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The BAN Report 4/29/21

The BAN Report: Re-Opening Update / Big Four Bank Earnings / Housing Shortage / $12.3 Trillion Matters / Worst Boss Ever-4/29/21

Re-Opening Update

While US GDP grew by 6.4% in the first quarter, the full re-opening of the US economy picks up steam. New York City announced a full re-opening by July 1.

New York City is aiming for a full reopening on July 1, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday, suggesting a total removal of COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place for well more than a year by early summer.

“Our plan is to fully reopen New York City on July 1. We are ready for stores to open, for businesses to open, offices, theaters, full strength,” the mayor said on MSNBC.

De Blasio is expected to elaborate further on the plan later in the day. It’s not clear if additional COVID requirements — like proof of vaccinations — would apply to his plan to bring restaurants, gyms, shops, hair salons and arenas back at full capacity.

The mayor has also said indoor masking will remain the norm for some time — a statement he reiterated Thursday as it relates to the full reopening.

“I want people to be smart about, you know, basic – the rules we’ve learned, you know, use the masks indoors when it makes sense, wash your hands, all the basics,” de Blasio said. “But what we can say with assurance now is we’re giving COVID no room to run anymore in New York City. We now have the confidence that we can pull all these pieces together and get life back really in many ways to where it was, where people can enjoy an amazing summer.”

New York State also announced that all indoor and outdoor curfews for bars and restaurants will be lifted by the end of the month. Las Vegas saw its best March since February 2013.

Las Vegas is bouncing back to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels, with new economic reports showing increases in airport passengers and tourism, and a big jump in a key index showing that casinos statewide took in $1 billion in winnings last month for the first time since February 2020.

“I don’t believe anyone imagined this level of gaming win,” Michael Lawton, senior Nevada Gaming Control Board analyst, said of a Tuesday report showing 452 full-scale casinos in the state reported house winnings at the highest total since February 2013.

The cruise lines have gotten approval from the CDC to start sailings by mid-July.

Cruise operators could restart sailings out of the U.S. by mid-July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, paving the way to resume operations that have been suspended for longer than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The CDC, in a letter to cruise-industry leaders Wednesday evening, also said cruise ships can proceed to passenger sailings without test cruises if they attest that 98% of crew members and 95% of passengers are fully vaccinated. The move was a result of twice-weekly meetings with cruise representatives over the past month, the agency said.

The CDC also relaxed its rules for fully vaccinated Americans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a major step on Tuesday toward coaxing Americans into a post-pandemic world, relaxing the rules on mask wearing outdoors as coronavirus cases recede and people increasingly chafe against restrictions.

The mask guidance is modest and carefully written: Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus no longer need to wear a mask outdoors while walking, running, hiking or biking alone, or when in small gatherings, including with members of their own households. Masks are still necessary in crowded outdoor venues like sports stadiums, the C.D.C. said.

The CDC ruling opens the door up for outdoor concerts and sporting events this summer. In Massachusetts, for example, new rules announced by the Governor will allow large venues at 100% by August 1, thus allowing the Boston Marathon, full capacity at Fenway, and full crowds at Gillette Stadium. By the second half of this summer, Americans can enjoy a world that looks more like 2019 than 2020.

Big Four Bank Earnings

Banks reported robust earnings this month, buoyed by strong trading and releases of loan loss reserves.

Bank of America

Bank of America beat expectations for the first quarter.

The bank posted a first-quarter profit of $8.1 billion, or 86 cents a share, exceeding the 66 cents a share expected by analysts surveyed by Refinitiv. The company produced $22.9 billion in revenue, edging out the $22.1 billion estimate.

“While low interest rates continued to challenge revenue, credit costs improved and we believe that progress in the health crisis and the economy point to an accelerating recovery,” CEO Brian Moynihan said in the release.

Like other banking rivals, Bank of America saw a large benefit from the improving U.S. economic outlook in recent months: It released $2.7 billion in reserves for loan losses in the quarter. Last year, the firm set aside $11.3 billion for credit losses, when the industry believed that a wave of defaults tied to the coronavirus pandemic was coming.

Instead, government stimulus programs appear to have prevented most of the feared losses, and banks have begun to release more of their reserves this quarter.

Expenses were higher than expected and loan growth was not great, but overall a good quarter.

JP Morgan Chase

JP Morgan Chase had a great quarter, exceeding expectations on earnings even without the $5.2 billion release from loan loss reserves.

