UPDATE: Banking firm Synovus loses nearly $196 million in third quarter

Regional banking firm Synovus Financial Corp. — continuing to shed bad loans from its books — today reported a loss of $195.8 million, or 25 cents per share, in the third quarter of this year.

The loss, which covers the July-September period, was an improvement of nearly 57 percent from a year ago, when the Columbus-based company posted red ink totaling $453.8 million. The loss then was $1.32 per share.

Nearly two dozen Wall Street analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial were expecting the banking firm to lose 22 cents per share in the third quarter. They currently are anticipating a 14-cent loss in the fourth quarter and a $1.21 loss for the year as a whole.

“The story of the quarter is continued progress as evidenced by our credit trends,” Kessel Stelling, Synovus president and chief executive officer, said in a conference call with analysts after the earnings release. “But, certainly, neither I nor anyone else on our senior team is satisfied with our level of loss, nor will be until we return this company to profitability.”

Though Synovus has yet to stem the financial bleeding, Stelling pointed to several improving trends for the bank that employs about 1,500 people in Columbus and 6,257 companywide.

Credit costs for the firm have declined five straight quarters, he said. Past-due loans also are relatively low, while the company’s capital remains “strong.”

“We continued our trend of improvement in our provision expense, which was down this quarter by 20 percent,” said Synovus Chief Credit Officer Kevin Howard, referring to loan writeoffs that fell from $299 million in the second quarter to $239 million in the third. The chargeoff provision peaked at $632 million in the second quarter of 2009, the company said.

Synovus, which operates in five Southeastern states, suffered severely from the national housing and financial crises and subsequent recession. Its markets in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia — Atlanta in particular — have been hit hardest.

In another measure of improvement, Howard said non-performing assets are now at $1.5 billion, down 16 percent from the peak of $1.8 billion in the first quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, the inflow of non-performing loans in the third quarter was $422 million, up from $339 million in the second period, but 55 percent lower than the first-quarter 2009 peak of $939 million.

“I’ll remind everyone that the decrease in the second quarter was much greater than we had anticipated,” Stelling said. “And we did speak (in July) of potential lumpiness during the year. But the cumulative inflows are well within our internal forecasts.”

Howard said Synovus continues trying to clean up the company’s balance sheet, but at a cost. He said $172 million worth of assets were disposed of in the third quarter at an average of 39 cents on the dollar.

In the conference call, Stelling mentioned the bank’s largest creditor, Sea Island Co., a ritzy resort on the Georgia coast that began an expansion just as the recession was flaring up, eventually driving it into a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Two investment groups agreed on Oct. 11 to pay $212 million for Sea Island, which reportedly owes Synovus and two other banks as much as $500 million. The buyout must be approved later this year by a bankruptcy court judge.

Said Stelling: “We have followed and will continue to follow our established policies related to loan-loss reserves in dealing with the Sea Island Co. credit, and will continue to analyze the information available about the credit as we make decisions regarding the appropriate accounting treatment of this loan. This includes decisions regarding timing and amount of chargeoffs.”

The $195.8 million loss in the third quarter came on interest income of $245.4 million — $6.4 million after loan writeoffs — and $81.7 million in non-interest income. That includes service charges, mortgage fees and asset management income.

Through the first nine months of this year, Synovus has lost just over $668 million, a 44.6 percent improvement from the $1.2 billion loss during the January-September timeframe a year ago. Interest income so far is $744.3 million, while non-interest income is $225.4 million.

Synovus — parent company of Columbus Bank & Trust Co. — operates banks in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. It oversees $31 billion in assets.

Stelling replaced an ailing Richard Anthony as CEO earlier this month, with Anthony retaining his title of chairman. The former CEO is recovering from a rare blood vessel disorder.

“He continues to progress in his recovery,” said Stelling, noting Anthony was in the office earlier today.

Synovus shares rose 4 cents, or 1.6 percent, to $2.44 in trading today on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $1.45 to $3.92.