Wall Street banks are enjoying their best run since the financial crisis. The US economy is humming. The Federal Reserve is permitting a $2bn flood of dividends and buybacks. Yet JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon remains paranoid. “It’s very tough competition, both in your base competition [and] fintech, big tech,” he explained at a recent industry conference.
JPMorgan is clearly trying to ward off complacency. The banking sector simultaneously faces intense regulation as well as increased competition from interlopers. But neither of those factors have yet to marginalise big banks. So far in 2021, JPMorgan has made more than 30 acquisitions. It bought UK wealth manager Nutmeg for £700m. Expect banks to keep making bets where they can.
For a decade, US banks were thought to be on their way to obsolescence. Yet while the likes of PayPal and Visa have market capitalisations that exceed $340bn, banks have proved resilient. So has their model of deposit-based funding, diversified business and millions of customer relationships. As for upstarts, they have learned the hard way about the thicket of regulation and the uphill climb in building brands and scale that can challenge titans.
JPMorgan’s $3tn in assets does prevent one kind of dealmaking: buying up smaller direct competitors that would create the most efficiency and economic gains. And while regional banks are increasingly allowed to consolidate, JPMorgan has looked to adjacent areas to simply add deposits and accounts.
Nearly all of these deals have been tiny for a company with a $460bn market cap. They are either hedges, opportunities for knowledge sharing or straight investments. They demonstrate why traditional banking has not managed to excite investors, even as the businesses thrive. Returns on equity have plummeted. Valuations, even in the best instances, are not far from book value. Bank bosses interested in other industries must feel a twinge of envy at the way in which unproven businesses are able to command towering valuations, in contrast to their own.
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