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Setting the Record Straight About Big Bank Earnings

By John Maxfield - Apr 13, 2013 at 3:30PM

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The headlines from last week seem to suggest that JPMorgan and Wells Fargo had horrible first quarters. But that couldn't be further from reality.

You'd be excused for thinking that the nation's first and fourth largest banks by assets, JPMorgan Chase (JPM 0.70%) and Wells Fargo (WFC 1.92%), reported horrible first-quarter earnings of Friday.

Here's a headline from The Wall Street Journal: "J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo Struggle." This one's from DealBook: "Fewer Home Loans Start to Affect Banks." And here's my favorite from Reuters: "JPMorgan's lukewarm results put Dimon under more pressure."

The general tenor of the articles is the same. To quote Reuters, "The top U.S. bank by assets reported tepid first-quarter results on Friday. Income in its biggest businesses -- investment banking and consumer lending -- fell, excluding accounting adjustments. Outstanding loans grew by just 1 percent, and profit margins on lending narrowed. Stock and bond trading revenue fell."

Yet the numbers appear to tell a different story. For example, look at the banks' first-quarter earnings per share.

Source: Standard & Poor's Capital IQ.

Both reported massive EPS growth on a year-over-year basis. Wells Fargo earned $0.92 per share, equating to a 23% increase. And JPMorgan's first-quarter EPS of $1.59 translates into a 33% gain. Indeed, from a profit perspective, it was the best quarter that either bank has ever recorded.

The counterargument is that the devil is in the details. In JPMorgan's case, the nation's largest bank by assets benefited to the tune of $1.15 billion from lower loan loss provisions. And in Wells Fargo's case, its net interest income continued to decline, contributing to a drop in total revenue, and its mortgage origination volume waned.

For long-term investors, however, these concerns are much ado about nothing. There's simply no question that lower loan loss provisions are a good thing. Did they juice JPMorgan's earnings? Sure, if that's what you want to call it. But banks provision different amounts every quarter. What matters, in other words, is the trend. And a downward trend is unequivocally preferable to an upward one.

The concerns about net interest income are also short-sighted. We're in a low-interest-rate environment. That's the reality we live in. And that's bound to continue. Until the unemployment rate decreases considerably or inflation starts to pick up, the Federal Reserve won't abandon its current policies. Investors simply have to take this as it is. In fact, I'd be more concerned about a bank that's increasing its net interest margin, as that would suggest to me that it's stretching for yield irrespective of risk.

Finally, what about mortgage origination volumes? These were down at Wells Fargo. And they were down a lot, coming in at $109 billion. In the same quarter last year, they were $129 billion. Yet JPMorgan's volume came in nearly $15 billion higher on a year-over-year basis. What matters, then, is whether the other large lenders replicate Wells Fargo's performance or JPMorgan's. And it's simply too early to say.

Over the past 12 months, both JPMorgan and Wells Fargo have underperformed the S&P 500 (^GSPC 0.95%). That and the headlines I cited aside, these banks had great quarters. Whether the rest of earnings season will play out the same way remains to be seen.

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Stocks Mentioned

S&P 500 Index - Price Return (USD) Stock Quote
S&P 500 Index - Price Return (USD)
^GSPC
$3,978.73 (0.95%) $37.25
JPMorgan Chase & Co. Stock Quote
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
JPM
$127.24 (0.70%) $0.88
Wells Fargo & Company Stock Quote
Wells Fargo & Company
WFC
$44.12 (1.92%) $0.83

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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