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Executives

John R. Koelmel - President and Chief Executive Officer

Michael W. Harrington - Chief Financial Officer

Kevin O'Bryan - Senior Vice President and Chief Credit Officer

Analysts

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Richard D. Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Matthew B. Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

First Niagara Financial Group, Inc. (FNFG) Q1 2009 Earnings Call April 13, 2009 9:00 AM ET

Operator

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the First Niagara First Quarter Earnings Conference Call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. A question-and-answer session will follow the formal presentation. (Operator Instructions). As a reminder, this conference is being recorded.

It is now my pleasure to introduce your host, Mr. John Koelmel, President and Chief Executive Officer, First Niagara. Thank you, Mr. Koelmel. You may begin.

John R. Koelmel

Thank you very much Claudia. Good morning, everyone. I appreciate you taking the time, calling on the holiday weekend to catch up on the latest chapter in our story. Obviously, we have a lot going on and a lot of activities that we're very excited and proud about.

A week ago many of you probably joined us when we proudly announced the acquisition of 57 branches, four billion in deposits and 500 employees in Pittsburg and Western Pennsylvania. Concurrent with this mornings' release, I'm sure you've all seen that we're on the front-end of commencing a $300 million common equity raise. So, we are busy and happy to be in that mode and happy to clearly report again this morning that none of that tends or continues to be a very solid and consistent operating performance.

That said, the purpose for this call is do just that; talk through our first quarter operating results. Obviously, we are also happy to take any follow-up questions or address any further thoughts relative to last week's transaction. But, I'll say upfront and again, before we open it up for questions for hopefully obvious reasons, we aren't able to address or talk through the capital raise beyond the information that's been included in the, this mornings' press release.

So, we're excited. I think mark that circumstances, our position in the industry, puts us in the right spot at the right time to boast our capital coffers. As it was indicated there, take the market risk out of the transaction that we just announced last week, looking at the repayment in TARP as well as otherwise as I said, bolstering our coffers for general corporate purposes.

But beyond that, I would ask for your understanding and to the extent anyone's interested, in talking further with us, we look forward to doing that, in particular, over the next couple of days. I would encourage you to contact either KBW or Goldman directly.

With that, let me as I said, bring it back to the purpose of this call, which is to focus on the first quarter, which we think continues our steady and consistent no surprise performance. And right now, we think that's key to our continuing success, not only in terms of our execution but our delivery on our promise to you as investors in the street at large.

As we planned and looked ahead in 2009, there is three real components to our game plan; one was to stretch the core, further optimize the business we have today. Two was to move up market, take advantage of the significant customer dislocation, disruption that continues to occur; and three, strengthen the foundation, further scale our business and our operations to ensure we are well positioned to; one, absorb the move up market and the benefits of that as well as put us in a position to profitably and appropriately manage the type of opportunities that were exhibited with last week's transaction.

We feel very, very good about the progress we continue to make on all our fronts. In terms of the core business, we said there were five keys to our success this year. And they spin around franchise value, credit, capital, liquidity and obviously earnings. So, I just want to talk for a couple of minutes to each before we let Michael walk you through the specifics in credit ... Kevin talk a little bit more a bit on the credit front.

In terms of franchise value, it's really top priority for us. It has been and even more so today. We continue to elevate the First Niagara profile, continue to strengthen and deepen the relationships we have across the upstate franchise and benefited from and continue to benefit from what we eluded the customer disruption, dislocation that we see from our larger competitors. So, the value of our franchise on either side of the balance sheet, deposit growth, loan growth, strength of overall relationships, and couldn't feel better about, in terms of the progress that continue to make. We're deepening those relationships on the lending side, as you will hear Kevin talk and Michael as well in a way that doesn't continue to compromise their credit quality. We will go and get it, we've understood that for a long time and here as always say we are proud of our consistent and strong and solid underwriting, we know all our customers, we know our markets. Our guys have their act together; they're good business people, not just good lenders and good bankers. We understand our clients and the credit story continues to portray the benefits of that.

Capital -- obviously capital's king, that's why we went out six months ago and raised 115 million, that's why we participated in the government's TARP or CPP program and couldn't feel better about how we've leveraged that capital, both directly and indirectly. Directly in terms of putting it to work and supporting the addition loan growth that we've been able to achieve throughout the fourth quarter and then through the first of this year. We've led multiple of the dollars that we obtained under the TARP program and we think we're on the way to fully leveraging not those dollars as well as the 115 we raised.

