Comerica Bank reported strong profits for the fourth quarter, but on a conference call discussing its results Friday all analysts really wanted to know was how the Dallas bank is responding to falling oil prices.
The answer is that while the bank continues to book new energy loans its energy portfolio increased by roughly $160 million last quarter it is also boosting its standard loss reserves by 60 basis points to guard against potential losses. Bank executives said it's hard to know the full effect of oil's decline until its energy customers report their own fourth-quarter results and submit new engineers' reports in coming months.
"It hasn't been down long enough for people to know what impact it may have," Chairman and Chief Executive Ralph Babb told analysts on Friday's call.
Oil's slide has created a classic dilemma for lenders, who are tempted to maintain or even increase credit lines to customers reeling in asset deployment, but who must also consider repayment consequences should oil prices fall lower and remain there longer.
"Customers are clearly looking at senior debt facilities to carry their debt at this point and they are putting into place contingency plans," said Lars Anderson, vice chairman of Comerica's business bank.
Oil-producing and servicer clients are cutting capital expenditures between 20% and 50% in response to the oil glut, Comerica's chief credit officer, John Killian, said. Drilling rigs began last month to halt production in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
Within the energy portfolio, which comprises 7% of the bank's total loans, around $500 million are to highly-levered customers with more risk of default. Criticized loans comprise less than 3% of the Comerica portfolio, executives reported.
The prices of Brent and West Texas Intermediate crude oil traded at $49.63 and $47.22 as of 10:30am ET on Friday.
So far there hasn't been any "undue ramifications" on credit quality or growth, according to bank analyst Scott Siefers at Sandler O'Neill. "No one is out of the woods on this issue, but the comments are reassuring in the immediate-term."
Comerica beat Wall Street estimates when it reported Friday revenue just over estimates, at $640 million, and net income 27% higher than a year ago ,at $149 million. Net interest margins saw continued pressure, down 10 basis points from the previous period. Total earning assets grew 2.9% for the quarter.
Morgan Stanley analysts took more negative view of the results, calling Comerica's outlook for loan growth, fee-income growth and expense cuts "highly disappointing." Comerica is forecasting loan growth of roughly 4.9% this year, below the 6.3% growth Morgan Stanley had been predicting. It also expects fee income to remain stable, compared to 3.2% growth Morgan Stanley was expecting, and said that expenses will increase in 2015.
Shares in Comerica have fallen 14.5% since OPEC announced it would keep prices low at the end of November. Its shares were up slightly midday Friday, but Morgan Stanley is bearish on the stock.
"We really don't think results this quarter will matter to the stock given management's negative outlook for 2015," analyst Ken Zerbe wrote in a research note.