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ConnectOne Bancorp, Inc. (NASDAQ:CNOB) Q4 2022 Earnings Call Transcript

ConnectOne Bancorp, Inc. (NASDAQ:CNOB) Q4 2022 Earnings Call Transcript January 26, 2023

Operator: Greetings. Welcome to ConnectOne Bancorp Incorporated Fourth Quarter 2022 Earnings Call. At this time, all participants are in listen-only mode. A question-and-answer session will follow the formal presentation. Please note, this conference is being recorded. At this time, I will now turn the conference over to Siya Vansia, Chief Brand and Innovation Officer. Siya, you may begin.

Siya Vansia: Good morning, and welcome to today's conference call to review ConnectOne's results for the fourth quarter of 2022 and to update you on recent developments. On today's conference call will be Frank Sorrentino, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; and Bill Burns, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. I'd also like to caution you that we may make forward-looking statements during today's conference call that are subject to risks and uncertainties. Factors that may cause actual results to differ materially from expectations are detailed in our SEC filings. The forward-looking statements included in this conference call are only made as of the date of this call and the company is not obligated to publicly update or revise them.

In addition, certain terms used in this call are non-GAAP financial measures, reconciliations of which are provided in the company's earnings release and accompanying tables or schedules, which have been filed today on Form 8-K with the SEC and may also be accessed through the company's website. I will now turn the call over to Frank Sorrentino. Frank, please go ahead.

Frank Sorrentino: Thank you, Siya, and good morning, everyone. We appreciate you joining us today. ConnectOne just completed another solid year. We generated high quality earnings, achieved extraordinary organic growth, gained traction in our markets and continue to digitize our infrastructure. As we think about our results, I'd like to emphasize our ongoing commitment to supporting our client's needs. Despite the ups and downs of interest rates or the economy, ConnectOne's client centric business model has continuously -- has continually served us well. And like I've always said, if we do that right and we do things for the right reasons, we can create long-term shareholder value. And so notwithstanding the challenging economic environment, we once again delivered strong financial performance for the quarter.

Return on assets exceeded 1.3%, while our return on tangible common equity was nearly 15%. Our PPNR as a percent of assets exceeded 2%, the 10th consecutive quarter that PPNR has been higher than 2%. Tangible book value per share advanced another 4%. Our efficiency ratio again was below 40%. Capital ratios remained strong. And while much of the industry has experienced weakness here, our tangible common equity ratio stands at over 9% at year end. We also capped off a record year for both loan originations and deposits. Our loan portfolio increased over 19% year-over-year, while our deposits grew in excess of 16%, benefiting from the recent investments in our team, infrastructure and the digitization that we've shared over the last few quarters and seeing a healthy diversification in our portfolio.

Our originations were spread amongst all segments of our markets, including Southeast Florida and Eastern Long Island with additional synergies driven through BoeFly in both SBA and non-SBA lending verticals. ConnectOne's strong performance in 2022 is a testament to the success of our culture, the technological foundation we've built and our relationship focused origination franchise. That said, it's important to note that despite consistent performance, each quarter has its own set of challenges and opportunities. Like many banks, we had a challenging quarter with respect to net interest margin. The deposit competition significantly increased reflecting the Fed's intensified battle with inflation. In addition to the rapid and significant rise in short term interest rates, quantitative tightening has removed liquidity from the financial markets, even if the economy continues to grow.

As a result, by decreasing the money supply, there is an overall decline in deposits within the banking system and this has led to historically fierce competition for interest bearing deposits among both large and small banking institutions. With our loan portfolio -- while our loan portfolio rates are increasing at a nice pace around 50 basis points sequentially, credit spreads for bank loans continue to remain low from a historical perspective. And finally, while the inverted yield curve puts additional, albeit temporary pressure on the NIM, we made the decision to maintain and support our client relationships main focus on serving our clients, supporting our staff, delivering value to our shareholders and improving and building upon our distinctive operating platform, all while maintaining our results oriented client centric culture.

Our business model has performed well across a variety of economic interest rate environment. We always set ourselves apart by making it easier for our clients to do business with us, while empowering them with the latest technology to meet their evolving needs. And we enter 2023 well positioned to build on our strengths and achieve our long-term objectives. Speaking of technology, several of our investments are moving through to implementation and are focused on providing a better experience for our clients, while driving increased productivity and efficiency. Our partnership with MANTL to deploy a new modern omnichannel deposit origination platform is underway and this partnership allows us to expand our reach in supporting commercial, small business and consumer clients, while optimizing our workflows.

