Hopes fade for U.S. bank earnings despite rally in financial shares

(Reuters) - Big U.S. lenders are expected to report another round of uninspiring quarterly results this week, which analysts said could dampen a “Trump rally” in bank stocks fueled by expectations the new president would lighten financial regulation and boost the economy.

Of particular concern is a recent slowdown in loan growth, driven partly by an uptick in interest rates that dissuaded consumers and companies from refinancing loans.

In February, outstanding loans across the U.S. banking industry declined for the first time in more than three years, according to Federal Reserve data. Loans fell slightly for the first quarter overall.

Analysts and investors said the lending slowdown came as a surprise, and appeared related not only to declines in mortgage refinancing and corporate borrowing but also to uncertainty about U.S. policy and economic growth.

“The loan metric doesn’t fit with the optimistic tone we’ve seen from the banks,” said Patrick Kaser, a portfolio manager at Brandywine Global in Philadelphia who invests in bank stocks.

The Fed lifted its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points in March, marking the second such hike in three months. But the recent climb in short-term rates has been accompanied by a drop in longer-term rates, bringing the two closer together. When yields flatten in that manner, it is not helpful to bank earnings either.

The season kicks off on Thursday, when three of the country's biggest lenders, JPMorgan Chase & Co JPM.N, Citigroup Inc C.N and Wells Fargo & Co WFC.N, report first-quarter results. Rivals Bank of America Corp BAC.N, Goldman Sachs Group Inc GS.N and Morgan Stanley MS.N report the following week.

On average, analysts expect the six biggest U.S. banks to see a net income increase of 4.7 percent compared to the prior year, according to Reuters data.

While that may sound like a big gain, the year-ago quarter was an awful one for the banking sector, which saw capital markets activity and loan growth dry up amid mounting macroeconomic concerns.

Several analysts lowered earnings estimates last week, citing loan weakness as well as sharp declines in revenue from stock trading, where commissions have come under pressure from a new regulation in Europe and broader troubles for active asset managers.

Fewer deals in the first quarter also imply lower revenue from M&A banking. Altogether, the weak points are expected to outweigh small gains anticipated in businesses like fixed-income trading and wealth management.

Evercore ISI bank analyst Glenn Schorr described the quarter as “OK” but “definitely not the gangbusters quarter everybody was hoping for.”

Big banks have been struggling to earn decent returns on shareholder equity for some time. In recent years, they have been spending billions of dollars to settle legal claims and comply with new regulations and capital requirements. They have also launched massive cost-cutting programs and revenue-boosting initiatives.

When November’s U.S. election installed Donald Trump in the White House and business-friendly leadership in Congress, investors tended to think tough regulations would be eased and the economy would strengthen.

Bank stocks were the biggest beneficiary of the so-called Trump rally, with the KBW Nasdaq Bank Index rising 32 percent from Nov. 7 to a peak on March 1. Banks were also the biggest contributors to gains in major blue chip indexes.

But since then bank stocks have lost some of their shine, falling 6 percent in the last month even as the broader market remained mostly flat. With the U.S. Congress unable to pass laws on issues more pressing than financial deregulation, analysts said uncertainty around U.S. polices including trade, taxes and spending may weigh on the economy in the near term.

“Expectations were high coming into the year and while 1Q is by no means a bad quarter, revenues are probably less strong than market moves would have implied,” said Macquarie analyst David Konrad.

(This story corrects time reference in first paragraph to “this week” from “next week”.)

Reporting by Olivia Oran, Sinead Carew and Chuck Mikolajczak in New York; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra Meredith Mazzilli