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What bank earnings tell us about how consumers are doing with high inflation, recession worries — ‘It’s not a crack in current numbers’

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For all the worries about inflation’s pinch and the chance of a recession, just-released earnings reports from big banks indicate the wallets of many regular Americans are generally holding up as they cope with higher prices — for now.

Stock markets finished Thursday on a rosy note, after starting with a plunge and bouncing with a surge following September inflation data that came in hotter than expected.

A day later, comments on third quarter earning calls from leaders at JP Morgan Chase & Co.
JPM,
+2.17%
,
Wells Fargo
WFC,
+2.83%

and Citibank
C,
+0.73%

suggested consumers still had their own bounce despite the pressure. The upbeat words, however, were cut with a dose of caution.

It’s a reminder that gauging a person’s financial health is a tricky mix of mood and also dollars and cents. Also Friday, consumer mood stayed somber but brightened slightly in the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment measure and data showed retail sales were flat in September.

After JP Morgan third quarter earnings and revenue beat estimates, one analyst on the call asked if there were any “cracks” emerging, including for people in the retail banking business.

There is high inflation, increasing interest rates, higher mortgage rates, questions surrounding fuel prices and more, CEO Jamie Dimon said.

“It’s not a crack in current numbers. It’s quite predictable it will strain future numbers,” said the banker, who’s been vocal about his potential recession concerns. For now though, “balance sheets are very good for consumers,” he noted at one point.

At Wells Fargo, CEO Charlie Scharf noted average deposit balances have decreased from the second quarter to the third quarter, but they are still above pre-pandemic levels. There is a segment of customers who are watching their balances “steadily decline” and their balances are now below the pre-pandemic levels, he said.

“It’s important to note that this remains a small percentage of our total customer base,” he said. “Overall, our consumer deposit customer health indicators, including cash flow, payroll and overdraft trends are still not showing elevated risk concerns,” he said.

Wells Fargo had stronger-than-expected third quarter revenue to counter the miss on analysts’ profit estimates.

Challenges lie ahead for the United Kingdom and Europe, said Citi CEO Jane Fraser, speaking hours after U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss dismissed her chancellor of the exchequer.

“The U.S. economy, however, remains relatively resilient. So while we are seeing signs of economic slowing, consumers and corporates remain healthy,” Fraser noted.

“Supply chain constraints are easing, the labor market remains strong, so it is all a question of what it takes to truly tame consistently high core inflation,” she added. Citi earnings beat profit targets.

To be sure, the numbers and takeaways that show up on a big bank’s earnings call are just one glimpse at how people are doing financially. Indeed, inflation rates at a four-decade high have become a key political issue in the midterm elections that are less than a month away.

It’s also worth noting there are whole swaths of people who either have no bank account or use a bank’s services very little. Most Americans are “fully banked,” meaning that they have a bank account and don’t use alternative financial services such as payday loans, according to the Federal Reserve analysis. But an estimated 13% are “under banked” and another 5% are unbanked. Without traditional banking access, these consumers — who tend to have lower incomes and be Black and Hispanic — use services like check cashing services and payday lenders, the Fed data showed.

Black, Hispanic and Native American families have been especially struggling with inflation’s toll, research and polls show.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average
DJIA,
-1.18%
,
the S&P 500
SPX,
-2.08%

and the Nasdaq Composite
COMP,
-2.62%

were down Friday after Thursday’s wild ride. Shares of JP Morgan, Well Fargo and Citi were up Friday.

Wells Fargo shares were off approximately 9% year to date while JPMorgan and Citigroup shares were down approximately 30% and 28% respectively in that same time.

The Dow was down roughly 18% while the S&P 500 was off more than 24% since the start of the year.

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