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Big bank earnings reflect strength in US economy

It may seem events like the government shutdown and President Trump's trade war with China had little impact on large swaths of American businesses and consumers

New York

THE US economy is still humming, if the performance of some of the country's biggest banks is any indication.

JPMorgan Chase and PNC Financial Services Group both reported strong performances on Friday for the first three months of 2019, including revenue that was higher than Wall Street analysts had expected.

The banks' results suggested that events like the government shutdown in January and President Donald Trump's trade war with China had little impact on large swaths of American businesses and consumers.

JPMorgan said its revenue from providing banking services to consumers and businesses was 15 per cent higher than a year earlier. The growth stemmed in part from the bank's credit card business.

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The economy's growth "could go on for years," JPMorgan's chief executive, Jamie Dimon, said on a conference call on Friday. "There's no law that says it has to stop." PNC, a large regional bank based in Pittsburgh, also reported lending more to both consumers and businesses in the first quarter.

"We remain confident about the strength of the economy," said PNC's chief executive, William S Demchak.

Other major banks - including Bank of America and Citigroup - will report their quarterly performances early this week, which will provide an additional barometer of the country's economic growth.

Ross Levine, a banking and finance professor at the University of California, Berkeley, cautioned against drawing too many economic conclusions from the bank's rosy finances. He said the potentially negative impact of things like the trade war with China "might not have materialised yet in earnings." Wells Fargo also surprised analysts on Friday with higher-than-expected earnings. But the bank achieved the results by cutting costs, while lending in many parts of its business declined. Wells Fargo is still grappling with its long run of misconduct, which led regulators to prohibit the bank from expanding until it cleaned up its act. Last month, the continued problems led to the abrupt resignation of the bank's chief executive, Timothy J Sloan.

Wells Fargo's chief financial officer, John R Shrewsberry, told Wall Street analysts on Friday that the bank had been getting rid of riskier loans, which partly explained the decline in lending volumes.

JPMorgan's stock price was trading as much as 5 per cent higher on Friday, while PNC's was up nearly 3 per cent. Wells Fargo shares were down more than 2 per cent.

As the country's largest bank, JPMorgan in many ways provides the clearest snapshot of the health of the US economy. The bank has US$956 billion in outstanding consumer and wholesale loans, up from US$934 billion a year ago.

That growth was consistent with Federal Reserve data last week that showed that consumers were continuing to borrow more, in particular through increased credit card spending. Greater reliance on credit cards and other debt can be a sign of financial stress, but Fed officials and JPMorgan executives greeted the increased borrowing as a sign of consumer confidence.

One blemish in JPMorgan's results was in its investment-banking division. The bank's revenue from the buying and selling of stocks, bonds and other assets declined 17 per cent from a year earlier, which JPMorgan attributed in part to the shutdown of the federal government. NYTIMES

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