Sterling Bancorp's (STL) earnings soared 71% in the first quarter, as the firm improved its loan portfolio quality and accumulated more noninterest income from fee-generating products. The New York-based holding company for Sterling National Bank reported income of $3.3 million, or 12 cents a share, for the three months ended March 31, up from $1.9 million, or 10 cents a share, a year earlier. "We significantly strengthened Sterling's balance sheet during the 2011 first quarter with a common share offering that raised gross proceeds of $38.6 million," said Chairman and Chief Executive Louis Cappelli. "Our resulting strong capital ratios give us ample 'dry powder' that we can deploy to take advantage of growth opportunities." Loan quality improved during the quarter, and Sterling said the provision for loan losses was cut in half, falling to $3 million. In addition, nonaccrual loans decreased nearly 60% to $7 million, according to the firm. Noninterest income increased slightly to $11.4 million from $11.1 million a year earlier. This is due primarily to growth in accounts receivable management, factoring, trade finance and mortgage banking, Sterling said. Interest income totaled $16.4 million in the first quarter, up about 18% from $13.9 million in the year-ago period. As of March 31, Sterling held $2.4 billion of assets on its balance sheet. Write to Christine Ricciardi. Follow her on Twitter @HWnewbieCR. Disclosure: The author holds no relevant investments.