Big Banks Lean on Main Street for Profit Before Fed's Pause Hits

(Bloomberg) -- The biggest U.S. banks have leaned on retail banking businesses to offset a prolonged slump in trading and drive record profits. Now comes the question of whether they can keep it up.

The lenders, led by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Bank of America Corp., are delivering on the promise that the stockpiles of deposits they spent years attracting would pay off once the Federal Reserve started hiking rates. Analysts see two threats to the current run: a gentle plateauing of revenue growth as the Fed pauses, and a sharper spike in loan losses if the credit cycle turns.

There were signs of each possibility in the first quarter’s stellar results. Bank of America said net interest income growth will slow over the rest of this year, while Wells Fargo & Co. went even further and predicted a decline. And three of the four largest lenders increased provisions to cover consumer loan losses, with Wells Fargo more than tripling the amount it set aside.

“These are the best of times from an employment perspective, and so as we look out to the end of the year and into the next year we put a little bit heavier weight on the prospect that things are a little bit worse,” Wells Fargo Chief Financial Officer John Shrewsberry said in a Bloomberg Television interview to explain the jump in provisions.

Big Banks Lean on Main Street for Profit Before Fed's Pause Hits

The Fed’s four interest-rate increases last year and a relatively buoyant U.S. economy have boosted what banks can charge for loans, with the average rate the firms earned rising almost 0.5 percentage points in the past year. They’ve also so far been able to limit how much of the hikes they’ve passed on to depositors, instead pitching consumers on the convenience of their branch networks and the billions they’ve poured into digital and mobile platforms.

JPMorgan has been the big winner, topping $5 billion in pretax profit from its consumer unit in each of the past three quarters after not once hitting that level in the previous five years. At Bank of America, the consumer unit’s net interest income climbed 10 percent, helping propel the bank to record quarterly earnings.

Those results came in spite of loan losses inching higher in a number of areas. In Bank of America’s consumer unit, charge-offs climbed to $925 million, the highest since 2013 and above the $895 million that Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Susan Katzke had predicted. Credit losses at Citigroup’s giant credit card business jumped 9 percent from a year earlier.

“We did see charge-offs coming in higher than expected across the major banks,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Alison Williams said. “Investors will increasingly look at that as a risk.”

Big Banks Lean on Main Street for Profit Before Fed's Pause Hits

Banks largely expressed confidence that the increases meant losses were returning to a more normal level, rather than a sign that the economy is souring.

“Just for the record, I want to be very clear -- we don’t see any evidence of a recession,” Bank of America CFO Paul Donofrio said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “In any event, if a recession were to come, we are very well prepared.”

For now, the Fed’s March reversal and a flat -- and at times inverted -- yield curve is the more pressing concern. Wells Fargo said net interest income could fall as much as 5 percent this year, while Bank of America sees it growing at half of 2018’s pace.

What Bloomberg Opinion Says

“The uncomfortable truth for Bank of America and other huge retail banks is that they’ve stretched NII as far as they can on the backs of savers.”

--Brian Chappatta, columnist
Click here to view the piece.

Still, JPMorgan, which stuck with its outlook for net interest income to climb to more than $58 billion in 2019, sees a silver lining in the Fed’s pause: less pressure to raise rates for its $1.5 trillion deposit base.

“While we may not have a tailwind of higher rates, we also may not have the same kinds of pressures that we would see on bases necessarily,” JPMorgan CFO Marianne Lake said Friday.

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