Banks are talking boldly about business growth prospects for 2013, but analysts who track what lenders actually do say most are acting as though they are still more focused on cutting costs than on financing things that could put more Americans back to work.
"We look deep into our customers' budgets. Most of them have a growth plan; all of them have a nice capital expenditure budget," says Chuck Greenberg, who heads Bank of America's lending to manufacturers, warehouse operators, law firms, and other "mid-market" companies, with sales of $50 million to $3 billion a year in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
Still, even Greenberg acknowledges new lending has slowed in recent months, and he says he expects growth will stay slow this winter as businesses hoard cash and wait for Washington to set new tax and spending policies, instead of risking it on hiring workers and soliciting new clients.
Bank of America is trying to make more business loans to offset weak securities-market profits, writes Anthony Polini, analyst at Raymond James & Associates in New York.
Wells Fargo boss John Stumpf told investors earlier this month his bank, now America's biggest mortgage lender as well as the dominant branch bank in Philadelphia and other big cities, will keep boosting its profits - currently $1 billion every three weeks - as borrowers refinance home loans at near-record cheap rates. This despite what he called a deepening public pessimism about the larger U.S. economy.
Overall, banks are in a "Hunger Games contest to survive [the] brutal" slow-growth economy, writes bond analyst David Hendler at CreditSights Inc. in New York. Cut-rate refinancings are keeping lenders busy and profitable but are no substitute for "healthier organic growth," he adds.
Citigroup's recent firing of chief executive Vikram Pandit, a creative corporate "strategist," and replacing him with bean-counting operations specialist Michael Corbat, who plans to shut branches in the Philadelphia suburbs and other slow markets, is proof the "waiting-for-the-cycle-to-rebound game is at an end," Hendler added. Banks are focused more on cutting costs through layoffs and labor-saving services such as smartphone banking.
A few national lenders are trying new business lines. Capital One Corp. of Virginia, which recently bought the former ING Direct Bank and HSBC credit-card units in Wilmington, is plowing years of credit-card profits into two of the few fast-growing U.S. business segments: energy and health care, writes Sameer Gokhale, stock analyst at Janney Capital Markets in Philadelphia.
Analysts at Sandler O'Neill + Partners in New York have warned investors of slow growth at a string of community banks in the Philadelphia area. Examples:
Beneficial Bank of Philadelphia continues to shrink its loan portfolio as business real estate owners pay down loans and don't borrow more, writes Sandler's Frank Schiraldi. Like other lenders, Beneficial is buying back its own shares to prop up the stock price, as though that will create better returns for investors than betting on new small-business or consumer loans.
Bryn Mawr Bank Corp. posted a small rise in business lending last quarter but told investors the future "pipeline" is stronger for loans to small companies in the Philadelphia suburbs and Wilmington.
Cape Bancorp. Inc.'s Ocean City, N.J.-area customers were spared the worst of Hurricane Sandy, but Schiraldi says, "Loan demand remains relatively muted."
Fox Chase Bancorp reported it was funding more loans to buy apartment buildings, as single-home sales remain slow.
Money-losing Sun Bancorp of Vineland faces more losses from "a construction company and a hotel operator on the Jersey Shore," writes Schiraldi's colleague Joseph Fenech.