July 17--Businesses are getting more comfortable borrowing money, which is good news for banks.
An acceleration in commercial lending helped U.S. Bancorp post a $1.5 billion profit in the second quarter as revenue grew 4.9 percent.
The Minneapolis-based company said lending to businesses rose 12.4 percent year-over-year. Commercial real estate lending grew 6.9 percent, driven by growth in construction and development.
CEO Richard Davis said in a conference call with analysts that loan demand is stronger because companies are building inventory to prepare for an improving economy.
"We're seeing it particularly in the middle market," Davis said. "Retail, food and ag continue to be strong."
Revenue in the quarter grew for the nation's fifth-largest bank after declining in recent quarters, hitting $5.2 billion. The bank, which does business across a large swath of the middle of the country and the West, also indicated that the health of its loan portfolio was improving, with an 11 percent decline in net chargeoffs from a year ago.
Davis said the second quarter will likely be U.S. Bank's strongest for loan growth this year, but added that businesses are starting to borrow more, hoping to lock in favorable rates while the Federal Reserve is still holding interest rates down.
The Fed is phasing out its massive bond-buying program known as quantitative easing, which was meant to drive down the cost of borrowing. Also, Chairwoman Janet Yellen signaled on Tuesday that the Fed could hike interest rates soon, if unemployment keeps falling quickly.
Growth in commercial lending is broad-based. PNC Financial on Wednesday reported a 9.5 percent gain in its commercial loan portfolio. Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup have all reported stronger commercial lending. According to the latest data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., commercial and industrial loans have been among the fastest-growing portions of most bank's portfolios for the past year.
"It's signaling that businesses are getting more confident about borrowing from banks, that they expect the economy to pick up, that they expect the economy to get better," said Dan Werner, an analyst for Morningstar in Chicago. "Most U.S. banks are seeing really strong commercial loan growth."
U.S. Bank closely watches whether business customers use their lines of credit, which they had been doing less and less since the financial crisis hit, said Andy Cecere, U.S. Bancorp's chief financial officer.
"For the first time since the fourth quarter of 2008, we actually saw a small increase," Cecere said.
The average percentage of a line of credit used by commercial customers ticked upward from 23.5 percent to 24.5 percent in the quarter. It was a modest increase that's far from prerecession levels, but still a reversal of a long-term trend.
"I think perhaps some of that hesitation is starting to dissipate a little bit, which is a positive sign," Cecere said.
The uptick in business lending and growth in other fee businesses has helped banks offset a decline in mortgage lending and fees. Income from fees for U.S. Bank grew 7.4 percent year-over-year, despite rapidly declining mortgage fee revenue. Growth in payment processing and trust and investment management fees led the growth.
"We think that improvement in commercial loans will enable them to offset weaker mortgage to the extent that it does soften," said David George, an analyst at Robert W. Baird in St. Louis. "It's a pretty diverse business model. They've obviously got a lot of fee businesses that have exhibited strength and are doing a nice job growing."
Thanks to a weak first quarter, the bank has been watching costs closely; it put a hold on new hiring in February. The second quarter was a nice rebound, said Cecere.
"It did not make up for the first quarter, but it was back to normal," Cecere said. "Normal is still pretty slow growth."
U.S. Bank has 98 branches in the Twin Cities and employs 10,000 people in the metro area.
The bank's performance ratios continued to be among the highest among major U.S. banks, with a return on assets of 1.6 percent and a return on equity of 15.1 percent.
"They are the most efficient bank in the industry," George said.
U.S. Bank also announced a $200 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice relating to the endorsement of mortgage loans under the Federal Housing Administration's insurance program.
Separately, it recorded a $214 million gain in the quarter from the sale of shares in Visa Inc. The two one-time items netted out and didn't affect the company's bottom line.
Adam Belz -- 612-673-4405
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