It is spring cleaning time for banking companies.
From small regional companies to large money-centers, the first quarter was the time for a number of them to complete or announce the sale of a business.
"This is good news," said Joseph Duwan, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "It shows management is focused on looking at profitability. If businesses don't have growth prospects, banks are freeing up capital for other businesses."
As part of a cost-cutting program, Comerica Inc. of Detroit is divesting some of its businesses. It recently announced the sale of $2.1 billion of assets, including indirect consumer lending and some credit card accounts. It also said it would leave the mortgage servicing business.
Getting out of the indirect lending business more closely fit Comerica's strategy of cross-selling multiple bank products, said Sharon McMurray, a spokeswoman. "We found when you make a boat loan through a dealer in Minnesota, it's very difficult to cross-sell them other products," she said.
Banc One Corp. reported an extra $67 million in income in the first quarter on branch sales and the divestiture of its mortgage loan portfolio. The Columbus, Ohio-based company said it would also sell its mortgage servicing business, an $18 billion portfolio, to National Australia Bank for $201 million.
KeyCorp of Cleveland announced it would sell 33 branches in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, bringing its total branch divestitures to 150 since November 1996.
The move to shed lagging operations is not limited to the Midwest. San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp., for instance, announced in the first quarter that it had reached an agreement to sell its mobile home financing unit, BankAmerica Housing Services, to GreenPoint Financial Corp. for $800 million. And last week $260 billion-asset BankAmerica also said it would sell its Robertson Stephens unit, the investment bank it bought last October.
Another notable example: J.P. Morgan & Co. said it would shut down its public cash equity business in Asia.
"Banks are definitely getting smarter," said Diana Yates, an analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons. "Some are slower than others to get rid of unprofitable businesses."
Fortunately for big banks, they are finding buyers for their unwanted operations. "What we define as low-growth may work fine for a community bank," said KeyCorp spokesman William Murschel.
The divestitures are not limited, however, to the nation's largest banks.
Old National Bancorp of Evansville, Ind., with assets of $5.7 billion, said it would leave the subprime automobile lending business because of disappointing results from its Consumer Acceptance Corp. subsidiary.
And Mercantile Bancorp., the $30.7 billion-asset St. Louis company, sold a portion of its mortgage servicing portfolio for $23 million.
The only downside, according to Ms. Yates, is that some banks may be cutting potentially good revenue-generating businesses. "What concerns me is the future profitability of these companies," Ms. Yates said. "Are they selling off too much too quick?"