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Executives

Tom O'Malley – Director of Corporate Communications

Paul Greig – Chairman and CEO

Bill Richgels – EVP and Chief Credit Officer

Terry Bichsel – EVP and CFO

Analysts

Scott Siefers – Sandler O'Neill

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

FirstMerit Corporation (FMER) Q1 2008 Earnings Call Transcript April 22, 2008 2:00 PM ET

Operator

Good afternoon. My name is Barbara and I'll be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the FirstMerit Corporation first quarter 2008 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 period. (Operator instructions) Thank you.

It's now my pleasure to turn the floor over to your host, Mr. Tom O'Malley, Director of Corporate Communications. Thank you.

Tom O'Malley

Thanks, Barbara. Good afternoon, I'm Tom O'Malley, the Director of Corporate Communication and Investor Relations for FirstMerit Corporation. Welcome to our first quarter 2008 earnings conference call. Joining me today are Paul Greig, our Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; Bill Richgels, our Chief Credit Officer; Terry Bichsel, our Chief Financial Officer; and Mark DuHamel, our Treasurer. We will have a question-and-answer session following our prepared remarks.

I'll now turn the call over to Paul Greig.

Paul Greig

Thank you Tom and good afternoon everyone. The momentum established in 2007 leading to improved financial performance is evident in our first quarter 2008 results. In the quarter, we reported $0.39 per share, which is comparable to the prior quarter and year ago quarter number. Despite a challenging time in our industry, I'm pleased with our overall results this past quarter. We achieved these results due to our employees' diligent focus on executing our super community banking model. This model is based on prompt customer response and a high level of service, which includes decision makers creating relationships with our high value customers.

Our investments in technology over the past several years continue to give us the ability to offer our customer base all the products and services of the larger competitors. A recap of some of our success this past quarter includes continued operating revenue growth off the year-ago quarter, credit quality performances in line with our guidance.

In the quarter, we experienced net charge-offs of 65 basis points with a $2 million decline in nonperforming assets. Nonperforming assets are 50 basis points of total loans compared with 53 basis points last quarter. While we have made great strides with our credit quality, it's also important to note the additional strength of our balance sheet. Coverage levels on nonperforming loans are a healthy 346%. We feel we are prepared to face the challenges of the credit cycle.

I am again pleased that the execution of our super community model allows us to meet two important objectives. First, maintaining credit discipline and second, profitably growing our balance sheet. In the third quarter, commercial loans increased 11.9% annualized off the fourth quarter of 2007 and 6% off the year ago quarter. This solid growth is due to the efforts of our small business and commercial bankers. Their aggressive calling activity throughout our footprint in northeastern Ohio continues to deliver high levels of customer retention and new business. I am very impressed and appreciative of their talents and their hard work.

I am also very happy with the credit profile of the new business brought in this past quarter, the majority of which is diversified C&I loans as opposed to CRE. We increased average core deposits by an annualized 6.5% compared with the prior quarter. Our core deposit gathering reflects the headway we are making with our reality checking and savings products that we recently introduced.

This past quarter, we lowered operating expenses by 2.7% compared with the fourth quarter. As a key initiative, we have teams throughout our organization seeking new cost saving opportunities. Our progress in this area eliminates waste and produces reinvestment opportunities back into our business lines. Finally, this past quarter, we again increased our capital position through the retention of earnings.

At March 31, '08, FirstMerit has a tangible equity to asset level of 7.68%. At this time, we have no intention of repurchasing stock in 2008. Capital is always important, but even more so in today's environment. We feel comfortable with the current capital level and our ability to carry on with our capital management objectives, which places a priority on dividend payment.

We have taken a proactive stance in the management of this company. The timeliness and success of our first quarter 2007 commercial loan sale has contributed to our solid footing today. It allows our team to focus on growing our business and capitalizing on present opportunities in the market. During the last part of 2006 and throughout all of 2007, we made systemic and cultural changes such that improved asset quality is sustainable. We made improvement in credit quality, the primary focus of the entire management team and the organization.

