The Pasadena-based bank, one of the nation's largest ethnic Chinese financial institutions, has gotten kicked around by short-sellers who were betting that there would be real estate-related troubles down the road. The stock had been trading around at 12 a share, which is quite a tumble from its 52-week high of 42. But a bullish piece in Barron's over the weekend helped push up shares nearly 4 percent today (though the stock is still at a paltry $13.69). One reason for the encouraging outlook was last month's $200-million convertible-preferred stock offering, which has helped East West deal with some pesky home- and construction-loan portfolios.
That's not to say the company doesn't have issues to work out. The bank announced on April 17 that first-quarter profits fell 88% from the level a year earlier, to $5 million -- the first quarterly decline since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The drop was caused by an unexpected $55 million provision to cover losses on residential construction and land-development loans keyed to the Golden State's rapidly declining real-estate market. Yet East West remains one of the fastest-growing regional banks in the U.S., with assets that have increased by an average of 21% annually over the past 10 years, to $11.8 billion. In the same span, earnings have expanded at a compound annual rate of 27%.
Revenue is split pretty evenly between commercial and retail businesses. About 80% of East West's retail clients are Americans of Chinese descent, many of whom utilize the bank's money-transfer system to send funds back and forth across the Pacific to relatives and business associates. (In the wake of China's devastating earthquake, much of East West's transfer thoroughfare has been donations from customers to Chinese groups aiding families in hard-hit Sichuan province.)