While Profit Rises, U.S. Bancorp Focuses on Costs, Waits for Fed Hike

MINNEAPOLIS (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS) -

U.S. Bancorp beat analyst estimates in the fourth quarter, as profits rose 2.2 percent on accelerating loan growth and improved loan quality.

Revenue growth continues to be a struggle, the bank’s leaders said, and the company will try to keep costs down until the Federal Reserve lifts interest rates, perhaps in the middle of 2015.

“We’re just going to gut it out and do a little better than everyone else on all the tenets,” Richard Davis, CEO of U.S. Bank, told analysts. “The next opportunity for us to perform is when the rates pick up.”

The quarterly results showed the Minneapolis-based bank, the nation’s fifth-largest, continues to be one of the strongest-performing in the country. Revenue rose 5.7 percent and the company earned $1.49 billion, or 79 cents a diluted share, in the last three months of 2014. That’s up from $1.46 billion, or 76 cents a diluted share, a year ago.

Annual profit in 2014 was $5.9 billion, a record for the company.

Commercial and industrial lending grew by 15.5 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2013, as the economy improved and business owners gained confidence. In the latest quarter, the company’s charge-offs for poor loans was $35 million lower than in the fourth quarter of 2013.

“We were able to deliver record earnings in a period where the economy still hasn’t really rebounded,” said Kathy Rogers, the bank’s new chief financial officer. “We had solid growth in loans, we remained at industry levels for our returns, so (we’re) just really happy with our results for the quarter.”

U.S. Bank, which employs about 10,000 people in the Twin Cities, said its average total loans grew 5.9 percent in the fourth quarter compared to a year earlier. Total commercial lending grew 15.5 percent compared to a year ago.

Its net interest margin, an indicator of lending profitability, was 3.14 percent, down from 3.4 percent a year ago as rates on new loans were lower.

Lending profitability will get a big boost if interest rates start to rise. The bank is positioned to be asset-sensitive, said Andy Cecere, the new chief operating officer for the bank, meaning that it has more loans and assets than deposits and liabilities. If rates rise, the company will earn more new interest on loans than it will pay in new interest on customers’ deposits.

“If rates go up 50 basis points, we’ll have more assets going up in a time frame than we will have liabilities and deposits, therefore we will make more money,” Cecere said. “Most banks right now are asset-sensitive.”

The bank would also make more money on fees if interest rates ticked upward.

The company announced Tuesday that Cecere has been promoted to chief operating officer, making him the first person since Davis to hold that position. Asked by analysts whether the promotion signals anything about the future of the company, Davis said it’s a chance for Cecere to demonstrate that his financial acumen will translate into effective management of the bank’s revenue-producing business lines.

“It is fairly transparent,” Davis said. “It’s a chance to give Andy an opportunity to prove that he can run virtually all parts of the company, with the eventual opportunity for him to run it some day.”

In trading Wednesday, U.S. Bancorp shares rose 99 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $42.20.