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Exclusive: JPMorgan presses managers to cut costs as profits fall

A sign outside the headquarters of JP Morgan Chase & Co in New York, September 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By David Henry

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Senior executives at JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) are pressuring managers across the bank to cut costs, after disappointing revenue growth has hurt profits, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.

The bank might implement specific expense goals for businesses, the source told Reuters, adding, "Everyone is having to give at the office on this." JPMorgan said it expects to disclose more about its cost-cutting efforts on Feb. 24, when it hosts its investor day.

On Wednesday, JPMorgan posted a 3 percent decline in revenue, but only a 1 percent decline in non-interest expense, resulting in its overall income dropping by 7 percent. Those results were disappointing enough to investors to pull the company's shares down 3.45 percent.

Even excluding $1.1 billion of legal expenses the bank recorded in the quarter, it spent 61 percent of its revenue on expenses, a ratio known as its "efficiency ratio." For all of 2014 expenses were 60 percent of revenue, compared with 59 percent in 2013.

Chief Financial Officer Marianne Lake said in a conference call with analysts to discuss the results that the company expects expenses to be only 55 percent of revenue over the medium term.

JPMorgan's trouble with expenses raises questions about its size, at a time when regulators are creating harsher rules for the biggest U.S. banks, and some analysts are wondering whether big banks should be broken up.

"The last three years JPMorgan's efficiency has stalled out," said analyst Mike Mayo of CLSA. "Investors might be OK with JPMorgan's size it if can show the benefits. If they can't, then let's talk about shrinkage and breakup."

JPMorgan executives said on Wednesday that they just need more time. The bank has met its targets for cost savings in absolute dollar terms, but those have not been enough to stay ahead of falling revenues. CFO Lake said the company would see its cost-cutting efforts pay off in 2016 and 2017 and she promised to give details on Feb. 24.

Big banks benefit from their size because different businesses can share some expenses, such as human resources. But being large can result in inefficiencies and higher capital requirements under U.S. rules.

Bank executives have said that JPMorgan has not generated the revenue growth they expected after low interest rates have cut into the profit they can earn on loans and other assets. The bank's return on tangible common equity, a measure of how much profit it can wring from shareholder funds, was 13 percent in 2014, short of the bank's target of around 15 percent.

Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon has lamented to colleagues that some of its recent spending on complying with new rules was inefficient as the bank had to hire outside firms to do the work quickly, said another person who is familiar with the matter. With time, the bank expects to find more efficient ways to maintain the new control systems.

An analyst on a conference call on Wednesday asked about breaking up JPMorgan, an idea mentioned in a recent report by Goldman Sachs analysts.

Dimon responded that having a wide array of businesses helps cushion the bank against difficulties in any particular sector.

"The model works from a business standpoint," he said.

Mayo said investors want to see the bank become more intensely focused on costs, especially because government regulators plan to require the bank to hold additional capital because of its complexity.

"If you are telling us to wait another two years, that seems too long," Mayo said.

(Reporting by David Henry; Editing by Dan Wilchins, Diane Craft and Lisa Shumaker)