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Comerica Incorporated (NYSE:CMA)

Q1 2010 Earnings Call

April 21, 2010 8:00 am ET

Executives

Darlene P. Persons – Director of Investor Relations

Ralph W. Babb, Jr. – Chairman of the Board, President & Chief Executive Officer

Elizabeth S. Acton – Chief Financial Officer & Executive Vice President

John M. Killian – Chief Credit Officer

Dale E. Green – Executive Vice President & Chief Credit Policy Officer

Analysts

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

Ken Zerbe – Morgan Stanley

David Rochester – Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

Ken Usdin – Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer & Co.

Gary Tenner – Soleil Securities

Analyst for Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

Operator

At this time I would like to welcome everyone to the Comerica first quarter 2010 earnings conference call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers’ remarks there will be a question and answer session. (Operator Instructions) Ms. Persons you may begin your conference.

Darlene P. Persons

Welcome to Comerica’s first quarter 2010 earnings conference call. Participating on this call will be our Chairman Ralph Babb, our Chief Financial Officer Beth Action and our Chief Credit Officer John Killian and Dale Green, Executive Vice President of the business bank. A copy of our press release and presentation slides are available on the SEC website as well as in the investor relations section of our website.

Before we get started I would like to remind you that this conference call contains forward-looking statements and in that regard you should be mindful of the risks and uncertainties that can cause future results to vary from expectations. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date of this presentation and we undertake no obligation to update any forward-looking statements. I refer you to the Safe Harbor statement contained in the release issued today as well as Slide Two of this presentation which I incorporate in to this call as well as our filings with the SEC.

Also, this conference call will reference non-GAAP financial measures and in that regard I would direct you to the reconciliation of these measures within this presentation. Now, I’ll turn the call over to Ralph.

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

The encouraging signs we saw in the fourth quarter of 2009 continued in to the first quarter of 2010. Our credit quality improved at a faster pace than we expected and reflecting the strong credit underwriting and processes we have in place. Our net interest margin continued to expand. These and other positive developments resulted in our first quarter net income of $52 million, the equivalent of $0.33 per share. This included a $17 million after tax gain equivalent to $0.11 per share related to the cash settlement of a note receivable associated with the 2006 sale of an investment advisory subsidiary.

The negative impact to earnings of the 2.25 billion of preferred stock issued to the US Treasury under its capital purchase program fully redeemed in March was $123 million or $0.79 per share. Our customers continue to convey a more positive and upbeat tone. This is reflected in our loan pipeline which has now grown to its highest level in two years. The small business loan pipeline in our Texas and western markets has increased by double digits in the last three months.

Now that credit is improving, our bankers can devote more time to marketing. In Texas we are seeing more opportunities and plan to add several new middle market and small business bankers to capitalize on them. In California, customers and prospects are seeing gradual increases in sales and are more optimistic about their businesses as backlogs are growing. This has led to more loan proposals particularly for middle market, technology and life sciences companies.

In the western market we have 61% of our national dealer services business. Floor plan loans are slowly picking up as expected with the increase in auto sales. In Michigan we had more new and expanded loans approved in middle markets this March than we’ve had in any month since 2008. As you know, middle market is one of our sweet spots. Our relationship managers are known for their ingenuity, flexibility, responsiveness and attention to detail. We stand out from the competition because of our experience, expertise and long standing commitments to our customers through all economic cycles including the current one. It is not something that is replicated over night.

New and renewed loan commitments for our bank as a whole totals $6 billion in the first quarter. We are ideally positioned to develop new relationships and expand existing ones as the economy continues its recovery. The decline in loan outstandings we saw in the fourth quarter 2009 slowed in the first quarter 2010 and the pace of decline moderated in each successive month of the first quarter. Average loan outstandings increased modestly in national dealer services.

Core deposit growth continued in the first quarter but at a slower pace. In certain business lines deposits have decreased which we believe is a positive sign that customers are starting to use their cash in their businesses. We are pleased with the continued broad based improvements in credit quality including significant declines in net charge offs and provision for loan losses. These positive improvements are the result of our focused efforts to quickly and pro actively identify and work through problem loans.

