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As revenues dip, banks cut jobs, impose fees

By Eric Dash
New York Times / August 29, 2011

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NEW YORK - Battered by a weak economy, the nation’s biggest banks are cutting jobs, consolidating businesses, and scrambling for new sources of income in anticipation of a fundamentally altered financial landscape requiring leaner operations.

Bank executives and analysts had expected a temporary drop in profits in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. But a deeper jolt did not materialize as trillions of dollars in federal aid helped prop up the banks and revive the industry.

Now, however, as government lifelines fade and a second recession seems increasingly possible, banks are finding growth constrained. They are bracing for a slowdown in lending and trading, with higher fees for consumers as well as lower investment returns amid tighter regulations. Profits and revenues are slipping to the levels of 2004 and 2005, before the housing bubble.

A new wave of layoffs is emblematic of this shift as nearly every major bank undertakes a cost-cutting initiative, some with names like Project Compass. UBS has announced 3,500 layoffs, 5 percent of its staff, and Citigroup is quietly cutting dozens of traders. Bank of America could cut as many as 10,000 jobs, or 3.5 percent of its work force. ABN Amro, Barclays, Bank of New York Mellon, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Lloyds, State Street, and Wells Fargo have in recent months all announced plans to cut jobs - tens of thousands all told.

Even as they cut payrolls, banks are exploring ways to generate revenue that could translate to higher costs for consumers. Among the possibilities are new fees for automatic deductions from checking accounts that pay utility and cable bills, according to people involved in the discussions.

SunTrust Banks, a major lender in the Southeast, is already charging a $5 monthly fee to its “everyday checking’’ customers who use a debit card for purchases or recurring charges. And this fall, Wells Fargo plans to test a $3 monthly usage fee for new debit card customers in five states, on top of its normal service charges, which are $5 to $30 a month.

Previously, other big lenders - including Bank of America, Chase, and PNC Financial - canceled rewards programs and altered checking account service charges to blunt the effect of rules curbing overdraft and debit card swipe fees.

Banks have been through plenty of boom and bust cycles before. But executives and analysts say this time is different.

Lending, the prime driver of revenue, has been depressed for several years and is not expected to pick up anytime soon, even with historically low interest rates favorable to borrowers. Consumers are spurning debt after a 20-year binge, while businesses are so uncertain about the economy that they are hunkering down, rather than financing expansion plans.

Making matters worse, the Federal Reserve’s pledge to keep rates near zero into 2013 is eating into profit margins earned on mortgages and other loans, as well as depressing investment yields that usually offset fallow periods for lending.

All of this looms over the industry. To be sure, profits have rebounded from the depths of the financial crisis. All told, the nation’s banks earned $28.8 billion in the second quarter, nearly 38 percent more than a year ago and about what they earned in 2004, according to Trepp, a financial research firm. But more than one-third of those profits came as banks shifted funds to their bottom line that had been set aside to cover losses.

That helped obscure a 4.4-percent drop in revenue, which fell to $188 billion, the industry’s level in 2005. Trepp analysts project it could fall an additional 4 percent to 5 percent over the next year.

In response, bankers are turning to the one area that is easiest to control - costs. They have begun programs aimed at cutting operating expenses, which have risen almost 13 percent since 2008.

Many involve moving middle- and back-office workers to cheaper locations, redeploying them to understaffed businesses like mortgage servicing, or finding ways for computers to replace personnel.