FleetBoston Financial Group has joined a growing list of banking companies that are telling employees to cut back on travel, outside professional services, and other discretionary expenses as the economy sputters.
The company told senior managers last Friday to keep a tighter rein on expenses in an effort to protect the bottom line, a spokesman said. Like other banks, Fleet is reacting to a slowing economy that is threatening revenue growth in some of its key businesses, namely in investment banking, private equity, and other corporate banking activities.
Fleet does not want to resort to mass layoffs, the spokesman said. We want to avoid impacting customer service, which is a top priority for the company at this time, and we want to minimize the possibility of staff reductions.
Still, analysts said, job cuts are likely, particularly in capital markets. Institutions up and down Wall Street and Main Street banks that have tried to become more like them have been hiring aggressively for the last two years to keep pace with booming demand for underwriting, advisory, and credit services. That demand has all but disappeared since the slump in the stock markets began last year.
Investment banks with big technology units, including Fleets Robertson Stephens & Co., in San Francisco, could be hit hardest, analysts said. Everyone has Plan B in their desk drawer, said George Bicher, an analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. Its a cyclical business, like making cars. Sometimes you have to shut a factory down.
In the last two weeks Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. and Charles Schwab & Co. have said they were mulling job cuts, and Bear Stearns Cos. and Goldman Sachs Group have already made them. Analysts said they were anticipating a similar move by Merrill Lynch & Co.
Meanwhile, Pittsburghs Mellon Financial Corp. instituted a companywide austerity program in February, though it does not emphasize personnel reductions. Citigroup Inc. is also said to be seeing ways to reduce costs without massive layoffs.
Several analysts have lowered their estimates for Fleets first-quarter and yearend earnings to take into account the impact of the capital-markets slowdown. Goldman Sachs Group, for one, lowered its estimate to 79 cents for the first quarter and to $3.50 from $3.65 for the year to reflect weaker venture capital, IPO, and retail brokerage activity, analyst Lori Appelbaum said.
Fleet is spending on areas it sees as engines for growth. For example, even though it is cutting back in capital markets, it has put up $20 million to hire salespeople and update technology in the investment management area, which includes the Quick & Reilly discount brokerage unit. The company is also spending 11% more this year to market its credit card products.