We saw improvement in credit quality across all business lines. Net credit related charge offs decreased $52 million in the first quarter led by a significant decline in commercial net charge offs. The commercial real estate business line experienced an increase in net charge offs but saw declines in non-accrual and watch list loans. Non-performing assets decreased $41 million and the provision for credit losses decreased $77 million.

Non-accrual loans were charged down 44% as of March 31, the same as December 31, 2009. Our watch list loans were down $228 million. We continued to diligently manage credit throughout this economic cycle. The net interest margin increased 24 basis points to 3.18% in the first quarter primarily from improved loan spreads, a less costly blend of core deposits and maturing higher cost wholesale funding. Excluding the impact of excess liquidity, the net interest margin would have been 3.42%.

We continue to focus on expense controls. Non-interest expenses decreased $21 million from the fourth quarter. Full-time equivalent staff decreased 481 employees or 5% from March 31, 2009. Our capital position remains strong. Our Tier-1 capital ratio is estimated to be 10.4% at March 31. In addition, the quality of our capital remains solid as evidenced by a tangible common equity ratio of 9.68%. Together with our strong liquidity, we are ideally positioned for future growth.

On March 17th we fully redeemed the 2.25 billion of preferred stock held by the US Treasury under its capital purchase program, five days after completing the public issuance of 880 million of common stock. Our participation in the capital purchase program helped stabilize the country’s financial system at a critical point and the investment the government made in Comerica resulted in excellent returns for US tax payers.

We elected not to repurchase the related warrant from the US Treasury as we believe it is best to retain capital for future growth. The warrant allows the holder to purchase 11.5 million shares at an exercise price of $29.40 per share. Given the present market price for Comerica common stock, the warrant has significant value.

In closing, we believe we are on the path to normalized earnings with great opportunities to develop new relationships and expand existing ones. We have a consistent strategy for success that is based on relationships with a mean street banking focus. Based on all of the positive trends we are seeing, we expect our operating fundamentals will continue to show improvement in 2010. Now, I’ll turn the call over to Beth and John who will discuss our first quarter results in more detail.

Elizabeth S. Acton

As I review our first quarter results I will be referring to slides we have prepared that provide additional details on our earnings. Turning to Slide Three, we outline the major components of our first quarter results compared to the prior period and to the same period a year ago. Today, we reported first quarter 2010 net income of $52 million. This included $17 million from discontinued operations reflecting a cash settlement of a note receivable related to the 2006 sale of Munder, our former investment advisory subsidiary.

After preferred dividends to the US Treasury of $123 million or $0.79 per share, the net loss attributable to common shares was $71 million or $0.46 per diluted share. I’ll describe the preferred stock redemption further in a moment. In the first quarter 2010, before preferred dividends continuing operations were profitable both on a pre-tax basis as well as after tax.

Slide Four provides highlights of the financial results for the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter. Credit quality metrics continue to improve. Net credit related charge offs decreased by $52 million from the fourth quarter to $173 million. The provision for credit losses was $182 million, $77 million less than the fourth quarter. Non-performing assets declined $41 million and the inflow to non-accrual slowed by $21 million to $245 million.

The net interest margin in the first quarter increased 24 basis points to 3.18%. Maturing higher cost funding and improved loan spreads contributed to the increase. The low return on excess liquidity had a 24 basis point negative impact which I’ll describe in more detail in a moment. We continue to carefully control expenses. Non-interest expenses decreased 5% and included a decrease in salaries and benefits as well as lower ORE costs. We fully redeemed 2.25 billion of preferred stock issued to the US Treasury after successfully completing an 880 million common stock offering. Our capital position remains strong as evidenced by our tangible common equity ratio of 9.68%.

Turning to Slide Five, I will review the details of the redemption of the 2.25 billion of preferred stock which was issued to the US Treasury under its capital purchase program. On March 12th we completed the issuance of $880 million of common stock and net proceeds along with available cash at the holding company fully redeemed the preferred stock on March 17th. In the first quarter in addition to the $24 million quarterly cash dividend and the $5 million non-cash accretion of the discount on the preferred stock we also incurred a onetime $94 million non-cash redemption charge reflecting the accelerated accretion of the remaining discount for a total impact of $0.79 per share.

We have elected not to repurchase the warrant that was issued in conjunction with the preferred stock in order to preserve capital in support of future growth. On April 12th the US Treasury announced that it intends to auction the warrants of Comerica as well as other banks in the course of the next several weeks.

