I've long suspected that all the Wall Street press releases in the world are created from a set of very old templates, all of which were struck in 1983 by some bored financial PR person and are now dragged out of a musty supply closet every quarter and updated with the most recent numbers and the current CEO's name.
What else could explain the empty, meaningless quotes that fill bank's press releases every time they announce their earnings? "Streamlining" this and "Core growth" that. It sounds the same every quarter, whether a bank has made money or lost it — whether it's Champagne for everyone or layoffs and Chapter 11.
To prove how difficult it is to tell if a bank is happy or sad about its quarterly performance based on its CEO's canned quote, I've put together a little quiz, using this year's fourth-quarter earnings releases from the major banks. See if you can spot the losers.
1. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"We are ahead of our risk weighted asset reduction targets for Fixed Income and Commodities, while continuing to focus on our strengths within business and strategic linkages across the Firm and investing for the evolving regulatory environment ... Our Firm is now poised to reach the returns of which it is capable on behalf of our shareholders."
2. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"While economic conditions remained challenging for much of last year, the strengths of our business model and client franchise, coupled with our focus on disciplined management, delivered solid performance for our shareholders. The firm’s strategic position provides a solid basis on which to grow and generate superior returns.
3. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"We continue to have a very liquid balance sheet and a high-quality credit portfolio in our core businesses. It will take some time to work through the challenges of the current environment but realizing our core earnings potential, as well as improving our returns on assets and tangible equity, are critical goals going forward.
4. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"The Firm’s results reflected strong underlying performance across virtually all our businesses for the fourth quarter and the full year, with strong lending and deposit growth. We also maintained our leadership positions and continued to gain market share in key areas of our franchise.
5. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"We enter 2013 strong and well positioned for further growth. Double-digit growth since last year in mortgage production, commercial lending, and Global Markets revenue demonstrates the power of deeper customer and client relationships as we intensify the focus on connecting all our capabilities.
6. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"Our results demonstrate not only the diversity of our platform and the breadth of our global product offering, but how we have differentiated the firm and continued to evolve in anticipation of our clients’ needs.
7. Good Quarter or Bad Quarter?
"From growing revenue, making strategic acquisitions and achieving efficiency improvements, I am extremely pleased with our 2012 performance. We also returned more capital to our shareholders through common stock dividends and common stock repurchases. We are very well positioned for and look forward to 2013."
Answers: 1. Good (Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, 25 cents/share vs. a loss last year) 2. Good (Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, up to $2.83 billion vs. $978 million a year earlier) 3. Bad (Citigroup CEO Mike Corbat, 38 cents/share vs. analysts’ estimates of 96 cents/share) 4. Good (JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, up to $1.39/share vs. 90 cents/share last year) 5. Bad (Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, 63 percent drop in profit vs. last year) 6. Good (BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, $3.96/share vs. expected $3.73/share) 7. Good (Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf, profit up 24 percent from last year)