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Bank Stock Profit Engine Will Sputter In the New Year

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Banks are likely to face another year of painful contraction of their net interest margins, before seeing a light at the end of the tunnel in 2014.

The net interest margin is the difference between a bank's average yield on loans and securities investments, and its average cost for deposits and wholesale borrowings.

The Federal Reserve has kept its target federal funds rate in a range of zero to 0.25% since late 2008. Last Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee announced that it anticipated "that this exceptionally low range for the federal funds rate will be appropriate at least as long as the unemployment rate remains above 6-1/2 percent, inflation between one and two years ahead is projected to be no more than a half percentage point above the Committee's 2 percent longer-run goal, and longer-term inflation expectations continue to be well anchored."

The Fed also said that it would continue to purchase agency mortgage backed securities at a pace of $40 billion a month, and that it would continue buying long-term U.S. Treasury securities "initially" at a pace of $45 billion a month during 2013. This stance will be even more "highly accommodative" than it has been during 2012, because the central bank will stop making concurrent sales of short-term Treasuries.

With the short-term rates being so low for so long, most of the largest banks have already seen the bulk of the savings on the funding side, while their assets continue to reprice to lower rates. Looking at the 24 components of the KBW Bank Index (I:BKX), 13 of the nation's largest banks saw their net interest margins narrow sequentially during the third quarter, while 18 saw them decline year-over-year. Here's how the "big four" U.S. banks' net interest margins fared through the third-quarter:
  • Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) saw its net interest widen to 2.27% during the third quarter from 2.15% in the second quarter. The third-quarter net interest margin was down slightly from 2.28% in the third quarter of 2011.
  • For Citigroup (C - Get Report), the third-quarter net interest margin was 2.84%, widening from 2.76% in the second quarter, and from 2.82% a year earlier, making it the only member of the big four club to see its NIM widen sequentially and year-over-year.
  • JPMorgan Chase (Wells Fargo) saw its net interest margin narrow to 2.40% during the third quarter, from 2.42% the previous quarter, and 2.65% a year earlier.
  • Wells Fargo (WFC - Get Report) had the largest sequential decline in net interest margin during the third quarter among the big four. The NIM was 3.62%, narrowing from 3.83% in the second quarter, and 3.77% in the third quarter of 2011.

Looking past the big four, there were three regional banks among the components of the KBW Bank Index that saw their net interest margins widen sequentially and year-over-year:
  • KeyCorp's (KEY) third-quarter net interest margin was 3.19%, expanding from 2.99% in the second quarter and 3.04% in the third quarter of 2011.
  • First Niagara Financial Group (FNFG) of Buffalo, N.Y., saw its third-quarter net interest margin expand to 3.51% from 3.18% the previous quarter and 3.41% a year earlier, as the company's funding cost declined from its net acquisition of roughly 100 branches from HSBC (HBC).
  • M&T Bank(MTB) -- also headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y. -- saw its NIM expand to 3.75% in the third quarter from 3.68% the previous quarter, and 3.67% a year earlier. The sequential margin improvement "was predominantly due to a $1.6 billion increase in average loans and leases, largely offset by declines in average balances of lower yielding money-market assets and investment securities," according to the bank.

How Low Can Margins Go?

With the Fed continuing to pump money into the economy while boosting demand for U.S. Treasuries to clamp down on long-term rates, JPMorgan analyst Vivek Juneja on Friday said that "banks' ability to offset declining asset yields remains difficult and is exacerbated near term by high [mortgage loan refinancing activity] and the large amount of deposits invested in liquid assets. With the Fed now expected to hold interest rates flat through mid-2015, we expect NIM pressure to continue throughout 2013 and 2014 for most banks."
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