The pace at which average loans declined continued to slow throughout the first quarter as slow on Slide Six. Average loans declined $1.4 billion in the first quarter compared to the $2 billion decline in the fourth quarter. This pattern of reduced demand is consistent with historical post recessionary environments. Our customers are feeling more confident about the economic recovery and we are seeing our loan pipelines grow.

We expect middle market and small businesses will start borrowing as their working capital needs increase in line with economic growth. Regarding FAS 166 and 167, both accounting standards were adopted as of January 1st and the effect was not significant. No additional entities were consolidated as a result of the new accounting guidance.

Turning to Slide Seven, our loan portfolio is well diversified among many lines of business and geographies. National dealer services average outstandings increased modestly in the first quarter. Decreased average outstandings in the first quarter were noted in a number of areas but the largest declines in middle market, commercial real estate and global corporate banking. Line utilization was 45.2% in the first quarter down from 46.8% in the fourth quarter and stabilized in the last month of the quarter.

As shown on Slide Eight, core deposit growth continued in the first quarter but at a slower rate than recent quarters. We had growth in Texas and Florida markets and most commercial lines of business. Average core deposits increased $494 million including a $942 million increase in money market and NOW deposits and $194 million increase in non-interest bearing deposits. This was partially offset by a $650 million decrease in higher cost customer CDs. Modest declines were noted in small business in all of our markets as well as middle market in the Midwest and western markets. We believe this is a positive sign that customers are starting to use their cash in their businesses.

As outlined on Slide Nine, the net interest margin increased 24 basis points in the first quarter to 3.18%. Without the 24 basis point negative impact from excess liquidity the net margin would have been 3.42% in the first quarter, an increase of 35 basis points from the fourth quarter. The increase in the margin was driven primarily by continued loan spread expansion, a less costly blend of core deposits and maturities of higher cost wholesale funding.

Excess liquidity was represented by an average of $4.1 billion deposited with the Federal Reserve in the first quarter, up from an average $2.5 billion in the fourth quarter. Maturities of wholesale funding and expected loan growth will assist in dissipating excess liquidity. This excess liquidity is above and beyond the investment securities portfolio which will continue to provide a reservoir of liquidity.

Turning to Slide 10, non-interest expenses decreased 5% in the first quarter. Our largest expense item is salaries and therefore management of staff levels is key. As you can see on the Slide, we have consistently reduced personnel over the past several years even while we were opening new banking centers. Our work force decreased by approximately 5% from year ago levels. Salary and employee benefit expense was down 6% from the first quarter of last year. In addition, ORE expense declined by $10 million in the first quarter compared to the fourth quarter and we continued to tightly control discretionary expenses.

Now, John Killian, our chief credit officer will discuss credit qualities starting on Slide 11.

John M. Killian

The broad based improvement in our credit metrics that we saw in the fourth quarter continued in the first quarter and improved at a faster pace than we expected. Net credit related charge offs and the provision for credit losses improved significantly from fourth quarter levels. Net credit related charge offs were $173 million in the first quarter, $52 million reduction from the fourth quarter led by a significant decline in commercial net charge offs.

Commercial net charge offs of $42 million or 80 basis points have not been at this level since the third quarter of 2008. Provision for credit losses of $182 million was $77 million less than the fourth quarter. The provision exceeded net credit related charge offs by $9 million compared to $34 million in the fourth quarter reflecting the improvement in overall credit performance. The allowance for loan losses was 2.42% of total loans, an increase of eight basis points from the fourth quarter. The allowance for loan losses was 85% of non-performing loans.

Turning to Slide 12 total non-performing assets declined $41 million to $1.25 billion. Importantly, the inflow to non-performing assets decreased by $21 million in the first quarter. This marks the third consecutive quarter of decline. Foreclosed property declined $22 million to $89 million. Loans past due 90 days or more and still accruing declined $18 million to $83 million. Our watch list loans decreased by $228 million to $7.5 billion at the end of the first quarter. This is the second consecutive quarter of decline and reflects improvements in our portfolio in all geographic markets and across virtually all lines of business.

