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Big Bank Earnings Season Kicked Off Today, How Did Your Bank Do?

This week in banking essentially came down to two releases of quarterly results. Yep, it's earnings season once again, and today the first two of the big four banks took a turn in the Q1 financials spotlight. Specifically, we're talking about JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) and Wells Fargo  (NYSE: WFC  ) , both of which reported their numbers this morning. 

Of the pair, the latter had by far the more inspiring quarter. Yet again, Wells Fargo posted record net income for a quarter -- $5.9 billion, to be exact, or a 14% rise from the Q1 2013 figure. Revenue, on the other hand, was down a bit, coming in at $20.6 billion compared to the year-ago $21.3 billion. But so what? That bottom line improvement is impressive, particularly given the slowdown in Wells Fargo's segment of expertise, mortgage lending. 

JPMorgan Chase was the anti-Wells in terms of profitability, as its Q1 net profit swooned by nearly 20% on a year-over-year basis to $5.3 billion for the quarter. Revenue also dropped, although at a less severe rate (8%), hitting $23.9 billion. Most of the company's divisions saw drops in both top and bottom line. Notable underachievers include, perhaps most painfully, the usually hard-charging corporate and investment bank unit (revenues down 15%, net 24% below Q1 2013). All in all, probably not a quarter for JPMorgan Chase to write home about.

So that's exactly half of the big four banks. The other 50%, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) will have their rounds in the hot seat next week when they report their respective Q1s (the former on Wednesday, and the latter two days earlier). Both have been busy in the run-up to those events, with Bank of America settling its second high-profile lawsuit in nearly as many weeks.

The lender agreed to settle accusations made by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that it engaged in deceitful business practices when selling credit card add-on products. The price tag is a cool $772 million, the bulk of which is to be paid in the form of refunds to the affected clients.

Citigroup, meanwhile, has apparently used at least some of its time in the run-up to earnings to dampen expectations among its shareholders. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the bank is warning its investors that it could miss its target of a 10% return on tangible equity by 2015. That came the same day Citigroup agreed, Bank of America-style, to settle a large outstanding lawsuit. This one, over mortgage securities, will see the bank cough up over $1.1 billion to a group of disgruntled investors.

Citi has been a fountain of bad news since having its proposals for a dividend boost and share buybacks met with an objection by the Federal Reserve in its CCAR evaluation last month. This could, paradoxically, work in the bank's favor when it reports, since few at this point are likely expecting a smashing quarter from the company. If it meets or even exceeds analyst projections, the bulls might cautiously start circling back to the stock.

Might a few of them stray in order to sniff around for a fresher issue? If so, there's the newly minted Ally Financial (NYSE: ALLY  ) to consider for a portfolio. The lender, a reconstituted and rebranded expansion of auto-lending specialist GMAC, hit the market in an IPO yesterday. Unfortunately, Ally Financial picked a lousy, loss-making day on the bourse to do it, and its issue price of $25 dropped by over a buck to close the day in the red.

According to what it says in a recent SEC filing, Ally Financial is the 19th largest U.S. bank holding company in terms of assets.  That's not a major threat to any of the big four, but as the new lender on the block it's worth keeping an eye on to see how it performs on the public stage, and how it fares against its sundry competitors.

We'll get a better snapshot of the state of the sector when those big guys Citigroup and Bank of America report next week. Results are crucial for financials, and in the coming days we'll develop a fairly clear picture of how they're doing as a group just now.

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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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