CHARLOTTE, N.C. With only a few days left in the first quarter, Wachovia Corp. issued a warning to investors Thursday that higher expenses and growing provisions for bad loans will keep earnings for the quarter below analysts estimates.
But executives from the Winston-Salem, N.C., banking company were quick to point to areas that could fuel its future growth asset management and corporate banking. The company told Wall Street analysts that its looking for 14% annual earnings growth over the next five years.
To get there, Wachovia may have to spend some money first, and executives said they may seek to acquire smaller asset managers, as well as build or acquire branches in the more affluent parts of its geographic area, like northern Virginia and Florida.
The five-year forecast excluded Wachovias credit card business, which the company said last month it hopes to sell or spin off in a joint venture. Though officials insisted they have not made a decision about the business yet, L.M. Bud Baker Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Wachovia, said an announcement could come within a few weeks.
Last month the company said it had hired Credit Suisse First Boston to help it study its options for Wachovia Bank Card Services, the nations No. 12 credit card issuer. Mr. Baker reiterated that plan Thursday and said the operation seems out of step with the companys direction.
Still, credit quality remains a concern for the banking company, which was the first U.S. banking company to unveil a bad corporate loan story in the middle of last year.
Nonperforming loans grew to $499 million in the fourth quarter, while its loan-loss provision nearly doubled from a year earlier, to $117.5 million.
In a separate presentation Wednesday, Don Truslow, chief risk manager at Wachovia, said the commercial loan market remains worrisome, but appears to be improving.
The picture has improved slightly this quarter, Mr. Truslow said. He expects first-quarter nonperforming loans to decline 15% from the fourth quarter, even though the company inherited $7 billion to $8 billion of nonperformers last month when it acquired Republic Security Financial Corp. of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Wachovia intends to be more aggressive in recording chargeoffs for bad loans this year, Mr. Truslow said. He estimated that first-quarter chargeoffs will be between $120 million and $125 million, up from $94 million in the fourth quarter, and near its third-quarter total.
Wachovia has been able to sell some nonperforming assets, a move helped by recent improvements in that market, he said. With the increased liquidity that has come back into the marketplace, we were able to sell some positions out at attractive prices.
Meanwhile, Robert McCoy, Wachovias chief financial officer, said that falling interest rates have put pressure on banking companies to lower interest rates on deposit accounts, and that could also hinder Wachovias financial performance this year. He also warned of the possibility of an increase in consumer loan defaults as a result of the slowing economy.
Mr. McCoy said the company expects to earn between $1.17 and $1.22 a share this quarter. That would be short of the $1.30 consensus estimate of 22 analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial.
Wachovias shares fell 3.64% Thursday, to close at $58.43.
The conference, which was broadcast on the Internet, was Wachovias first in recent memory and was designed to keep analysts and other investors informed on the companys strategy and performance, Mr. McCoy said.
Mr. Baker drew a laugh from the Winston-Salem audience when he said it was the companys second annual investor gathering. The last one was in 1952, he joked.
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