Bank earnings reveal a fragile economy

People walk past a Bank of America branch in Chicago, Ill.

Bank of America reported a $6.2 billion quarterly profit today. Don't get too excited: a big chunk of it was so-called one-time gains. Goldman Sachs, meanwhile reported its second ever quarterly loss since going public 12 years ago. One wag on Twitter answered the question, what's the difference between Goldman and B of A? "B of A has better accountants." One-time gains, you see, are unusual events that don't usually occur in a company's business dealings. In B of A's case, some of these gains genuinely add to the bottom line -- its sale of a stake in a Chinese bank -- while others, such as adjustments in the valuation of the company's debt, were arguably manufactured by accounting sleight of hand.

Bank earnings season is a perennially confusing and confounding time. Last week we spoke with bank watchers who declared retail banking was doing well, while investment banking was in the tank. Now it appears both ends of the banking spectrum are facing troubles. The Goldman loss certainly shows that investment banks are challenged when it comes to making money. But today we also saw a Financial Times article that said America's big banks are starting to see some issues with consumers' ability to repay their loans, meaning retail banking may not be as good as advertised. In their results, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase all saw "signs that homeowners and credit-card borrowers are falling behind on their payments." Commercial real estate, meanwhile, continues to keep a lid on many regional banks' lending operations.

We talked with Gerard Cassidy of RBC Capital. He says the slowdown in the economy that occurred in August and September is impairing consumers' ability to pay their loans. But these problem loans aren't the sub-prime mortgages that defaulted like crazy during and after the financial crisis. Those toxic loans have mostly worked their way through the system; the borrowers are no longer homeowners; their houses are in foreclosure. Instead, today's problem mortgages are prime loans, taken out by borrowers who were deemed likely to pay, but who are now falling behind. Cassidy blames intractable high unemployment. It's no longer people buying more house than they can afford, he says, it's that Americans are losing their jobs, failing to find new ones, and running out of money to pay their debts.

Cassidy believes the banks results show the economy is at a crossroads after that summer slowdown. If the economy picks back up, he says, we'll see improvement in consumers' ability to pay back their loans, and that rise in delinquencies will be just a blip. But if it stays on track and heads into a prolonged dip, then we'll look back on this quarter's bank results as the beginning of something much more serious.


Plus, you may or may not own them, but you've certainly seen them: Crocs. Are investors walking out on the footwear company? Crocs' stock dropped 35 percent after it told investors that it expects poor sales and falling profits because of the economic slowdown. That news is making the Marketplace Daily Pulse feel somewhat weaker today.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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