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Wall Street banks stockpile funds for possible recession, outlook uncertain


Wall Street’s biggest banks stockpiled more rainy-day funds to prepare for a possible recession and reported weak investment banking results while showing caution about forecasting income growth, as the economy remains uncertain.

The outlook for big U.S. banks has been clouded by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and fading economic stimulus measures. Higher borrowing costs as the U.S. Federal Reserve hikes rates have also softened demand for mortgages and car loans.

JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N) and Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) gave either disappointing or uncertain outlooks for net interest income (NII), or the money banks bring in from interest payments.

“The U.S. economy currently remains strong, with consumers still spending excess cash and businesses healthy,” said JPM Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon, although he said he didn’t yet know “the ultimate effect of the headwinds coming.” The bank flagged a modest deterioration in its macroeconomic outlook, “reflecting a mild recession in the central case.”

JPM, Bank of America, Citigroup Inc (C.N) and Wells Fargo reported profits ranging from up 6% to down 50%. Strength in trading helped offset a slump in investment banking, while interest rate hikes by the U.S. Federal Reserve helped income.

“Today’s bank earnings were solid, with net interest income driving earnings, credit reserves significantly increasing year over year, and investment banking fees remaining low – all largely reflecting the interest rate and economic environment,” said KPMG US National Sector Leader for Banking and Capital Markets Peter Torrente.

JPM profit beat estimates, rising 6% on trading strength, and said it would resume share buybacks. Bank of America reported a 2% rise in profits as higher rates boosted income. However, Citi reported a 21% fall in profits, with investment banking taking a hit. Wells Fargo reported that its profit fell 50% as it racked up $3 billion in costs.

UBS analysts in a note said that JPM’s guidance on NII of $74 billion, excluding markets, was below expectations. They signaled that the markets component of NII will be a drag on the income segment. JPM in a conference call said the outlook for NII was particularly uncertain.

Bank of America, meanwhile, said the outlook for interest rates was too uncertain to forecast NII for the year.

Wells Fargo forecast NII up 10% this year versus 2022, which was below Refinitiv estimates of 16% growth. UBS analysts said the NII outlook was disappointing and fell short of expectation.

Citi in its investor presentation forecast NII of around $45 billion for 2023 versus $43.5 billion excluding markets in 2022.

Shares were higher in early afternoon trading, reversing falls in the morning, with JPM up 1.5%, Wells up 0.1%, Bank of America up 0.8% and Citi up 1%.

The four banks set aside a total of around $4 billion in funds to prepare for soured loans: JPM set aside $1.4 billion, Wells Fargo $957 million, Bank of America $1.1 billion and Citi $640 million.

Morgan Stanley (MS.N) and Goldman Sachs (GS.N) report next week.

Banks have been hit by a slump in mergers, acquisitions and initial public offerings. Global investment banking revenue sank to $15.3 billion in the fourth quarter, down more than 50% from the year-earlier quarter, according to data from Dealogic.

JPM’s investment banking unit’s poor run continued in the quarter, with revenues down 57% as corporate executives battened down the hatches to prepare for a potential recession instead of spending on deals. Bank of America’s investment banking fees more than halved in the quarter.

JPM’s trading revenue, however, gained from market volatility as investors repositioned bets to navigate a high interest rate environment.

Meanwhile, consumer businesses were a key focus in banks’ results. Household accounts have been propped up for much of the pandemic by a strong job market and government stimulus, and while consumers are generally in good financial shape, more are starting to fall behind on payments.

“The consumer still remains in pretty good shape,” said Bank of America’s Chief Financial Officer Alastair Borthwick. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” especially for travel, he said.

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