U.S. stock prices keep hitting record highs, as hope and greed push past fear. But back on the ground, where real companies add locations and hire people, “we’ve seen a little bit of a slowdown,” says Bruce Van Saun, chief executive of Citizens Financial Group, whose Citizens Bank has the biggest branch network in Philadelphia and its suburbs.
Loans to businesses by U.S. banks rose rapidly last year and early this year, as commercial real estate developers and private-company investors rushed to borrow cheap before the Federal Reserve’s threatened rate hikes. But that little rush is over, Van Saun told me Friday, as area banks reported slow third-quarter loan growth, compared with last year.
Loan growth is “weak” for Citizens and for rival banks; “this is an industry issue,” bank stocks analyst R. Scott Siefers told clients of Sandler O’Neill + Partners, New York, in a report. Indeed, Citizens shares rose Friday and Monday to their second-highest closings since the bank went public three years ago, after the bank reported higher-than-expected third-quarter profits, thanks partly to cost cuts.
U.S. economic growth now “hinges on Washington getting some work done around the growth agenda, such as tax cuts,” Van Saun said. “Get something done in Washington and you’ll see a release of those ‘animal spirits.’ ” He’s especially interested in a proposal for more-rapid expensing of capital investments against current taxes, which could be “a real tonic to pick up growth.”
Bosses who were optimistic that Donald Trump’s election would lead to pro-business policies are still taking a “wait and see attitude” toward actually hiring and investing. For example, in Philadelphia, which now has plenty of new apartments and condos seeking occupants, “you will see less new development,” Van Saun said. Office deals have also slowed; after the second Comcast tower, due to finish basic construction this winter, “there’s not a lot more going up.”
President Trump said last week that he’ll deliver business and personal tax rate cuts before the end of this year. He’s betting businesses will spend part of their savings on expanding U.S. operations, earn more profits — and pay more taxes, even at the new lower rates, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin says.
But even with the House and Senate backing a budget with less tax revenue, “finishing tax legislation in 2017 is overly optimistic,” Brian Gardner, Washington-watcher for bank investment firm Keefe Bruyette & Woods, warned in a report to clients Monday. “Tax legislation, if passed, will be completed in 2018.”
Meanwhile, Citizens has been cutting costs by downsizing its branches and staff at some of its 154 Philadelphia-area locations, and others from New England to the Midwest.
Loan growth was also “modestly weaker” than expected at Beneficial Bank, the largest bank still based in Philadelphia, wrote Frank Schiraldi, another Sandler O’Neill analyst, in a report to clients. Consumer lending was down last quarter, even as business loans were up modestly.
Bryn Mawr Trust Corp. lenders have lately become “more cautious” about construction loans as Philadelphia-area development slows, analyst Matthew Schultheis told clients at Boenning & Scattergood in West Conshohocken. He noted that Bryn Mawr is also expanding its capital-markets operation so as to rely less on new loans.