Ready or Not, Here Comes Earnings Season for the Big Banks

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Can you hear that? It's the sound of the market drawing its collective breath and holding it in advance of the year's first earnings season. The festivities kick off after market close today, and most of the major banks will report their results next week.

The market is expecting good news from a few of them, particularly Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) . The company will unveil its Q4 2013 figures, and the 20 analysts polled by Bloomberg Business Week collectively believe earnings per share will come in at $0.27 per share. This is more than 30% higher than the Q3 figure -- the largest anticipated quarter-over-quarter increase among the big four banks.

Providing more fuel for the Bank of America bulls is Nomura Securities, which has initiated its coverage on the bank with a solid "buy" recommendation. Nomura estimates that for the entirety of 2014, the company will take in EPS of $1.27 (interestingly, under the current analyst consensus of $1.32), which should rise to $1.51 for 2015. It's slapped a $19 price target on the shares, which is more than $2 higher than their current level.

The Japanese bank also has a positive view on Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , but not necessarily for the immediate future. It believes the banking giant will take some time to get rid of its junk assets (now collected in one big garbage dump... er, subsidiary... Citi Holdings), which will hamper profitability. I think Nomura is being a little harsh on Holdings -- after all, the unit is doing a fine job of unloading those unloved possessions. Regardless, its analysis of Citi is that it's poised for "meaningfully higher long-term payout potential relative to peers." As such, it's been awarded a $70 price target, giving it around $15 of upside to where the stock is trading at the moment.

Could the good news for Citi be overshadowed by the latest legal difficulties in the sector? Earlier this week, it came to light that the Securities and Exchange Commission is sniffing around the bank, and several other big peers, over their pricing of mortgage bonds in the post-crisis years. This is a change from the thousands of other recent probes and lawsuits, most of which were laser-focused on banks' transgressions during the "Bad Years." The government's investigation is still in the early days, so no need for Citi and its brethren to put aside settlement/penalty money just yet; but it's wearying, more-of-the-same type of news for a sector that hardly needs another probe or lawsuit.

It almost goes without saying that the sector's most popular legal target, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) , is one of the other banks being investigated. Will it ever be able to avoid the hammer of the law? Possibly not; it's also just agreed to pay $2.6 billion to the Feds for its involvement with notorious rogue financier Bernard Madoff. 

Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) , meanwhile, is hoping to guard against capital outflow by forming an elite squad of underwriters to originate mortgages for the bank to hold. Bloomberg is quoting the bank's head of portfolio lending, Brad Blackwell, as saying that these loans might include terms that "prevent [Wells Fargo] from qualifying for protections provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau." The bank's good at mortgages, so hopefully those 400 star underwriters will be sharp enough to avoid the apparently easily provoked ire of the Feds.

It would be best to stay on the sunny side of the law just now. We're about to hop into earnings season; no one needs to hit a legal rough patch. There have been enough of those getting in the way lately.

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Eric Volkman

Eric has been writing about stocks and finance since the mid-1990s, when he lived in Prague, Czech Republic. Over the course of a varied career, he has also been a radio newscaster, an investment banker, and a bass player in a selection of rock and roll bands. A native New Yorker, he currently lives in Los Angeles.

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