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America's regional banks address the bank lending slowdown

Nicole Sinclair
Markets Correspondent
The banks are in focus at the start of earnings season, with bulge bracket names doing well. Meanwhile, concerns for regional banks may be overdone. (REUTERS/File photos)

As large banks like Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC) and Morgan Stanley (MS) post strong numbers on improved capital markets and net income margin, concerns continue to abound around tepid bank lending, particularly for regional banks.

Everything from uncertainty in DC to customers accessing bond markets (as opposed to taking out bank loans) to pains in the energy industry have been presented as explanations for the downturn in bank lending.

But results from country’s largest regional bank, US Bancorp (USB)—which posted average loan growth of 4% year-over-year and 0.2% quarter-over-quarter—may show that concerns are overdone.

US Bancorp CEO Andrew Cecere conceded that first-quarter commercial loan growth was sluggish but said said he doesn’t anticipate a big slowdown for the year.

“Our large corporate customers tell us that they are optimistic about the future, but are awaiting more clarity regarding potential changes in tax and regulatory reform, infrastructure spend and trade policies,” Cecere said Wednesday on the company’s earnings conference call. “Additionally, some of our clients are actively accessing the capital markets, which pulls some financing from the bank lending arena or result in a reduce line utilization.”

In the end, while US Bancorp won’t hit its 6% to 8% target range of growth, the CEO said it won’t be far off from that.

“It’s going to be in the middle single-digits, if you will, for the year,” he said. “We also do believe that the second quarter is going to start to get stronger, and that’s going to accelerate as the year progresses.”

Cecere added that he remains optimistic about the future of loan growth.

“We expect commercial loan growth to be better in the second quarter versus the first, and we expect more robust commercial loan growth in the second half of the year,” said Cecere.

Other upbeat commentary

Fellow regional bank PNC (PNC) also reported a solid first quarter, with loan growth up 1% for the linked quarter.

“We grew loans and revenue, and we managed expenses well while continuing to invest in our businesses and to enhance innovation,” said CEO William Demchak. “As we progress through 2017, we are well positioned to benefit should environmental factors, including interest rates, turn more favorable.”

Grayson Hall, CEO of Regions Financial (RF), which saw 2% year-over-year loan growth, also remained optimistic.

“As it relates to loan growth, we are encouraged by conversations with our customers,” Hall said. “Moreover, consumer and small-business sentiment continues to improve. In addition, customers particularly in the middle market segment are beginning to plan for future capital expenditures.”

This follows upbeat commentary on loans from Bank of America’s (BAC) Brian Moynihan.

“On lending activity, we’ve been in a lot of discussion regarding a slowdown. In our core middle market business, representing the broad base of American companies, our business loans grew 7% year over year,” Moynihan said. “In our smaller business segments, business banking, and small business, we’re up 3%, and small business had the best production quarter in its history.”

Nicole Sinclair is markets reporter for Yahoo Finance.

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