Slide 13 provides detail on the declining trend in net loan charge offs. Total net loan charge offs declined $51 million to $173 million. The decline can be attributed primarily to the middle market which declined $37 million or almost 50% from last quarter to $39 million and global corporate banking which was down $24 million to only $2 million in net charge offs in the first quarter. Net loan charge offs in the commercial real estate business in the first quarter of 2010 increased to $86 million from $62 million in the fourth quarter 2009. We expect that we will continue to see some variability here with an overall downward trend.

Net charge offs declined to $42 million in the Midwest market and $21 million in the western market while we saw a $12 million increase in Texas primarily as a result of charges taken on two commercial real estate projects. On Slide 14, we provide information on the makeup of non-accrual loans. The largest portion of the non-accrual loans continues to be the commercial real estate line of business which decreased $16 million in the quarter. Non-accruals also decreased in global corporate banking by $30 million and middle market by $7 million.

During the first quarter $245 million of loan relationships greater than $2 million were transferred to non-accrual status, a reduction of $21 million from the fourth quarter. Of these inflows, commercial real estate contributed $129 million. Global corporate banking had no inflows to non-accruals greater than $2 million compared to $42 million last quarter. Middle market had $63 million down $21 million from the fourth quarter. Also, in flows decreased modestly in several lines of business such as small business.

We sold $44 million of non-performing loans in the quarter as well as $12 million in performing loans and several short sales whereby we settle a note with the borrower at less than par. In total, prices approximated our carrying value plus reserves. This continues to support our analysis of valuations.

On Slide 15, we provide a detailed breakdown by geography and project type of our commercial real estate line of business which declined $191 million from the fourth quarter. There is further detail provided in the appendix to these Slides. Total outstandings of $4.6 billion were down $749 million from a year ago. This included a $472 million decrease in the western market, $190 million decrease in Florida and a $139 million decline in Michigan.

Slide 16 provides net charge offs for our commercial real estate line of business by project type and geography. Residential real estate development loan charge offs remained at similar levels as the fourth quarter. We have seen prices for single family homes stabilize and even increase in select areas. However, land prices remain soft and in some locations continue to decline. Charge offs in the non-residential real estate construction segment increased in the first quarter. While we continued to see softness, we believe that non-residential real estate will see far fewer defaults and much lower loss content than the residential construction segment.

While net charge offs for commercial real estate increased in the first quarter in comparison with the fourth quarter the remain well below the peak in the second quarter of last year. In flows to non-accrual increased to $129 million compared to $64 million in the fourth quarter but well below the peak last year of $211 million in the third quarter. Commercial real estate non-accrual and watch list loans declined in the first quarter and this along with our analysis of migration patterns for the last several quarters all supports our belief that negative migration is receding.

As shown on Slide 17, as of the end of the first quarter, we reduced residential real estate development exposure by $1.3 billion or 58% since June of 2008 to $964 million at March 31, 2010. Total single family construction outstandings were down $844 million or 64% from June 2008. There are additional slides in the appendix which provide further detail on certain segments.

The consumer portfolio representing approximately 10% of our total loans continues to perform relatively well. The Slide detailing our auto dealer and automotive supplier portfolio also can be found in the appendix. Both portfolios continue to perform as expected. As far as the auto supplier portfolio is concerned, loan outstandings now represent less than 2.5% of our total loans. Non-accrual loans continued to decline in the first quarter. The auto dealer average outstandings have declined $815 million or 20% over the past year in line with falling sales volumes of new cars. We continue to have excellent credit quality in this portfolio.

To conclude on credit, we conduct in depth reviews of all of our watch list credits at least quarterly to ensure that we have an appropriate work out strategy as well as reserves and carrying values that reflect our collateral assessment. This proactive strategy has resulted in a current carrying value of non-performing loans of 56%. We are pleased with the improvement in credit metrics in the first quarter. These results, as well as the positive trends we have seen in macroeconomic statistics support our updated outlook for net credit related charge offs of $675 million to $725 million for the full year 2010 which is a $100 million decrease from our previous outlook. We expect the provision for credit losses will be consistent with net charge offs for the year.

Now, I’ll turn the call back to Beth.

Elizabeth S. Acton

Turning to Slide 18 and our capital ratios; our capital position is strong and historically we’ve had some of the highest capital ratios in our peer group. We have maintained a solid capital structure with a large component of common equity for many years.

