United Community Banks in Blairsville, Ga., reported higher quarterly profit because of loan growth and higher fee revenue.

The $7.6 billion-asset company reported that its fourth-quarter net income rose 15% from a year, to $18.2 million. Earnings 30 cents a share met the average estimate of analysts polled by Bloomberg.

Net interest income rose 4%, to $58.3 million. Total loans increased 8%, to roughly $4.7 billion, with growth in specialized lending playing a large role, Jimmy Tallent, the company's president and chief executive, said in a press release Wednesday. The net interest margin expanded by 5 basis points, to 3.31%, and Tallent said he expected the margin to remain steady throughout this year.

Fee income increased 10%, to $14.8 million, because of higher service charges and mortgage loan fees, along with income of $926,000 from selling U.S. Small Business Administration loans.

Operating expenses were relatively flat, at $42 million.

"Preserving our net interest margin and growing net interest revenue, while minimizing exposure to changes in interest rates, have been top priorities for growing earnings," Tallent said. "We've been able to hold the margin steady... following our second-quarter balance sheet management activities, which included restructuring the securities portfolio, interest rate hedged and wholesale borrowings."

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