First Financial Corp. posted third-quarter earnings Tuesday of $13.7 million, a 21% increase from a year ago.

Annualized returns for the Stevens Point, Wis.-based bank equaled 1.09% on average assets, up 12 basis points from a year ago, and 20.91% on average equity, up 4 basis points.

The $5 billion-asset thrift holding company said it more than offset a fee revenue decline with gains in net interest income, fueled by a widening margin and a 10% loan expansion. Concurrently, it lowered noninterest expenses and the loan-loss provision.

Quarterly fee income fell 23% from a year ago, principally because of dwindling gains from loan sales, First Financial said.

Funding costs fell faster than did yields on loans and securities, lifting the net interest margin 11 basis points to 3.51%. A loss provision of $1.7 million was down 24% from a year ago. Operating expenses fell 3% to $26.6 million.

First Financial, which operates 124 offices in Wisconsin and Illinois, finished the third quarter with $29 million of nonperforming assets, or a slender 0.58% of total assets. Loss reserves equaled 261% of nonaccrual loans.

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