14
Apr
10

JP Morgan profits boost bank shares

NEWS
JP Morgan profits boost bank shares

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The sprawling U.S. banking empire JP Morgan has delivered a stark illustration of the American economy’s two-tier recovery by chalking up vast profits from trading on Wall Street while suffering losses on the high street as millions of recession-hit customers struggle to repay mortgages and credit card loans.

Smashing analysts’ forecasts, JP Morgan enjoyed a 55 percent surge in first-quarter profits to $3.3 billion compared with a year earlier, setting a tough target for rivals such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, which will report earnings over the next week. The firm’s shares climbed nearly 3 percent during early trading in New York.

But the bank’s figures clearly demonstrated the uneven nature of America’s gradual return to economic prosperity. While JP Morgan’s investment banking division produced a $2.4 billion profit, the firm’s retail financial services operation suffered a $131 million loss and its card services arm lost $303 million. Chief executive Jamie Dimon placed the credit for the bank’s overall profitability squarely with investment banking staff in New York, London and other financial capitals: “Our traders did a good job,” he said.

The upward march of stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic, together with a thaw in credit markets and a revival in corporate deal-making, has helped investment banks return swiftly to near-record levels of profitability, holding out the promise of more multimillion-dollar bonuses for star employees.
On the high street, Dimon said there were indications of a modest improvement in business, with credit trends “starting to look hopeful”, aided by a recent fall in U.S. unemployment: “When unemployment stops going up, you start to see an improvement in these things.”

He added that the chances of a “double dip” downturn opening up a fresh chapter in the recession appeared to be “rapidly going away”.

The patchy nature of recovery has led analysts to predict that a large chunk of the banking industry will remain in the red for some time to come. In a recent research note, Barclays Capital forecasts that 10 of America’s 25 leading banks will reveal a first-quarter loss as middle-ranking institutions without a Wall Street presence continue to struggle.

Wary of public outrage over a tiny elite accelerating to recovery ahead of the rest, the Obama administration has proposed a fee on banks to recoup bailout funds. Speaking on a conference call, Dimon, who was paid $17 million last year, took a swipe at this: “Let’s all not call it a bank fee and call it what it is: a punitive bank tax.”

A broader package of financial regulatory reform is mired in Congressional wrangling, with Republicans in the Senate objecting to plans for a ban on banks’ proprietary trading. Meeting congressional leaders today, President Obama urged enactment of plans for greater transparency in derivatives trading and told Republicans that the bill would help future bailouts of firms considered “too big to fail”.

In an industry that has seen its public reputation collapse, JP Morgan is among the few banks to emerge from the credit crunch in a position of enhanced strength. With relatively few toxic liabilities on its balance sheet, the firm was able to snap up the valuable assets of defunct rivals, picking up the remnants of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.

Problems have emerged, however, at some of these operations. JP Morgan has inherited a mortgage book of distinctly dubious quality from Seattle-based Washington Mutual, which collapsed in September 2008 in the largest commercial banking failure in U.S. history. The bank revealed it was setting aside $2.3 billion to cover litigation largely related to fraudulent or predatory mortgage lending.

JP Morgan’s earnings won praise from industry watchers. In a research note, Matt Albrecht, an equity analyst at Standard & Poor’s, highlighted a drop in the bank’s provision against bad debt: “Delinquency rates have stabilised or improved across most businesses, suggesting further reductions in loan loss provisions.”

Matt McCormick at Bahl & Gaynor in Cincinnati said JP Morgan was a bellwether for the financial sector: “Anyone who does not come in with similar results will suffer the consequences in the market.”

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