Student loan giant Sallie Mae, which has had a difficult few years, reported lower delinquencies and charge-offs, and declining operating expenses, helped fuel a 14% rise in fourth quarter earnings, to $511 million.

Fourth quarter results helped create a 19% increase in fiscal year earnings to $633 million, up from $530 million for 2010.

Sallie Mae, also known as SLM Corp., reported it continues to be buffeted by the securitization market, where it is by far the largest player for student loan ABS.

Fourth quarter 2011 and full-year 2011 results had a $302-million increase in gains and a $623-million increase in losses, respectively, in unrealized “mark-to-market” gains/losses on derivative contracts compared to year-ago periods.

Fourth quarter highlights included an $11% increase in loan originations to $457 million; an increase in net interest margin before loan loss provisions, to 4.2%, from 3.9%; decline in loan loss provision to $255 million from $294 million; decline in delinquencies of 90 days or more to 4.9%, from 5.3%; and lower charge-off ratio of 4.9%, down from 5.3%.

The company, which moved from Reston, Va., last year, ended 2011 with $174.4 billion of student loans managed, down from $184.3 billion at year-end 2010

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