Shares of Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania owner Citizens Financial Group jumped 4.5 percent in trading Friday, after the company reported better-than-expected sales and profits.
The gain — up $1.53 to $35.43 — was more than double the day’s KBW regional-bank index and more than triple the main market indexes, though it still left Citizens’ share price at 9 times earnings, a modest premium.
“Loan growth was above expectations,” wrote analyst R. Scott Siefers, to clients of New York-based Sandler O’Neill + Partners. “This was a very solid quarter.” He added that Citizens is one of the few banks the firm follows that he expects is “actually improving” its sales outlook this year. The bank’s commercial loans were up 8 percent over a year earlier, while consumer loans were up just 2 percent.
Chief executive Bruce Van Saun told the Inquirer he credited the Trump tax cuts and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell’s decision to stop boosting interest rates, which Trump encouraged, for helping persuade more companies to borrow. Businesses typically borrow to expand or transfer profits to owners.
Van Saun also said he expects improvement from the Phillies, who play at Citizens Bank Park.
Some regional Fed officials and bankers had urged the Fed to keep boosting the cost of money, noting that the economy has expanded steadily under Trump and Obama, to the point where employers have complained they can’t find enough workers without inflating wages.
But Van Saun said he’s come to prefer cheap money at this point. Keeping rates low “is the right approach," he said. “Inflation remains under control. The Fed moved rates quite a bit. They can now step back and see where the data goes. They [have] a dual mandate, focused both on employment, and on keeping inflation under control.
"We benefited as rates went up, but we are now later in the cycle, and we get less benefit” as savers start to demand higher deposit rates to match the bank’s increased loan rates, he added.
"There were fears we would have a slowing economy and maybe a recession” over the next two years, driving stocks sharply lower in December, Van Saun said. But “business confidence remains high, with the benefits from reduced taxes, the reduced piling-on of regulation, and pro-energy policies. That is helping the economy.”
What about consumers? “We don’t see a rise in loan delinquencies. We don’t see pockets where consumers are struggling.”
He acknowledged that most Citizens offices are in slow-growing New England and mid-Atlantic states, but added that the company has hired business lenders targeting the Southeast and parts of the Midwest in hopes of tapping faster-growing markets.
Van Saun boasted on a conference call with investors about the bank’s cost-cutting programs. I asked how the bank can say it’s cutting costs, while showing on its financial statement that expenses are actually up? By limiting spending growth to less than sales growth, he said: If the bank can automate back-office work and keep expense growth to three percent a year, while adding loans and other assets at five percent, it will keep boosting profitability, Van Saun said.
What about Chase Manhattan Bank, the nation’s most-profitable and most-valuable bank, which has opened the first of 50 planned Philadelphia-area branches, and will add a Center City office next week? “They will have a tough time peeling our customers away,” Van Saun said. “They need good locations. We’ve jumped on some of the best locations in Philadelphia to get ahead of their game.”
Last month Citizens moved its branch near Rittenhouse Square, the city’s wealthiest downtown enclave, from mid-block at 214 S. 20th St. to a prime corner at 1700 Walnut St. The bank updated nine Philadelphia-area branches last year and plans 13 more this year, though it has not yet opened its larger “wealth management” branches here as it has in the Pittsburgh and Baltimore markets.
Citizens runs the largest branch network in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs — 149 branches — though that’s down from 177 offices 10 years ago. As more people do business using banks' online systems and mobile apps, banking executives closed more than one-sixth of all bank branches in the five-county area since 2008, with the total dropping to 1,149, from 1,394, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.
Which makes Chase’s expansion even more surprising.
Van Saun says his bank has taken steps to keep key staff from defecting to its New York rival. And it has identified Citizens customers who have Chase Sapphire credit cards and approached them with offers for additional Citizens services. “We know how they play their game,” he added. “We want to get in front of that.”
He said Citizens is prepared for Chase’s publicity and public-relations spending blitz. “They will write big checks to support community groups. But they don’t have our boots on the ground. Every big event in Philadelphia, you see people with our green shirts. It takes a long time to build that equity in a community.”
Which brought us back to Citizens' biggest local marketing scheme, the millions it pays for branding rights at the Phillies' Citizens Bank Park. “We’re excited" for this year’s team, Van Saun said, citing lead owner John Middleton’s promise to “turn the page and sign one of the big free agents to get in the game.” Middleton said in November he’s even willing to “get a little stupid” in buying talent this winter.