There were bad omens for weaker banks in JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s highest quarterly profit ever.
Most of the $2.2 trillion-asset company's first-quarter earnings came from two unstable sources — $2.5 billion in paper profits from winding down money set aside to cover bad loans, and $2.4 billion in actual profits from arguably the best investment bank on Wall Street.
For other banks, the trouble lies in what wasn't in its numbers: Growth from collecting more fees and loan interest. Revenue fell quarter to quarter at six of its seven main business lines — with investment banking the lone exception.
JPMorgan Chase "did a decent job on a relative basis" outside of investment banking, "but I'm not excited about what this says about the industry in general," said Keith B. Davis, a principal with investment manager Farr, Miller & Washington. "Revenues are lackluster."
The company, with business interests in more than 120 countries, has the financial muscle to keep delivering shareholder-pleasing results until U.S. consumers and businesses begin borrowing again, experts said.
JPMorgan Chase and Chief Executive Jamie Dimon expect fewer losses involving its more than 31 million consumer and business customers. The investment banking gains — largely from debt and currency trading — also show that JPMorgan Chase can make money in capital markets even when they are volatile, and subject to increasingly tough competition.
When the mortgage sales and securities investment gains that drove results last year dried up, the traders and bankers in its 26,500-employee investment bank picked up the slack by taking advantage of another strong quarter in the debt markets.
The problem for other U.S. banks is that only a handful are as diverse as JPMorgan Chase, and none are as good at investment banking as it is. The unit accounted for more than 40% of the company's $5.6 billion of profits in the quarter.
Jason Tyler, senior vice president and director of research with Ariel Investments in Chicago, said revenue wasn't as low as he and other analysts were expecting in areas like commercial and retail banking. The first quarter is also seasonably slow for bank revenue, he said.
JPMorgan Chase has a huge retail division — some 30,000 employees at nearly 5,300 branches in 23 states — but it is becoming increasingly clear that the company is a creature of Wall Street, he said.
"This is an investment bank — that is one of the things people don't realize so much," Tyler said.
Other divisions weren't necessarily weak, he and other experts said. There just was not much growth as consumers continued to pay off debt and the housing market continued to slump, they said.
"Revenues were, I think, a little bit better than expected overall, perhaps not at last year's level," said Gary B. Townsend, president and CEO of Hill-Townsend Capital LLC. "The markets seem to be focusing on loan growth, but I think that is misplaced. We're still seeing credit quality improve. Consumers, generally, have been reluctant to add to their debt, and that's reflected in the numbers."
The retail financial services unit lost $208 million as shrinking loan balances and a slowdown in mortgage activity hurt revenue, while home equity and mortgage losses remained elevated.
The investment bank "had a very good quarter; retail had a very bad quarter," Dimon said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
Net interest income — or revenue from interest on loans and securities — declined 2% from the previous quarter and 13% from a year earlier, to $11.9 billion, as runoff in credit card balances and home loans outpaced corporate and midmarket business loan growth. Noninterest income was down 5%, both from the previous quarter and the period a year ago, to $13.3 billion, as the mortgage and securities gains that sustained earnings last quarter vanished.
One of the few areas of consumer loan growth, auto lending, tapered off: balances contracted for the first time in at least a year, falling about $1 billion, or 2%.
Mortgages were especially painful, something that bodes poorly for lenders heavily involved in home lending like Wells Fargo & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Fifth Third Bancorp. JPMorgan Chase booked a charge of $1.1 billion that reflects increased costs in its mortgage-servicing operations in connection with the consent order from regulators to change foreclosure practices. It expects to hire between 2,000 and 3,000 new employees to comply with those demands. Mortgage production revenue, meanwhile, declined by nearly $680 million — or almost 40%, from the previous quarter as originations declined by a third as applications fell by 22%. Losses from repurchasing bad mortgages from investors also unexpectedly increased.
Things were better in the commercial bank, which does business with some 24,000 midsize and small businesses. Revenue from lending increased 12%, as it added $2.2 billion in new loans to businesses with between $10 million and $2 billion in annual sales. The division's loans rose about 1% from the fourth quarter. That is a good sign for other healthy banks aggressively going after corporate borrowers, like PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and U.S. Bancorp.
Chief Financial Officer Doug Braunstein highlighted "encouraging signs" in lending, such as the increase in the portfolio of loans to companies with $10 million to $500 million in annual sales. It expanded 5% from the previous quarter, to $38.2 billion. That book has grown for 12 consecutive quarters.
"We're starting to see real small-business loan demand," Dimon added. "I expect to see that, too, with [our] competitors. … That's not just us."