Whether reporting a profit or a loss, this earnings season bankers have had at least one thing in common: uncertain outlooks for the industry for this year and beyond.
After reporting that U.S. Bancorp's fourth-quarter profit dropped 65% from a year earlier, Richard Davis, its chief executive, said that the economic conditions behind the industry's struggles will remain, and that looking at conditions beyond the next 90 days is a dubious practice.
Mr. Davis said he's seeing diminishing loan demand at his and other banks from people and businesses "spending less and traveling less and watching their nickels and dimes."
At JPMorgan Chase & Co., James Dimon, the New York company's CEO, also blamed macroeconomic trends. After announcing a 76% plunge in fourth-quarter profits last week, Mr. Dimon told analysts that if unemployment soared above 8%, consumer loan delinquencies, particularly on credit cards, could surge.
And that is just the view from companies in the black.
On the other side of the ledger, Kenneth Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America Corp., told analysts that "a severe recession, affecting all sectors of the economy" and driven by receding home prices, rising unemployment, and bankruptcies, makes it "difficult to predict the timing of an economic rebound" and, by extension, the timing of his Charlotte company's return to profitability. It posted a steep fourth-quarter loss last week.
C. Dowd Ritter, the CEO of Regions Financial Corp. in Birmingham, Ala., reported a bruising loss Tuesday and told analysts on a call that the near-term earnings outlook for his firm and most others is bleak.
"As we look out into 2009, unfortunately, I don't see unemployment having reached its peak yet, nor do we see real estate values having bottomed to where they'll start to rebuild, and until we see either of those things, I just can't see bank earnings improving," Mr. Ritter said.
Such pessimism is not isolated to the biggest companies.
"The credit loss numbers continue to get bigger, but I wouldn't call that the most troubling thing," Steve Brown, the president and CEO of Pacific Coast Bankers' Bank in San Francisco, which works with community banks, said in an interview Wednesday. "The issue is that looking beyond '09 for anything but a very cloudy picture is impossible."
However, several bankers said they are optimistic the Treasury Department's steps to boost capital levels will eventually bolster confidence in the banking system. But the same bankers said that more government intervention is needed, and that confidence among consumers and investors likely will not materialize until the depth and breadth of the Obama administration's stimulus plan is clearly outlined.
"I think everybody is looking to the new administration for some resolution," Ronald Hermance, the CEO of Hudson City Bancorp in Paramus, N.J., said in an interview Wednesday.
"Until we see some resolution from the administration, what their intentions are … when we see them in action, then I think you'll see maybe some strength return at a slow pace to the banking sector."
Mr. Hermance spoke after his company reported a 60% profit increase and said it would raise its dividend. (See related story.)
PNC Financial Services Group Inc., which said Wednesday that it expects to post a fourth-quarter loss when it reports its results Feb. 3, offered a glimmer of good news in saying it now forecasts credit losses on the recently acquired National City Corp. will be less than the $1.8 billion it initially predicted.
But even though PNC does not envision the need for another Treasury capital infusion "at this time" — it secured $7.6 billion of taxpayer money to close the acquisition — it did not rule one out. PNC executives declined interview requests.
After Citi reported its fifth-straight quarterly loss last week, Gary Crittenden, its chief financial officer, was asked in an interview if he thought the New York company and other large ones could prepare to cut the government cord at some point this year. Mr. Crittenden quickly answered: "I don't think anyone is confronting that question right now. … It's too early for that."