Slide 19 provides and update on our outlook for 2010 which is based on a modestly improving economic environment. We expect subdued loan demand for a while longer as loan growth typically lags other positive economic indicators. We expect that C&I borrowings will grow as working capital needs increase and will be partially offset by declining commercial real estate outstandings. As a result, we believe we will achieve low single digit loan growth from March 31st period end to December 31st period end. We expect the securities portfolio to remain at the current level.

Based on the assumption there will not be an increase in the Fed Funds rate in 2010 we expect a net interest margin of 325 to 335. This is a 10 basis point increase from our prior outlook of 315 to 325. While excess liquidity has not dissipated as quickly as we expected, loan spread expansion and the level of non-interest bearing deposits have exceeded our expectations.

Our outlook is for net credit related charge offs of $675 to $725 million. Provision is expected to be consistent with net charge offs. As John mentioned there is a $100 million decline from our prior outlook as a result of the positive trends we are seeing in both the economic environment and our credit metrics. Non-interest income excluding 2009 securities gains is expected to be flat to a low single digit decrease as we believe retail service charges on deposit accounts and market related fees such as brokerage and fiduciary will continue to be impacted by the cautious behavior of our customers.

The expected reduction of pension, FDIC and ORE expense as well as the continued careful control of discretionary costs is expected to result in the low single digit decrease in expenses. Overall, the many positive trends that continued in the first quarter such as improved credit metrics, a slower pace of decline in loan demand and a significant increase in the net interest margin, lead us to believe we will continue to see improvement in our core operating fundamentals in 2010.

Now, we’d be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan.

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

I wanted to start, you provided $2 million above net charge offs in the quarter which I guess would qualify as slightly above charge offs. I’m just curious, compared to a lot of your peers that are now guiding to reserve releases in 2010, why do you guys assume provision above net charge offs for the full year?

John M. Killian

The total provision of on balance sheet and off balance sheet is $9 million in excess of total charge offs. I think we’re just taking a conservative look for the rest of the year. As you know, we have a rigorous process for determining the reserves and we’re comfortable with that guidance that the provision will be consistent with charge offs for the rest of the year overall and we’ll continue to monitor that very closely.

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

So perhaps releasing reserves towards the end of the year?

John M. Killian

That’s a possibility but we’ll continue to watch it real closely as you know.

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

John, I know you break out the inflows in to non-accruals for large credits but could you give what the total inflows were in to NPA this quarter?

John M. Killian

They were $245 million down $21 million from the $266 total in the fourth quarter.

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

Finally, just one question on capital, now that you’re profitable on an operating basis at least and sitting on almost 10% Tier-1, can you talk about expectations for increasing the dividend here and maybe potential timing?

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

I think Steve, we’ll continue to watch the economy and the improvement in the economy as well as the improvement in our core operating earnings and we will monitor that along the way and make a decision at the appropriate time as to when we’ll recommend increasing the dividend.

Steven Alexopoulos – JP Morgan

Do you expect that sometime in 2010 Ralph, that you might recommend an increase in the dividend?

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

I really wouldn’t put a time frame on it right now because of the uncertainty of where the economy is going and as we watch that we will closely monitor that.

Operator

Your next question comes from Ken Zerbe – Morgan Stanley.

Ken Zerbe – Morgan Stanley

Also another question here on capital, when you think out a couple of years about potential loan growth on an organic basis, possible acquisitions, is there enough opportunity out there to actually redeploy your capital without doing things such as buybacks? Or again, once the economy starts to improve a little bit more are buybacks sort of a core part of your capital redeployment strategy?

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

Well, we’ve certainly been active in buybacks in the past. But, as I was talking about earlier we’ll be watching the internal capital generation as it relates to the asset growth that we have and the opportunities that we have out there. Certainly acquisitions are one, the economy is the other and waiting to see how quickly it will pick up. As we mentioned in various of the comments today we’re starting to see signs that we think borrowing will start to pick up in the not too distant future if the economy continues to stabilize and grow.

Elizabeth S. Acton

Ken, I would add also that it is still very unclear from regulatory standpoint for the industry, where the capital targets are going to be. So until those are a little more clear, we’re being cautious in how we’re managing the balance sheet, hence the decision for instance that we made to not repurchase the warrant as an example.

