Many Gulf Coast banks are in damage-control mode as they scramble to figure out how badly the oil spill could hurt their bottom lines.
Facing questions from investors and analysts, publicly traded lenders across the region have been giving the same answer after scouring loan books and contacting borrowers to get a sense of their pain: It's impossible to tell right now.
"I'm sure it's going to be a big topic on the second-quarter conference calls," said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a managing director with Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP.
The murky outlook has contributed to sharp declines since April in the value of shares in SunTrust Banks Inc., Synovus Financial Corp inc., Regions Financial Corp., Whitney Holding Corp., BancorpSouth Inc. and Trustmark Corp., among others.
With the oil still spewing into the gulf after 53 days as of Friday, there's no way to determine how the debacle will end, much less how it will affect local businesses and consumers, observers say. Though the spill has taken a toll on a number of businesses, some banks — particularly smaller ones — have noted the cleanup effort has stimulated the local economy by putting thousands to work.
The long-term impact on the real estate, oil-and-gas and tourist industries of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida is unclear as well. The money BP PLC will dole out to compensate victims could benefit banks and some borrowers.
The spill's decimation of local property values, meanwhile, could not come at a worse time as lenders in Florida and Alabama were just starting to see prices firm up for the huge number of foreclosed properties on their books.
Management teams across the region have been pelted with questions about which of their borrowers might be in trouble, how severely their real estate books may suffer and how much capital they may have to set aside to cover bad loans, among other things.
Analysts said they are hoping to get a better picture of the situation when those conference calls start next month.
It usually takes several months for a loan to deteriorate to the point where a bank decides to charge it off, so actual losses related to the crisis probably will not surface until the third quarter.
But the banks may said they're setting aside higher provisions to cover potential losses from the disaster.
They also may report higher costs associated with foreclosed properties, as they may have to hold onto these assets longer if real estate demand has taken a hit.
"We're trying to figure it out with everybody else. … Lord, nobody knows," said a regional bank official who declined to be identified.
Hewing closely to crisis management plans they drew up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, bankers in the area said that right now their main focus is staying in touch with borrowers while doing what they can to address market concerns.
Regions, for instance, said in a written statement: "From the beginning, Regions has proactively reached out to its customers across affected areas of the Gulf. … Our Customer Assistance Program, which helps distressed borrowers, was developed from our experience in dealing with Katrina and the recession. To date, we have had only a handful of requests for assistance related to the spill."
Officials from other regional companies, such as SunTrust and BB&T Corp., did not comment.
After Katrina, banks learned to stay in close contact with borrowers for fear of losing their business or being caught off guard by unforeseen problems, observers said.
The financial crisis of 2008 also taught them to be as transparent — and forthright — as possible with investors.
Analysts said the management teams they've spoken to are just as desperate to get a grip on this situation.
"They're frustrated because they know people want information. The frustration is there just isn't a lot of information to give," said Bain Slack, an analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
Banks have also been taking pains to point out that this crisis is harder to assess than a hurricane.
"Say you have an event like Katrina. It comes in, devastates, goes out," said Maclovio Pina, an analyst with Morningstar Inc.
"You can sort of assess the damage in a relatively short time frame. You have a spill that's spilling oil constantly for more than 50 days now."