Energy lenders continue to insist that prudent risk management will limit the pain from falling oil prices, but fourth-quarter results and extensive probing by analysts are putting those claims to the test.
At Zions Bancorp., for instance, worries about its energy portfolio hijacked an otherwise strong quarter. The $56.9 billion-asset company missed earnings estimates Monday after raising its loan-loss provision to reflect weakness in the oil-and-gas sector, ending several quarters of big reserve releases.
Zions' management team attempted to strike a balance between concern and confidence during a Tuesday conference call with analysts. The Salt Lake City company owns Amegy Bank, an energy lender in Houston.
Management expects "some deterioration in the [energy] portfolio as a result of the sharp decline in energy prices, particularly if price levels remain low for a prolonged period of time," Harris Simmons, the company's chief executive, conceded.
"However, we're also feeling very confident that we've maintained strong underwriting discipline and risk management throughout the last several quarters," he added. "We should navigate this bump reasonably well," because of a strong capital position in loan-loss reserves.
Since oil prices began sliding last year, bankers have pursued a two-pronged strategy to manage public relations and credit risk. On the PR side, they have insisted that this crash is different from previous ones, including correction in 2008 and 2009 and the steep drop in the late 1980s. They have also been boosting reserves, and trying to get analysts and investors comfortable with the expectation that there will, inevitably, be some loan losses.
Zions added a $25 million "qualitative reserve" to offset energy losses that it can't yet quantify. Comerica in Dallas also boosted its qualitative reserve during the fourth quarter.
Zions President Scott McLean said that hedging, careful underwriting, support from private equity and other funding sources, and sophisticated risk-mitigation strategies should lessen the fallout from the current swoon.
"All of these steps provide substantial protection," McLean said. "Taken together, we feel well prepared to handle the situation that we currently face with a relatively modest impact to net chargeoffs and overall profitability."
This PR strategy does not appear to have calmed Wall Street. During Tuesday's call, Simmons and the other executives were bombarded by questions about energy prices.
Although Zions' energy portfolio makes up just 8%, or $3.2 billion, of total loans, at least half of the company's more than hour-long earnings call was dedicated to energy issues. More than half of the questions Zions' executives fielded were related to energy lending.
Energy concerns overshadowed a productive quarter at Zions that included higher investment in stress testing; a continued shift to lower-cost funding; a widening loan margin; the ongoing collateralized-debt obligation selloff tied to the Volcker Rule; and the overhaul of their IT and accounting systems.
"People focused so much on energy that they missed a decent fundamental quarter," said Brian Klock, an analyst for Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
Other heavily energy-focused banks have found themselves facing similar lines of questioning. Hancock Holding in Gulfport, Miss., fielded 18 questions during last week's earnings call, all but seven of them about energy.
Even companies with relatively small energy books have been grilled. CIT Group, whose $500 million in oil-and-gas loans make up less than 3% of total loans, was asked a number of energy questions during its Tuesday earnings call. Management sought to reassure investors that any fallout whatever it turned out to be would be contained.
For banks, the damage from low oil prices appears to be limited so far. Just 0.5% of Zions' oil and gas portfolio is nonperforming, for instance.
But it is simply too early to say whether the banking industry's risk-mitigation strategies will prove effective, analysts say. The picture may become clearer as oil companies report 2014 results in the coming months.
The good news for bigger banks such as Zions and Comerica is that smaller lenders with more exposure to oil-field services companies will likely feel the initial pain from low energy prices, analysts say.
"There is the potential of loans being downgraded once you start to see more financial statements from these energy companies in the next three to six months," Klock said. "Smaller banks that lent to the smaller oil-services companies may suffer the first losses."
Two heavily energy-focused banks BOK Financial and Cullen/Frost will report earnings on Wednesday, which could provide a clearer picture of the health of the energy-lending sector.
"The decline in oil happened so quickly that we don't know what the effect will be on these Texas banks," said Brad Milsaps, a Sandler O'Neill analyst. Milsaps said he thinks the massive focus on oil lending is partly due to a dearth of other significant earnings trends.
"At a time for the banking sector when there are seemingly few things to talk about, this is one of them, so it gets plenty of attention," he said.