Profit reports spur 2d-day rally of bank stocks

Posted: July 18, 2008

Bank stocks rallied yesterday for the second straight day on better-than-expected earnings from PNC and JPMorgan Chase.

But it is unclear whether the good news will assuage consumers spooked by the failure of IndyMac Bank and the federal rescue plan for mortgage financiers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"I am scared to death every, every day," said Kathleen Drake, 71, a resident of Northeast Philadelphia, who relies heavily on bank savings.

Yesterday's earnings reports showed that, even though all banks were taking hits from the weak national economy and housing market, some were holding up better than others.

One financial firm that took a big hit: Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., which reported its fourth straight quarterly loss (of $4.89 billion) and write-downs from failed investments near $40 billion.

But Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc., a banking company with major operations in the Philadelphia region that had steered clear of risky loans that have tripped up many competitors, said its second-quarter net income was $505 million, up from $423 million in the year-ago period.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s net income fell 53 percent, to $2 billion, but that was better than analysts expected. JPMorgan boosted its provision for losses on loans by $1.3 billion to $13.9 billion, but it still has a strong balance sheet.

PNC's shares shot up $7.85, or 13.5 percent, to $65.75. JPMorgan, the largest U.S. bank by market capitalization, gained $4.86, or 13.5 percent, to close at $40.80.

Wells Fargo & Co. spurred Wednesday's rally in bank stocks when the San Francisco financial giant, a major subprime-mortgage lender, boosted its dividend 10 percent. That bucked this year's trend of competitors, such as Wachovia Corp., that cut dividends to conserve cash.

Over the last two days, the Keefe Bruyette & Woods index of 24 large bank stocks soared 27 percent. But it had lost 44 percent from May 1 through Tuesday.

James E. Rohr, PNC's chairman and chief executive officer, said the bank's conservative lending and its avoidance of the risky and little-understood securities that drove Wall Street earnings during the housing boom were serving it well now.

"If you want to, you can just make loans and buy securities to pump up your balance sheet. You can look like a hero for six months, even for two years," Rohr said. "Life was great until it wasn't."

A Philadelphia banking expert said that, despite serious problems at California's IndyMac and some other banks, the industry overall was solid.

"I think IndyMac is a very unusual situation and not something we will see replicated again and again," said Alan S. Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll and a banking lawyer for nearly 40 years.

Kaplinsky said he did not know of another bank of IndyMac's size that was so concentrated in subprime lending. "That's not to say there won't be any more bank failures," he said. "I'd be surprised to see any in the Philadelphia area."

Drake, the Northeast Philadelphia resident, found the IndyMac takeover by federal regulators particularly unnerving because she had just bought a $15,000 annuity at her Wachovia Bank branch.

After hearing about the IndyMac takeover, she rushed back to Wachovia to try to get her money back. The banker assured her that her money was safe. But she remains on edge. "It's scary. It really is scary."

West Chester resident Al Witt, by contrast, said he felt comfortable with federal deposit insurance. "I sit there and watch the news," the 70-year-old said, "and can't see why people are all panicked."

Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or hbrubaker@phillynews.com.

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