Northern Trust Earnings Call Nuggets: Expenses, Non-U.S. Interest-Bearing Deposits

On Wednesday, Northern Trust Corporation (NASDAQ:NTRS) reported its third quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call. Take a look.


Alex Blostein – Goldman Sachs: Mike, wanted to start-off, I guess, by focusing on expenses a little bit here. It looks like clearly a solid job this quarter with maintaining the dollar amount of expenses at a lower level. How, I guess, sustainable is that? It sounds like there’s still a good chunk of expense initiatives that are not in the run rate that we’re going to get from you guys next year. So, I guess, if you look at next few quarters, I’m thinking about the absolute dollar of expenses weighing against business initiative et cetera. Is this a decent run rate, I guess, knowing what (indiscernible) from the expense savings?

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Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: So, on expenses as you pointed out, Alex, we have been successful in managing our cost, as we continue to drive the business. So, as I talked about our trust investment and other fees up 8% year-over-year and yet our costs have been very much in line with where they were a year ago, and a lot of that is due to driving performance and executing on those initiatives. As I mentioned, we are $100 million into that and that’s a mix between revenue and expenses, but we still have a number of initiatives that will bear fruit in 2013 and beyond. So, we do expect to see the positive impact of driving performance in our expense run rate as we go forward. Having said that, we also expect to continue to grow the business and there are costs that are associated with growing the business. So, as the business grows, expense levels will grow, but on a relative basis, our goal certainly is to have them grow at a slower rate than our revenue growth. The other thing I would say as far as run rate, from any quarter-to-quarter comparison, there are various categories that do fluctuate. As I mentioned, outside service is a category that we had an improvement in this quarter and that includes sub-custodian expenses. That’s a category, for example, which can fluctuate with transaction levels and be seasonal. So, it’s not something where I would take quarter-to-quarter every line item that’s going to move exactly the same.

Alex Blostein – Goldman Sachs: And then my second question was on how you guys thinking about net interest income, and I know there’s a few things that tend to move around between excess deposit, et cetera, but I guess focusing on NII as opposed to the NIM, can you just give us your updated thoughts on your thinking potentially, either extending duration or reshuffling some of the buckets? You guys do have 30% of your balance sheet basically in cash or sitting with other banks. So, when you think about NII and the outlook, no one would you see what the interest rate backdrop; is there anything you could do or planning on doing, I guess, to protect just the actual NII as opposed to just thinking about the NIM?

Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: So, as you know, obviously, the net interest income is a product of the average earning assets and our NIM. And on the average earning asset side, you’ve seen that our level of assets has been relatively consistent over the last few quarters here, and that is because our balance sheets we talk about often is driven by our clients and the deposits that they place with us, and then we then turn around and try to deploy those on the asset side. And we’ve been in this environment where there just hasn’t been much activity one direction or another and I think that it’s difficult at this point to really look out and determine what direction that could go. When you have situations such as the fiscal cliff, you have tag at the end of the year which may or may not go away. It is difficult to determine whether our clients will place more deposits with us or if they’ll look to do other things because they are more comfortable with the environment. So, that’s the first part of it. Now, within that the mix of earning assets and how we deploy those certainly to the extent that we can provide credit to our customers, to our clients that is a priority. It is a priority one because it is clearly a service and product that they value, but also just from an earnings standpoint with the yield on that overall being in this quarter 2.85% that’s the highest earning category for us out of the three. The securities portfolio is one where we have tried to maintain the yield on that portfolio through a very difficult and decreasing interest rate environment and we saw further pressure on that in the quarter. Now, we do try to manage it in a way to keep our income levels at where they’ve been and you did see us extend our duration in the quarter so this quarter our index duration was one year which is up from about 10 or 11 months last quarter, and if you look back to last year it was closer to eight month. So, we have been comfortable given the outlook for interest rates to extend our duration, but we are going to be prudent about how we continue to do that, but that’s one thing that we can do and have done. Finally, the last category is the one frankly where we probably have the least amount of control to manage what we’re doing there and that is with our bank placements because those are so short-term in nature, where we’re taking deposits primarily from our custody clients and then we’re looking to place those with other institutions on a short-term basis. The maturity of that – the average maturity is closer to a month, so it’s very short and we are much more subject to short-term market rates. So, we saw in the quarter was clearly a decline in the spreads on those deposits. If you look at that – I’ll call it deposits and placement portfolio which is about $19 billion, $15 billion of that is in non-U.S. dollar currencies, and so if you just look at what happened to interest rates on some of those securities during the quarter, those currencies during the quarter, we saw the ECB take the overnight rate down to zero. That clearly put pressure on our ability to redeploy those in a short-term fashion and get spread. So, that’s the part that we have the least control over and the one that created the most pressure.