Other's been the Nat City transaction, indirectly leverages those TARP dollars well. There was no direct funding providing and certainly our enhanced capital position strengthens our ability to pursue and evaluate that type of transaction.

As said last week, the transaction itself was a real hold on for us as the benefit on the liquidity front. In addition to capital being king, so is cash. While that's always true, it's even more so today. We're very focused on core deposit growth. We are very focused on ensuring we strengthen our franchise via deposit gathering, the ability to supplement that in a very significant way with the PNC branch acquisition only enhances all the lines (ph), you will continue to see in here as a positive story as to our liquidity position and the improvements in it.

Obviously we need to put all of that together in a way that continues to deliver solid, stable and predictable earnings and feel very, very good about how all that's continuing to be accomplished.

We are doing all of that in an effort to continue to play off as we understand the need to keep an eye on the defensive (ph) side of the game if you will and I think we're continuing to prudently manage the relevant issues there. But this continues to be a terrific opportunity for us to further our growth, enhance our profile, strengthen our position across all our markets existing as well as new and I couldn't be more pleased and more proud with the quick and fast and early start we've got to 2009.

Big, big picture we'll conclude by really what I said a week ago, whether it's the continued stability of this quarter's earnings, whether it's the strength of the economics throughout the transaction that we announced last week; all of that is obviously very, very positive. But for us, for me in particular, the real takeaway there is, it further affirms further underscores that First Niagara is a player, First Niagara is a winner, First Niagara is a real champion, coming out of and through the current crises, calamity and challenges that our industry is facing and the economy at large.

So we continue to build on our success, continue to build through our position, and I feel very excited, confident and enthused about what the future holds for us.

With that, I'll let Michael and Kevin lead you (ph) through the quarter itself, to give a little more color as to how we continue to move forward and how -- from Kevin's standpoint our credit position continues to holdup. Michael?

Michael W. Harrington

Thanks, John. Good morning everyone. Before I begin my review please note that all balances will be stated in averages, unless they indicate otherwise. As John said, we're very happy with our quarterly results, especially given the operating environment we find ourselves in.

Good bottom line results; operating earnings of $21.5 million or $0.16 per share, meeting analyst expectations. On a reported basis, that number falls to $0.14 per share and taking into effect two items, one the settlement of the trademark matter and the other being the costs associated with the branch acquisition.

Let me take a few minutes and talk of some of the driver behind those results.

On the loan side, our primary goal is to stretch our already strong production and volume capacity and we're doing just that on the commercial business side in particular and gaining market share from our competitors.

So overall, commercial balances grew by 7% annualized in the quarter and that was led by CNI announced which were up 12% on an annualized basis, the largest quarterly increase in over a year and that were ... and what's really promising is moving out of the first quarter and into the second our pipelines are very robust, actually up 30% from year-end levels.

Also, notice in the commercial real estate side and the home equity, both portfolios had healthy increases of 7% on an annualized basis.

And lastly regarding loans, during the quarter our total originations were 700 million, so another very solid quarter.

Moving on to credit quality. Trends remain strong despite the weakening in the overall economy. Note that non-performers were up modestly by $6 million to 0.81% of total loans but net charge-offs actually dropped by $1 million during the quarter to 44 basis points total loans. And we're still tracking or expect to still continue to track pretty well favorably related to peers.

Overall, delinquencies also ticked down slightly from year-end and given the current environment, I think that's outstanding at this point in time.

But also constant in that environment, we continued to add to our loans for loan losses and elected to provide at the $9 million level.

With that said, I'll give Kevin a few minutes to talk about our credit story and the upstate New York market. Kevin?

Kevin O'Bryan

Thanks Mike and good morning, everyone. As both John and Mike have referenced, our credit quality performance continues to be strong. When considered in the context of the macroeconomic malaise that now is starting to impact our footprint, our performance looks even better.

We don't operate in a vacuum. John and Mike have both said in the past that there are headwinds out there and they are starting to appear in our footprint. Prices of single-family homes were flat. Unemployment is at 8%, right around the national average and industrial office and retail vacancy levels remain flat at an 8 to 12 respectively level. We take these challenges very seriously and we believe our performance bears this out.

