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Bank of America profits and America's banks

A man withdraws cash from a Bank of America automated teller machine (ATM) in Hollywood.

Here are a few recent data points that might help us understand this economy in which we live.

  • The Big Banks’ profits are up. Bank of America Wednesday reported a 63 percent rise in net profit for the April to June quarter, compared to the same period in 2012. JPMorgan Chase's profits jumped by double digits, too. As did Citigroup's and Goldman Sachs.’ You get the picture.
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Index and the Standard & Poor's 500 are at or near record highs.

So far, so good. But then we come to Point 3.

  • The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. He just made what might be one of his last appearances before Congress and took the opportunity to say pretty much what he's been saying for a while now:  the economy's getting better...slowly...but there are still some risks.

The messages are a bit, shall we say, mixed. So how do we make sense of them?

I took this question to Alan Blinder, the former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and author of a book about the financial crisis called "After the Music Stopped."

He also happens to be a regular Marketplace listener, and he says that our trademark segment -- when Kai Ryssdal says "let's do the numbers" -- adds to the mixed messages about the economy. 

For those not familiar with the segment, it goes like this: Kai gives some stats about whether stocks are up or down or mixed, and we hear some music -- happy, sad or in-between -- to go with it. Lately, there’s been a lot of happy music when it comes to bank stocks, thanks to those record profit reports.

But, Blinder says, those numbers, and that music, don't matter. “There’s a handful of people for whom day to day movements in the stock market are very, very important,” he says. “But for almost everybody else it’s completely meaningless.”

Blinder gets why Kai and others in the financial media pay attention to the stock market. “That's the one number you get every day, or every minute,” he says. “We don't have readings on wages and jobs every day, not to mention every minute.”

Those numbers, on wages and jobs, are the really important ones to gauge the health of the economy, Blinder says, not stock prices or record bank earnings.

This isn’t an immediately obvious point. You might think bank profits would reflect activity in the day-to-day economy in which you and I live. That's not always the case though, says Marty Mosby, a banking analyst at Guggenheim Securities.

“What you're seeing in the profit line is not a lot of organic balance sheet kind of revenue growth,” Mosby says.

And by “organic balance sheet revenue growth,” he means the kind money banks make by doing business with people and companies on Main Street -- lending money to small businesses and middle market businesses, and consumers who are buying stuff.

Those “old-fashioned” ways of making money aren't driving big banks' recent profits, Mosby says. They will, eventually, he adds, but, “we haven't' gotten there yet.”

Instead, Mosby says, right now bank profits are rising for different reasons. Trading stocks and bonds, for one. And cutting costs -- including legal fees, now that those lawsuits from the financial crisis are winding down.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.
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