BUFFALO, N.Y. ( TheStreet) -- First Niagara Financial ( MI) on Thursday reported fourth-quarter operating earnings of $31.3 million, or 17 cents a share, matching the consensus estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. In comparison, on the same basis, the thrift holding company earned $27.3 million, or 19 cents a share, in the third quarter, and $22.8 million or 20 cents a share in year-ago equivalent period. For the full year 2009, operating earnings were $105.6 million or 72 cents a share, up from $89.8 million or 83 cents a share, in 2008. On a GAAP
generally accepted accounting principles basis, First Niagara's fourth-quarter net income was $28.9 million or 16 cents a share, compared to $10.9 million, or 7 cents a share ,in the third quarter and $21.6 million, or 19 cents a share, a year earlier. GAAP results in the latest period reflect the impact of $23 million in expenses related to the acquisition of 57 National City Branches from PNC Financial ( PNC.) in Western Pennsylvania. The earnings comparisons reflect the issuance of 78 million shares through three stock offerings during 2009 that raised close to $1 billion in common equity. First Niagara participated in the Troubled Assets Relief Program, receiving issuing preferred shares to the government in November 2008 to receive $184 million in capital, which the company repaid in May. First Niagara expects to complete its pending acquisition of Harleysville National ( HNBC) during the first quarter, which will bring in another $4 billion in deposits in Pennsylvania. As the company took advantage of market turmoil in 2009 to make significant branch acquisitions and increase its total assets 56% to $14.1 billion, credit quality remained very strong, with nonperforming assets -- including nonaccrual loans and repossessed real estate - comprising 0.52% of total assets as of Dec. 31. Loan losses during 2009 were low, with net charge-offs totaling $33.1 million or 0.50% of total loans.
While the company's 2009 earnings were hit by the branch acquisition expenses and $43.7 million in provisions for loan losses, leading to historically mediocre returns on average assets and tangible common equity of 0.69% and 6.06% respectively, earnings performance and loan quality measured up well, considering the difficult industry environment, and the capital raises have left First Niagara in a very strong position to complete the Harleysville acquisition and possibly expand further. First Niagara shares dipped 2 cents to $14.45 in morning trades. The stock's high for session of $14.58, however, was a shade lower than its 52-week peak of $14.60, which it reached last week. So far in 2010, the shares have tacked on 4%. Written by Philip van Doorn in Jupiter, Fla.