The kickoff to bank earnings season could make for a "freaky Friday"- as in an opportunity for role reversal.
On an inauspicious Friday the 13th, Wells Fargo (WFC), the fourth largest bank by assets, is slated to report quarterly results alongside the biggest bank, JPMorgan Chase (JPM), for the second consecutive quarter.
JPMorgan Chase, led by charismatic chief executive Jamie Dimon and usually steeled by its investment banking unit, has been the bank to beat for a long time. But Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf could use his bank's more vanilla banking model to score some PR points while Dimon grapples further with JPMorgan's multibillion-dollar trading blunder.
"Wells is the relative rock, the port in the storm if you want to own bank stocks," says Jason Ware, an analyst with Salt Lake City-based Albion Financial Group. "They have the least amount of headwinds, and that's going to end up being a big positive for them."
The timing of the bank's earnings report, on the same day as JPMorgan, could be a boon, "if you can come out next to someone who's limping along," Ware says.
Nevertheless, others argue that regardless of how well Wells performs, the bank would make out better if it had decided to wait a day to report.
"The fact that JPMorgan has decided to hold an on-site, two-hour meeting on results and an update on the chief investment office, that completely takes away from Wells Fargo," says Todd Hagerman, a managing director at Sterne Agee & Leach.
"I wonder if it wouldn't be prudent for Wells to, say, move to Monday where the activity level in terms of other banks is relatively modest. Because they're just not going to get the attention or recognition with JPMorgan in the spotlight on Friday," he adds.
Either way,Wells is poised for a strong quarter, particularly in its mortgage business, analysts say.
Last quarter, the bank earned $2.9 billion in mortgage banking noninterest income, up $506 million from the prior quarter. Wells reported $129 billion in mortgage originations, up 8% from a quarter earlier, as mortgage application volumes jumped 20%.
"We're looking for another quarter of robust mortgage-banking results, expecting strong origination volumes and healthy gain on sales volumes," says Joseph Morford, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets.
Morford also points to several of the bank's recent acquisitions, including its purchase of BNP Paribas' North American energy portfolio and German bank West LB's subscription finance portfolio.
"Wells has been one of the more successful ones in terms of buying assets coming out of the European banks," Morford says.
The bank may also prove to be an investor safe haven for what it lacks: large exposure in investment banking.
"The benefit for Wells is their capital markets unit, because it's a nominal part of the overall business and revenue stream. Wells doesn't have the volatility associated with the capital markets unit like others," Hagerman says.
Wells accounts for less than 5% of total U.S. investment banking market share, the bank reported last quarter. That's a plus at a time when investment banking activity remains weak across the industry.
"I don't have high expectations for M&A or IPO underwriting. That's not a story that's going to drive a lot of enthusiasm for bank stocks," Ware says. "The investment banking side is going to be facing some pretty anemic numbers."
A continual wildcard for Wells is whether the bank is able to keep its expenses in line with projected cuts.
Last quarter, the bank reported that costs rose to $13 billion. Wells said at the time that it expects to bring costs down to $11.25 billion by the end of this year, the higher end of a target the bank had previously disclosed.
Analysts have greeted the proposed expense cuts positively, and say the bank could have some leeway on that figure, especially if it continues to grow revenue.
"If everything looks OK, but expenses miss slightly, I don't think there will be much in the way of a shareholder revolt. But it is an incremental negative," Ware says.
Analysts will also be watching the bank's margins closely, and significant margin compression could spell trouble for Wells.
"Investors are going to focus on margins. There's lot of focus on controlling costs, layoffs, shuddering unprofitable physical presences — [in other words] goose that profitability because they're not seeing growth in sales," Ware says.
"Personally I think for Wells Fargo, they probably saw a peak in the first quarter for their margins, and a lot of the banks are feeling the same pressure," he adds.
Ongoing turmoil in Europe could also hinder the industry as a whole, analysts warn.
"The biggest point of concern, the unknown hanging over economy right now, is Europe," Ware says. "It's difficult to say you have no exposure to Europe, and my feeling is they [U.S. banks] don't know what their exposure to Europe is."
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