By Andrew R. Johnson
CIT Group Inc. (CIT) is eying potential acquisitions to make the commercial lender "more bank-like" as it continues efforts to shrink funding costs, Chief Executive John Thain said Thursday.
Mr. Thain, who is leading CIT on a multiyear turnaround plan, said at the lender's first investor day since 2006 that the area "most interesting to us" is opportunity to acquire bank deposits.
"That's really the place that we see the most interesting opportunities," Mr. Thain said, adding that his company "will continue to look at the ability to acquire deposits."
Building a strong deposit base has been a central part of CIT's efforts to improve its lending profitability, which lags behind competitors such as Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) that have huge deposit bases.
CIT, which filed for bankruptcy in late 2009, traditionally relied on issuing debt to fund its loans and other financing, which are used by mostly small and mid-sized businesses for everything from office equipment and airplanes to mergers and acquisitions.
Since then, CIT has moved several of its lending platforms from its holding company to its bank subsidiary, allowing it to tap deposits as a funding source. Last year, it launched an online consumer bank that offers certificates of deposit and savings accounts, taking on other specialty lenders that have embarked on similar strategies, including American Express Co. (AXP) and Discover Financial Services (DFS).
General Electric Co. (GE), one of CIT's main rivals for commercial finance, is in the process of acquiring MetLife Inc.'s (MET) online banking business to build its own consumer-deposit platform.
CIT's online bank has raised more than $1.5 billion in deposits since its debut last autumn, Mr. Thain said.
CIT filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November 2009 as it faced challenges in raising funds to make loans, while many borrowers drew down their lines of credit. Its filing wiped out $10 billion in debt and a $2.3 billion government bailout.
The company exited bankruptcy the following month and has been led since February 2010 by Mr. Thain, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) executive who previously led Merrill Lynch and the New York Stock Exchange.
In addition to growing CIT's deposits, Mr. Thain has been focused on restructuring the company's debt. It has paid down or refinanced $26 billion of debt during the last two years, bringing CIT's funding costs down by more than 200 basis points, he said.
Among the next steps for CIT is to resolve a written agreement with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that has prevented it from paying dividends and buying back shares.
Mr. Thain has previously said CIT substantially met the requirements under the agreement. On Thursday, he reiterated those comments, saying CIT continues to wait for a response from the Fed. He didn't offer a time frame for when that might occur.
CIT doesn't plan to return capital to investors this year, but expects to submit a plan to do so to the Fed for approval at the beginning of 2013, Mr. Thain said.
CIT's shares were down 0.4% at $33.60 in recent trading. Its shares are down more than 3% this year.
Write to Andrew R. Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.