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Associated Banc-Corp Outlook Cut, Ratings Affirmed by Moody's

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Associated Banc-Corp (ASB - Free Report) and its banking subsidiary Associated Bank, N.A.’s outlook has been downgraded to negative from stable by Moody's Investors Service. Moreover, the rating agency has affirmed the company’s a3 standalone baseline credit assessment (BCA) and A1/Prime-1 for its long-term deposits. The holding company’s issuer rating of Baa1 for long-term senior unsecured notes remains unchanged.

Reason Behind Downgrade of Outlook

The key reason behind the outlook downgrade is Associated Banc-Corp’s weaker capital position compared with the other regional banks that have similar ratings. Moreover, the overall tough operating environment due to the coronavirus pandemic remains a major near-term concern for the bank.

Reasons for Affirming the Ratings

Per Moody’s, Associated Banc-Corp’s ratings affirmation is indicative of a strong market position and direct banking franchise network in its key Wisconsin market. This aids the bank’s robust funding and liquidity position.

Further, the rating agency is of the opinion that the bank’s asset quality performance prior to the pandemic was robust. Moreover, the company’s tangible common equity (TCE) witnessed an improvement of about $200 million as of Jun 30, 2020, following the sale of its insurance business to USI Insurance Services. Additionally, the bank’s energy sector exposure has been declining over the past few years. Despite these, Associated Banc-Corp’s above-average exposure to the real estate sector compared with its peers is a matter of concern. The bank’s lending to the sector was roughly 2.5 times its TCE as of Jun 30, 2020. This continues to pose a challenge to its credit quality.

However, Associated Banc-Corp’s profitability declined in the first half of 2020 compared with the prior-year period. This was mainly attributed to the CECL introduction and the overall grim economic situation due to the pandemic. Furthermore, Moody’s believes that the bank’s lower level of profitability over the years and relatively weak capital position makes it more vulnerable to the prevailing uncertain operating environment.

What Can Trigger a Change in Moody’s Ratings?

Even though ratings upgrades are less likely in 12-18 months’ time due to the negative outlook, ratings for Associated Banc-Corp can return to stable in case Moody’s thinks that the bank has strengthened on asset quality and profitability fronts, and will prove to be resilient on all of the fronts.

At the same time, ratings can go down if the bank’s capital position worsens compared with its peers. Moreover, deterioration in credit profile or any hint of declining profitability can lead to a ratings downgrade.

The company’s shares have lost 25.1% in the past year compared with a 16.5% decline for the industry.

The stock currently carries a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell).

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant economic uncertainties, Moody’s has affirmed ratings and lowered outlooks for BOK Financial (BOKF - Free Report) , Regions Financial (RF - Free Report) and U.S. Bancorp (USB - Free Report) over the past few months.

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