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Weak bank earnings spark anxiety about US economy

Big US banks have gotten earnings season off to a bumpy start with a spate of reports that missed expectations and highlighted growing unease about the economy.

[NEW YORK] Big US banks have gotten earnings season off to a bumpy start with a spate of reports that missed expectations and highlighted growing unease about the economy.

In the last two days, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup all reported disappointing earnings, floundering on weak trading revenues and, in some cases, large legal expenses.

Wall Street reacted bitterly to the results, punishing not only the banking sector, but the broader market. The S&P 500 Thursday closed below 2,000 for the first time in a month, falling for the fifth consecutive day.

The weak results from financial firms have quashed the momentum that pushed equity markets to record highs late last year.

Market voices on:

"There was so much optimism after the fourth quarter that the worst was behind us," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial.

"Nothing is worse for a stock than to think that you're on an upward trajectory only to discover that you're not and to realize that there's still risk." The banking results also gave Wall Street an occasion to fixate on gloomy macroeconomic conditions that could batter the sector.

What would a wave of defaults in the oil sector mean for big banks? How would banks do if the Federal Reserve does not raise US interest rates in 2015?

"There's a growing sense of deflation risk, even in the US," said Mr Low.

Mr Low said this week's plunge in treasury yields is a sign the market believes the Fed will not raise rates in 2015. Higher rates are a net positive for banks, he added.

JPMorgan, the biggest US bank by assets, reported a 6.6 per cent decline in fourth-quarter earnings from a year ago, to US$4.9 billion, missing expectations due mainly to an unexpectedly large US$990 million charge for legal expenses.

JPMorgan disclosed in November that it faced a criminal probe by the US Department of Justice over its foreign exchange trading business. The US$990 million charge is another indication that the bank's foreign exchange regulatory woes are far from over, analysts said.

"Banks are under assault," JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon told reporters on a conference call.

Dimon and other executives parried questions on whether JPMorgan should be broken up in light of tougher regulations, including an order by the Federal Reserve demanding it raise an additional US$22 billion to shore up its capital buffer by 2019.

Citigroup also faced questions about its legal exposure after a massive US$3.5 billion charge for legal costs and corporate position resulted in an 86 percent drop in earnings to US$350 million.

The big US bank, like its peers, suffered a large drop in trading revenues for its fixed income markets segment, which fell 15 per cent to US$2.0 billion. Citi cited "difficult trading conditions in spread products as well as a challenging macroeconomic environment that impacted the rates business." Citi chief executive Michael Corbat said decisions such as the surprise move by the Swiss central bank Thursday to scrap its currency cap with the euro "causes people to move back from the market," depressing volumes.

At Bank of America, quarterly earnings fell 11.3 per cent to US$3.1 billion, missing expectations in part due to a fall in trading revenues.

BofA also faced concerns about its vulnerability to crashing oil prices.

Chief financial officer Bruce Thompson estimated the bank's exposure to oil at US$23 billion, with more than 80 per cent of oil-related loans from investment-grade borrowers.

BofA officials conceded there could be some defaults from oil companies, but said January debit and credit card spending had risen about three percent overall.

"There is a technical risk to the oil-producing companies," said chief executive Brian Moynihan. But "we're seeing the benefit to the consumer very starkly." The major exception was Wells Fargo, the country's largest mortgage lender, which reported a 1.8 per cent increase in earnings to US$5.7 billion, meeting expectations behind a solid four per cent gain in average loans to US$849.4 billion.

Still, Marty Mosby, an analyst at Vining Sparks, said Wells Fargo results have "begun to stall," with fourth-quarter earnings flat compared with the prior quarter.