The bank posted first-quarter profit of $14.3 billion, or $4.50 a share including a $1.28 per share benefit from the reserve release, higher than the $3.10 per share expected by analysts surveyed by Refinitiv. Excluding the impact of a $550 million charitable contribution, which lowered earnings by 9 cents, the bank earned an adjusted figure of $4.59, exceeding the $3.10 estimate.

Companywide revenue of $33.12 billion exceeded the $30.52 billion estimate, driven by the firm’s trading operations, which produced about $1.8 billion more revenue than expected.

JPMorgan’s release of $5.2 billion in reserves is the biggest sign yet that the U.S. banking industry is now expecting to have fewer loan losses than it did last year, when it set aside tens of billions for defaults anticipated from the coronavirus pandemic. A year ago, the firm had added $6.8 billion to credit reserves.

“Overall, this was a great quarter for JPMorgan,” said Octavio Marenzi, CEO of consultancy Opimas. “It is now increasingly clear that the bank over-reserved, and that money is now flowing back into its earnings, concealing some of the weakness in consumer banking.”

Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo also had a strong quarter, beating estimates on earnings and revenue.

Wells Fargo results were helped by a net benefit of $1.05 billion from reserve releases. Banks bulked up their credit loss reserves last year as the pandemic pulled the U.S. economy into a sharp recession, but the financial firms have started to release those reserves as the recovery takes shape.

“Our results for the quarter, which included a $1.6 billion pre-tax reduction in the allowance for credit losses, reflected an improving U.S. economy, continued focus on our strategic priorities, and ongoing support for our customers and our communities,” CEO Charlie Scharf said in the earnings release. “Charge-offs are at historic lows and we are making changes to improve our operations and efficiency, but low interest rates and tepid loan demand continued to be a headwind for us in the quarter.”

The bank expects to see its commercial and middle market loan portfolio to grow later in the year as the economic recovery gains steam, chief financial officer Michael Santomassimo said on the earnings call.

“The demand across most commercial client segments has been pretty weak, and it seems to have stabilized over the last couple of months … we do really expect to see that commercial banking demand start to pick up as the economy picks up,” Santomassimo said.

Commercial loan pipelines take time, so it will be another quarter before any uptick in commercial lending is seen by banks.

Citigroup

Citigroup completed the strong quarters for the major banks, beating on both earnings and revenue.

Citigroup on Thursday posted results that beat analysts’ estimates for first-quarter profit with strong investment banking revenue and a bigger-than-expected release of loan-loss reserves.

The firm also said it was shuttering retail banking operations in 13 countries across Asia and parts of Europe to focus more on wealth management outside the U.S., one of the first big strategic moves made by CEO Jane Fraser, who took over in February.

The bank reported profit of $7.94 billion, or $3.62 a share, exceeding the $2.60 estimate of analysts surveyed by Refinitiv. Revenue of $19.3 billion topped the $18.8 billion estimate.

Citigroup said it had released $3.9 billion in loan-loss reserves in the quarter, which resulted in a $2.06 billion gain after $1.75 billion in credit losses in the period. Analysts had expected a $393.4 million provision in the quarter.

The bank posted record revenue from investment banking and equities trading, similar to rival banks that have reported earlier.

The retrenching of retail banks outside of the US is a big move for Citi, which always strived to be the most international of the large banks.    Shrinking bank branches is not limited to the United States.

Overall, the banks reported strong earnings this quarter, although a good portion of the beats was due to reserve releases. The test for banks will be to show meaningful loan growth this year, which will be especially challenging for banks that were most active in PPP as the run-off in PPP will be a tough headwind.

Housing Shortage

Housing prices are surging due primarily to a shortage of housing, thus giving millennials their second housing crisis in twelve years.

A recent bank note from Jefferies said the US was short 2.5 million homes, while Freddie Mac put that estimate higher at a shortage of 3.8 million. There are 40% fewer homes on the market than last year, a Black Knight report found. 

It’s bad news for many aspiring homebuyers — but especially for millennials. It’s just the latest chapter in a long line of bad economic luck.

Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist at Redfin, told Insider it was unfortunate the generation that suffered from the last housing crisis — entering the job force in the middle of a recession — was now facing a different kind of housing crisis.

“Now that they have economically recovered and are looking to buy a home for the first time, we’re faced with this housing shortage,” she said. “They’re already boxed out of the housing market.”

The shortage is a result of several things: contractors underbuilding over the past dozen years, a lumber shortage, and the pandemic. It comes at a time when millennials have reached the peak age for first-time homeownership, according to CoreLogic, and led the housing recovery. But such increased millennial demand has exacerbated the shrinking housing inventory.

