Oil Spill Creates Uncertainty for Area Banks

Among the many serious implications of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast region is that it's likely to prolong credit troubles at banks operating in what was already a tenuous economy.
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) -- Among the many serious implications of the massive


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oil spill in the Gulf Coast region is that it's likely to prolong credit troubles at banks operating in what was already a tenuous economy.

Sell-side equity analysts say it is too soon to gauge the impact from the April 20 oil spill -- the worst in U.S. history -- on the loan portfolios and overall businesses of local banks with footprints in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida since bank management teams aren't talking yet. But borrowers whose livelihoods are dependent on fishing, tourism, beachfront real estate and the oil and gas business seem sure to be affected.

Large banks such as

Bank of America

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Wells Fargo

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(BBT) - Get Report


Regions Financial

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SunTrust Banks

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have a smaller proportion of loans directly related to the affected areas.

>>Video: BP Oil Spill Hurts Banks

What the banks themselves are thinking probably won't start to materialize until second-quarter reports start to appear in mid-July when management teams will be pressed for commentary on the situation on the conference calls accompanying the results. But Sandler O'Neill analyst Kevin Fitzsimmons sees the disaster as throwing up an unwelcome obstacle to economic recovery in the region, putting renewed pressure on credit costs for the small banks in the area.

"We suspect banks in affected areas could see an increased inflow of problem loans, a deliberate pickup in troubled debt restructurings (as banks grant concessions to affected borrowers), a higher pace of reserve building and an eventual increase in net charge-offs," Fitzsimmons told clients in a research note issued Monday. "We also expect affected banks to see a slowdown (if not grinding to an absolute halt) in efforts to dispose of OREO

other real estate-owned properties, as fewer bidders likely show interest in properties in affected areas."

Fitzsimmons added that the disaster comes at a time when many Southeastern banks were "beginning to show signs of moderation from sharply higher problem loans and credit losses over the past two years."

Keefe Bruyette & Woods analyst Bain Slack says the region will be divided.

"Economies from Texas to Alabama may see a near-term positive as natural gas prices increase and the clean-up process will create some stimulus," Slack said last week in a note summing up his firm's discussions with regional bank management teams. "The coasts of east Alabama and Florida will likely be negatively impacted as tourism takes a hit and real estate values remain under significant pressure."

Slack writes that of the banks KBW spoke with most did not speak of any material impact from the oil spill but some such as

Whitney Holding Corp.


said they are "closely monitoring the progress of containment and mitigation efforts" and are in the process of "identifying and communicating with customers that could possibly be affected," according to the note.

Bank stocks under Sandler's coverage list with operations in the affected areas have experienced a median decline of 13% since April 19 -- the last full trading day before the explosion.

As a result of the oil spill-induced pullback, there are a few bank stocks that are worth scooping up, Fitzsimmons says, specifically citing

Hancock Holding Co.



Trustmark Corp.

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Fitzsimmons upgraded Hancock Holding to buy from hold on Monday, noting its 20% pullback year-to-date. Among the bank's virtues are that it's profitable, "relatively capital-rich," and maintains better credit metrics than its peers, he said.

The $8.6 billion-asset Hancock Holding has 150 branches primarily located in Mississippi and Louisiana, with additional branches in Alabama and northern Florida - primarily from its December FDIC-assisted deal of Peoples First Community Bank.

"While admittedly there is much uncertainty over how the situation will ultimately play out, and we don't by any means think that HBHC will be immune to the negative impact, we view the resulting risk of the company as quite manageable," he said.

Trustmark's exposure to the Florida Panhandle "has been managed down aggressively over the past 3 (plus) years and represents a fairly nominal proportion of the franchise and loan portfolio," wrote Fitzsimmons, who has a buy rating on the stock.

Fitzsimmons also expects the oil spill could cause further small bank failures across the affected areas, which could be beneficial for Hancock Holding and other prospective bank acquirers.

Another benefit could come from the impact of cleanup efforts that will bring an influx of workers into the region, fueling business at restaurants and hotels for instance. Also both BP and the federal government will likely step in with financial support.

Regions Financial, which has the biggest presence in the area from among the big banks, told


that while the long-term effects of the spill are still unknown, the bank is proactively reaching out to customers across the affected areas of the Gulf.

"We've talked to business owners and customers alike," says Tim Deighton, a spokesman for the bank. "Our goal is to help customers deal with potential financial impact of the spill and to know the options they have for assistance if needed."

He noted that the region already has hard-earned experience with natural disasters that has left it at least somewhat prepared to deal with crisis conditions.

"We have a customer assistance program which helps distressed borrowers and it was developed from our experience from dealing with Katrina and the recession," Deighton said. "Today we have only had a handful of requests related to the spill."

--Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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