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Weak lending by Pa. banks

"Disappointing" numbers, mostly

Here's what professional bank-watchers are saying about lending patterns at some of the Philadelphia area's most significant lenders, after reviewing first-quarter earnings:

"Loan growth was somewhat disappointing" at Beneficial Bank, writes Frank Schiraldi, managing director at Sanford O'Neill + Partners, a New York investment bank that focuses on financial stocks, after reviewing first-quarter numbers for the company, the largest bank still based in Philadelphia.

Schiraldi and other investors had expected modest growth; instead, "loan balances contracted" by nearly 1 percent, though small business loans grew 7%. Borrowers cut back on home loans, commercial real estate loans and personal loans; CEO Jerry Cuddy's management team blamed "weak demand" by Philadelphia-area borrowers.

Lending recovered a bit more at another Center City-based lender, Republic First Bancorp, where loans were up modestly "across the board," thanks partly to the company's new Cherry Hill branch. Republic's profits were disappointing, but with $45 million in new investments from ex-Commerce Bank chief Vernon Hill and other investors, the company plans a string of new South Jersey branches and is in expansion mode, Schiraldi added.

At First Niagara, successor to the former Harleysville National Bank, "loan growth slowed a bit," compared to last year, analyst Anthony Polini told clients at Raymond James Equity Research. As at other banks, real estate loan growth appeared weak, while business lending rose.

At National Penn, which recently relocated its headquarters from Boyertown to Allentown's reviving downtown, "commercial loan growth accelerated" very slightly, even though loan profit margins slipped, Polini added.

Of the Lancaster banks with suburban Philadelphia branches, Susquehanna Bank showed 'no loan growth," Stern Agee analyst Matthew Kelley told clients in a report, while loans actually declined at Fulton Bank, though business loans there were up, he added.

Customers Bank, the Phoenixville-based lender headed by former Sovereign Bank chief Jay S. Sidhu, reported "massive loan growth," up more than $1 billion over the past year, to $4 billion at March 31 -- due not to Pennsylvania borrowers but to 'aggressive expansoin into the metro New York City" apartment finance market, Kelley noted in a separate report.

Customers' new loans "are being booked at substantially lower rates than maturing loans, while the company is paying above-market rates for deposits as a hedge of sorts against rising rates," warned Matthew Schultheis, bank analyst at Boenning & Scattergood, West Conshoohocken.

At PNC, the largest bank based in Pennsylvania, business loans rose 3% nationwide, RayJay's Polini wrote, ahead of most of the regional banks. At Buffalo-based M&T, which owns the former Wilmington Trust Co. and is a major lender in central Pennsylvania and upstate New York, "commercial loan growth was again a bright spot," analyst Todd L. Hagerman of Stern Agee told clients.

And at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co., the nation's mortgage leader and the dominant bank in the Philadelphia area, the first quarter marked a "low-water mark for mortgage," noted analyst R. Scott Siefers of Sandler O'Neill. Even if the market recovers later this year, as he expects, "it will not be easy" for the company to meet its own profit targets.