Sterling Financial Corp. in Spokane, Wash., returned to the black for the year as credit quality improved.

The $9.2 billion-asset company said that fourth-quarter profits totaled $14.8 million, compared with a loss of $642.7 million a year earlier. Sterling also said Wednesday that year-end profits were $39.1 million, a reversal from a loss of $756.1 million in 2010.

Nonperforming assets fell 17% from a year earlier and reached their lowest level since June 30, 2008, at $369.1 million. The fourth-quarter loan-loss provision fell 87% from a year earlier, to $4 million, largely due to the improved quality of the loan portfolio and lower chargeoffs.

Greg Seibly, Sterling's president and chief executive, said in a press release that the company continued to see growth in new loan originations. During the fourth quarter, Sterling originated $332 million in new portfolio loans, an 84% increase from a year earlier. In 2011, the company originated $1.4 billion in portfolio loans, roughly triple the volume it had a year earlier, and the portfolio balances for multifamily lending nearly doubled.

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