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Big bank earnings: The good, the bad, and the ugly

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Wall Street is preparing for the worst.

A slew of big banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo, reported earnings for the 2nd quarter on Tuesday. But as expected, the biggest concerning sign was the record amounts of loan loss provisions the banks are building to hunker down: JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo all reserved billions for future loan defaults, as banks are anticipating the coronavirus crisis will deal a blow to borrowers in the coming months.

“I think what we’re seeing right now is [with] both the Fed and the government programs coupled with deferrals at the banks, we’re not seeing the consumer stress yet,” David Konrad, senior research analyst at D.A. Davidson, suggests to Fortune. “But I think what the banks are saying is, ‘It’s coming.’”

While the loan loss provisions are “the headline grabber and for good reason given the billions of dollars at stake, the earnings environment for banks is also complicated by low interest rates, a worse-than-expected macro environment and uncertainty associated with COVID-19 which continues to surprise in a negative way,” Bankrate.com senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick told Fortune in a note.

JPMorgan Chase, America’s largest bank, set aside $10.47 billion to cover loan losses. The provision fits with what CEO Jamie Dimon prophesied in his annual letter to shareholders earlier this year: best case, the pandemic will create “financial stress similar to the global financial crisis of 2008.”

Now, banks are warning of uncertainty: CEO Dimon cautioned, “Despite some recent positive macroeconomic data and significant, decisive government action, we still face much uncertainty regarding the future path of the economy,” Dimon said in the earnings release.

The good

But the bank titan also gave investors a big surprise: JPMorgan topped revenue estimates, reporting $33 billion, up 15% from the year-ago quarter. (Profits for the bank, meanwhile, dropped over 50% to $4.7 billion).

One standout figure? The bank reported record fixed income trading revenue of $7.3 billion—and total trading revenues were up 79% at $9.7 billion. Massive volatility in the markets amid the crisis, plus an ever-accommodating Fed injecting liquidity in the market and purchasing corporate bonds, has “just created this backdrop of a lot of investment banking and capital markets activity, and almost an accretive capital raise for the bigger banks,” notes Konrad.

However, management at banks like JPMorgan have warned the massive revenues from trading won’t be sustainable—”The guidance was certainly that that’s not going to continue,” Konrad says.

The banks are preparing their balance sheets for a W-shaped recovery, but analysts like Konrad note that while management likely don’t anticipate the recovery will go that poorly, “Any variation toward a W would create more reserves going forward.” Especially with new cases of the coronavirus spiking across the country, the confidence banks have in their shored-up balance sheets might be “a completely different story.”

Citigroup also happily surprised the Street, reporting revenues of $19.8 billion (up roughly 5% from last year) and $1.3 billion in profits (down 73% from a year ago), both above expectations. The bank’s markets and securities revenues hit $6.9 billion, up 48%, with the lion’s share coming from fixed income trading, up 68% from the year-ago period.

The bad

But Wells Fargo, on the other hand, was “a bit of a mess,” Konrad remarks. “They don’t have the investment banking and trading offsets, and they were behind in the reserves and had to take a much bigger reserve.”

The bank reported a below-estimates $2.4 billion loss for the quarter, while revenues fell roughly 17.6% from the year-ago quarter (reporting $17.8 billion). To boot, the bank announced it will cut its dividend to $0.10. And CEO Charlie Scharf didn’t sugar coat it: “We are extremely disappointed in both our second quarter results and our intent to reduce our dividend. Our view of the length and severity of the economic downturn has deteriorated considerably from the assumptions used last quarter, which drove the $8.4 billion addition to our credit loss reserve in the second quarter,” he said in the earnings release.

The ugly

Yet even for the two banks that beat earnings estimates, consumer revenues slumped: JPMorgan’s consumer and community banking revenues fell 9%, while Citigroup’s dropped 10%.

“They both missed on consumer revenues, so that’s kind of the opposite effect—I think the capital markets [revenue] was almost a disconnect with the economy given all the government programs, and maybe the consumer side was a little bit more reflective on the revenue side of where we’re at in the economy,” Konrad suggests. In that sense, “I think the consumer revenue will weigh on the next couple quarters, so that’s probably the risk factor of otherwise really strong results,” he says.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs were expecting the worst: the firm estimated earnings for banks to decline by 69% in the 2nd quarter. And while some analysts like Konrad walked away from earnings on Tuesday feeling “encouraged,” he notes the risk factors are concentrated in consumer revenue trends and “the commercial past-dues and non-accruals that jumped up.”

Citigroup and Wells Fargo’s stocks were down in afternoon trading, while JPMorgan traded up about 0.5%. All three are deeply in the red for the year.

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Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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