By Joe Rauch and Elinor Comlay
CHARLOTTE, N.C./NEW YORK (Reuters) - Three major regional banks said loan problems buffeted fourth-quarter results but may be coming under control after two hard years.
Quarterly results on Friday from SunTrust Banks Inc <STI.N>, BB&T Corp <BBT.N> and Huntington Bancshares Inc <HBAN.O> showed loan losses increasing but also signs of stability nearly three years after the housing crisis began.
"It's too early to say for sure, but its possible we're hitting the bottom on credit," said Chris Marinac, analyst with Atlanta-based FIG Partners LLC.
SunTrust and BB&T, two of the 10 largest U.S. banks, beat analysts' estimates, while Huntington missed.
Atlanta-based SunTrust and Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington reported narrower quarterly losses. Earnings at Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based BB&T fell 36 percent.
At Huntington, fourth quarter loan-loss reserves totaled $894 million, up 88 percent from the third quarter.
Like other regional banks, Huntington said it saw the pace of loan deterioration slow in the third and fourth quarters, but it increased its loan-loss reserve because of lingering concerns over the still-fragile economy in the Midwest.
The bank is particularly worried by its commercial real estate retail portfolio, it said, noting that vacancy rates are rising as rents and property values are falling. Losses on commercial real estate soared in the fourth quarter to $258.1 million from $169.2 million in the third quarter.
Huntington reported a loss of 65 cents a share before one-time items. Analysts had expected a loss of 27 cents.
At BB&T, a key SunTrust rival, provision for credit losses rose to $725 million in the fourth quarter from $197 million a year earlier. Growth in the bank's nonperforming assets slowed from 18 percent in the third quarter to 7 percent in the fourth quarter.
BB&T said the nonperforming assets increase and a higher provision for credit losses were driven by deterioration in housing-related credits, particularly in Atlanta, Florida, metro Washington, D.C., and in areas of the Carolinas.
BB&T's net income fell to $194 million from $307 million a year earlier.
SunTrust's net chargeoffs declined 18.7 percent from the third quarter to $820.5 million. Its provision for credit losses was $973.7 million, down $217 million from the third quarter and a down $47 million from the fourth quarter of 2008.
Nonaccrual loans -- loans the bank has doubts about being repaid in full -- totaled $5.40 billion, down $41.7 million from the third quarter.
SunTrust's net loss was $316 million, narrowing 15 percent from a year earlier.
"There's a lot to be said for the rate of change slowing as the first sign of progress," FIG Partners' Marinac said.
Huntington and SunTrust have not yet repaid government bailouts under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Speculation has swirled about when banks will repay TARP aid. A wave of repayments late last year included Bank of America Corp <BAC.N>, Citigroup Inc <C.N> and Wells Fargo & Co <WFC.N>.
SunTrust received $4.9 billion under TARP, while Huntington received $1.4 billion.
SunTrust Chief Executive James Wells said during the company's earnings conference call that the bank will repay the aid as soon as is practical, but is balancing regulatory and shareholder concerns.
"We need to have sort of the stars and the moon align, and then we'll proceed from there," said he said.
(Reporting by Joe Rauch in Charlotte and Elinor Comlay in New York; Editing by John Wallace)