By Stephen Culp

By Stephen Culp

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors will focus on falling profits, a more dovish Federal Reserve and lower interest rates as major U.S. banks kick off what analysts expect to be the first quarter of contracting corporate earnings since 2016.

On Friday, April 12, JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wells Fargo & Co will post results to begin the earnings season in earnest. Citigroup Inc and Goldman Sachs Group Inc will report the following Monday, followed by Bank of America Corp and Morgan Stanley on Tuesday.

In the wake of the Federal Reserve's cautious shift due to signs of softness in the U.S. economy and the subsequent drop in 10-year Treasury yields, S&P 500 banks are seen posting year-on-year first-quarter earnings growth of 2.3%, down from 8.2% forecast six months ago, according to Refinitiv data.

 

(For an interactive graphic on evolving bank earnings estimates click, https://tmsnrt.rs/2HOVt1D)

"The Fed pivoted so abruptly, which gives one pause about what they're saying about the economy," said Chuck Carlson, chief executive officer at Horizon Investment Services in Hammond, Indiana. "Flat to falling interest rates are not good news for bank interest margins. It's not surprising that analysts are taking down earnings estimates."

The central bank's change in tack put the brakes on what had been a pattern of quarterly rate hikes, amid signs of slowing economic growth.

Slowdown jitters have also hit 10-year Treasury yields. The benchmark bond's yield hit a 15-month low in the first quarter, flattening the yield curve and narrowing the gap between the interest banks pay depositors and the interest they charge consumers, which is bad news for profits.

"That's why the estimates are going down," Carlson added. "(Analysts are) fearful of interest margins for banks and there's an underlying concern about loan growth."

In the first three months of the year, the S&P 500 bounced back from a sell-off in December, gaining 13.1%, its biggest quarterly increase since 2009. But financials underperformed the wider market, gaining 7.9% in the quarter as the new low-interest-rate normal that boosted other sectors was a headwind for banks.

Since October, analysts have drastically lowered their expectations for S&P 500 earnings in 2019, with first-quarter estimates dropping from 8.1% growth to a year-over-year decline of 2.2%. That would mark the first quarter of negative growth since the earnings "recession" that ended in 2016.

The partial federal government shutdown in January and an expected drop in trading revenues provided additional impetus for analysts to cut first-quarter bank earnings estimates.

In a KBW note dated April 3, lead analyst Brian Kleinhanzl sees median year-on-year revenues from both equities and fixed income, currencies and commodities (FICC) trading to have dropped by 15% in the quarter.

"Within financials, the industry that's been hit hardest is capital markets," said Tajinder Dhillon, senior research analyst at Refinitiv on London. "Those downward revisions have intensified over the last 90 days. Of the big 6 banks, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan have seen the biggest declines" in first-quarter earnings estimates.

But some analysts believe the effects on banks of a more accommodative Fed and the flattened yield curve are overstated.

Oppenheimer lead analyst Chris Kotowski wrote in a March 25 note "to be sure, rates and the yield curve have had an effect on bank earnings." But he called the impact from the Fed's decision "a minor one," and wrote that aside from these impacts, "bank fundamentals are remarkably stable."

Recent history shows that large U.S. financial institutions have beat analyst estimates at a higher rate than the broader market. In the eight most recent quarters, the six banks have beat earnings estimates 83.3% of the time on average, compared with the S&P 500's 75.4% average beat rate. Additionally, bank revenues surprised to the upside 79.2% of the time, while S&P 500 company revenues came in ahead of analyst estimates 68.3% of the time, per Refinitiv data.

(For a graphic on 'U.S. banks beat/miss track record' click, https://tmsnrt.rs/2Vmv2DP)

In today's late-cycle reality, however, it is not clear that banks can beat even lowered expectations. Either way they should set the tone for what analysts predict will be a rocky earnings period.

"Psychologically, these are bellwether companies that tend to drive sentiment," Dhillon added, suggesting that their quarterly reports are proxy indicators of corporate earnings health. "Banks are up there."

(Reporting by Stephen Culp; Editing by Alden Bentley and Dan Grebler)

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