SunTrust loses $229 million, sees positive signs

Atlanta-based SunTrust Bank continues to struggle amid the recession and weak housing market, though the company says its fortunes could soon brighten if the economic recovery takes root.

Georgia’s largest bank said Wednesday that it lost $229 million, or 46 cents a share, in the first quarter of 2010. In the same period a year ago it lost $875 million, but that included substantial one-time charges. Excluding charges, the year-earlier loss also was 46 cents a share.

The company lost $1.7 billion for all of 2009.

First-quarter revenue was soft due in part to slack demand for new loans, SunTrust said. And the cost of dealing with bad loans continued to be elevated.

But positive signs emerged. Most notably, the amount of loans falling into trouble is dropping.

“As the economy has shown signs of improvement, so have our results,” said James M. Wells, SunTrust’s president and CEO, during a conference call with analysts.

Jeff Davis of Guggenheim Partners said he agreed with SunTrust brass that a turnaround appears to be taking place.

“Their world is clearly getting better,” he said. “They are turning.”

SunTrust remains the largest bank to still hold money from the federal government’s TARP program.

Wells on Wednesday reiterated the company’s desire to pay back the money when the time is right. But regulators may require SunTrust to sell more shares to replace some of the TARP funds, which could dilute current shareholders.

Wells grew testy when analyst Ed Najarian of ISI Group pursued the issue during the conference call. Wells said the company faces a “balancing act” between repayment of the money and the interests of current shareholders.

When Najarian attempted to ask another question, Wells interjected: “You’ve had your follow-up. It’s over.”