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Regional Banks Struggle Despite Signs Of Loan Revival

By Matthias Rieker Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Demand for new loans improved in the third quarter at some banks, but not enough to lift many regional banks' earnings. Comerica Inc. (CMA) and Marshall & Ilsley Corp. (MI) each disappointed shareholders in their own way, although U.S. Bancorp. (USB) continued to report strong results. Dallas-based Comerica and Milwaukee-based Marshall & Ilsley both reported results that fell short of analyst expectations--Comerica because income from lending was weaker than expected, and Marshall & Ilsley because it took a $200 million charge tied to a soured business loan. Their shares fell about 8% in midday trading, while U.S. Bancorp's shares rose 0.3%. The increase in new credit that a number of banks reported was meager, but even early signs of an end to the contraction in lending are positive for banks, which are fighting to return to firmer footing after the financial meltdown. Lending is the bread and butter of regional banks, even more so now that many banks divested other business lines and laws and regulation are restricting their ability to charge fees. "What we are seeing is qualified customers are coming back" to borrow, U.S. Bancorp Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Davis said during a conference call with analysts. His bank, based in Minneapolis, has been one of the nation's strongest during the financial crisis. Its third-quarter profit rose more than 50% to $908 million. Revenue was $4.6 billion, up 7.9% from a year earlier and up 1.5% from the second quarter. U.S. Bancorp bought failed banks and started to aggressively advertise when the crisis was at its worst. Now the bank's credit is growing because it lured clients from weaker banks, and even its existing customers started to borrow again. "Is this the real deal, we're getting loan growth back?" CLSA analyst Michael Mayo asked Davis. The CEO responded, "One quarter doesn't a trend make, but boy it's a lot better than having the continued decreases" in demand. At Comerica, revenue fell because the bank holds fewer loans in what Chairman and Chief Executive Ralph Babb called a "sluggish and still uncertain" economy. The bank's third-quarter profit more than tripled from a year earlier but fell 14% from the previous quarter to $59 million. Babb told analysts the bank's loan pipeline is strong and loan commitments rose nearly 50% from the second quarter. "Commercial loans increased modestly in the third quarter and total loans increased in the month of September," he said. The utilization of business borrowers' existing line of credit increased slightly, to almost 46%. Marshall & Ilsley's third-quarter loss narrowed to $169 million from $248 million a year earlier. Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith told investors during a conference call that the results, excluding the bad loan, provided the bank with "continued confidence" that its "recovery is underway." In other developments, Marshall & Ilsley said Chairman Dennis J. Kuester and Chief Credit Officer Mark R. Hogan retired. CEO Mark Furlong was appointed chairman. -By Matthias Rieker, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2471; matthias.rieker@dowjones.com

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