JPMorgan Chase (JPM -0.77%) will kick off earnings season this week. The stock has performed well after surviving a pandemic-dominated 2020. Its financial performance showed just how strong the country's largest bank has become and how its fortress balance sheet can survive a severe downturn.

This year, JPMorgan stock has hit new highs and currently trades at a premium valuation. But there are still a lot of uncertainties that investors will be looking for answers on when the banking giant reports on Wednesday, Oct. 13.

Here are three things to pay attention to in that earnings report.

The outside of a JPMorgan Chase branch.

Image source: JPMorgan Chase.

1. Net interest income guidance

A primary revenue contributor for banks, net interest income (NII) is essentially the money that banks make on their loan and securities portfolios. At the start of 2021, JPMorgan had initially guided for $55 billion of net interest income for the year, but on the bank's second-quarter earnings call, management cut that guidance to $52.5 billion. NII is a byproduct of loan growth, interest rates, securities purchases, and prepayment rates for customers. Loan growth has been very hard to come by over the past year, while interest rates have been very low and prepayment rates on loans high (which cuts into loan volume and therefore interest income), all of which has put pressure on NII. CEO Jamie Dimon has also not been interested in purchasing securities to boost NII in the near term because longer-term interest rates are so low and he doesn't want to lock into those before the Federal Reserve raises its federal funds rate.

At a conference in September, Marianne Lake, co-CEO of JPMorgan's consumer and community banking division, said that prepayment rates, while still elevated, are no longer growing like they were and that management expects the NII guidance of $52.5 billion to hold up. Some reports suggest that loan growth may have picked up minimally in the quarter, but I'm guessing Dimon didn't invest too heavily in securities as longer-term yields have stayed low for most of Q3. Still, it will be interesting to hear if the bank has any NII guidance for 2022.

2. Investment banking and sales and trading

Investors will also be watching the performance of JPMorgan's corporate and investment banking division, which also includes sales and trading activities. The division flourished in 2020 and really buoyed the bank as it dealt with slumping loan growth and set aside billions of dollars to prepare for potential loan losses that didn't end up materializing.

Lake provided some guidance, saying that in the division's markets business, the bank expects revenue to decline roughly 10% from the second quarter and year over year, which is not a huge surprise because, at some point, activity had to normalize. But despite the drop-off, Lake said markets are actually trending better than management thought a few months ago. This is primarily due to strength in the bank's equities markets business, which includes raising capital for companies, prime services, and equity derivatives. The performance is expected to be less impressive in the bank's fixed-income, currencies, and commodities business.

The news is more positive on the investment banking front with mergers and acquisitions activity remaining strong. Investment banking fees are expected to increase on a year-over-year basis, but not be as strong as the second quarter of the year. Still, Lake said that pipelines have remained strong. Investors and analysts will continue to search for what a normalized run rate in the corporate and investment banking division looks like going forward.

3. Acquisitions, fintech, and growth

JPMorgan has been on an absolute shopping spree this year, making a number of acquisitions in a variety of different segments at the bank. Dimon has consistently talked about how competitive the fintech space is getting and has even gone as far as to previously call out the up-and-coming payments company Plaid, citing their improper use of data.

In the first half of the year, JPMorgan added to its asset and wealth management capabilities by purchasing several fintech companies such as 55ip and OpenInvest, which assist financial advisors in creating niche investing capabilities. It also purchased the popular robo-advising firm Nutmeg Savings and Investment Limited based in the United Kingdom. The move came on the heels of launching its digital bank in the U.K. Then JPMorgan took a 40% stake in C6, a digital bank in Brazil, which is becoming a very attractive global banking market. In the second half of the year, JPMorgan continued buying, announcing purchases of the college financial planning company Frank and the food recommendation company The Infatuation, as well as taking a majority stake in Volkswagen's payments business. The bank also increased its lead in U.S. deposit market share.

JPMorgan Chase is growing in so many different ways, whether it's geographically, organically, or by bulking up different divisions at the bank like wealth and asset management. I'll be interested to hear more about how the bank plans to tie these acquisitions together and integrate them into the bank. Because JPMorgan is already the largest bank in the U.S. and trades at a premium valuation, it is important to understand its growth strategy to see how it can continue to enhance shareholder value.