Strong trading results, rather than lending, was the driving force behind solid earnings reported by large US banks Thursday, as executives expressed measured optimism about the prospects for President Donald Trump's pro-growth agenda.
JPMorgan Chase (Swiss: JPM-USD.SW - news) and Citigroup (NYSE: C - news) reported big jumps in first-quarter net income compared with the same period of last year, while Wells Fargo (Swiss: WFC-USD.SW - news) continued to feel the effects of a fake accounts scandal and reported flat profits, missing analyst estimates for revenues.
But in a sign of sluggishness at all three banks, loan growth was weak, especially in some key areas such as corporate loans, which can serve as a proxy on broader economic activity.
"The economy is still what the economy was, it's a slow-growth economy" Citigroup chief financial officer John Gerspach said on a conference call with reporters. "It's not a robust economy yet."
But he added, "I do believe that there is optimism that it will continue to grow and get better."
Gerspach said Trump's election and the expectations of tax cuts and other measures had boosted optimism for stronger growth, but "we haven't seen concrete changes yet in policies."
Banking shares had rallied strongly on Trump's election amid expectation that he would ease of regulations and promote other growth measures that would help their business.
But the sector has cooled considerably on Wall Street as Trump's policies have yet to materialize. The S&P 500 financials index is down 0.3 percent so far in 2017.
JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon described US consumers and businesses as "healthy overall," but said growth could accelerate sharply if overly-constraining regulations were eased.
Dimon declined to estimate the chances Trump will be able to enact such changes.
"I don't want to put odds on it, but I think you have a lot of people working on it to get it done," he told reporters on a conference call.
- Fewer energy defaults -
JPMorgan said results were boosted by big jumps in trading of bonds and other financial products, as well as the benefit of higher interest rates. Net (LSE: 0LN0.L - news) income rose 16.8 percent to $6.5 billion.
Citigroup also highlighted strong trading results, especially in interest rate-related products. Net income rose 16.8 percent to $4.1 billion.
Both banks also benefited from lower reserves compared with the January-March period last year, when they set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to protect against the possibility of energy defaults due to the oil industry slump.
Wells Fargo also benefited from improvements in the energy sector, which permitted it to release $200 million in reserves.
However, the bank's expenses for salaries and other non-interest costs rose by nearly four times that amount due to higher legal costs and greater spending on compliance programs. Earnings were $5.5 billion, the same as the year-ago level.
The bank experienced a 35 percent drop in the opening of new checking accounts and a 42 percent tumble in credit card applications.
Wells Fargo chief executive Timothy Sloan said those consumer trends likely will worsen in the second quarter, but should rebound after that.
The company has established a "rebuilding trust office" that includes staff dedicating 100 percent of its time to implementing the consent decrees with regulators.
"Right now, the most important job of this company is rebuilding trust," said Sloan said on a conference call with analysts.
Wells Fargo's results came three days after the bank released a report on the factors that led to scandal over the opening of about two million deposit and credit card accounts without the customers' approval or knowledge. The report pointed blame especially at former chief executive John Stumpf and former community banking chief Carrie Tolstedt, who have been forced to pay back a total of $136 million in compensation due to the debacle.
Among the reforms, Wells Fargo has addressed a "siloed" corporate structure that meant the problems in retail banking were not scrutinized more broadly.
"We centralized our enterprise activities," Sloan said. "The primary reason we did that was so that we had a more appropriate escalation of risk and a more timely escalation of risk."