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) -- Jefferies analyst Casey Haire sees 20% upside potential for shares of

First Niagara Financial Group


, following the company's announcement late Wednesday of a major balance sheet restructuring.

The Buffalo, N.Y., lender after the market close announced that it had "taken steps to reposition its securities portfolio through the sale of $3.1 billion of mortgage-backed securities (MBS), the proceeds of which were used to repay a comparable amount of short-term debt." First Niagara also said that there were no prepayment penalties on the debt repayments, and that the company would "recognize a $16 million pre-tax gain from the sale of securities in the second quarter of 2012."

First Niagara CEO John Koelmel said that "given the expected duration of this historically low rate and volatile economic environment, we took decisive actions to better position our balance sheet without impacting the longer-term business fundamentals and to shine a brighter light on the strength of our core operations."

First Niagara Financial Group CEO John R. Koelmel

First Niagara CFO Gregory Norwood said "the selection and sale of securities with the greatest levels of prepayment risk coupled with the deleveraging have better positioned us to benefit when interest rates ultimately rise. At the same time, we have also significantly reduced the near-term earnings volatility created by the current sustained low interest rate environment."

The company in May completed its purchase of nearly 200 branches from HSBC (HBC_) during May, while also selling roughly 100 branches to other banks. The company had $35.5 billion in total assets and $19 billion in deposits as of March 31, and acquired $9.8 billion in deposits and $1.6 billion in loans through the HSBC deal.

During a conference call following the announcement, Koelmel explained that following the company's major expansion through its purchase of 57 National City branches in Western Pennsylvania in 2009, its acquisition of Harleysville National Corp. -- with 83 branches in Eastern Pennsylvania -- in 2010 and NewAlliance Bancshares and its 88 branch locations in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts in 2011, the company's "design of attack" was "to bridge our ongoing excess liquidity challenge, support the cost of carrying increasing infrastructure until we were able to deepen our end market penetration and build out our commercial and consumer loan portfolios."

The CEO said that after "evaluating the realities and unintended outcomes of that strategy during this year's increasingly volatile environment," First Niagara's management "obviously concluded that it wasn't beneficial to continue to carry the increasingly uncontrollable and very unpredictable risk associated with the portion of the MBS book we sold, that while still additive financially to our results and outcomes, those risks had become value dilutive to the increasingly positive results and outcomes from our core business that's performing better today than ever."

While giving up some "short-term earnings for the next couple of years," the balance sheet restructuring has removed "the additional downside exposure that we believe would have materialized had we retained the entire portfolio," while also positioning the bank to take advantage of the eventual rise in interest rates, with the "now-improved asset sensitivity of the balance sheet," Koelmel said.

Speaking about the HSBC branch transition, Koelmel said that "net deposit attrition on balances acquired continues to track very favorably to both our expectations as well as our historic experience, and to date is less than 2%," and that "customer activity in the acquired branches is running about 25% ahead of legacy new account activity levels."

Koelmel also sought to soothe investors by emphasizing First Niagara's "M&A timeout," with the bank focused "completely on running the business we have even better than we're already doing so today."

First Niagara's shares closed at $7.94 Wednesday, down 6% year-to-date, following a 35% decline during 2011.

Based on an eight-cent quarterly payout, the shares have a dividend yield of 4.03%.

The shares trade just above their reported March 31 tangible book value of $7.86, and for nearly eight times the consensus 2013 earnings estimate of 96 cents a share, among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. The consensus 2012 EPS estimate is 84 cents. The 2013 consensus estimate is likely to be lowered further over coming days, as more sell-side analysts update their estimates.

Haire on Thursday reiterated his "Buy" rating for First Niagara, while lowering his 12-month price target for the shares by two dollars to $9.50, and lowering his 2012 EPS estimate to 76 cents from 90 cents and his 2013 estimate to 85 cents from $1.03.

Considering a longer term view, the analyst said that the "restructuring gives up some earnings power, but also reduces premium amortization risk and provides much-needed clarity to earnings stream, which should win the stock back some multiple." The added "clarity/predictability of the EPS forecast could be the catalyst for long-awaited multiple expansion. Applying a discounted P/E multiple (11x vs. 12x peer avg.) and factoring in a 4% dividend yield, puts upside at over 20% from here," according to Haire.

Interested in more on First Niagara Financial Group? See TheStreet Ratings' report card for this stock.


Written by Philip van Doorn in Jupiter, Fla.

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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 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.