Time for big banks to show the money

Third-quarter financial reports from the likes of Citi and BofA will show an industry still struggling with big losses.

By Colin Barr, senior writer

Friday could be Ken Lewis' last earnings report as Bank of America's CEO.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- A year after the government applied a tourniquet to the banking industry, the bleeding has slowed -- but it hasn't stopped.

The six biggest U.S. banks will tell investors in coming weeks how they did in the third quarter. Analysts expect four of the six to post profits, and the best-run banks -- Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) -- are likely to more than double last year's bottom line.

But Wall Street expects profits at both Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) and Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500) to fall from a year ago. And the biggest beneficiaries of Washington's too-big-to-fail mindset, Citi (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), may lose money.

Bank analysts say a severe economic downturn preceded by a long credit boom means stubbornly high losses on home loans, credit cards and commercial properties will be working their way through the system for a while -- which translates to uneven profit reports at big banks and, in some cases, failures at smaller ones.

"We're through the worst of the storm, but we're not out of the other side of it," said William Schwartz, senior vice president for the U.S. financial institutions group at ratings agency DBRS.

The big banks have been sheltered over the past year by lavish government assistance, ranging from Treasury loans to expanded deposit insurance to federally backed loan guarantees. Some of those props are due to start falling. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s loan guarantee program, for instance, is due to expire Oct. 31.

In the meantime, bank stocks have rallied off their winter lows -- driven in large part by gains that were concentrated in nonbanking businesses such as fixed-income trading and investment banking.

The major bank stocks all posted massive gains in the third quarter, led by a 57% jump at Citi, whose shares continue to fetch less than $5 each, and 30%-plus rises at BofA, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

"The big firms have more revenue streams, so they're probably a little better off right now than the regionals," said Schwartz.

JPMorgan Chase, which has emerged as a rare beneficiary of the financial crisis via its low-cost, government-assisted acquisitions of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual, is due to post third-quarter numbers Wednesday morning. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial expect its earnings to rise to 49 cents a share from 11 cents a year ago, as solid performances in fee-based businesses such as mortgage and investment banking offset rising costs in its big credit card book.

Thursday morning will bring reports from another big winner over the past year, Goldman Sachs, and from Citigroup, which continues to struggle under the weight of big loan losses. Analysts expect Goldman to make $4.24 a share for the third quarter, up from $1.81 a year ago. Citi, meanwhile, is expected to lose 21 cents a share, compared with a 60-cent loss last year.

"Citi's earnings remain under significant pressure near term along with the industry," analysts at JPMorgan wrote in a note to clients last week.

Closing out the week will be Bank of America, which is due to post third-quarter numbers Friday morning. Analysts expect the bank to lose 6 cents a share for the quarter, reversing the year-ago profit of 15 cents.

The numbers will come less than a month after the bank's longtime CEO, Ken Lewis, quit under pressure from shareholders, as well as legislators who question his handling of BofA's takeover of Merrill Lynch.

Two other banks dealing with management changes -- the investment firm Morgan Stanley, whose CEO John Mack announced plans last month to retire, and West Coast lender Wells Fargo, whose Chairman Dick Kovacevich will step aside Jan. 1 -- are expected to post results next week. Both firms are expected to make less money than they did in last year's third quarter.  To top of page

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