We aligned incentives across the company to emphasize the importance of this initiative. Incentives for the lender officers, credit officers and the Bank's executive management tie into maintaining our improved credit quality. All loan portfolios are now subject to ongoing reviews to ensure that we adhere to appropriate standards of credit quality.

In summary, the financial and operating results this quarter show progress on many of our initiatives to improve the performance of our franchise and deliver increased value to our shareholders. We are not finished on this mission and continue to stress the importance of increased calling programs on new and existing customers. The opportunity to grow our business today is tremendous and the entire organization is focused on that goal.

I'll now turn the call over to Bill Richgels, our Chief Credit Officer. Bill?

Bill Richgels

Thank you, Paul, and good afternoon. Our first quarter credit performance came in as expected. As Paul referenced, non-performing assets totaled $35.3 million, a decrease of $2 million from the year ending December of '07. This decrease was primarily due to our continued emphasis on rapid evaluation and asset realization. Said another way, we move rapidly with evaluations, decisions and disposition of assets on all deteriorating and chronic situations. This is a direct benefit of our strong capital position.

With a back drop of the national housing crisis and deepening consumer cycle challenges, we expected a rise in our criticized and classified composition in the first quarter. Our relatively modest $15 million increase to $236 million represents our continued focus on portfolio monitoring and proactive asset valuation procedures.

An example of this is our homebuilder portfolio roughly $180 million all in. We have examined every account, every relationship in our homebuilder portfolio. We have updated and received new appraisals, we have developed and restructured new plans and have re-rated the entire portfolio. We will continue to repeat with this focus and effort and will benefit our performance accordingly. This specific portfolio continues to shrink. It shrunk $8 million last quarter given the continued pressure of the cycle.

A comment about our general portfolio may be in order. Out of a total commercial portfolio of roughly $4.1 billion, C&I loans with their related owner occupied real estate totaled $2.6 billion, roughly 64%. We remain positive on the performance metrics of this main driver of earnings. Our retail income producing industrial development portfolio includes office, multifamily, retail and general commercial real estate properties, and that totals $1.265 billion. It has not demonstrated deteriorating portfolio characteristics and that's probably given the in-footprint, well seasoned and long-term developer customer attributes of that portfolio. We do not chase the out of footprint transactions that may bedevil other institutions. For the quarter, net charge-offs totaled $11.3 million, 65 basis points in line with our expectations and forecast.

Let's focus on the retail portfolio. I have already referenced the challenges and pressures of our current credit cycle. We can see some of the effects of those pressures in our first quarter results. Retail loan net charge-offs rose $2 million over the 12/31/07 quarter number of $6.3 million. Yet at the same time, we managed to significantly improve our retail delinquency numbers from roughly $60 million or 1.95% to $55 million or 1.83% at the quarter ending March 31, '08. This demonstrates our act of collection and early intervention techniques that have positively influenced these delinquency trends.

However, the decreased values of the collateral, namely vehicles and the housing stock, ultimately negatively affect our loss in the portfolio, there in lie the net charge-off rose for the quarter. This increase in net retail charge-off is expected to be manageable, but results in a slight revision upward to 65 basis points on average from our prior forecast for the remainder of the year.

The average FICO score of our retail portfolio has stabilized over the last year. This demonstrates a general trend of increasing average scores resulting in all-in average of 735. The average most recent FICO re-scoring, as you may note we constantly review and re-score the portfolio, has improved 6.4 points resulting in an average re-scored of that portfolio of 762. This coupled with a relatively stable unemployment numbers for our footprint area provides some positive performance indicators.

Average utilization of home equity line remained stable at roughly 39% with an average FICO of 760, again a positive performance indicator. Foreclosures for our book continues to decline. You may remember we had declined from 75 to 60 at year-end 12/31/07, that has further declined modestly to 57 auctions as of March 31st.

As of quarter end March, our allowance for credit losses was $102.3 million representing 1.45% loans and 346% of non-performing loans, a very strong and representative of our significantly strong capital position. We are adequately reserved for the asset quality at this time.

