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Troubled Wells Fargo will look to reassure investors with earnings

Wells Fargo will close out one the most difficult years in its 165-year history by trying to convince investors that the future remains bright.

The second-largest U.S. bank by assets operated under a dark cloud during 2016. Revelations during the year that Wells Fargo employees had created false accounts for some 2 million customers as part of a practice known as cross-selling created scandalous headlines and shook investor confidence.

In total, the controversy cost the bank a $185 million fine that was a pittance for an institution with $1.7 trillion in assets. But the fallout exacted a much larger reputational price.

"The bank has been subjected to severe political and public outrage and has faced several lawsuits and investigations as well," Zacks Equity Research said in a report. "The year 2016 seems to have dealt another blow to Wells Fargo."

Investors bailed on the stock when the story broke in September, pushing shares down as much as 16 percent as the bank's performance badly lagged its peers.

However, Wells Fargo participated strongly in the late-2016 rally, and the stock has surged more than 23 percent since the low point of the fake account scandal. Shares have fallen 1.9 percent in 2017.

That sets the stage, then, for the fourth-quarter earnings report scheduled for release Friday morning.

An activist protests outside a Wells Fargo branch in New York in this 2016 file photo.
Erik McGregor | Pacific Press | LightRocket | Getty Images
An activist protests outside a Wells Fargo branch in New York in this 2016 file photo.

Analysts expect the company to report a profit of $1 per share on revenue of $22.45 billion, according to FactSet. Though they are still fairly strong numbers, that would be a decline of more than 2.5 percent from the same period a year ago.

Wells Fargo turns in quarterly results at approximately 8 a.m. ET on Friday.

Overall, the picture looks bright for banks.

In a quarter where S&P 500 profit is supposed to grow just 3 percent, earnings for the financial sector are projected to jump 13.8 percent, according to FactSet.

Analysts normally start reducing their earnings outlook as the reporting dates get closer, but that hasn't been the case for financials. Bespoke Investment Group reports that the sector has the highest level of upward revisions of any of the 11 S&P 500 groups.

However, there have been some warnings.

Widely followed analyst Dick Bove at Rafferty Capital Markets is generally bullish on banks but believes investors may have gotten ahead of themselves in terms of optimism over higher interest rates and lower regulation.

Zacks warned that for Wells specifically, retail banking and loan weakness as well as an increase in expenses could hurt the bank.

Others also worry that weakness in some core businesses will bring disappointment.

"Fitch expects large U.S. banks' 4Q16 results will be mixed," the ratings service said in a report for clients. "Large trading banks' earnings likely benefited from election-related market volatility; however, overall loan growth likely remained muted during the quarter."

Analysts also are likely to have additional questions for Wells Fargo executives.

A report Thursday from the Financial Times noted questions over a recent surge in overdraft fees to customers that could be related to the cross-selling controversy. Also, the bank is under scrutiny from the Federal Reserve since its "living will" for how it would be broken up failed scrutiny.