What a difference a year makes.
Last summer Comerica faced angry investors who were pushing the company to sell itself — and demanding the resignation of Chairman and CEO Ralph Babb — after the oil crash left a crater in the company’s profits. But after curbing its appetite for energy loans and slashing its bloated expense base, the Dallas company appears to have regained its stride.
Its efficiency ratio — a gauge of how well a bank manages costs, and the lower the better — stood at 58.63% as of June 30 compared with 72.43% a year earlier. Profits, meanwhile, have doubled.
The change has been so swift that analysts are already raising questions about whether the company can maintain the same type of cutthroat discipline in the years ahead.
Comerica on Tuesday lowered its expectations for the pace of expense cuts in the second half of 2017, citing the need to boost spending on customer-facing technology. However, with higher rates strengthening interest income, executives insisted the efficiency ratio will continue to remain low.
“We believe we can continue to push that number down” through the end of 2018, Babb said during the company’s quarterly call with analysts. “Obviously, additional rate rises would help that even more.”
During the call, executives were pressed to provide details about how far along they are into the company’s turnaround plan. The plan — unveiled last July — calls for a $180 million reduction in expenses in 2017 as well as other measures to boost fee income.
“There has been a dramatic reduction in expenses,” along with a “modest increase in revenue,” said David Duprey, chief financial officer of the $71.3 billion-asset company.
Noninterest expenses plunged 12% year over year to $457 million. Profits, meanwhile, rose 95%.
Comerica — one of the nation’s biggest oil lenders — was admittedly caught off guard by the collapse in oil and gas prices, which plunged from above $100 in 2014 to under $30 in early 2016.
In the years prior, the company had steadily expanded its energy portfolio, supporting the ramp-up in domestic production by offering cheap debt. So when troubled loans began to rise as the crash rippled through the banking industry, its profits took a significant dive.
“With every cycle, including this one, there are lessons to be learned that we apply to the business going forward,” Babb said at the company’s testy annual meeting in April of last year. Energy loans accounted for 6% of the company’s loan book at the time; they stood at 4% as of mid-2017.
In many ways, the energy crisis exposed broader problems with Comerica’s business model. The company was largely dependent on interest income, a strategy that left it in the lurch while rates remained at historically low levels.
There was also plenty of fat to trim. As recently as early last year, the company’s efficiency ratio hovered in the low 70% range, much worse than the industry average of around 58%.
Resisting calls to sell, Babb last July outlined a broad restructuring plan. It called for cutting nearly 9% of Comerica's workforce, or 800 jobs, and closing about 40 branches. It also included several initiatives to boost fees.
Comerica moved quickly to implement the changes. The pace of the cost cuts even surpassed analysts’ expectations Tuesday.
Most of the planned job cuts have been completed, according to Babb. The company has now turned its attention to its loan application and credit review processes, and it is looking at ways it can use technology to become more efficient.
Meanwhile, the company’s highly watched return on equity has bounced back, to 10.28% as of June 30 from 5.47% a year earlier.
Perhaps just as important, calls for a sale have quieted down.
During the call, Babb, 68, was asked about how much longer he plans to stay at the helm.
“We continually look at succession planning and discuss that at the board level,” Babb said. “When decisions are made, we make the appropriate announcements.”