Simmons First National Corp. in Pine Bluff, Ark., said Thursday that its third-quarter earnings fell 4% from a year earlier, to $7.3 million, due primarily to sharp drop in income from from the sale of student loans.

With banks no longer able to originate government-guaranteed student loans, Simmons First said fees from loan sales fell by $2 million year over year. Overall, noninterest income declined 7.4%, to $13.7 million.

J. Thomas May, chairman and chief executive at the $3.3 billion-asset Simmons First, said that under the circumstances he was pleased with the results. For the quarter Simmons First reported earnings per share of 38 cents, four cents above analysts' estimates.

On the loan side, May said that demand remained soft and that he expects the trend to continue for the remainder of the year. Total loans were up 1.5%, to $1.8 billion, in the third quarter from the same period in 2010, but that was largely a result of loans it acquired when it took over a failed Kansas thrift earlier this year.

Nonperforming loans as a percent of total loans remained unchanged from the second quarter at 1.14%. The company's allowance for loan losses was $29.2 million, up almost 14% from the same period in 2010.

Simmons First's shares closed at $25.08 Friday, up 2.5%.

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