SunTrust Banks (STI) worked hard to get its affairs in order last year. Now it's up to Chairman and Chief Executive Bill Rogers to keep the Atlanta company on track to grow.
When the $172 billion-asset company reports fourth-quarter results Friday, it will close out a year where it paid billions to settle legal disputes tied to its mortgage dealings. SunTrust also cut 800 jobs in that area as refinancing activity cooled off, and it sold the rights to service $1 billion of delinquent mortgages.
Separately, management rid itself of a noncore business line, agreeing to sell RidgeWorth Investments, an asset-management unit, to a group of employees and outside investors.
It's clear that Rogers and his team prioritized putting a number of lingering problems to rest. "The big sort of legacy issues I feel are more in the rearview mirror," Rogers told analysts at a Dec. 10 conference in New York hosted by Goldman Sachs.
A SunTrust spokesman declined to comment.
SunTrust's biggest move involved a $1.5 billion settlement tied to loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration. The company also paid $373 million to Fannie Mae, $160 million to the Federal Reserve Board and $65 million to Freddie Mac last year.
The elimination of distracting investigations, and unwanted assets should clear the deck for SunTrust to make progress on other goals this year, says Stephen Scinicariello, an analyst at UBS Securities. "It sets up for a much cleaner 2014," he says.
Despite the relatively clean slate, few analysts expect SunTrust to emerge an active acquirer, and fewer expect management to sell the company this year.
"I would say SunTrust is neither a seller nor a target, at least for a while," Scinicariello says. "The greatest opportunity they have is to improve their own internal efficiency, and I don't see them having to acquire things to make that happen."
Rather, SunTrust will likely focus on becoming more efficient, says Chris Marinac, an analyst at FIG Partners. He projects that SunTrust will report a fourth-quarter efficiency ratio below 65%, adding that it could drop to 63%, or lower, by the mid-2014.
That's down from 71% at the end of 2012. SunTrust wants to lower it further, to somewhere in the high 50% range, Aleem Gillani, the company's chief financial officer, told attendees at the Nov. 7 BancAnalysts Association of Boston Conference.
"It's going to be more challenging to get to 60%," Gillani said in response to an attendee's question. "You're right. We've gotten halfway from where we wanted to go to what our target is."
Some of the savings will come through job cuts, including 800 mortgage-related positions that the company is eliminating.
Kevin Fitzsimmons, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill, estimates that a 20% staff reduction would generate quarterly savings of about $50 million, beginning in the second quarter.
SunTrust will also cut costs by renegotiating leases for office space, changes in how it runs ATMs and back-office operations, and reduced travel, among other areas, Gillani said. "When I saw the $362 room rate at this hotel we're not staying tonight," he said at the BancAnalysts conference, which was held at The Langham, a historic Boston hotel located in a former Fed building.
SunTrust is relying on an economic recovery, and some new initiatives, to jumpstart loan growth and fee income. In August, it announced a venture with MetLife (MET) to fund $5 billion of commercial mortgages originated by the insurance giant.
Last month, its SunTrust Equity Funding unit unveiled a sale-leaseback deal where it will buy about 30 branches from Susquehanna Banchshares (SUSQ) in Pennsylvania. The deal will provide SunTrust with a steady stream of lease income for at least 15 years per branch.
The decision to sell RidgeWorth epitomizes SunTrust's efforts to rid itself of distractions and focus on its core business, analysts say. RidgeWorth, also based in Atlanta, had been for sale for several years, Marinac says.
"At the end of the day, it comes back to management being much more focusd on their core strategic goals and where they are able to cross-sell," Scinicariello says. "RidgeWorth doesn't really fit with that kind of strategy."