There's No Crying In Investment Banking (BAC)

By Dean Lundell | October 22, 2007 AAA

Kenneth Lewis, the chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) wants to pick up his bat and his ball and go home.

"I never say never, but I've had all the fun I can stand in investment banking at the moment," Lewis said in a conference call discussing the bank's dismal Q3 results and specifically its investment banking woes. The bank's recent quarterly earnings were off by 32% from the same period a year ago, and Lewis directed the bulk of the blame at the company's investment banking business, which saw its earnings drop by $1.33 billion or 93% versus the third quarter last year.

The above statement is almost unbelievable coming from the CEO of the nation's second largest bank. I think the movie "A League Of Their Own" and Tom Hanks' character Jimmy Dugan can give us a little insight into what you should do when things get rough:

"Are you crying? Are you crying?" Dugan bellows. "There's no crying! There's no crying in baseball!"

Disappointing Season
Included in the $1.33 billion drop in earnings was a $247 million write-down on leveraged loans and $607 in trading losses. During the call, Lewis conceded that one-third of the company's trading losses were due to a difficult market environment; the other two-thirds were "mistakes in judgment". Welcome to the real world of trading.

CNN Money reported on October 18 that Lewis was "disappointed" the bank's net income fell substantially to $3.7 billion (82 cents per share) from the $5.42 billion ($1.18 per share) it had posted just one year prior. Analysts polled by Thompson Financial were, on average, expecting EPS more along the lines of $1.06 per share.

Bank of America's revenue was also less than expected at $16.3 billion, down 12% from the prior year's third quarter revenue of $18.49 billion. The bank failed to meet expectations here too, as analysts polled by Thomson had expected to see revenue around $18.3 billion for the quarter.

Piling On
Bank of America's Small Business and Consumer Banking operations also saw a decline in profits; however, the bank did stabilize its credit card losses, and it actually saw a small increase in the number of new checking accounts it opened. Try to contain your enthusiasm on those points.

The bank has also set aside an additional $865 million for credit losses reflecting the continuing weak housing market. The bank's non-performing assets (those loans that actually have gone bad) rose to $3.37 billion from $2.39 in the previous quarter - that's just three months ago.

The only real bright spot is the bank's Wealth Management unit. It reported a revenue increase of 24% to $2.2 billion and saw net income expand by 17% to $559. Unknown at this point how much came from Bank of America's acquisition of U.S. Trust, which it completed in July, and how much was organic. The bank's net interest margin did expand by two basis points which was very good news. (To learn more, see Analyzing A Bank's Financial Statements.)

Reality Check
Banking, be it commercial or investment, is a risk business. Banks get paid to evaluate and take risk. But there is a difference in mindset between the commercial banker and the investment banker. In his conference call with analysts, Lewis said, "The probability of changes and eliminations of some businesses and infrastructure ... is very high." Chasing a business only when times are good shows a genuine lack of commitment. Corporate investment banking clients have long memories and little patience for amateurs.

The way I see it, although Bank of America has made a determined effort to build its investment banking business in recent years, it is nowhere near the size and clout of those it intends to compete with. Let's jump back to Hollywood and "The Empire Strikes Back" for more words of wisdom - as Master Yoda says, "Do, or do not. There is no try."

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