What's the prognosis for loan growth? It depends on which banker is speaking.
That was the key takeaway from an industry conference Wednesday, where executives at several regional banks provided their perspective on a second quarter that has only one more month to go.
Bankers, by and large, are relying on commercial lending to pad their loan portfolios. Some executives, however, said a looming sense of economic uncertainty — following a rocky start to the year — has caused some clients to pull back.
"We have seen some softness in the pipelines going into the second quarter," David Turner, chief financial officer at the $124 billion-asset Regions Financial in Birmingham, Ala., told attendees at the Deutsche Bank Global Financial Services Conference.
Midsize clients, despite positive cash flows and solid creditworthiness, "just don't want to make that next investment decision," Turner said. "They don't want to take that risk, because of uncertainty over the economy."
Other bankers concurred.
"Overall, it's not robust," said Greg Carmichael, chief executive of Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati.
Most of the $139 billion-asset company's competitors are equally cautious about loan growth, Babb said. "But net-net," he said, "I think we've seen some reasonable growth, given where we are with the economy."
The comments threw a splash of cold water on positive aspects of the quarterly banking report, published earlier in the day by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Loan growth was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy first quarter for many banks, with outstanding balances rising nearly 7% from a year earlier.
Increased lending has helped many banks offset mounting issues with oil and gas loans. Loan-loss provisions in the first quarter rose by nearly 50% from a year earlier, to $4.2 billion, the FDIC said in its report.
Any deceleration in borrowing activity, particularly among middle-market firms — or those with $50 million to $1 billion in annual revenue — could put more pressure on revenue and profits at regional banks.
Not all banks were pessimistic.
Comerica said its loan book is poised to grow at a healthy clip in the second quarter — providing some much-needed good news as the Dallas company faces pressure from investors to improve performance. At May 20, average loans were up 2% from the end of the first quarter, reflecting strong growth in commercial real estate and other niche business lines.
"The trend has been positive," Ralph Babb, the $69 billion-asset company's chairman and CEO, said during the conference, adding that he expects loan growth to track changes in the country's gross domestic product.
The one exception might be Michigan, where Comerica executives said a "number" of clients are stockpiling cash.
BB&T in Winston-Salem, N.C., also sounded optimistic, projecting core loan growth that should easily meet its expectations.
"I feel very positive about where we are headed," Chris Henson, the $212 billion-asset company's chief operating officer, told conference attendees.
"I would say from a C&I perspective … it's positive," Henson added. "CRE is positive and we've been anticipating a pickup in single-family residential construction in a smaller way."
Bankers also weighed in on the state of their energy books, expressing caution despite a nearly 30% increase in oil prices over the past three months.
"I don't think it's going to be a game-change," John Shrewsberry, Wells Fargo's chief financial officer, said of the rising prices. "These are complex capital structures. They have to be worked through."