First Commerce Corp., a company with a history of reporting negative surprises, raised questions on Wall Street this week with its decision to dramatically boost its reserve levels.
The New Orleans-based bank announced Tuesday that it expects its loan- loss provision to surge 73% to about $13 million from $7.5 million in the second quarter.
The bank attributed the higher provision to a jump in credit card chargeoffs, to about $5.5 million in the third quarter from $4.9 million in the second.
First Commerce is just the latest bank to announce worse-than-expected credit card problems this year, following in the footsteps of Bank of New York Co., First Chicago NBD Corp., and Banc One Corp.
Jacksonville-based Barnett Banks Inc. was so spooked by rising bank card losses that it recently revealed plans to sell its $1.7 billion portfolio.
But analysts were puzzled by First Commerce's decision to increase its provision by such a large amount compared to net chargeoffs. The bank said it anticipates net chargeoffs to reach $8 million in the third quarter, up from $6.7 million in the second, so the provision will exceed net chargeoffs in this quarter by an estimated $5 million.
"It's a little confusing that they make a sudden reserve that's so far in excess of what their chargeoffs are going to be," said Sean Ryan, with Lehman Brothers. "They're being very cautious in over-reserving by several million dollars."
It is expected that First Commerce's card chargeoff ratio - 3.08% in the second quarter - will be slightly higher in the third, but still substantially below the national average, which is between 4.5% and 5%.
Chief administrative officer Michael A. Flick said First Commerce traditionally takes a conservative approach to credit problems. "When we see something, we move fast," he said.
Mr. Flick said First Commerce first noticed the rising card chargeoffs in June. As the trend continued through July and August, the bank decided to raise its reserve levels, he said.
"We're not experiencing anything different than what any credit card issuer is experiencing, except that maybe it hit us a little bit later," Mr. Flick said.
Mr. Flick said the problems originated with credit cards issued in neighboring states such as Mississippi and Alabama rather than in First Commerce's home state of Louisiana. He blamed some of the trouble on recent mail solicitations in those states.
Mr. Flick declined to predict whether First Commerce's card problems had peaked, but added: "We're not seeing our chargeoffs going up substantially from where we are."
Some analysts, meanwhile, pointed to a credibility problem at First Commerce. First Commerce has reported numerous negative earnings surprises in the last few years, including a string of charges related to securities restructurings, mergers, and nonperforming casino loans.
This year had been shaping up as a relatively clean year for First Commerce until Tuesday's announcement of a higher provision, which prompted analysts to reduce their earnings estimates for both 1996 and 1997.
With 1996 consensus estimates at $3.24 a share, First Commerce's estimate of 72 cents a share for the third quarter will shave 10 cents off that full-year figure.
"We upgraded the stock in January believing their two-year string of one-time charges and earnings confusion and lack of earnings predictability had ended," said John A. Pandtle of the Robinson-Humphrey Co. in Atlanta.
Mr. Ryan of Lehman Brothers said he had expected provisions to rise gradually at First Commerce simply because of double-digit loan growth over the last few years. First Commerce said it expects loan growth in the third quarter to continue at an annualized rate of more than 20%, with the most significant increases in indirect automobile, credit card, and commercial loans.