Which Consumer Is Real, the Banks’ or Powell’s?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If there were any doubts left about the strength of the U.S. consumer, Bank of America Corp.’s latest round of earnings should put those to rest.
The bank on Wednesday announced a record second-quarter profit, with Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan crediting “solid consumer activity across the board, with spending by Bank of America consumers up 5% this quarter over the second quarter of last year.” He added that he sees a steadily growing economy, informed by observing trends among “the one-in-two American households we serve.”
Revenue and net income both increased in Bank of America’s consumer business, while credit provisions were stable. That mirrors much of what the other big U.S. banks reported earlier this week: Citigroup Inc.’s consumer division had its best second quarter since 2013; JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s consumer and community banking unit reported a 22% year-over-year increase in net income; and Wells Fargo & Co. had sharply lower credit-loss provisions than analysts estimated. Long story short, Bank of America, with its wide footprint across the country, affirmed the health of the consumer.
It would be hard to get the same takeaway from just listening to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, however.
In a speech on Tuesday, the Fed chief mentioned U.S. consumers just once,(2) and even then, he appeared to play down their strength, which would seem surprising given that consumer spending makes up more than two-thirds of the American economy. But it has become abundantly clear since his congressional testimony last week that Powell is going to lean heavily on “trade tensions” and slowing global growth as reasons to justify interest-rate cuts and will go out of his way to add caveats when mentioning positive aspects of the economy.
He didn’t disappoint on either front during his comments in France (emphasis mine):
“Growth in consumer spending, which was soft in the first quarter, looks to have bounced back, but business fixed investment growth seems to have slowed notably. Moreover, the manufacturing sector has been weak since the beginning of the year, in part weighed down by the softer business spending, weaker growth in the global economy, and, as our business contacts tell us, concerns about trade tensions.”
The Fed looms large in just about every aspect of today’s markets, given the central bank’s abrupt shift toward favoring interest-rate reductions starting later this month. And the difference in tone about consumers between the central bank and the biggest U.S. banks is especially notable because the Fed’s about-face on interest rates has caused Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo to all miss on net interest margins relative to expectations. That trend has led the leaders of those banks to face some uncomfortable questions this earnings season about their outlooks.
Bank of America’s Paul Donofrio adjusted expectations for net interest income on the lender’s analyst call on Wednesday. During the first-quarter call, he had said it could increase by 3% in 2019 compared with 2018. Now, he said the growth will be closer to 2% if interest rates remain stable, and just 1% if the Fed cuts rates twice before the end of the year as bond traders expect.
It’s worth noting that Moynihan didn’t see the Fed capitulating to the market’s demands for lower interest rates. I was in attendance when he spoke to the Economic Club of New York on June 4, and at the end of a question-and-answer segment he said he didn’t think the central bank would cut rates this year. What were his reasons for that call? Among them: “We feel very good about the consumer.”
What Moynihan, and anyone who thought similarly, couldn’t have predicted is just how locked in the Powell Fed would become to easing policy. Even stronger-than anticipated figures on retail sales, factory output and housing on Tuesday failed to budge the market-implied odds of a July rate cut, not to mention the outlook for the rest of the year. That’s because Fed officials haven’t even pretended to push back on that pricing.
U.S. consumers may be as strong as ever, but if Powell is content with brushing that off, then the biggest U.S. banks will have no way to escape the Fed squeeze.
(1) Excluding a reference to "consumer price inflation."
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Brian Chappatta is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering debt markets. He previously covered bonds for Bloomberg News. He is also a CFA charterholder.
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