In summary, I continue to closely monitor our portfolios and with our bankers proactively take steps to preserve our credit quality, particularly the builder and commercial real estate portfolios. The C&I portfolio remains strong. As we see it today, our conservative process and method allow us to manage and preserve value in line with the portfolio quality and charge-off guidance that we have provided.

At this time, I will turn the call over to Terry Bichsel, our CFO.

Terry Bichsel

Thanks, Bill. Good afternoon everyone. First quarter financial performance shows earnings per share at $0.39 above consensus estimates. Included in first quarter earnings is $0.07 related to the redemption of Visa shares offset by $0.02 of onetime items in our expense base, those being an accrual for a litigation settlement and recognition of loss on a joint equity investment.

For the quarter, our return on average assets was 1.22% and our return on average equity was 13.6%. Revenue increased from the year-ago quarter 1.2% excluding Visa and the gain on loan sale executed in the first quarter of 2007. This is the third consecutive quarter of increased revenue against the year-ago quarter.

Net interest margin was 3.6%, down 6 basis points from the fourth quarter and up 2 basis points from the 2007 first quarter. The yield on earning assets declined 51 basis points while the cost of funds was down 45 basis points in the quarter. We have stated in prior investor presentations that it is our objective to maintain a neutral or balanced interest rate risk position and we continue to do so.

However, in the short-term, the significant Fed funds reductions in the first quarter did not allow ample time for deposits to fully re-price. As shown in our GAAP analysis in our annual report, we have $800 million more in assets than liabilities that re-price immediately with a change in Fed funds. It takes up to 90 days for the supporting interest bearing funds to fully re-price.

As we mentioned on last quarter's call that we would continue the strategy of being less aggressive on CDs in favor of borrowings and to continue to focus on core that is non-CD deposits. The results in the first quarter were favorable. Demand in non-mature deposits were up an annualized 6.5% on average, while CDs were down 11% and of the CD decline 60% was large and brokered CDs. This funding was replaced with short-term borrowings up 9% annualized.

The strong core deposit performance helped mitigate the short-term margin compression and will help the margin in the future. The commercial loan portfolio grew an annualized 11%, 74% was commercial and industrial and was distributed throughout our footprint. The remaining growth was well mixed commercial real estate, much of which was owner occupied.

The consumer portfolio declined an annualized 4.4%. This is consistent with the seasonal 4.2% decline experienced in the first quarter last year. Within the investment portfolio, we sold $13 million of insured municipal bonds with standalone rating of BBB and a gain of 524,000. All remaining municipal securities have a standalone credit rating of A or better. During the quarter, we also sold our full exposure in GSE preferred stock at no loss.

We continue to reinvest portfolio cash flows into high quality bonds with limited extension risk and average lives of less than five years. We closely monitor market conditions and we are prepared to readdress the investment strategy as warranted. The portfolio duration is 2.8 years, maturity and repurchase yields are currently approximately equal.

Fee income, excluding the Visa redemption, was seasonally down 9% from the fourth quarter and down 1.9% from the first quarter of 2007. The category that explains the reduction from a year ago is NSF/OD fees within the service charges on deposits as our customers are maintaining higher average balances and thus avoiding the fees.

Expenses include $2.4 million from the two onetime items referenced earlier. Additionally, expense contains $500,000 for an accrual for unfunded commitments that increases our allowance for credit losses. Without the onetime items, expenses are down 2.7% from the fourth quarter and 3.3% from the year ago quarter, reflecting our ongoing attention to expense management.

Following are comments relating to the remainder of 2008. While we are off to a great start for commercial loan growth, we restate the expectation provided last quarter of 4% to 4.5% growth from where we are at the end of this quarter. Similarly, for consumer credit, the portfolio would be expected to be flat to down 2.5%.

Our business segments will continue emphasis on the strategy of core deposit origination with 1% to 2% growth over the remainder of the year expected. Incremental funding will be in borrowings as opposed to CDs in anticipation of further Fed rate cuts. Charge-offs should average 65 basis points on average for the remainder of the year and NPA inflows should approximately equal outflows.