“We’ve been underbuilding for years,” Gay Cororaton, the director of housing and commercial research for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), told Insider. She said the US had been about 6.5 million homes short since 2000 and was facing a two-month supply of homes that should look more like a six-month supply.

There have been 20 times fewer homes built in the past decade than in any decade as far back as the 1960s, according to Fairweather. She added that was not enough homes for millennials, who are the biggest generation, to buy.

Another unmentioned cause is the moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions, which are effectively removing distressed inventory from the market. Fundamentally though, the roots of this problem go back to the Great Recession, as we essentially shifted from over-subsidizing home ownership to over-subsidizing rental buildings. Several years ago, I proposed a hypothetical project to a Houston bank.   Two, identical high-rise buildings adjacent to each other in downtown Houston. One was a high-end apartment building. The other was a condo building. The CCO said “we don’t do condos.” I responded, “You proved my point!”

$12.3 Trillion Matters

$12.3 trillion has effectively put the credit default cycle on hold for now.

First, cheap borrowing costs help companies stay alive longer and more easily. That’s a big part of the reason Fitch Ratings just dropped its expected U.S. junk-bond default rate for 2021 to 2%, the lowest since 2017, and doesn’t see it rising much more from that in 2022. About $90 billion of distressed debt was trading as of April 16, down from almost $1 trillion in March 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Second, government officials have flooded the global economy with cash at an unprecedented pace. Monetary and fiscal stimulus for just the U.S. could have amounted to $12.3 trillion from February 2020 through March 2021, according to Cornerstone Macro Research data posted on the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Shot.

That’s a lot of money, leaving a lot of cash sitting in savings accounts and looking for assets to buy. Perhaps some investors feel it’s better to invest it with a company that actually makes something or provides real services than, say, a cryptocurrency started as a joke. 

The more important question perhaps isn’t whether this is a bubble that will pop soon but rather what are the consequences of this era of free-flowing cash. It prevents the dissolution of businesses that perhaps shouldn’t exist, creating so-called zombie companies. And it leaves corporations leveraged to old economies, paying back debt incurred in a past era when they perhaps would rather invest in new technologies amid a quickly changing world.

This debt buildup makes central bankers’ jobs both more difficult and easier in the years to come. It makes it harder because any withdrawal of stimulus, or raising of rates, would be exponentially more painful given the amount of corporate leverage. But it also makes it less likely that conditions will require Federal Reserve officials to raise rates all that much going forward. More debt will pressure longer-term growth and inflation. It reduces economic dynamism. 

We are essentially skipping the clean-up phase during a down-cycle. A normal recession leads to the liquidation and closure of businesses, thus opening up opportunities for the healthy ones to benefit from their better business models and healthier balance sheets. It also is going to make higher rates even more painful, so we may have just delayed the inevitable in some cases.

Worst Boss Ever

An investigation of producer Scott Rudin by the New York Times showed what a brutal boss he was to his employees. Scott is one of only 16 people who have won an EGOT, which is winning at least one Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.

Former employees said he threw things at walls, at windows, at the ground, and, occasionally, toward subordinates.

In 2018 he sent a glass bowl airborne, shattering it against a conference room wall, according to several people who were there; another time he smashed a computer on an employee’s hand, several ex-employees said. A former assistant, Jonathan Bogush, said he saw Mr. Rudin hurl a plateful of chicken salad into another assistant’s face when he worked there in 2003.

Sometimes frightened assistants hid in the kitchen or a closet to escape his wrath.

Some assistants kept spare phones to replace those that got destroyed when thrown by Mr. Rudin. There were also extra laptops — to replace those he broke — and his contact list was backed up to a master computer nicknamed the Dragon.

His behavior prompted outrage after it was described earlier this month in The Hollywood Reporter. It had also been described, to less effect, in multiple other accounts over the years.

Mr. Rudin offered both an apology and a bit of pushback to the stories being told about him as a boss. “While I believe some of the stories that have been made public recently are not accurate, I am aware of how inappropriate certain of my behaviors have been and the effects of those behaviors on other people,” he said. “I am not proud of these actions.”

“He’s had a bad temper,” said the billionaire David Geffen, who alongside his fellow mogul Barry Diller has been co-producing Mr. Rudin’s recent Broadway shows, “and he clearly needs to do anger management or something like that.”

Somehow this behavior went on for years, and no other executive, colleague, financier mandated anger-management training? Fortunately, Mr. Rudin is finally getting his long overdue comeuppance.

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