Charge-offs are down, but still consistent with our expectations. The downturn that started in late '08 would impact '09. The increase in non-performance is due primarily to one CRE relationship, commercial real estate relationship, which has since been re-collateralized to minimize future loss. Delinquencies are down modestly from year-end, but more importantly, the decrease runs across all loan types and CNI corporate is down about 40%.

Our credit quality metrics compare very favorably with peers, including an upstate retail comparison that puts us 30 to 50% lower for residential mortgage and consumer loan delinquency. We have had and will continue to have risk rating migration which only serves to remind us that we are not immune that (ph) migration is analyzed, tracked and where appropriate reserved for. That being said, our overall weighted average risk ratings remain strong.

The vision continues to exceed charge-offs and support and allowance that adequately covers non-performers and total loans.

Before I hand things back to Mike, I'd like to say a little bit about the credit side and the National City acquisition.

First and foremost, we are acquiring only current loans; from a composition average loan size basis, the portfolio is very similar to our corporate and business banking portfolio. No commercial real estate loans are being acquired but that is a core competency of ours and growth in that area would be reasonable to assume.

We have also taken after extensive due diligence, the appropriate credit mark against this portfolio. The entire portfolio reflects the theme of consistency, which is an ongoing theme of how we do loan business. And that's another reason why it's attractive.

So with that, I'll turn things back over to Mike.

Michael W. Harrington

Hey thanks, Kevin. Turning towards deposit growth, we had a, we have a great retail franchise in upstate New York and it performed well in the first quarter. I'll get to that in a minute.

But as we've noted earlier, the Nat City branch acquisition really elevates our profile adding 57 new branches and more importantly over four billion in deposits which really provides us with an excellent platform on which to grow and a liquidity to execute that for a strategy.

Back to the deposit story; our productivity is a real key driver for us as we talk about deposits and we certainly are seeing the effects of better productivity in the first quarter here.

Just for the highlights in terms of the annualized growth (ph) rate for the quarter was 5%. And core deposits now make up 68%, total deposits up from 62% a year ago.

Some detail on just the quarter itself. Some seasonal, some of the growth rate in the quarter which related to seasonal inflow municipal banking deposits and the remainder was centered in the money market account base.

Pushing productivity higher again, it's been a focus for us and managing our sales force to produce better account volumes and to that point, the new checking accounts product key which is a measure that we use to measure productivity, increased 14% from year-end of last year, very encouraging sign.

Also important is cross sell and we measure that by over the top total solutions per FTE or full-time equivalent. That includes deposits, home equity loans, other consumer and business loans, was up a considerable 17% from the fourth quarter of 2008, again, another key metric of driving relationship, profitability and productivity as well.

Our total revenue for the quarter was up and we'll take this in a small fee, especially in light of the current environment. The highlight there was the margin revenue which was up 1% from the fourth quarter, and that's despite the February cuts late in the fourth quarter, which we had assumed would impact us on the asset side, which they did.

But we're able to counterbalance that asset re-pricing with managing our funding costs and minimize the overall sweep on the net interest margins. So, for the quarter, the net interest margins only down seven basis points from 368 that's in the fourth quarter.

On the capital front, we continue to maintain a very strong position. We're already solid Tier 1 and total risk based ratio has improved from 12/31/08, and our tangible common equity ratio still remains close to 9%, well above the 7.5% mark from a year ago.

And if you listen to our call last week, in which we discuss Nat City branch transaction, we expect that ratio to still remain well above 5% on a pro forma basis.

Lastly, we're extremely or will be extremely well positioned from a liquidity standpoint, subsequent to the closing of the branch acquisition. The $3.2 billion in cash really puts in a unique position to continue to take market share and support the lending activities in our marketplace.

With that, I'll turn it back to John.

John R. Koelmel

Right. Before we open it up for questions, remind any that might have joined late that again, the focus and purpose of this dialogue and discussion is on the quarter itself. Happy to further chat about the Nat City transaction, and we're already happy to chat about any topic and please appreciate that this just isn't the right form for any further discussion on our pending capital raise.

So, with all of that said again Claudia, if you'd open it up, we welcome any comments any questions from those on the line.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, we will now be conducting the question-and-answer session. (Operator Instructions). Our first question is coming from Tom Alonso with Fox-Pitt Kelton. Please state your question.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Hey. Good morning, guys.

John Koelmel

Good morning, Tom.