Ken Zerbe – Morgan Stanley

Then the other question I had was just on the NIM. I was a little surprised the NIM improved as much as it did while you also had an increase in excess liquidity. Can you just talk about the opportunity to increase NIM further from here if you don’t get a reduction in excess liquidity?

Elizabeth S. Acton

First we believe we will have a reduction in excess liquidity. We do have $2.4 billion in debt maturities between now and the end of the year. In addition, as we have mentioned, we do expect some modest amount of loan growth particularly summer time through the end of the year so a combination of those will certainly reduce the excess liquidity and certainly to levels below where it was last year on average. So I think we’re comfortable that we will see a dissipation. But, you’re right the pace of it is we’ve made an assumption that it will dissipate largely by the end of the year in our margin outlook. As you saw, we did increase our outlook for NIM by 10 basis points really driven by very good loan spread situation and higher deposit levels than we were expecting so that is a positive thing.

When you think about the guidance we gave you and you pick the midpoint of that guidance, for the rest of the year we’d have to average about 334 for the NIM to work out to that guidance we gave you. So we certainly are expecting further improvements part of which is also helped by we have about $650 million of retail brokerage CDs maturing in the second quarter which have a yield over 4%. So we’re positive about where the NIM is heading as evidenced by the improvement in the outlook we gave.

Operator

Your next question comes from David Rochester – Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

David Rochester – Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

You just touched on those institutional CDs, are you planning on running all of them off at this point? It seems like you have enough liquidity to do that and get rid of the $2.4 billion in wholesale and still have enough for loan growth?

Elizabeth S. Acton

That is correct. The retail brokered CDs, the $650 I mentioned in the second quarter is largely the rest of the ones that were put on during the credit crunch so those will be gone as of the second quarter and easily with the excess liquidity we can let those mature as well as the other debt maturities that I mentioned.

David Rochester – Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

On the loan spreads comments you made, going through the average balance sheet it looks like you saw a nice jump across many of these products. Can you update us on how far you are through the repricing process and what portion of the portfolio you’ve repriced and how much and what opportunities you have left over?

Elizabeth S. Acton

We will through this year be largely finished with the process we began really three years ago. That is fully reflected, I think, the full repricing if you will by the end of this year.

David Rochester – Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

So as you guys are looking at an economy which is stabilizing, perhaps slowly improving here and there are a lot of banks out there including yourselves that have fresh capital and are looking to stabilize and grow loan portfolios, have you at all started seeing any signs of spread compression for some of the stronger credits out there?

Dale E. Green

It’s clear that with the liquidity [inaudible] of institutions that for the stronger credits have clearly increased competition and its really across all markets and across all lines of business for the most part. So we are starting to see more of that. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to hold our structures and our pricing but I think as the economy gets better and people feel better and better and I’m beginning to see that right now, and as the positives shrink I think we’ll start to see loans grow and I think you will see more pressure on the loan spreads. But, for the moment we’ve still be able to hold on to the spreads that we put in place.

Operator

Your next question comes from Ken Usdin – Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Ken Usdin – Bank of America Merrill Lynch

I was wondering if you could give us a little more color on the commercial real estate line of business. You mentioned an expected downward trend of charges with some variability so I’m just wondering what you see underneath both sides of that portfolio, both the construction side and the commercial mortgage side?

John M. Killian

One important thing to remember Ken is the construction loans are rolling in to mini perms. We’re pretty much past the construction risk in that portfolio because we really haven’t made very many new real estate construction loans in about three years. When you talk about the uptick in commercial real estate charge offs and NPA inflow, I think it’s important to put it in proper context to remember our overall credit trends. We’ve seen improvement for three quarters now in charge offs, NPA inflows and past dues and we’ve seen improvement for two quarters now in overall NPAs, provision and the watch list.

The uptick in commercial real estate charge offs and in flows related to credits that were previously identified and were in fact on the watch list for commercial real estate, they were not a surprise. They were just moving through the workout process and as we analyzed the data we saw that commercial real estate NPAs were still down in the first quarter. We saw that the commercial real estate watch list was down by $100 million in the first quarter and then we analyzed the commercial real estate migration for the last several quarters and all those items supported our belief that the negative migration is receding.