Our partnership with Nymbus, the launch venture arm, the new branded business vertical on a lean and nimble cloud-based tool is nearing launch and will provide bespoke banking services designed to meet the demands of high growth venture backed technology companies. Turning to BoeFly, our online business lending marketplace, we continue to enhance its infrastructure, add new users, increase our client's overall workflow efficiency and drive revenue. Now turning to credit, our credit performance remained strong and while Bill will provide some additional detail shortly, we saw improvement in credit metrics during the fourth quarter. Our NPAs declined by more than 20%. Our delinquencies as a percentage of total loans remain near zero and we continue to prudently maintaining reserve levels commensurate with our organic growth and the changing macroeconomic forecast.

We ended the year with a very strong capital position across all regulatory ratios, in addition to the cam -- tangible common equity ratio, which is hardly been impacted by AOCI. We've also been investing in our business. And as we enter 2023, I'm excited to build on the early successes we've seen from the launch of our new healthcare team and our expansion into Southeast Florida and Eastern Long Island markets. With that, we remain confident in our ability to drive value for our shareholders. And similar to previous years, that could include our board evaluating future dividend increases and reinforcing our belief that ConnectOne shares are undervalued potentially utilizing share repurchases, all subject to market conditions. So to wrap things up, we're dynamic, highly valuable franchise and we're pressing forward and leveraging our client first operating model.

Enter 2023 with a deep capital base, strong earnings that can support multiple growth initiatives. And in short, I'm confident that we'll continue to produce opportunities for our clients, our team members, and our shareholders. We look forward to sharing our progress in the quarters ahead. And with that, I'll now turn the call over to Bill.

Bill Burns: All right. Thank you, Frank. Good morning, everyone. I'm sure many of you are waiting my commentary on the net interest margin, both for the current quarter and give you some guidance for 2023. But before I get there, I'd like to review what was a stellar year for ConnectOne. Our operating earnings were a record representing 2.2% of average assets and they were up nearly 12% from the prior year. Period end loans grew by 19% and deposits by more than 16%. Our tangible book value per share increased another 8% in 2022 after increasing by 15% in 2021, that's close to 25% in two years. And that reflects not only our strong core earnings, but also effective management of our securities portfolio and the result in AOCI and the fact that we've grown organically and not through M&A.

Credit quality, those metrics improved even further with our nonperforming asset ratio decreasing for the fifth consecutive quarter to 0.46%. And as many of you are aware, some of those non-performing assets include a small and declining exposure. We have tax medallions, which by the way already have a very comfortable reserve recurring value. Excluding those taxi loans, our NPA ratio was cut in half to 23 basis points. And delinquencies that is loans past due 30 days or more were next to nothing, just 2 basis points of total loans. Our net interest margin, which has been under pressure recently came in at 3.70% for the entire year, that's a record for ConnectOne and higher than most in the industry. And our efficiency ratio was 39% for the year even as we invest in technology, reward and build our staff and prepare for crossing the $10 billion threshold.

So when you combine our strong growth with a wide margin, an efficient back office, strong credit and balance sheet management, the result is upper quartile, if not higher returns on asset, equity and tangible book value per share growth. And that kind of performance gives us the flexibility to manage for the long-term, which is nothing new at ConnectOne. For example, while some of the industry achieved efficiency by cutting costs, ConnectOne's best-in-class efficiency is based on strong revenue and a scalable operating platform as we invest opportunistically and where needed to ensure the long-term success for the company. In a similar light and turning to today's challenges, we reviewed the landscape and made a strategic decision to be more aggressive with deposit rate competition to proactively both retain our existing clients and grow our core commercial client base, which we believe will drive long term benefit.


We are one of the top commercial and business banking franchises headquartered in the Metropolitan New York region. We don't focus on ancillary business lines that can be both volatile and troublesome, rather those businesses, segments, and clients we know and serve best. Now let's dive a little deeper into some of the factors impacting our margin, many of which either have or will be impacting many others in the banking industry. And as I said before, we had previously anticipated pressure on the margin, given that we're already operating at record highs. Now let's talk about the two primary tools to the Fed's disposal contained inflation, which are: one, increasing the Fed's funds target rate; and second, open market access to contract money supply.

