The market volatility and interest-rate hikes that gave US banks their biggest windfall last year may prove to be their biggest headache in 2023.
When Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. kick off the industry’s fourth-quarter earnings on Friday, investors will be less interested in seeing how robust profits were in the final three months of last year and more focused on signs the nation’s biggest banks are girding for a major downturn as rate increases crimp economic activity.
“We are entering a period of uncertainty from a period of strength,” Jason Goldberg, an analyst at Barclays Plc, said in an interview. “Despite the fact we are potentially looking at a recession in the face, loan losses are at record lows, trading remains elevated, and net interest income will set records at the banks,” he said. “Yet everyone is scared of their shadow.”
The quarterly results will probably get a boost from strong fixed-income trading and record net interest income, tempered by more provisions for bad debt, a slump in underwriting and fewer mergers and acquisitions. Those headwinds could get worse if the economy weakens and geopolitical tensions continue.
Here’s what to watch when banks start to report results later this week:
Net Interest Income
Higher interest rates continue to juice net interest income — the difference between what lenders make on loans and what they pay depositors. Analysts predict that the four biggest banks will have pulled in about $59 billion from that source in the fourth quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with $45 billion in the same period a year earlier. But the good times may not last.
“The fourth quarter will be a record for NII, but as the year goes on we predict it will plateau,” Goldberg said.
As long as the Federal Reserve continues to push interest rates higher and maintains them at an elevated level, NII should benefit. But the positive momentum will probably start fading in coming quarters.
The peak in NII could be overshadowed by a potential recession, which would eat into the gains and hamper profit growth. Slower loan growth as consumers and corporations start to pull back on borrowing and elevated expenses will also be factors, according to Evercore analysts led by Glenn Schorr.
All of the major US banks posted gains in net interest income in the third quarter, with some raising their NII forecasts for the rest of the year. And while lenders have been eager to charge higher rates to borrowers, they’ve been slower to pass on benefits to savers who have stashed trillions of dollars of deposits with the country’s biggest banks. The mix of deposits will be in focus after signs of outflows in recent quarters.
Customers pulling some of their deposits might start to pressure banks to start paying more in interest, tempering future NII gains.
Volatility has continued to fuel the trading bonanza, pushing revenue from that business to the highest levels in more than a decade. Wall Street’s five biggest trading desks are set to notch $22 billion in revenue for the quarter, a gain of 9.5%. Most of that will come from fixed-income desks, where commodities, currencies and rates traders had one of their busiest years ever.
Fixed-income traders are projected to post gains of roughly 22%, with their equity-trading counterparts down 4.5% compared to a year earlier. The above-average volatility, with trading volumes up quarter-to-quarter, is seasonally atypical but “generally within reach of the year ago level,” Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Susan Roth Katzke said in a note.
That stands against a tough backdrop for dealmaking and capital markets, which suffered amid 2022’s market swoon. Investment-banking revenue across the six biggest banks is projected to plunge 51% in the fourth quarter compared to the prior year’s surge.
But bankers should take solace in projections that a pause in rate hikes and a stabilization in asset prices during the first half of the new year will “open the door” for a pickup in dealmaking in the second half of 2023, Wells Fargo & Co. analysts led by Mike Mayo predict.
Executives are poised to reveal the extent to which they are preparing for a recession, and how likely that outcome is. The potential for soured loans has forced lenders to put aside more money in reserves, a reversal from the release of funds in the wake of the pandemic.
Analysts are expecting a total of $5.4 billion in loan-loss provisions for the four biggest banks.
Banks have already hinted at cautious outlooks for 2023, with some announcing cost-cutting measures to keep expenses down. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which reports results Tuesday, is working on a fresh round of job cuts to offset slower economic activity and curb expenses. Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Barclays Plc have all either already fired staff or announced that they plan to do so in coming months.
Despite a slowing economy and possible recession, analysts expect the banks will overcome the hurdles and expand earnings in the new year. Concerns about the health of the banking industry are “night and day” when compared to the global financial crisis, as banks have spent more than a decade building up strength and balance sheets to weather another downturn, according to Wells Fargo’s Mayo.
The largest US banks have made only limited forays into the realm of digital assets, and the collapse of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried’s crypto exchange, is likely to be a significant impediment to any further advances. The Federal Reserve, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. urged banks in a letter last week to exercise heightened caution around the market.
While some financial institutions including Bank of New York Mellon Corp. — which also reports results on Friday — have looked to offer custody services for digital assets, a rule imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commission last year that requires publicly traded companies to treat crypto held for clients as a liability makes holding the tokens prohibitively capital-intensive.
“If BNY continues its plan to offer crypto custody, it will continue to inject more confidence to the crypto industry and drive crypto adoption,” Owen Lau, an analyst at Oppenheimer, said in an email. “The industry doesn’t want to see a big player pulling back from crypto investment because it may create a domino effect on other big players.”
Investors will also be watching the smaller banks that got more deeply involved in crypto, such as Silvergate Capital Corp. and Signature Bank. But any change of attitude toward the industry by big bank CEOs such as Jamie Dimon will be on their radar as well.
“After the collapse of FTX there are concerns where money is stored, which will benefit the banks,” said Brian Mulberry, client portfolio manager at Zacks Investment Management. “People will come back based on fear.”
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