Promising Numbers Mask True Problems for Big Banks
Wells Fargo’s returns fared somewhat better, which is mostly due to the nature of banking versus more volatile capital markets. Even with this advantage, returns still didn’t live up to those from the year before, which were almost a whole point higher. J.P. Morgan, on the other hand, has hit a plateau at a 10% return rate, casting a more negative shadow on the recent numbers. Conversely, Citigroup looked strong in many areas. They even registered profits through legacy holdings and downsizing, but still only managed a 6.5% return.
Analysts have pinpointed several reasons for this lackluster performance. J.P. Morgan and Citigroup both still face legal challenges in the midst of the global slowdown. Also, interest rates have remained extremely low while demand for loans has remained steady. All this as regulations and the required amounts of capital have gone up.
Some experts cite these facts as proof that this reflects a permanent shift in returns that investors can expect in the future. Of course, banks also have to conform to stress tests performed by the Federal Reserve, which makes them less flexible than firms in other industries. Other macroeconomic factors don’t seem to bode well either, as new mortgages issued at J.P. Morgan, Citigroup and Wells Fargo fell by 14%, 51%, and 40%, respectively.
Trading in certain commodities and currencies has generated some growth. But these mostly signify slightly less anemic banks as opposed to strong ones. Some hold out hope for increased rates in the near future, although many investors have become restless due to the impact of current low rates on net interest margins.
Banks are still finding growth opportunities hard to come by without higher returns. Price-to-book multiples for J.P. Morgan and Citigroup have averaged 1.07 and .076 times, respectively. So, for the time being, the only solution for banks is to rely on cutting costs and looking for gains elsewhere. Despite the initial appearance of the numbers, they really just show that sometimes silver clouds have dark linings.