The net interest margin is expected to recover to the fourth quarter 2007 level and we will maintain our balanced asset liability management policy. Fees should recover from the first quarter seasonal low, with pick up in card fees, investment services and trust with the full year anticipated to be up 1%, excluding the onetime income in the first quarter of 2007 and the Visa redemption. Expenses should average $81 million per quarter. The tax rate should average 29.2% for the remainder of the year.

In summary, the quarter showed good commercial loan and core deposit growth, increased year-over-year revenue growth, a responsive net interest margin in a period of significant shocks to the market interest rates, charge-offs within expectations and well managed expense levels. Overall, a good quarter upon which to build in a difficult environment demonstrating execution of our super community banking model.

I will now return the call to Tom O'Malley.

Tom O'Malley

Thanks, Terry. Barbara, at this time, we are ready to take questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator instructions) Our first question is coming from Scott Siefers from Sandler O'Neill.

Scott Siefers – Sandler O'Neill

Good afternoon, guys. Let's see, Bill, I guess this question is probably best for you. When you were talking about NPAs being down due in part to an emphasis on asset disposition, I guess maybe a little more specifics on exactly how you are disposing of assets, whether it be secondary market, what have you. I guess I would just be curious to hear how kind of how the workout team is behaving, how you are getting through some of your stress borrowers.

Bill Richgels

Thank you, Scott. I think it might be helpful to think of a philosophy, Scott, where we are not purists in terms of calling market bottoms, market highs. We are in the business of moving appraising assets in that sector and then taking specific action, and you might think of it as part of an inventory. We try and create a constant and if you will that constant for our portfolio now runs at approximately $30 million and we are constantly looking at with a philosophy of know what the value of that asset is. These of course are for assets that we consider no longer relationships that they have the potential to be impaired and such, and what we do is we get very realistic re-appraisals.

We take action and we either re-collateralize in an effort for rehabilitation or, yes, we bring in secondary market people for indicative values or more directly, since that market is not as fulsome as one would desire, we move and market it internally within our region to long-term investors who still have liquidity. We have been very successful at that, not calling again a market value, but long-term investors may have a different perspective than we do, and we are realistic about the value that we'll accept. We have a constant movement, if you will, and I'll reference something and think of it as an inventory where we have to move one fourth of that inventory every quarter and that allows us to remain fairly consistent in NPAs. So we will sell because we have appraisals and have an idea of the present value of that asset. And again in my remarks, I referenced the fact that a strong balance sheet allows you this option to move on assets and we are very aggressive about doing that.

Scott Siefers – Sandler O'Neill

Okay. Thank you for that. And then, Paul, I guess this question is probably best for you. In your guy's backyard in northeast Ohio, there has been a couple pretty well publicized sort of troubled or recently troubled institutions. What are you guys doing to try to capitalize on some of the problems that some of your competitors might be having there?

Paul Greig

In my comments, Scott, I talked about an aggressive new business effort that had significant results in the first quarter and we are clearly focused on pursuing every opportunity in the marketplace. We have got a strong business model. Our high-touch high-quality delivery of financial products really gives us an advantage in the marketplace. We have our senior management touching and creating relationships with many of our customers, as well as our prospective customers, which folks really view as an advantage. And we have ample capital today to help our customers achieve their goals and as well we have capacity to bring on substantial new business. So it's really through aggressive marketing and an outward focus of all the bankers in all of our lines of business.

Scott Siefers – Sandler O'Neill

Okay. Great. Thank you.

Paul Greig

Thanks, Scott.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from Andrea Jao from Lehman Brothers.

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

Good afternoon, everyone.

Tom O'Malley

Hi, Andrea.

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

First question is regarding deposit trends among your customers. Are you seeing the willingness to move to the more transaction type accounts, just because the interest rates are much lower? Are you seeing deposit inflows just because returns from equities markets, for example, are getting difficult?

