First Midwest Bancorp (FMBI) in Itasca, Ill., posted higher earnings in the fourth quarter as noninterest expense fell and credit quality improved.

The $8.4 billion-asset company earned $18.9 million in the fourth quarter--a 45% increase from the same period a year ago.

Noninterest expense decreased 12% year over year, to $64.8 million. Retirement and employee benefits expenses fell as a result of changes to the company's defined benefit pension plan. Declines in the cost of maintaining foreclosed properties, professional services and occupancy and equipment expense also reduced its overhead.

Modest growth in loans, securities and other interest-earning assets was partially offset by an increase in interest expense. First Midwest's net interest margin fell 22 basis points, to 3.62%.

Noninterest income fell 13.4%, to $27.8 million. First Midwest attributed the decline to several one-time events, including a $34 million gain on the sale of an equity investment and a $7.8 million gain on the termination of two Federal Home Loan Bank forward commitments.

The company did not take a loan-loss provision as net chargeoffs dropped by nearly a third, to $5.3 million. It set aside $5.6 million for loan losses in the fourth quarter of 2012.

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