Bank Profits High, Bewilderment Higher

Economics is one of those things I really have a hard time wrapping my brain around. I have a much easier time understanding complex neurolinguistics theory or mind-numbing philosophical treatise than I do finance and the money market. But I don't feel bad about that, 'cause when I really listen to economists and analysts and I look at events and markets around the world, it's clear to me that no one else, not even those who make it their field of study, seem to really know what's going on. Case in point, here was an expert opinion on our bank's expected 2009 fiscal-year-end (which ended Oct. 31): "It is less clear if the overall profit will outshine that of the fourth quarter of 2008. Some say earnings will be a bit better than a year ago; others think they may be a bit worse" (Canadian banks to cap 2009 with decent quarter, The Globe and Mail).

So the numbers are coming in, and what are we to make about everything being "down", that we're in the middle of a recession complete with cut-backs, lay-offs, and fee hikes, while Canadian banks are closing their fiscal year with "better than expected" lofty profits?

Our banks are receiving international praise for what turned out to be prudent management that helped them to weather the recent global financial crisis better than all their international peers, especially those south of the border, which makes a strong argument for better banking regulations in the United States, but I digress...

So times are tough and money is hard to come by... which basically translates to household incomes being hit hard. Funny that our banks are quick to point out that their retail and branch operations—those operations that handle our household incomes—is what lost them loads of money, and that it was in fact their financial markets sectors which allowed them such gains... It’s as if banks want Canadians to feel guilty so that their profits aren’t questioned. And nonetheless:

- CIBC's net profit for the fourth-quarter rose to $644 million from $436 million a year earlier. A difference of $208 million.

- TD said its investment banking division had a record quarter earning $372 million compared with a loss of $228 million in 2008.

- National Bank, the sixth-biggest lender, said fourth-quarter profit came in at $241 million, from $70 million last year.

- BMO, RBC, and Bank of Nova Scotia haven't yet released their numbers (today for RBC; next week for Scotiabank) but they are expected to show strong profits that far exceed Street estimates.

And yet our Canadian debt is expected to jump to $630B by 2014 and the average household debt level keeps rising and rising... Poverty levels increase each year as does famine and homelessness... as does the number of homes repossessed by banks.

How much is enough for banks? How can they possibly justify those kinds of profits and then rag about bad loans??? And when our economy is going well and they’re making money on all fronts? What kind of profits then? And how much did they already stow away in over-seas and tax-free foreign accounts?

And still, our fees keep increasing and our returns dwindling. Seems like the wisest thing to do with one’s money is to put it in bank shares, not bank accounts, providing that one has any money left to invest...

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© 2009, Pascal-Denis Lussier
Photo credits: "Canadiana 3" by PDL

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