JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs Profit Surge is an Accounting Mirage, Not a Sustainable Sector Trend

By Jason Simpkins
Managing Editor
Money Morning

It takes more than two to make a trend.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (NYSE: JPM) yesterday (Thursday) became the second major U.S. investment bank – following Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) – to this week report windfall profits for the second-quarter. That’s helped fuel a four-day advance in U.S. stocks that’s seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average surge 7%.

Unfortunately, these two decidedly positive developments don’t necessarily indicate that better days have arrived for the U.S. banking sector.

To the contrary, many analysts – including Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald – say these profits are merely a mirage created by an obscure accounting rule that allows banks to transform “toxic debt” on their balance sheets into income.

JPMorgan, the second-largest U.S. bank, said that that second-quarter profits were $2.7 billion, a jump of 36% from a year ago and 27% from the previous quarter.

A $1.1 billion, one-time reduction that resulted from the decision to repay $25 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds was offset by strong gains at the firm’s investment banking division.

Profit at JPMorgan’s investment banking division more than tripled as a result of record investment-banking fees and the strong performance in the fixed-income market. The investment-banking operations generated $1.47 billion of profit, almost quadruple the amount earned in last year’s second quarter.

Investment-banking fees – which zoomed 29% from a year ago and 62% from the first quarter – totaled $2.2 billion, and were a "record for any investment bank in any quarter," according to JPMorgan Chief Financial Officer Michael J. Cavanagh.

JPMorgan’s earnings in the first half of 2009 grew 11% to $4.86 billion, or 68 cents a share, from $4.38 billion, or $1.20 a share, in the first six months of 2008. Revenue jumped 43%, reaching $50.6 billion, from $35.3 billion last year.

JPMorgan’s announcement follows an equally impressive earnings report by rival Goldman Sachs, the largest investment bank in the country. Goldman said Tuesday that its revenue in the three months ended June 26 was $13.8 billion, compared with $9.43 billion in the first quarter and $9.42 billion in the second quarter a year earlier. Net income rose to $3.44 billion, or $4.93 a share.

Still, despite these banks’ stellar results, analysts are hesitant to say that the U.S. financial sector has bottomed, meaning that a rebound is under way.

Fitz-Gerald said last month that large investment banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan would almost certainly generate record profits in the first half of the year as a result of less competition, favorable interest rates, and relaxed accounting standards.

Indeed, the Financial Accounting Standards Board has made it possible for the biggest U.S. banks to book profits on loans that have not been fully repaid.

“Called ‘accretable yield,’ these mega banks will book income on loans that have ‘reduced credit quality’ by recognizing the value of the bonds on their balance sheets and the cash flow those securities are expected to earn,” Fitz-Gerald said. “Please understand, we’re not talking about cash that’s already been earned, and not cash in the bank … we’re talking about cash flow those banks are expected to earn.”

In JPMorgan’s case, the firm took on $118.2 billion in toxic debt when it acquired Washington Mutual Inc. last year. As a receiver of that debt, JPMorgan was allowed to mark that debt down to “fair value,” or  $88.65 billion. But now, the bank says that those same debts may appreciate by some $29.1 billion over the life of the loans. And as those loans are paid back, that money is booked as profit.

Of course, this distorts banks’ earnings and camouflages the deterioration in other banking segments.

For instance, consumer-loan losses continued to rise, as did losses on businesses loans.  Retail banking earnings of $15 million were down sharply from earnings of  $474 million in the first quarter, and $503 million in the second quarter of 2008. The consumer lending division reported a net loss of $955 million, compared with a net loss of $171 million in the prior year and $389 million in the prior quarter.

Home equity charge-offs jumped 4.61% to $1.3 billion. The bank warned that prime mortgage losses may be $600 million “over the next several quarters,” and that subprime losses may be $500 million.

Credit cards lost $672 million, compared to income of $250 million in the second-quarter last year. The bank warned that losses in its Chase credit-card portfolio may be 10% next quarter and will be “highly dependent” on unemployment after that. The unemployment rate rose to 9.5% in June, its highest level in two decades.

The managed charge-off rate, which generally tracks unemployment, climbed to 10.03% from 7.72% in the first quarter and 4.98% in the year-earlier period.

For JPMorgan Chase, the challenge going forward is going to continue to be deterioration of credit,” Gerard Cassidy, a banking analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said in a Bloomberg Radio interview.

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