That being said, there’s still a lot of work to do on commercial real estate as you can see from the absolute numbers. While we think there may be variability as we certainly saw this quarter, and as we said in prior quarters, we think the overall trend is going in the right direction.

Ken Usdin – Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Just one follow up, what’s your view on severity in the commercial real estate book as far as future losses as opposed to ones you’ve taken so far? Do you believe that you’re through the bulk of the worse there as well or do we still have some challenges ahead?

John M. Killian

When you think about it by product type there’s no question that the highest loss content is in residential and that’s because of the high land content in residential. We’ve been working through the residential side of the portfolio as you know well now it feels like forever but probably more like two and a half years. So, we think we’re through the largest part of that. We do think we’ll see a few more problems in residential as well as in retail and multifamily but particularly in the non-residential properties we expect fewer defaults and lower loss content because of that and factor.

Operator

Your next question comes from Brian Klock – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

Brian Klock – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

Just a quick question, a lot of questions already on capital and capital deployment, Ralph do you think about or are you seeing anything – whether you think about the California markets or Michigan with FDIC assisted opportunities that you think you may now that you’re free of TARP and/or I guess what about traditional M&A opportunities? Do you think there’s anything in the near term that you’d be thinking about with all that excess capital or are you just thinking about organic loan growth as the way to deploy that?

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

Well, I think it’s a little bit of all of the above. When we think about FDIC assisted deals, you never know when those are going to come available but we have been very regimented as you know on making sure that whether it’s an FDIC transaction or whether it’s a traditional transaction that it fits. It needs to fit in our strategy and accelerate our internal strategy with not only the types of businesses that we’re in but also a culture that fits because we want to see it accelerate growth and not be a detractor from that standpoint and we don’t do it just to be a transaction.

Whether they will come up you never know and about the time you think nothing is going to come up it will happen. Whether it be a assisted or a more traditional transaction, but we are certainly open and looking and understand where we want to be and so we can evaluate those opportunities very quickly.

Brian Klock – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

John really quick, I did listen and I was trying to scribble down, but the color on the Texas charge offs, I think you said was it a permanent commercial real estate or was it commercial real estate development?

John M. Killian

There were two projects in particular in Texas Brian. As you know, the Texas economy has had a much shallower recession than the rest of the country but they’re not immune from the occasional real estate problem. One of those was a retail development in Dallas, the other was a rather high end residential development in the Austin area and as you well know it’s the high end residential that hasn’t begun to recover very well anywhere in the country up until this point.

Brian Klock – Keefe, Bruyette & Woods

The last quick question for John and maybe Dale, I guess what I was surprised about was the Midwest market sort of strengthening so quickly as well from a credit perspective and returning to profitability levels back even first quarter of last year. Maybe you guys can kind of talk about what you’re seeing there with customers and with the outlook for the Michigan segment.

Dale E. Green

Brian, let me take at least part of that. We’ve spent quite a bit of time up there lately kind of talking to customers, talking to our people and there’s a renewed sense of optimism certainly in the middle market and small business. You’ve got to remember, starting from a fairly low level of not really having much optimism. I think the autos have shown some strengthening, obvious you’re seeing that GM has repaid a substantial part of what they owe the tax payers so I think that has helped.

Without any doubt we are seeing some good opportunities in that market. It’s not a market that will grow in any kind of a robust fashion. If you believe economic forecasts it probably grows at maybe 1% to 1.5% over the next year or so. I wouldn’t suspect that we’d do much more than that if that but I think the good news is that the core customer base we’ve been through, we’ve taken whatever loans we’ve needed to take and it’s really been very strong when you consider how long that economy has been in a recession. So I think from a credit quality perspective things are clearly improving and from a revenue growth perspective I think there are opportunities but I think it’s fairly muted. But nonetheless we like to see the optimism.

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

Brian, it’s good to see signs of a return to growth in Michigan. One of the really interesting factors for me on the auto side is you know a tremendous number of suppliers have had a lot of difficult for the past couple of years but those who made it through really restructured the cost side of their business model. As auto sales continue to increase through the late fourth quarter and in to the first quarter of this year, at the levels that auto sales are now taking place these suppliers can make real good profits on that and that is what’s driving the Michigan economy in its slight recovery so far.

