5 million in an agricultural loan and another $2.5 million on a line of credit in 2013 through their Indiana businesses, court records show. The bank sued the Robinsons in federal court as part of its foreclosure process in 2016 and later sold the farmland at auction. The property brought far less than the value the bank had estimated the properties were worth to justify the original loans, said their bankruptcy attorney, Maurice Doll.
Michael and Byron Robinson did not respond to requests for comment. Doll said BMO Harris had loaded his clients up with far more debt than they could reasonably pay.
'DON'T WORRY. IT'LL BE FINE'
The Indiana-based BMO Harris banker working with the Robinsons and Kruger, Thomas "T.J." Mattick, found his customers through farm magazine advertisements, word of mouth, at church gatherings and from rural loan brokers who were paid a finder’s fee, according to interviews with 10 farmers and one loan broker.
"I thought I could trust him," Kruger said. "We would talk about church and faith all the time."
When the Robinsons were looking to expand their corn and soybean operations, Mattick convinced them to buy two new farms instead of one - with BMO Harris financing 100% of the deal, said Michael Morrison, the Robinsons' farm bookkeeper and a former agricultural banker.
Morrison told Reuters he was concerned by how the bank's underwriters valued the family's grain in storage, on the premise that its value would continue to rise - even as grain prices were starting to soften at the time.
"We used to say that T.J. never saw a loan he didn't like," Morrison said. "I kept telling them, 'Don't do this. Don't take on the debt.' But T.J. kept telling them, 'Don't worry, it'll be fine'."
Mattick, who no longer works for the bank, denied that he encouraged borrowers to take on more debt they could pay back. In written answers to questions from Reuters, Mattick said "extensive underwriting and analysis" were conducted on the loans for Kruger and the Robinsons, as with any other file.
Mattick denied telling Kruger that he would "make the numbers work" without standard documentation such as sold-grain receipts. And he said BMO Harris would not have given the Robinson's 100% financing on their farms unless they pledged additional collateral. BMO Harris declined to comment on Mattick’s statements regarding individual loans and bank policy, and Reuters could not independently verify them.
"I worked with clients to help them determine what they could afford and never would have counseled them to incur debt beyond what they could afford," Mattick said.
(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; additional reporting by Jason Lange and Pete Schroeder in Washington; editing by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)