Good times are just around the bend. The length of that bend depends on who you talk to.
The chief executives of the nation's largest banks have adopted varying degrees of optimism when it comes to their outlooks on the economy and the growth prospects of their businesses going forward, as evidenced during presentations this week at a Sanford Bernstein conference in New York.
"The clouds will lift," said JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, of litigation, foreclosure costs, interest rate pressures and housing price declines. "By the time all those clouds lift, all things being equal, you'll have banks that make a lot of money and the stocks are a lot higher."
Housing will improve, he said, "sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. … Now is the time to buy, and credit is loosening up for mortgages, not tightening up."
Wells Fargo & Co. CEO John Stumpf, speaking on Friday, also played up his bank's ability to hit its growth and earnings targets. "We have better competitors and more rational competitors today on both sides of the balance sheet. That's good for the industry, it's good for customers, and it makes for a more stable operating environment," he said, standing by a year-old forecast of a consistent 1.5% return on its assets.
The comments came two-thirds of the way through what is expected to be a lackluster quarter for the industry. Of the nation's top four banks, only Wells Fargo is trading at a price above its book value. Investors have plenty of reasons to be concerned: Loan books are still stagnating, interest rates are squeezing margins and housing is again on the decline.
Dimon and Stumpf's broad optimism stood in contrast to more lukewarm comments from PNC Financial Services Group Inc.'s CEO Jim Rohr and U.S. Bancorp's Richard Davis.
While U.S. Bancorp has avoided the mortgage servicing troubles facing its larger peers and holds a strong capital position, it is not expecting its growth to come from riding an imminent economic recovery.
"We're kind of in a stagnant place in the economy," said Davis, the Minneapolis bank's chairman, president and CEO, during a question-and-answer session Thursday afternoon. "[I]t's more negative than you would think because everyone was so expectant that it was getting better." While Davis doesn't foresee a return to recession, he expects that the industry will have to wait two to three years before it sees an equilibrium in housing.
Under such circumstances, Davis is relying on U.S. Bancorp's payments and corporate trust businesses to set it apart.
The corporate trust business is not "a big money maker right now because the world is fairly dormant on these topics, but the corporate trust business is a great scale business for us," Davis said. "We could triple ourselves with very little core cost to that. And for us, it provides us with an amazing level of good core deposits and great relationships where we can get relationships that go for many, many decades with people who trust us."
PNC's Rohr spoke of an interest in acquisitions, a growth strategy out of reach for the country's three largest banks because of a 10% cap on retail bank deposits.
He referenced the "tremendous execution" of PNC's acquisition of National City Corp., the integration of which finished six months ahead of schedule and $600 million under budget.
While PNC has been mentioned as a possible acquirer of the Royal Bank of Canada's U.S. branch system, Rohr suggested that pressures on small banks from debit fee restrictions and other sources make small-time purchases an attractive option. "The acquisition game is really about small banks, not about large banks," he said.
But beyond the challenging economy and limited growth prospects, the ever-changing regulatory landscape is perhaps at the forefront of the bankers' minds. Even then, nearly a year after the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, the executives are mostly hopeful.
Though Stumpf is concerned that plans to change how mortgage servicers are compensated — a severe reduction in total compensation could affect the attractiveness of the business — he said he was confident that "however [it] gets restructured, it won't be unfavorable to American consumers and … it will be good for Wells Fargo."
Dimon, meanwhile, grumbled about the prospects that JPMorgan Chase's designation as systemically important would force it to hold 10% capital. "It will be too much," he said. "It will just screw up the marketplace."
Dimon added that there are limits to how much rival institutions might be able to dodge U.S. rules by shifting units overseas.
"The Federal Reserve is like, it's a roach motel," he said. "You can go in, but you can't decide to go out."
Davis' main concern, after all is said and done, is that banks will still be able to act like banks.
"Our biggest thing to fight for is that risk isn't taken out but good risk management is rewarded," he said.
"That's what we do. And I appreciate the fact there were some bad outcomes. I appreciate the fact the industry as a whole didn't manage that very well. But let's put that new knowledge back in the equation and make sure we don't overreach."