U.S. banks prepare for oil and gas company loans to worsen

Tue Jul 21, 2015 10:13am EDT
 
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By Dan Freed

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. banks are setting aside more money to cover bad loans to energy companies after oil prices plunged over the last year, raising the possibility that deteriorating loans could start to weigh on their earnings, some analysts said.

Loan credit quality for U.S. banks has been improving since the financial crisis. In the first quarter, 2.49 percent of loans on banks' books were delinquent, the lowest level since the fourth quarter of 2007, according to the Federal Reserve, which hasn't released second quarter data. The rate peaked at 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2010.

Weakness among energy company loans could be a sign that overall credit quality among U.S. banks has little room to improve, analysts said. Executives from both JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. told investors last week, when posting earnings, that they were increasingly concerned about loans to oil and gas companies.

Texas bank Comerica Inc on Friday set aside about three times as much money to cover bad loans as analysts had expected, sending the regional bank's shares lower by more than 6 percent after the bank reported earnings Friday. Setting aside more money, known as "provisioning," hurts earnings.

"The banks really have very low credit costs and those can go higher," said Fred Cannon, who heads research at Keefe Bruyette & Woods. While "energy overall is not a life threatening issue for the banks, it is earnings threatening," he said.

JPMorgan said on Tuesday it provisioned another $252 million to cover potentially bad wholesale business loans in the quarter, with $140 million of that related to oil and gas lending.

Oil prices rallied in March and April, but in recent weeks have fallen again on expectations that loosened sanctions against Iran create the potential for greater supplies. U.S. crude oil prices fell below $50 a barrel on Monday for the first time since April.

U.S. accounting rules require that banks set aside money to cover losses on loans only after the loan has shown visible signs of deteriorating, such as a borrower having missed an interest payment. The rules are subject to wide interpretation, however, so that such things as weaker oil and gas prices could potentially prompt some borrowers to increase their provisions.   Continued...

 
A view of the exterior of the JP Morgan Chase & Co. Corporate headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, May 20, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Segar