Operator

Your next question comes from Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer & Co.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer & Co.

Just two questions, first on the change in your guidance on net charge offs down about $100 million from the fourth quarter and I believe you reiterated that a couple of months ago. If I just annualize the first quarter charge offs I’m right around the midpoint of that range. Was this a tough decision to make? Obviously, there’s still some cautiousness out there especially among many of your peers and could you just talk about beyond just the first quarter trends really what gave you the confidence to come out and make that statement?

John M. Killian

Well, your math is certainly correct, it does almost exactly hit the midpoint of that range and that was done specifically for that purpose. We base our forecast on the improvement that we’ve seen in so many of our basic credit metrics over the past two and sometimes three quarters by talking to our customers about what they’re seeing in the market place, what they’re feeling so it’s all of those things as well as discussions with our colleagues internally here at the bank. It’s a number of those things that makes it what we thought was a prudent thing to do to bring the guidance down somewhat and we’ll continue to review that as we go forward.

Elizabeth S. Acton

I think Terry the point is we made for the fourth quarter as well as the first quarter, there was a broad based improvement in credit metrics across all of our geographies and across virtually all of our lines of business. So whether it’s provisioning, charge offs, past dues, inflows, watch list, all of those were headed in the right direction, now this is two quarters in a row. Remember, our credit quality improvements frankly started earlier than many of our peers and we began to foreshadow that last summer. Fortunately, the trends have picked up and the breadth of the improvements have come to pass and we feel very good about that.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer & Co.

Just an additional question, a few years ago when Comerica was more in an offensive mode you were adding banking centers and have kind of slowed down those efforts. As you look ahead over the next year or couple of years do you think you’ll be growing the number of banking centers like you were in the past few years? And, is any of that built in to your expense guidance for the year?

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

We will open about 13 this year and we will, as you just described, as the economy begins to strengthen and move forward, we will again ramp up our strategy from an internal standpoint in opening new banking centers. As well as, I was mentioning earlier, we’ll always be looking for the opportunities for acquisitions as well.

Operator

Your next question comes from Gary Tenner – Soleil Securities.

Gary Tenner – Soleil Securities

Just a couple of questions on the margin, in terms of the margin guidance does that assume any sort of rising short term interest rates or is that purely because of the excess liquidity and other organic changes that the margin should expand?

Elizabeth S. Acton

We are not assuming any rate rise from the federal funds rate this year.

Gary Tenner – Soleil Securities

If you could also just as a second to that, update on the amount of your portfolio that is currently floating rate and what percentage of those have floors?

Elizabeth S. Acton

About 80% of our loan portfolio is floating and that’s a $41.3 billion portfolio, and of that about $3 billion have floors so a small amount.

Operator

Your final question comes from Analyst for Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse.

Analyst for Craig Siegenthaler – Credit Suisse

I was just wondering which particular loan classes or geographies do you expect to drive the loan growth over the remainder of the year? Also, if you could give us some color on that trends that you’re seeing in those markets that is giving you confidence that loan demand will return.

Dale E. Green

The growth we’re seeing is primarily in the Texas and western markets. It’s in our core businesses, particularly middle market and small business that we’re seeing loans growing but also some of our specialized businesses, particularly technology and life sciences. The backlogs on those businesses are really growing very nicely across the market segments and frankly, as I said earlier the customers we’re talking to are feeling a lot more positive. They’re beginning to make investments in fixed assets and are beginning to do some hiring although they’re still cautious. So we’re seeing all that begin to happen and we’re feeling very good about what we’re seeing there.

Elizabeth S. Acton

I think the other thing we would expect is to see utilization start to increase. We are at very low line utilization levels now and we did see from February to March those stabilize. Whether that’s the beginning of a trend we’ll have to see but line utilization and a lot of our loan decline has been through less usage under lines so we would expect to see that improve without having to add new customers to get the loan growth.

Operator

I will now turn the call over to Ralph Babb for closing remarks.

Ralph W. Babb, Jr.

I’d just like to thank everybody for joining us today and your continued interest in Comerica. Thank you very much.

Operator

This concludes today’s Comerica’s first quarter 2010 earnings conference call. You may now disconnect.

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Source: Comerica Incorporated Q1 2010 Earnings Call Transcript
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