Bank of America (BAC 0.07%)Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan was downright optimistic in his remarks on the company's fourth-quarter conference call Thursday. The company's $0.25 in earnings per share marked an improvement for the bank from the third quarter's $0.04 loss, even though it fell 22% short of consensus analysts estimates.
The fourth quarter also marked a major milestone as the bank completed its "New BAC" cost-cutting program. That program should save the bank more than $8 billion a year in costs.
But I don't buy the optimism. If anything, I'm more discouraged than ever. Here's why.
First things first: I recognize what Bank of America could be
Bank of America has huge potential. The bank has an expansive branch network that feeds a low-cost, reliable source of funds into the bank. It has the size, the products, and the franchise to be one of the very best.
In my view, though, the bank will never do that, and the reason is simple: credit culture.
When former CEO Ken Lewis left the bank back in 2009, I thought the bank may have a fighting chance. Brian Moynihan was promoted to CEO based on his plans to simplify the bank, reduce risk, and fundamentally change the bank's culture. After five years and much progress, I see signs that Moynihan may have fallen into the same trap that has plagued B of A for decades.
Focusing on the wrong things
In his opening remarks Thursday, Moynihan was quick to point out the improvements the bank has made in recent years. These include reducing expenses -- he mentioned reducing headcount two separate times in his opening remarks -- simplifying the bank, and executing the plan the board of directors hired him to implement.
And, to be fair, it really is a good thing that the bank has reduced its overhead expenses and simplified its operations. Undoubtedly, those expenses had become bloated over time. But to focus so much on these costs and give only a passing mention of credit quality and loan losses was a major mistake and a huge red flag for me as a potential B of A shareholder.
The banks that showed the greatest strength during the financial crisis -- banks like Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase (JPM 0.27%) -- are now preparing to grow reserves (think of reserves as rainy-day funds for banks) and getting ready for the next shift in the credit cycle. Meanwhile, Bank of America seems completely unconcerned about that possibility. It basically said as much, in plain English, on the call Thursday.
It wasn't until more than halfway through the Q&A portion of the call that B of A executives actually addressed the issue, and that was only because of a question from Guggenheim analyst Mark Wasserstrom. Here's the exchange, edited slightly for clarity and brevity:
Wasserstrom: Then just to talk about the asset quality for a moment, obviously [the fourth quarter] was the lowest provision that we've seen from you in some time. Many of your peers are inflecting from the point of asset quality improvements to some modest now deterioration and the rebuilding of reserves. I just want to get a sense from you about where you think you are in that spectrum.
CFO Bruce Thompson: ... I think as you look at charge-offs, when you're at virtually zero from a commercial perspective, it's hard to see getting much better than that.
I do think where we are probably a little bit different is that as we continue to work through ... and reduce those tougher Consumer Real Estate credits [editor's note: this is the bank's mortgage loan division].
But I think that if you look at this $1 billion charge-off type level that we've seen, we're probably at areas where you're going to see that flatten out. I think as we look forward there may be a little bit of reserve release on the front end -- on the first half of the year. And you'd probably expect that to flatten out and go away as we get through 2015.
When I heard this response, I shuddered. If there is one certainty in banking, it's that the economy will improve and then deteriorate. It's cyclical -- this is fact.
In their respective conference calls, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Wells Fargo chief John Stumpf both discussed their risk-management preparations and the likely increase in reserves at the two banks in 2015. And then we hear that B of A management thinks they "are probably a little bit different"? I think Bank of America management should take this read from fellow Fool John Maxfield to heart.
Reading the tea leaves
M&T Bank (MTB 0.16%) CEO Robert Wilmers -- who, in my opinion, is the best bank CEO of the past 25 years -- has said that he "understood [his] own role to include that as the chief risk officer and expected other members of management to focus as keenly on risks, defined broadly, as they did on their other responsibilities."
True, I'm reading between the lines in this analysis. I am not present in Moynihan and company's day-to-day business. Risk management may characterize B of A employees just like it does at M&T, Wells Fargo, or JPMorgan. But I seriously doubt that's the case.
If it were, then risk management would have been displayed front and center in the bank's conference call. Moynihan would have gone out of his way to address it. CFO Thompson would have brought it up in a meaningful way well before the second half of the Q&A portion of the call. It would have been at the top of his mind.
And it clearly wasn't.