Terry Bichsel

Regarding deposits, this is Terry Bichsel. We have all of our business segments focused on the core deposits, and it's our commercial banking relationships where we don't have a fulsome deposit relationship where we may have a loan relationship with the promise of fulfilling and filling out that total relationship. That's a focus within our business banking area. Deposits would be the first objective, as well as providing the accommodation loan in that segment. So those are two areas. The other then is in our retail. We've been focused on putting product into the marketplace that has a good value proposition for our customers and we have begun to get traction on both the Reality Checking and Reality Savings product in our mix. So, I cannot comment as to whether funds are flowing back from the equity markets, but we believe that we have good products and good marketing strategies to execute on the core strategies within each of our business segments, including wealth.

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

Okay. My follow-up question is regarding the reserve level. Given your emphasis on commercial growth and those types of credits have been coming in, do you think you'd incrementally add to the reserve, i.e., help build up the reserve to loan ratio? I realize reserves and NPAs are higher than at your peers, but commercial losses can be lumpy.

Bill Richgels

Andrea, it's Bill Richgels.

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

Hi, Bill.

Bill Richgels

Hi. We are providing in terms of reserves, our provision equals charge-off and plus growth and for changes in credit quality. As I look at the book that's coming on and as I look at the performance really of that C&I, it is probably consistent with the way we have our reserve over the last 18 months to be consistent going forward. The portfolio characteristics and what we are seeing in loss in the true commercial is significantly reflective of a very modest risk portfolio. Think of it this way. It is a very granular portfolio. The largest non-performing loan we have right now is $2 million. And so, it would have to be extremely, in terms of risk theory, it would have to be an extremely broad-based significant short-time deterioration I think that would cause that portfolio to demonstrate higher risk characteristics that would require a change in our reserving. We are, if you recall, three and a half times reserve for our NPA level now.

Andrea Jao – Lehman Brothers

Okay. Thank you so much.

Bill Richgels

Thanks, Andrea.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from Terry McEvoy of Oppenheimer.

Bill Richgels

Hi, Terry.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer

Hi, good afternoon. Bill, I just want to make sure I understood you correctly, your new full year charge-off guidance is 65 basis points and that compares to 50 to 60 basis points, which was your guidance for the second, third and fourth quarter of '08?

Bill Richgels

Terry, we indicated a range over the quarter at 50 to 60 and indicated at the higher end of the range, based on what the dynamics that we referenced in the retail portfolio, we are modifying that another 5 basis points on the high end for the rest of the year. As I indicated, while we are proactively managing delinquencies down, when we do have a loss, given the asset realization less than historic, the realization is less than historically, we are modifying expectations slightly.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer

What were retail charge-offs in the fourth quarter? You mentioned they were $2 million in the first quarter of '07. Just remind us what they were in Q4.

Bill Richgels

In Q4, I think I referenced that our retail charge-offs rose $2 million over the $6.3 million quarter level at 12/31/07.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer

And then you also mentioned that the NPA inflows should equal outflows. Can you just talk about what types of loans you see where you see the NPAs coming in? Is it the retail book, is it the C&I, or evenly distributed across your portfolio?

Bill Richgels

C&I is very well behaved right now, Terry. And retail tends to go to a charge-off as opposed to a significant NPA. That retail at a method of accounting we charge-off at 120 or 180 days per portfolio. So that's remained fairly constant. The shift, if you will, in the loans that we are paying particular attention would be focused and have a concentration in the homebuilder portfolio.

Terry McEvoy – Oppenheimer

Okay. Thank you very much.

Tom O'Malley

Thank you, Terry.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from Erika Penala from Merrill Lynch.

Tom O'Malley

Hi, Erika.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

Hi. I just wanted to follow up on Scott's question regarding asset disposition. Bill, were you specifically referring to your homebuilder portfolio or were you referring to the corporate portfolio as a whole?

