Downey Financial Corp.'s report Friday that depositors pulled funds from its branches this summer amplified an industry shift: Customers are fleeing weakened banks in favor of those viewed as safe havens, particularly in California.
Downey was quick to note that this month it wooed back 45% of the funds it lost in July. However, analysts say that customer perception of weakness in a particular institution — punctuated last month by the IndyMac Bancorp Inc. collapse and the failure of the $250 million-asset First Heritage Bank in Newport Beach, Calif. — will help a handful of stronger companies build share in the nation's most populous state even before the credit cycle improves.
Of course, no banking company is immune to the credit crunch, and analysts have routinely cautioned that small holes in the balance sheets of relatively healthy firms could break open and cause big problems if the economic slowdown devolves into a prolonged recession.
However, barring a notable turn for the worse, "there are strong banks feeding on the weak, and they are clearly picking up share as a direct result of the trouble around them," Nancy A. Bush, the president of NAB Research LLC, said in an interview last week.
Wells Fargo & Co., the largest banking company based in the state, is one that has talked about efforts to capitalize on the credit carnage. Last month it reported that checking accounts rose by a net total 5.5% companywide during the second quarter — the highest growth rate in three years. The rate was even faster in California, where accounts grew 6.7%.
"We are able to take advantage and focus on growth as some competitors are forced to focus on credit problems," Howard A. Atkins, Wells' chief financial officer, said in an interview last month.
The $609 billion-asset San Francisco company earned $1.75 billion in the second quarter. Its net interest margin climbed 23 basis points from a quarter earlier, to 4.92%. Mortgage application volume jumped 12%, and mortgage escrow deposits rose 11%, as a result of a "flight to quality," Mr. Atkins said. "We don't have to pay high rates to gather deposits."
Wells' average core deposits rose 6% from a year earlier. Consumer loans rose 13%, and commercial loans rose 27%. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said.
A similar story is being told at UnionBanCal Corp., which last month posted a second-quarter profit of $141.3 billion. It credited a 13% jump in revenue from a year earlier, driven by an 18-basis-point increase in its net interest margin, to 3.74%.
The $61 billion-asset company, which is 65% owned by Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. of Tokyo, said net interest income rose 19%, primarily because of strong loan growth and the bolstered margin level.
David I. Matson, UnionBanCal's chief financial officer, said on an earnings call last month that his liability-sensitive company was able keep the interest rates it paid depositors in check while the federal funds rate fell. Total deposits grew 1.5%, and loans rose 17%. UnionBanCal cited strong commercial loan growth and a flight of clients from weakened competitors.
"Many of our competitors have been forced to substantially reduce" their lending, "allowing us to grow," Philip B. Flynn, its chief operating officer, said on the earnings call.
Last week Mitsubishi UFJ, eager to raise its profile in the United States, said it would seek to acquire the rest of UnionBanCal, through a cash tender offer of $63 a share, beginning Aug. 18.
Brent Christ, an analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran Caronia Waller, said in an interview last week that Mitsubishi UFJ sees UnionBanCal as a stronghold in the highly coveted California banking market. "They view this as a great entry and a way to get more active in the U.S., given the disruption," Mr. Christ said. "California, obviously, is a very important state long term."
Analysts say Bank of the West, a San Francisco unit of BNP Paribas SA, is another example of the strong feeding on the weak. Last month the $63.3 billion-asset bank reported a second-quarter profit of $37.2 million.
Its deposits rose 3.5% from a year earlier, and total loans and leases rose 11.4%, as a result of strength in consumer, small-business, and agriculture lending. Its net interest margin rose 16 basis points, to 3.31%.
"We're certainly experiencing a flight to quality," Michael Shepherd, Bank of the West's president and chief executive officer, said in an interview last month. Bank of the West will be an "opportunistic" acquirer, he said.
Second-quarter profits at Wells, UnionBanCal, and Bank of the West fell from a year earlier but handily beat analysts' expectations. All three stuck to their generally positive outlooks for the rest of the year.
This presents a contrast with Downey's results. Last month Downey reported a $219 million second-quarter loss. In a monthly report to investors Friday, the $12.6 billion-asset Newport Beach company said its deposits fell 5.1% from a month earlier, to $9.4 billion as of July 31. Downey said it has recovered about 45% of the net deposit outflow that occurred in July during the first half of August, mostly via certificates of deposit with 6 to 18 months duration.
The increase was due, in part, to a decision "to reinstitute deposit advertising following a long period of not doing so," Downey said.