US banks keep trimming branches, cutting jobs

Tellers are marginalized by apps and ATMs; compliance is coveted – but more cuts could come first.

Most U.S. consumer banks are cutting jobs and trimming branches.

Bank of America and Citigroup reduced headcount the most, eliminating about 20,000 staffers between them, according to fourth-quarter earnings reports from each bank. The respective moves amount to 4.6 percent and 4 percent fewer workers at the banks. JPMorgan Chase reported in its earnings that it employs 6,700 fewer workers than a year ago.

The banks also reduced the number of branches.

JPMorgan has 3.4 percent fewer branches (5,413 branches and about 235,000 staff at the end of 2015); much of the bank's headcount reduction came from its consumer and community banking division and within investment banking.

Bank of America operates 129 fewer "financial centers," (2.65 percent) according to its earnings report; and Citigroup ran 4 percent fewer branches at the end of 2015 versus the previous year.

Often, a bank reducing headcount is a sign of layoffs and firings, but it may also be a reflection of attrition and the departure of seasonal labor.

Wells Fargo didn't trim headcount; the best-performing consumer bank stock since the global financial crisis instead bolstered its ranks slightly, adding about 200 employees, growing to 264,700 full-time staffers. The bank, which today operates about 8,700 branches, didn't specify whether it has added or shuttered brick-and-mortar locations in 2015.

Although more tellers have gotten pink slips in the last 12 months, compliance professionals are coveted even when banks are scaling back elsewhere.

Citigroup has increased its headcount in compliance and regulatory pros, according to a rep for the bank, and Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf said his bank is "spending a lot of money in compliance … also a lot of money on items and issues and things that create convenience for customers," like mobile apps.

While big consumer banks are scaling back headcount, in part thanks to their ability to perform more functions for customers online, investment banks are bolstering their ranks.

Despite reducing 25 percent of its headcount within its underperforming fixed income and commodities business, Morgan Stanley added jobs over the course of 2015. The bank hired more than 400 staffers, according to its earnings report, bringing headcount to 56,218. But going forward, it doesn't sound like the bank's focus will be on hiring.

"Now is the time to tackle head-on our infrastructure costs and maximize low-cost deployment of talent," CEO James Gorman said on the bank's conference call last week. "We have too many legal entities, too much duplication of operations and processes, and too many employees based in high-cost centers doing work that can sensibly be done in lower-cost centers."

The bank declined to comment on staffing for specific businesses.

Goldman Sachs added even more staff on a percentage basis than Morgan Stanley did.

Goldman took on about 2,800 additional staff in 2015, or an 8 percent hike from the headcount tally of 36,800 for the fourth quarter of 2014. CFO Harvey Schwartz said on the company's conference call that the bank increased staffing in compliance, technology and investment management divisions. Reports preceding Goldman's earnings said the bank, which is smaller by headcount than its Wall Street counterparts, would cut back on fixed income traders.

"Headcount is up 8 percent this year and compensation benefits were flat, so we've done a pretty good job at this stage," Schwartz said on the bank's conference call. "We will always look to be more efficient, but I think we chopped a lot of wood here."