Michael Harrington

Good morning.

Kevin O'Bryan

Good morning.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Just real quick here; can you give me the period and construction balances, construction loan balances? It looks like they got lumped in on the CRE piece.

John Koelmel

Don't have a write-off but top of our head Tom, let us...

Kevin O'Bryan

We'll take a look Tom.

John Koelmel

Try to dig that out or we're working our way through some other questions then we'll throw our back out as soon as we have it.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Okay. And then, just another quick one. The $1.7 million charge this quarter; is that ... should I assume that that's going come out of what you are expecting in the third quarter or is that in addition to what you are expecting when the PNC deal closes?

John Koelmel

That's one piece...

Kevin O'Bryan

Aggregate cap...

John Koelmel

One piece of cumulative cost of outside support on that transaction.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Okay great. And then just on... I guess if you're going to... on paying back TARPs, I don't know if this goes to your... if you can talk about the capital raise or not, but do you have permission or you are intending to apply for permission, I... just any color you can give us there would be great.

John Koelmel

We have had a great relationship with the OTS as we've already said before. We're invited in right upfront to participate in TARP and the CPP program. We did so with enthusiasm and the running dialogue, continue to have with them in connection with the PNC transaction as well as our forward-looking plans. While we've got to formally commence the process, I have every expectation that they'll work with us through that process just as they have for everything else we've done.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Perfect, understood. Thank you very much.

Michael Harrington

Tom, Mike Harrington here. Construction balances were 331 million.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Okay.

Michael Harrington

Further down by 11% on an annualized basis for the quarter.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Okay, great.

Michael Harrington

All right.

Thomas Alonso - Fox-Pitt Kelton Cochran LLC

Thank you.

Michael Harrington

Okay.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). Our next question is coming from Rick Weiss with Janney Montgomery Scott. Please state your question.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Hey, good morning.

John Koelmel

Good morning Weiss.

Michael Harrington

Good morning.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

I was wondering if you could talk just a little bit about the other expenses this quarter. It looks like it went up a bit and I am sure there was some, maybe pension cost in that as well as with your FDIC higher assessments?

Michael Harrington

Well, pension, others it would be FDIC extracted the majority of that increase.

John Koelmel

And there is also what you are going to see the one time swap went through in terms of deal cost and the trademark litigation. I assume it's also were... that's included.

Michael Harrington

Well, the deal costs are in professional fees and then the trademark fees would be in other.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Okay so like that 29 would... that's your professional fees are in that part and then part of that 11 million, that includes the FDIC assessment?

Michael Harrington

Yeah. Those are the -- so the 29 backed out of the 11. And you got a million dollars of incremental FDIC costs and the rest would core operating costs. On a professional line that 1.7 is in the professional services line.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Okay. So excluding that, would like about a 10 million to $11 million run rate be kind of what you expect for '09?

Michael Harrington

And -- I'm sorry.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

With the other expense lines?

Michael Harrington

That other line was in the -- it was $8 million on a net basis, on a core basis. So...

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Was it that low?

Michael Harrington

I think eight to nine.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Okay. Got you. Okay, now just for book keeping purposes, we have the shares outstanding that you're using for book value purposes if you exclude the ESOP?

Michael Harrington

A technical question.

John Koelmel

Go at it again, Rick.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Which share count are using for book value, I know you're excluding the ESOP shares. I don't see it on the release.

Michael Harrington

Mike (ph), I think the number is 118 unchanged. But I could...

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Okay. I can just divide it, if you don't have it.

Michael Harrington

I'm sure we can have somebody send an email on that.

Richard Weiss - Janney Montgomery Scott LLC

Okay. Okay, thank you.

Michael Harrington

Okay.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). We do have a question coming from Matthew Kelly with Sterne Agee. Please state your question.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Yeah. Just to follow-up on one thing that Rick was asking. What was the actual dollar amount of FDIC premiums in the quarter?

Michael Harrington

I'll have to look for that number, give me a moment, do you have any other questions?

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Yeah. I just wanted to get some commentary on the margin, looking ahead just organically without the PNC transaction first?

John Koelmel

We are very much like what we continue to see Matt. You have heard from us on the past, our strategy, the execution, there-off continuously to gain additional attraction. So while the markets begun to flatten out, or is flattened out, our ability to take incremental share depends on what we're doing and how we're doing it.

