Still bruised from the 2008 financial meltdown, the banking business has sustained a few more blows lately.
The once-untouchable JPMorgan Chase & Co. sounded the bell by disclosing a huge trading loss that as of Friday had ballooned to $5.8 billion.
Then Britain’s Barclays Bank found itself in hot water for allegedly manipulating an obscure interest rate that lenders all over the globe use to price everything from real estate payments to credit-card bills.
And Wells Fargo last week agreed to cut a $175 million check to settle government claims that it discriminated against minority mortgage borrowers in 36 states and the District of Columbia between 2004 and 2009. The nation’s biggest home-loan lender did so without admitting to the Justice Department’s allegations.
With that in the backdrop, veteran local bank executive L. Wayne Pearson stood before his board of directors and a few dozen of his investors last week. The chairman and CEO of Mount Pleasant-based Southcoast Financial Corp. and Southcoast Community Bank ignored the drama unfolding in New York and London, focusing instead on what’s happening in his own backyard.
“Things have improved since we were here last year,” Pearson said at Southcoast’s annual meeting of shareholders on Thursday. The title of his presentation reflected his upbeat outlook for the bank: “Enthusiastic, Well Positioned and Open for Business.”
On the mend
Pearson joins a growing band of community bankers who think their industry, locally at least, is back on the mend, as the heap of bad loans subsides and the economy gets its footing back.
The morning Pearson spoke, the Bank of South Carolina Corp. chimed in. The four-branch Charleston-based lender, which maintained a nearly spotless balance sheet during the downturn, noted that demand from the real estate side of its business helped push its second-quarter profit up 16 percent to about $890,000.
“Driving this is the outstanding contribution of our mortgage department,” said Fleetwood S. Hassell, president.
All the while, expansion-minded newcomers, including Greenville-based CertusBank and Charlotte’s Park Sterling Bank, are looking to build out franchises in Charleston.
Pearson rattled off some of the factors behind the renewed sense of optimism.
Unemployment, while still high, has been mostly falling in the Charleston region. Home sales and real estate values have been rising. Economic development activity has been showing signs of vigor, as blue-chip employers such as Cummins and Robert Bosch expand and add jobs.
Pearson noted that Boeing’s 787 aircraft campus in North Charleston had about 2,000 employees a year ago. That figure has since swelled north of 6,000.
“Boeing’s been a great shot in the arm for us,” he said. “The port is active. The airport is expanding.”
‘Why we all are here’
While bullish about the days ahead, Pearson tempered his remarks with a sobering review of the treacherous waters the bank has had to navigate in the wake of the real estate crash.
At one point, the nine-branch Southcoast carried $45 million in bad loans, repossessed properties and other soured assets on its books.
“Huge number,” Pearson said. “Every day someone was throwing keys at us. It was bizarre.”
A look at the depressed stock price — Pearson called it the “most troubling slide” in Thursday’s presentation — showed “SOCB” is mired well below its book value of $6.10. The shares were trading around $2.45 late last week compared with $17 five years ago.
“As a shareholder, I’ve felt the pain ... like all of you have,” said Pearson, whose nearly 5 percent stake in Southcoast makes him the largest individual stockholder.
The bank, which had more than enough capital reserves to see it through the downturn, has been unloading the bad assets. The process hasn’t been easy. It has forced Southcoast to shoulder some steep losses, culminating in a $16.5 million red number for 2011.
“We’ve taken our lumps,” Pearson said.
The bank has since whittled its down its portfolio of unwanted assets to about $13 million.
“Big improvement,” he said.
At the same time, deposits and loan growth are on the upswing again, and earnings also are coming back as well, Pearson added. Southcoast last week posted back-to-back quarterly profits for the first time since 2010. The latest gain brought the year-to-date total to $1.75 million.
“When we make money, we increase shareholder value, and that’s why we all are here,” Pearson said.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.
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