Bill Richgels

The corporate portfolio. This may help, Erika. We do a commercial loan flow analysis and if I did the quarter ending March 31, '07 to the quarter ending March 31, '08, we had a funds flow, if you will, through the non-accrual bucket of roughly $60 million. And over that period of time, and I'll discount part of that $60 million with roughly $26 million in that first quarter '07 due to the effects of the loan sale. What it means is we have transitioned and dealt with a roughly $30 million or one times that whole inventory through that non-accrual, all in the guise of and reflected either disposition through loan losses, charges, restructuring, affirming and returning to accrual, moving into OREO bucket for discreet one-off sales should the price be appropriate for that asset. The beauty of our portfolio including the, if one can find beauty in our homebuilders portfolio, is there is no large asset killer. There is nothing of size that by itself really affects us and the beauty, if you will, in that is you are allowed and you can dispose of them because they are manageable chunks for other investors and people who see opportunities in this space. None of them are large enough that the regional equity and capital sources can't absorb them.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

So, I guess a two-part question. You mentioned that you asked for reappraisals on the homebuilder portfolio. Where did those reappraisals come in versus the appraisals at origination? And I guess this is implied by your comments, but when you decided to go potentially sell off these loans, the hair cut wasn't anything to be concerned about?

Bill Richgels

I didn't hear fully the last part of that. We didn't ask; we received as part of our restructuring and an intensive focus there, and I would say again remember a large portion of the portfolio, approximately half, would have been that '05 generation. And so, '05 to '08, one would expect a deterioration in values and there is a range and I think you published some research on it as well, Erika, but roughly we are seeing a diminution in values on the whole of some 20% to 25%. And at the same time, within that period of time, we've had paydowns and in our restructure where either accommodating those diminished values through additional collateral, refreshing interest reserves and carries from outside capital and/or reassessing the overall strength and the ability of our long-term customers to continue to fund and be excited about the upside in their projects. The last part of your question though, Erika, I didn't catch.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

The last part of the question is that when you determined that the diminution of value is 20% to 25%, if you'd want to sell the project do you are buyers asking for an additional hair cut to the 20% to 25%?

Bill Richgels

I would say, as a general rule, when we see out of market national buyers, yes, they want to play the what do you have in it and then they look for discounts off. People here tend to regional value investors look at original value but look at current value. So there's an advantage in dealing with well-heeled long-term value purchasers locally because it's not a question of what is on your books, it's you are dealing with the value of the dirt in the projects as opposed to starting off with what is a hair cut for your position.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

Moving on to the consumer side, which bucket are you most concerned about? And how are you reserved against this bucket?

Bill Richgels

Well, I mean, the area I'm most concerned about well, let's start with the general retail. Our residential mortgage portfolio appears well behaved. Credit card numbers are up, one would expect that and then of course the significant impacts of both the fuel and the credit cycle and house values works adversely to our both indirect vehicle portfolio and home equity portfolio. In terms of reserving, again, we are reserved and we provide adequate coverage in terms of provision to accommodate this within the terms of our guidance.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

And one last question and this is not for you, Bill. This is for Paul. If the recession turns out to be deeper than you expect and credit losses come in higher, is there a tangible equity floor that would prompt you and the Board to consider the dividend at current levels and/or are you comfortable with the payout of over 100%?

Paul Greig

Right now, our dividend payout from last year was about 75%. And based on the behavior of the portfolio, we don't see the necessity to consider the question at this time. The dividend is a high priority for both myself and the Board. We've stated that publicly. We reassess the dividend on a quarterly basis, but it is our number one priority in use of capital and earnings.

Erika Penala – Merrill Lynch

Okay. Thank you for your time.

Paul Greig

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. There appears to be no further questions at this time. I would like to turn the floor back to Mr. O'Malley for any closing comments.

Tom O'Malley

Thank you, Barbara. Thank you all for joining us on the call. As always, we'll be available after the call if you have any additional questions and we look forward to speaking with you on our second quarter call. Good afternoon, everybody.

Operator

Thank you. This does conclude today's FirstMerit Corporation conference call. You may now disconnect.

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