Bank earnings will be ‘moderate,’ ‘mixed,’ ‘messy,’ and ‘muddied.’ But there’s some good news

Shares of big banks have been on a tear since mid-2017 as investors began to anticipate a better business environment thanks to an improving global economy and business-friendly policies from Washington.

But—and there’s always a but with bank earnings, it seems—this quarter will be a slog.

When fourth-quarter earnings season kicks off Friday, banks will be recording big, one-time charges that stem from the tax overhaul, as MarketWatch’s Francine McKenna has reported. (For a sense of just how “muddied” earnings will be, J.P.Morgan estimates per-share losses at Citigroup

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  of $6.07 because of the tax changes, versus per-share earnings of $1.22 with the tax hit stripped out.)

“We expect investors to look through these one-time items and focus on core results,” said Jason Goldberg, Barclays’ bank analyst team leader.

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But banks’ business fundamentals aren’t going to light any fires, and investors will face another quarter of determining whether the same promise that’s been made for years now—stronger economic growth, a brisker pace of lending, less regulation, and a better spread between interest rates—is truly right around the corner, or if they should expect more of the same.

The important themes for the quarter, wrote J.P.Morgan’s Vivek Juneja, include a benefit from big share buybacks, offset by loan growth that’s “weak,” net interest margins that are “flattish,” a “moderate increase” in investment banking fees, and trading revenues that are “weak.”

Still, Goldberg thinks that once the final quarter of 2017 is in the rear-view mirror, 2018 will be “constructive” with stronger growth in both loans and net interest margins, some support from the tax cuts, and a positive backdrop for buying back shares.

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Here’s an overview of what all that means for earnings.

Loan growth

“We are skeptical of meaningful re-acceleration in industrywide loan growth,” said UBS analysts in a January 4 note. They forecast lending growth of 5.9% for Citigroup, 3.5% for J.P.Morgan Chase & Co.

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 , 0.1% for Bank of America Corp.

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—and a decline of 1.4% for Wells Fargo

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 . That’s being driven by commercial real estate, Juneja noted. In contrast, buoyant consumers and a blow-out Christmas shopping season are boosting credit card loans—though other consumer loan types, like autos, are growing more slowly.

Net interest margins

To be profitable, banks need a bigger spread between short-term interest rates — what they pay for deposits — and long-term rates, which they receive for lending. Rates — and the spread between them — became depressed in the wake of the financial crisis. When the “yield curve” steepens, it’s because investors expect faster growth and stronger inflation.

Still, that won’t be much in evidence in fourth-quarter earnings. UBS forecasts net interest margins of 2.85% for Wells, 2.71% for Citigroup, 2.39% for J.P.Morgan, and 2.37% for Bank of America – essentially flat compared to the third quarter, though up nearly 20 basis points compared to a year ago for all those banks except Wells.

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This will be a tough quarter for banks’ trading businesses, not just because volatility remained so low during the quarter, but also because the fourth quarter of last year, when the upset presidential election caused a flurry of activity, will be so hard to match.

Barclays’ Goldberg expects a 15-20% annual decline in total trading revenues for J.P.Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America. Stock trading overall will outpace that in fixed income, commodities, and currencies, he said.

Investment banking

Juneja has penciled in year-over-year increases in investment banking fees of 2% for J.P.Morgan, 1% for Bank of America, and 6% for Citigroup, with a 10% drop for Wells. That’s driven by strong equity capital markets activity, but a decline in mergers and acquisitions.

Earnings estimates for the coming quarter:

Analysts polled by FactSet are expecting J.P.Morgan to report per-share earnings of $1.69, versus $1.71 a year ago. Estimize, which crowd-sources estimates, expects earnings per share of $1.73. The FactSet consensus for revenues is for $25.2 billion, down from $25.5 billion a year ago. Estimize’s revenue forecast is for $25 billion.

FactSet’s consensus for Wells Fargo is for per-share earnings of $1.23, compared to 96 cents a year ago, while Estimize expects EPS of $1.05. FactSet analysts expect revenue of $22.4 billion, up from $21.6 billion a year ago, and Estimize’s consensus is the same.

Analysts surveyed by FactSet expect per-share earnings of $1.20 for Citigroup when it reports January 16, up from $1.14 a year ago. That’s a bit lower than Estimize, which forecasts EPS of $1.25. FactSet’s revenue consensus is for $17.3 billion, just above the $17 billion booked a year ago, and Estimize’s consensus is for $17.4 billion.

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Finally, when Bank of America reports on January 17, FactSet analysts expect earnings per share of 45 cents, compared to 40 cents last year. Revenues of $21.5 billion are expected to top the $20 billion booked a year ago. Estimize’s forecast is for 47 cents in per-share earnings and for $21.3 billion of revenues.

Stock performance

Over the past 12 months, shares of J.P.Morgan are up 27.4%, shares of Citigroup have risen 26%, and shares of Wells Fargo are 15.7%. Bank of America leads this group with a 33.2% gain over that period. All dwarf the 21% gain in the S&P 500

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