Northern Trust Earnings Call Insights: Expenses and Last Year’s Initiatives

Northern Trust Corporation (NASDAQ:NTRS) recently reported its fourth quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call.

Expenses

Cynthia Mayer – Bank of America: I guess just a little bit on expenses within the other bucket, it sounded like some was seasonal or one time and some might repeat. I can see the 3.3, but within the rest I’m just wondering if you could give us a sense of what wouldn’t repeat and what is maybe a step up?

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Michael G. O’Grady – EVP and CFO: Sure. Why don’t I on that Cynthia just step back a little bit given that there are a number of items in other and it’s that category that went up sequentially. Our expenses fluctuate from quarter-to-quarter for various reasons and we did see that in the fourth quarter. When you look year-over-year, expenses were only up 1%, but quarter-over-quarter they were up 6%. Third quarter expenses often can be lower. Often just with the summer months, they are slower from an activity standpoint, whereas fourth quarter expenses can be higher given that we just have much more activity at the end of the year, which we certainly did this year. Much of it cost our businesses, as I talked about. Some due to things that were different this year, like the fiscal cliff and other things that I think just happened every year where you try to get a lot done by the end of the year. This year we definitely saw the change in outside services and other operating expenses. Outside services includes a number of expenses, but certain things like sub-custodian costs and third-party advisor fees, which fluctuate throughout the year and there’s no real definitive seasonal pattern to those fluctuations, but they were higher in the fourth quarter. Other outside services such as contracted, technical, legal and consulting services are required to onboard new clients. I mentioned QIC, but there were some other large clients, which we finished the onboarding in the fourth quarter and so we saw those expenses go higher. Then similarly, as you point out in other operating expense, you have various charges such as accounting service – charges related to account servicing activities and those also tend to fluctuate and were higher in the fourth quarter. Then the largest category within other is business promotion. This includes things like travel, marketing, advertising, and these activities were lower in the third quarter and then higher in the fourth quarter. Other also includes staff related expenses. So things like expat costs and relocation costs and those were higher in the fourth quarter and to your point, not costs that in our view necessarily repeat each quarter. Then I would go on a little further to say that as we’ve discussed on the call in the past and it’s in our financial disclosures as well, there are several areas where in the first quarter, we see seasonal patterns as well. So if you recall, stock option expenses, typically higher in the first quarter of each year, just due to the requirement that we expense options that are granted to retirement eligible employees. FICA insurance is also usually higher in the first quarter. Then, as you know we also have the Northern Trust Open that is held in February, and that results in higher business promotion expense in the fourth quarter. If you also just recall looking at last year, our expenses in the first quarter of 2012 if you’ve adjusted out, the charges were fairly close to what our expenses were in the fourth quarter of 2011, and that’s also when we began the execution of driving performance. So, we’re beginning to see some of the benefits of driving performance. So, hopefully that gives you a little context.