We're in a better slot today than we were three months ago or a year ago. You throw on top of that, the ongoing challenges than our larger competitors have and we're continuing to see an increasing influx so far of opportunities, whether that be on the lending side or from a deposit gathering standpoint. So we're very enthused and very upbeat relative to our ability to organically grow across upstate New York and we think that same thinking translates to Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania for very similar reasons.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay. And then just looking at, just how things are re-pricing on the funding side, your money markets are 136 basis points, your CDs 268, those have come down pretty hard. Where are those current rates right now, so we get a sense of where rates are migrating as maturities roll through?

Michael Harrington

Our rates in those... the money markets?

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

The money markets' yeah, the current versus the 136 average in the quarter.

Michael Harrington

I think they're -- for new money, they're in that zone, in the mid, below the big ones.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay. And the CD product you are leading with, versus the 268 average?

Michael Harrington

Yeah. They are probably 20 basis points lower.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay.

Michael Harrington

20 to 30 on that net to the marginal. That's the higher cost dollars coming in.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Right.

Michael Harrington

And back to FDIC, I just don't have that handy right now. I'll have somebody send it to you, Matt, that's off and that I think it was in the $3 million zone.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay. And I assume that's up from essentially nothing on a net basis. It seemed you like others had credits last year.

Michael Harrington

Yeah. There was some of that embedded in last year. And that's why I want you specifics...

John Koelmel

That's why we are looking at a 5 to $6 million number for the year.

Michael Harrington

On total less, yes.

John Koelmel

For FDIC insurance, well, it's like that in bond. I think that's us... I get the increases where we started from, what do we know? So, if I think you annualize the increase and you're in the zone of that, in terms of annualized run rate would be.

Obviously, excluding any special assessment, that makes the comp (ph).

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Right, okay, and then just hopping back to the margin, just to finish that conversation real quick. I mean, it seems like any improvement would obviously just come from a rise in the overall level of rates. Looking at an asset sensitive debit profile and what else, variable rate type product, because most of the funding has been re-priced down pretty close to the incremental pricing points.

Michael Harrington

Yeah, that would be an accurate statement. I feel this is... I think is most of the asset re-pricing's behind us.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay.

Michael Harrington

So, to the extent that we stay where we're at right now, and continue to see some liability re-pricing, that should be beneficial, because I said all the index products moved and it has nowhere to go.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay. So you feel like that, most of the assets are re-priced then on the variable rate side then?

Michael Harrington

Right. So, depending on what your forecast is

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Right.

Michael Harrington

And we stay consistent we might see some expansion in the margins.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay.

John Koelmel

And we anticipate that going into the year, Matt that you will see the margin squeeze occur early and they would at least stabilize if not improve a tad over the course of the year. So that fact that we're able to bring deposit and funding costs down even sooner than we anticipated puts us in an even better position frankly than we thought we'd be in right now quarter end.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay, all right. And then I was wondering if you could just clarify again the expense load from the PNC deposits, branches and then also any kind of fee income that might have been discussed in that conversation as well, and the pick-up?

Michael Harrington

The way we put that forth is we expect to operate at about 55% efficiency ratio.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay.

Michael Harrington

So, that's the cash component, the cash cost flow, cash operating earnings that fall in.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay.

Michael Harrington

And then you put those branch acquisition and all the build out that we need to do, hiring new people and building infrastructure. And then fee revenue, we position that at about 30% of total revenue or you could look at it -- and core deposits, about 1.9% of core deposits.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

On the fees, yeah?

Michael Harrington

Yes.

Matthew Kelley - Sterne Agee & Leach Inc.

Okay. Okay thanks a lot.

Michael Harrington

Yeah.

John Koelmel

Thank you.

Operator

Gentlemen we have no further questions at this time. I'd like to turn the floor back over to management for closing comments.

John Koelmel

All right, Claudia. Thank you very much. Again, appreciate the agility of all those on the call, acknowledge in line of our current circumstances and the process we have underway with the last second acceleration of those earnings announcement calls, I appreciate your flexibility and willingness to jump-on really today and at the start of the week.

Otherwise, as always we appreciate your continuing interest and support and we'll be back again soon. Thanks very much. Have a great day and good week

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this does conclude today's teleconference. You may disconnect your lines at this time and we thank you for your participation.

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