Alex Blostein – Goldman Sachs: Then my last question is with respect to new business, clearly solid momentum this quarter. I think in the past you guys talked about the Omnium deal or I guess your new rebranded Hedge Fund Solution Service performing a little bit better than you thought. I was wondering if you could give us a little more color on where you are seeing incremental benefits, how big are these fees for you guys nowadays, what that could do to the, I guess, overall fee rate on the whole institutional business, and things of that nature?

Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: Sure. So as you pointed out, the Omnium acquisition clearly had strategic value to us and we see that in the new business that we’re winning. The new business itself has been very robust and very diverse and I say that in the sense of it has been a combination of what I would call mid-size wins with mid-size hedge funds, but then also we’ve been very successful with some of the largest hedge funds as well. So, the key there has been that our technology solution for clients is one that we feel we clearly have a competitive advantage with in the marketplace. So, we expect that to continue. The other aspect of it is that it does allow us to win additional business with some of these hedge fund clients. So given that Northern Trust has a much more broader service offering than where Omnium was previously positioned, it’s enabled them to expand the breadth of their business as well. So, so far the results have been excellent and I would say that we continue to be very optimistic about the growth there.

Non-U.S. Interest-Bearing Deposits

Glenn Schorr – Nomura Securities: First one, I know these numbers jump around a little bit, but the non-U.S. interest-bearing deposits both ticked up in size, but also in the average yield paid. Now, we’re coming off a quarter where it went down, but I’m just curious on what circumstances lead to a pick-up in the average fee paid, because I just haven’t seen that in a while; I’m not used to it, forgive me?

Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: No need to ask for forgiveness on that. The reason for that is the mix of the currencies that are in there, and a portion of our deposits are from institutions in Australia and are in Australian dollars. So, the Australian interest rate, as you know, are much higher than they are in other parts of the world, and so depending on that mix, we will see an impact on our cost to funds. So that’s the driver. If you take out the impact of the Aussie dollar on that line – on our non-U.S. office interest bearing deposits the cost would be flat quarter-over-quarter which I think is more consistent with what you would expect.

Glenn Schorr – Nomura Securities: Did you spell out the one and not yet funded number and I missed it in terms of new business flows they have been good, but I am not sure what’s in the run rate versus not yet?

Beverly J. Fleming – IR: Glenn, that’s (not the) number that we have disclosed.

Glenn Schorr – Nomura Securities: And then just last one. I think you pointed out all the areas where Northern is making progress on the capital front, on the asset growth and new business front, on the expense initiatives you are executing on the plan I think we are hanging out in that same earnings run rate because of the obvious on the revenue headwinds so it feels like we are biting time but improving the operating leverage potential of the company. So, I am curious on how you think about incremental margins might be on new revenues if and when we ever get passed some of these headwinds. So, I guess, it’s a question of incremental margins and margin improvement as revenues pick-up?

Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: Maybe one way I can address that because I think you are right on with the way that we are looking to drive the financials for the business which is control those things that we can control and try to manage the other areas as best we can. So, we have been successful in increasing our pre-tax margin despite the headwinds that we’ve talked about and trying to think about the type of leverage that might provide us though in a different environment. One other things that we look at is our expense base relative to our trust investment and other servicing fees and if you look at that ratio just over time we’ve made consistent improvement in that ratio. So if you look back in 2011, I think it’s about 127%, and then consistently through the quarters I think we went down to 125% in the first quarter, then 118% and then this quarter 115%. So, we are consistently bringing down the cost relative to the major fees in our business. That doesn’t mean that we’re not looking to also optimize on the other revenues in our business, it just means that we think that we have a greater control over the relationship between those two.

Glenn Schorr – Nomura Securities: Finally, the last one is, no other way to ask it than just ask it. (You’ve) a ton of capital. If you took a very crude view of even if earnings hung out in this area, you can return a whole lot more than you’re returning now without denting the industry-leading capital ratios. So just curious, do you feel like you’re holding back on areas that you’d like to grow or am I misreading this that the capital return potential of Northern is a lot bigger than what’s currently happening?

Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: Yeah. So, on the capital front, you are correct, we feel very good about our capital position, and it certainly is adequate and more than adequate to support all of the capital needs that we have and I mean that in the sense of all of the growth that you’re seeing in the business and other growth initiatives that we have. We have adequate capital to fund those. As far as returning capital to shareholders, it is absolutely a priority for the management team and the Board to do that. And as you’ve seen, we’ve looked to do an increasing amount of that within the context of the environment we’re in and I say that with regard to, not just the evolving capital standards, but also the interaction with the regulators and your ability to return capital. So, we were able to repurchase $50 million of stock in this quarter. We still have another $140 million from our 2012 capital plan. We’re approaching the 2013 capital plan. As I mentioned, in addition to just feeling good about our capital position, we’ll get to the end of the year before we submit that; see what the environment looks like and look to put together a plan that we feel addresses both our desires but also those of shareholders and also meets with what the regulators would expect and one that we believe they would not object to.

A Closer Look: Northern Trust Earnings Cheat Sheet>>