U.S. bank executives offer cautious optimism heading into 2020

(Reuters) - Despite trade wars, low interest rates and new geopolitical tensions, big U.S. banks have not experienced major disruption to their core businesses and top executives are hopeful they can generate growth this year.

FILE PHOTO: A sign outside the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase & Co in New York, September 19, 2013. JPMorgan Chase & Co will pay $920 million in penalties in two countries to settle some of its potential liabilities from its "London Whale" derivatives trading losses last year, according to terms made public by regulators on Thursday. REUTERS/Mike Segar

On Tuesday, three of the largest U.S. lenders reported results, with JPMorgan Chase & Co JPM.N hitting new profit records, Citigroup Inc C.N noting 16 consecutive quarters of loan and deposit growth, and Wells Fargo & Co WFC.N adding new checking-account customers despite fallout from an embarrassing sales scandal.

JPMorgan and Citi beat Wall Street expectations, thanks partly to big gains in bond-trading revenue. Wells Fargo missed due to bloated expenses, though analysts said its underlying businesses were performing relatively well.

“Heading into this year, looks like corporate, investment banking and consumer are the strengths,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Gerard Cassidy. “And, on top of that, all three banks ... showed improved credit quality and that is a good sign for the entire industry as we go into 2020.”

The outlook is more positive than a year ago, when markets were bracing for recession - a possibility that bank executives were not even sure how to discuss without heightening the risk. (

During 2019, the Federal Reserve cut interest rates three times to prop up the economy, while trade disputes festered between the United States and China, the Brexit debate raged on in Europe and protests erupted in Hong Kong, Lebanon and Iraq.

Tensions between America and Iran also escalated, resulting in a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian military leader, Qasem Soleimani, earlier this month.

Despite all of those seeming impediments, JPMorgan generated $36.4 billion in profit last year, a new record. Revenue rose in all but one of its business units.

The biggest U.S. bank by assets opened more than 70 branches in new markets, expanded in China and invested in technology, Chief Executive Jamie Dimon said in a statement.

He and Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Piepszak sounded optimistic about JPMorgan’s growth potential in the year ahead, with the caveat that fragile geopolitical situations could end up hurting the bank eventually.

“You still have potential ongoing trade issues with China and Europe,” said Dimon, who noted that easing trade tensions helped fourth-quarter trading revenue.

“Because that sentiment got better, trading got better,” he said. “How long that continues, we don’t know.”

Citigroup has less of a consumer presence than JPMorgan, but made progress expanding its retail unit last year through a digital banking initiative, Chief Executive Michael Corbat said. Its institutional clients business, which caters to big corporations, also grew revenue and profit.

Wells Fargo’s report was bleaker than rivals’ and executives spent much of their time on earnings conference calls explaining how they would reduce costs and repair the bank’s standing with regulators and customers.

Even so, Wells Fargo’s revenue was roughly in line with expectations, and the bank managed to grow loans and deposits compared with the end of the prior quarter and year.

“While I’ve spoken at length of our mistakes and our commitments to fix them, the underlying franchise itself is as valuable as ever and our opportunities are greater than ever,” the bank’s new CEO, Charles Scharf, told analysts.

Bank of America Corp BAC.N and Goldman Sachs Group Inc GS.N are scheduled to announce results on Wednesday, with Morgan Stanley MS.N finishing up the big-bank reporting season on Thursday.

Reporting by Elizabeth Dilts Marshall and Imani Moise in New York and Anirban Sen in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by David Henry and Matthew Scuffham; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra, Editing by Nick Zieminski