First, that short-term rate -- that rise in short-term rates has provided greater incentive to the positive, the transfer of balances out of noninterest bearing accounts. We are seeing this, the whole industry is experiencing it. And that intentional upward push on short-term rates had the effect of inverting the yield curve. And that too is putting pressure on loan spreads and margins. Second, the tightening of money supply, which results in increased competition for deposits, competition that heats up during the fourth quarter and that is essentially what is accelerating deposit betas. One more item impacting the margin is a significantly lower level of loan prepayments and therefore the associated prepayment penalty income is lower. These items have combined to cause a larger than expected compression to our margins.

But keep in mind that net interest income for the quarter was about flat sequentially and is up 11% from a year ago. Now, going back to some of Frank's comments I want to reiterate, that although we carefully watch and are cognizant of Federal Reserve policy and do all we can to lessen the impact of economic condition, those things are somewhat out of our control and tend to be temporary. Where we are keenly focused is on managing things in our control, which is more specifically serving our clients. And we have been extremely effective at maintaining and solidifying strong client relationships and then capturing new market share, especially where clients are feeling particularly displaced by M&A. Ultimately, that will continue to make us a consistent earner, maintaining a prudent approach to growth in terms of both credit and spreads, managing our expenses and maintaining our culture, all those together over the long term will continue to drive shareholder value.

Now looking ahead, we're going to continue to focus on gaining market share of market rates. We do believe things have calmed down slightly, however, there was still potential for several rate hikes and continued contraction in liquidity, so there will likely be continued pressure on the NIM in the short-term. However, when condition settles down, when the yield curve resumed its normal upwards stuff, we aim to be back to where we are today or even slightly above. Now moving to other items impacting the financials, we saw modest seasonal provisioning this quarter related to both organic loan growth and a slightly continued deterioration in Moody's economic forecast across a range of specific metrics. The quarter's charge offs relate to the successful workout of non-accrual loans identified and reserved for in previous periods.

And therefore, it did not materially impact the provision this quarter and certainly are not any indication of an upward trend in charge offs, the net charge off rate for the year which is just 7 basis points. And just to reiterate, all indications at the present time point the solid asset quality metrics. As far as noninterest income, we are probably just a little light versus Street estimates, but we have a pipeline of SBA loan sale gains building through both BoeFly and traditional sources and we are optimistic that that will be increasing source of revenue for ConnectOne. In terms of other expenses, inflationary pressures persist and are impacting our numbers to some degree. As it's typical for ConnectOne, there usually is an increase in sequential expenses heading into a new year and I'm estimating that to be about 4% for quarter one.

But I'm targeting relatively minor expense increases for the remainder of the year. We finished 2022 with the 13% increase in staff over that -- over the course of 2022. I expect that rate of staff increase to be much lower in '23. I also wanted to mention that we will be calling $75 million or 5.2% sub debt on February 1, in just a few days. We pre-funded that in 2021 with a non-cumulative preferred stock issuance. So we end the year with a nice capital level and assuming solid growth. We would plan to recommend dividend increases and stock repurchases for 2023. And that concludes my remarks. Back to Frank.

Frank Sorrentino: Thank you, Bill. So, as you all heard, we made some significant strides in 2022 and from market expansion through the addition of new talent and business lines and leading investments in technology and infrastructure. We certainly laid a lot of groundwork to capitalize on new growth opportunities in 2023. Even with the number of uncertainties hanging over the industry, our strategic priorities for 2023 are very clear. We're prepared and geared to continue to smartly gain market share. We have a dynamic team of bankers with a proven ability to execute. And I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge all of our team members who made 2022 the success that it is. We had a scalable operating model that continuously evolves by leveraging technology.

We continue to view 2023 as a year that will be riped with opportunities for continued expansion of our prudent growth given the M&A disruption and our proven success at capitalizing in these moments. So we're excited for the future ahead. And in our view, ConnectOne continues to generate meaningful shareholder value and remains a very compelling investment opportunity. So thanks again and we're happy at this time to take your questions. Operator?

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