Bank profits remain resilient despite lingering pandemic

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FILE - This Sept. 13, 2014, file photo, shows the Chase bank logo in New York. JPMorgan Chase says profits improved marginally in the third quarter, a notable change after the nations largest bank had to set aside billions in the last two quarters to cover losses from the coronavirus pandemic. The New York-based bank said it earned a profit of $9.44 billion, or $2.92 a share, in the July to September period. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Unemployment remains high, many small businesses are struggling, and there are few signs that Congress and the White House can soon agree on another stimulus package to help the U.S. economy in the pandemic. But Wall Street banks are on the rebound after slumping the first six months of the year.

JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo and Bank of America saw their profits partly recover in the third quarter from the depths of the coronavirus-caused recession earlier this year. The turnaround stems mostly from improvements in the U.S. economy that allowed these big banks to set aside less money to cover potentially bad loans — $5 billion in the third quarter versus $33 billion in the second quarter.

“It’s the same story at every bank in the industry right now: lower credit costs are helping restore profitability,” said Kyle Sanders, an analyst who covers the financial services industry for Edward Jones.

The health of the banking sector is a proxy for the U.S. economy, since the banks' fortunes largely rise or fall depending on whether borrowers are repaying their debts. Trillions of dollars of stimulus and reopening economies have helped partly lift the U.S. economy out of its historic contraction, which in turn has kept banks from having to write down or write off loans.

In the early months of the U.S. pandemic, banks set aside tens of billions of dollars to cover losses that could come from loans that were suddenly going bad. Millions of Americans and store owners, who were reliable borrowers before the pandemic, now found themselves out of work or their businesses temporarily shuttered.

The banks have benefitted from massive government stimulus to keep the U.S. economy afloat. The banks received fees for implementing the government's Paycheck Protection Program, a $669 billion program that gave forgivable loans to small businesses to keep them paying their employees. Individual Americans got $1,200 stimulus checks, which researchers have found were used to either pay off debts or shore up savings.

Further, Congress and financial regulators have allowed banks to offer payment forbearance to mortgage borrowers for up to a year without having to mark those loans as bad on their balance sheets.

On top of the stimulus, banks entered into this pandemic the healthiest they’ve been in years and certainly healthier than they were before the financial crisis of 2008. Capital levels were at historic highs, allowing banks to buy back stock and increase dividends as soon as they could to return excess capital to shareholders.