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First Niagara Bucks Trend on Rough Day for Bank Stocks

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Shares of First Niagara Financial Group (FNFG - Get Report) on Friday were up 0.9% to close at $8.64, which was quite a contrast to the slide for most other bank stocks.

The positive vibes from Thursday's report of strong fourth-quarter GDP growth in the United States couldn't keep domestic markets from following overseas markets lower, with renewed pressure on several emerging market currencies, including those of Hungary, Turkey, South Africa, Russia and Poland.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI) was down nearly 1%, while the S&P 500 (^GSPC) gave up 0.7% and the NASDAQ Composite (^IXIC) ended 0.5% lower.

Disappointing earnings results didn't help. Shares of Amazon (AMZN) were down 11% to 358.69, after the world's largest Internet retailer reported fourth-quarter earnings of $239 million, or 51 cents a share, which was well shy of the consensus EPS estimate 66 cents among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. Jim Cramer said it was "no time to panic on Amazon," after a "classic freak-out," and that as the retailer will be more profitable when it raises prices on Amazon Prime.

Must Read: Cullen/Frost Leads Banks Higher as GDP Growth Stays Solid

Domestic economic news was mixed, with the Bureau of Economic Analysis saying personal spending during December had risen 0.4% in December from November, slightly ahead of the consensus estimate of a 0.3% increase. But personal income during December increased less than 0.1%. Economists had expected a 0.2% increase in personal income. Disposal personal income (DPI) was down by $3.8 billion, or less than 0.1%.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) on Friday said the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index (Chicago PMI) for declined to 59.6 in January from 60.8 in December, "the third consecutive monthly fall following October's jump to the highest since March 2011. The Chicago PMI came in ahead of the consensus estimate of 59.3, and the ISM said "remained firm and consistent with the recent pick-up in GDP. A PMI number above 50 indicates expansion of manufacturing activity.

The KBW Bank Index (I:BKX) was down 1.5% to 67.33, with all 24 component stocks seeing losses except for First Niagara.

Shares of Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) were down 1.1% to $16.75, after New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick approved most of the $8.5 billion mortgage putback settlement the bank agreed to with a group of institutional investors back in June 2011.  The settlement was meant to cover all the investors' claims against Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America disastrously acquired during the mortgage meltdown in July 2008.  Investors agreement to the settlement included Pimco BlackRock (BLK), Goldman Sachs (GS) and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, however, American International Group (AIG) continues to fight the settlement.

First Niagara

Shares of First Niagara of Buffalo, N.Y., have declined 19% this year.  The shares trade for 11.8 times the consensus 2015 EPS estimate of 73 cents, which isn't very cheap when considering the company this week announced a massive four-year investment program to improve its operating performance.

CEO Gary Crosby during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call on Jan 24 -- when Fist Niagara's stock slid 12% -- said the bank's goal was to achieve a return on assets (ROA) ranging from 1.15% to 1.20%, while lowering its efficiency ratio to the mid-50s range.  The efficiency ratio is a bank's overhead as a percentage of revenue.  First Niagara's 2013 ROA was 0.80% during 2013, and its efficiency ratio was 63.82%.  The company's goals are all well and good, but cannot be achieved until 2018, according to Crosby.

Crosby was appointed interim CEO of First Niagara last march, after the abrupt resignation of former CEO John Koelmel, who had led the company though a series of acquisitions that had more than quadrupled the bank's assets over five years, while cutting the bank's quarterly dividend in half and completing a dilutive common-stock offering late in 2011.

Please see Should You Wait for First Niagara to Get Its Act Together? for much more on the bank's fourth-quarter results, its planed investments of $200 to $300 million over the next four years, and its history of acquisitions.

This chart shows the performance of First Niagara's stock against the KBW Bank Index and S&P 500 since the end of 2011:

FNFG Chart data by YCharts


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Philip W. van Doorn is a member of TheStreet's banking and finance team, commenting on industry and regulatory trends. He previously served as the senior analyst for TheStreet.com Ratings, responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to banks and savings and loan institutions. Mr. van Doorn previously served as a loan operations officer at Riverside National Bank in Fort Pierce, Fla., and as a credit analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, where he monitored banks in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Mr. van Doorn has additional experience in the mutual fund and computer software industries. He holds a bachelor of science in business administration from Long Island University.

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