JPMorgan’s clean sheet already looks off-white

April 11, 2014

By Jeffrey Goldfarb

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

JPMorgan’s clean sheet already looks off-white. For the first time in years, its quarterly earnings weren’t cluttered with special items like whale-trade losses or legal costs. The U.S. mega-bank’s $5.3 billion profit in the three months to March fell short of expectations anyway.

Since the advent of the financial crisis, JPMorgan’s results have regularly been clouded by a tangled mess of one-time adjustments. Last quarter alone, for example, there were four worth at least $750 million apiece. This time around, there were none that approached anything of that scale. Cleaner, however, didn’t mean better for Chief Executive Jamie Dimon.

The bank’s bottom line shrank by a fifth from a year ago, due mostly to sharp drops in the fixed-income trading and mortgage businesses. Return on equity slipped 3 percentage points, to 10 percent, a level generally considered to be breakeven relative to a lender’s cost of capital. JPMorgan’s shares also dipped as much as 3.5 percent, keeping them only just above the bank’s book value of $54.05 a share.

Wheeling and dealing in bonds and currencies can be pretty choppy, so until JPMorgan’s Wall Street rivals disclose their first-quarter results it won’t be clear whether the bank’s 21 percent year-on-year slide in fixed income trading revenue makes it a laggard. In home loans, though, Wells Fargo, which also reported first-quarter earnings on Friday, looked stronger. And JPMorgan’s earnings fell short of expectations for the third consecutive quarter, according to Barclays, after beating forecasts in 17 of the previous 18.

Dimon reckons the worst of JPMorgan’s legal troubles are behind it. He also is getting a chance to reshape his inner circle after the departure of two more deputies, Mike Cavanagh and Blythe Masters. And yet he hardly sounds enthusiastic about the new beginning.

During a call with journalists, the often voluble Dimon declined to weigh in on the renewed debate over high-frequency trading even though JPMorgan is portrayed positively in Michael Lewis’s book, “Flash Boys.” And when asked if he was having fun, Dimon could only muster a terse affirmative. To be fair, broader market conditions were a drag in the first quarter. Both the CEO and his investors will be hoping JPMorgan can make more of the fresh start.

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