Stellar Commercial Lending Growth for U.S. Banks

An analysis of leading U.S. banks’ first quarter 2012 financial results reveals strong growth across the board in average commercial loan balances. This growth is largely due to the economic recovery following the Great Recession. Of the 14 banks studied, 11 recorded double-digit year-on-year increases in their portfolios.

This growth momentum has been maintained in recent quarters, with all banks reporting growth in average commercial loans between 4Q11 and 1Q12, and five having quarterly growth rates of more than 5%. As with the y/y growth, quarterly growth rates were strongest for PNC (+11%, boosted by the acquisition of RBC Bank) and Key (+7%).

Bank are further boosted by the fact that most reported commercial loan charge-off rates declines over the past year. However, increased competition for commercial loans has led to most banks reporting declines in loan yields over the past year.  PNC’s yield on its commercial, financial industrial loans fell 53 basis points (bps) between 1Q11 and 1Q12.  Other banks with substantial declines in commercial loan yields during this period include SunTrust (-47 bps), U.S. Bank (-42 bps), KeyBank (-55 bps) and BB&T (-31 bps).

Banks expect that commercial loans will continue to grow over the next few quarter (barring an unexpected economic crisis) and are pursuing a number of approaches to grow their commercial franchises.

  • Targeting high-potential segments: A number of banks are focusing on particular industry segments. PNC’s overall commercial growth was driven by strong performance in lending to health care and financial services firms. Comerica’s energy portfolio grew by 62%, and its tech and life sciences portfolio increased by 38%. Banks are also targeting different business-size segments, such as middle markets (Chase grew its middle market loan portfolio 19% y/y).
  • Building commercial deposits and cross-selling commercial clients:  Capital One grew commercial deposits 15% y/y. And when banks bring in these new commercial deposit relationships, they then need to develop effective cross-sell programs. Huntington reported a 33% annualized increase in commercial deposits in 1Q12. It also claimed that 33% of commercial clients had 4+ products in 1Q12, up from 25% in 1Q11.
  • Encouraging commercial clients to increase line utilization. Line utilization declined significantly following the financial crisis, as businesses retrenched. Many banks reported that utilization rates remained relatively low in the most recent quarter, but some banks are seeing some improvement. Regions reported a 45 basis point increase in utilization.

Credit Metrics for U.S. Card Issuers Continue to Improve

A study of recently-published financials for the leading U.S. credit card issuers reveals that their charge-off rates continue to decline, and that this trend looks set to continue in the coming quarters.

The following table summarizes 1Q12 managed credit card charge-off rates for 11 of the leading U.S. card issuers.  Ten of the eleven issuers reported year-on-year charge-off rate declines of more than 200 bps. The exception was American Express, which had the lowest rate.  The largest decline came from SunTrust, whose rate fell from 8.68% in 1Q11 to 4.83% in 1Q12. Seven of the eleven reported quarterly declines in their charge-off rates.

Of course, many industry observers are questioning when and at what level charge-off rate declines will bottom out.  Trends in 30+ day delinquency rates typically are a predictor of trends in charge-offs, and it is notable that of the seven issuers who published 30+ day delinquency rate data in the most recent quarter, all reported both year-on-year and quarterly declines.

Therefore, we should expect charge-off rates to continue to decline in the coming quarters. However, some issuers are now at or below historic averages (for example, Discover claimed that its charge-off and delinquency rates are at 25-year lows), so will have less scope for further declines.  In addition, these low charge-off rates may encourage some issuers to loosen underwriting criteria in order to grow loans, which can generate some upward pressure on charge-off rates.  Card portfolio acquisitions and disposals can also have an impact on charge-off rates; Capital One reported in its quarterly financials that it expects the acquisition of the HSBC card portfolio to raise charge-off rates by 75 bps.

Credit Card Issuers Continue to Pursue Spend-Centric Model

First quarter 2012 results of the leading U.S. credit card issuers reveal that they are continuing to drive spending growth by cardholders. Four of the seven leading issuers reported double-digit year-on-year growth rates, led by Chase and Capital One at 15%, followed by U.S. Bank at 14% and American Express at 12% (American Express also reported that small business card volume rose 16% y/y, its highest growth rate since before the financial crisis.  In contrast, Bank of America and Citi had anemic – albeit positive – growth rates.

The situation with regard to lending growth is more mixed. With the return to economic growth, and the significant improvement in credit quality, issuers have been looking to increase outstandings. However, consumers still bear the scars of the financial crisis and remain reluctant to increase their card borrowing. In addition, many issuers have not yet significantly relaxed the stricter underwriting standards that came into place in 2008 and 2009. The three largest issuers (in terms of outstandings) all reported y/y declines, with Bank of America’s average loans falling 11%. Bank of America’s average U.S. credit card outstandings have declined almost 22% over the past two years, and fell below $100 billion in the most recent quarter.  (It should be noted that this decline is partly attributable to card portfolio sales, with the bank selling portfolios over the past year to Regions, Sovereign and Barclaycard.)  Bank of America and Citi were the two issuers with declines in both volumes and outstandings. Chase also reported a y/y decline in average outstandings, but this was due to the sale of the Kohl’s private label portfolio in the first quarter of 2011.

So, at first viewing, we see some credit card portfolio retrenchment among those banks like Bank of America and Citi that were hardest hit by the financial crisis, while other leading issuers are now growing their portfolios. However, at closer inspection, Bank of America and Citi are also positioning themselves for future card growth. Citi had credit card account growth for the fourth consecutive quarter. And Bank of America reported that new accounts in 1Q12 were up 19% y/y.

In addition, it is notable that Bank of America is changing the composition of its card portfolio by selling off some private-label card portfolios and changing how cards are originated. (It reported that half of the 800,000 cards originated in the first quarter came through its branch channel.)