Over the last few months, Bank of America's executives have been working the conference and media circuits to spread the word that it's putting the past behind it and is optimistic about the future. What follows are four reoccurring messages that its executives want investors to know.
1. Its legal problems are largely behind it
Since the end of the financial crisis, Bank of America has faced more legal adversity than perhaps any company in the annals of American history. By my count, it's concluded 50 major legal cases and controversies over the last six years.
The bad news is that the total price tag for Bank of America's past misdeeds adds up to a staggering $90 billion in monetary and nonmonetary claims. The good news is that this is finally in the rearview mirror -- with, perhaps, the exception of one case that could still cost it upwards of $2.5 billion.
In August, Bank of America concluded an historic $16.65 billion deal with the U.S. Justice Department and a variety of other federal and state agencies. While this was the biggest settlement of the bunch, for all intents and purposes, it was also the last.
2. Existing customers are now Bank of America's priority
Starting roughly three decades ago, many of America's biggest banks shifted their focus from developing relationships with customers to the desire to grow and maximize transactions. At Bank of America, at least, this is no longer the case.
"While a lot of our competitors are still using a few growth engines such as non-customers, we have refocused everything into just our customer base," explained Thong Nguyen, president of retail banking, earlier this month. "So things like direct mail to non-customers or mortgage to correspondents and brokers and whatnot, we have shut that."
3. Returning capital to shareholders is also a priority
Because Bank of America is no longer driven by the desire to aggressively grow, it's no longer necessary for it to retain as much capital. Consequently, assuming industry regulators will allow it to do so, it's expressed a commitment to return a large share of earnings to shareholders via dividends and buybacks.
This principle was first articulated three years ago by CEO Brian Moynihan, who told Fortune's Shawn Tully that after the bank has built up a sufficient capital cushion it "plans to return all earnings to investors in dividends or share buybacks."
Things have certainly changed since then, but this still seems to be a priority. Most recently, for instance, Bank of America got approval to increase its quarterly payout from $0.01 per share up to $0.05. "To be able to get that done [...] was something that [...] we were very pleased about," CFO Bruce Thompson noted at a conference earlier this month.
4. The bank is aggressively cutting expenses
Following the conclusion of its last major legal settlement, there's little doubt that Bank of America's biggest problem is its bloated expense base. In the most recent quarter, its efficiency ratio, which measures the percentage of net revenue consumed by operating expenses, came in at 84.43%. By contrast, the nation's best-run banks typically report figures between 50% and 60%.
To achieve Bank of America's goal of an efficiency ratio in the "high 50s," it's aggressively cutting staff and reigning in its sprawling branch network.
Over the past seven years, it's closed 18% of its banking centers, reducing the total count from roughly 6,150 in 2007 down to just over 5,000 today. And in terms of headcount, here's a chart the bank regularly includes in investor presentations:
The bottom line on Bank of America
There's little doubt that Bank of America has come a long way over the last few years. Does that mean its stock is a buy at today's price? That's probably stretching it, but it's nevertheless a stock that many investors are keeping their eyes on.
John Maxfield has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Bank of America and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.