Bank earnings are coming, and they're going to be huge

Key Points
  • Earnings season kicks into high gear Friday, when Wall Street titans J.P. Morgan, Citigroup, PNC and Wells Fargo report.
  • S&P 500 earnings are expected to rise 17 percent, but financials are projected to show 24 percent gains.
  • Estimates for the sector have more than doubled since January, and KBW analysts say expectations imply a 15 percent share price gain for banks.
Cramer: This is the most important earnings season for the big banks in years

Tax cuts, rising interest rates and a general spirit of more robust economic growth are the principal ingredients in what is expected to be an especially powerful profit formula for the banking industry.

As Wall Street's financial giants get set to report first-quarter earnings and provide a look ahead for the days to come, hopes are high. Corporate profits overall are expected to have risen 17 percent for the three-month period, but the financial sector has drawn especially keen interest.

In just the past three months, analysts have more than doubled their expectations for the financial sector as a whole, with banks leading the way.

Bank earnings are "really going to help provide stability to the market," said JJ Kinahan, chief market strategist at TD Ameritrade. "If [J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie] Dimon comes out and says we're not having a problem with tariffs, that's going to be major. ... If CEOs say they see smooth sailing ahead, it could be an unbelievably great time for stocks."

People inside the offices of JP Morgan Chase in New York City.
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Just since Jan. 1, analyst projections for financial earnings went from a 10.7 percent gain all the way to 24 percent currently. Only energy, which has been the beneficiary of rising oil prices, has seen a higher net revision among the S&P 500's 11 sectors, according to investment research firm CFRA.

With financials comprising 14.7 percent of the index's market cap, the second highest after technology, such a big move could have important market consequences.

After all, the sector, as measured by the Financial Select Sector SPDR exchange-traded fund, is barely flat for 2018 after enjoying a robust run the previous year. A big earnings quarter implies some room for upside based on the stock performance.

CFRA expects banks to lead the way for financials, with earnings growth of 28.5 percent.

Friday will feature reports from Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, PNC and Wells Fargo. They're expected to show respective earnings-per-share gains of $1.61, $2.28, $2.24 and $1.06, according to FactSet.

Analysts will be combing through the details for indications on where the sector is heading.

"As we head into first-quarter earnings, we still recommend an overweight positioning for
Universal Banks, as the fundamental backdrop is still supportive of further share-price appreciation broadly," Brian Kleinhanzl and Michael Brown, analysts at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said in a research note. "Net interest margins and loan growth will remain in the forefront as indicators that the fundamental upside for estimates are still possible looking ahead."

Though KBW considers the sector largely a buy, it actually has cut earnings-per-share estimates for most of the banks it covers at a time when other analysts are raising.

Specifically, it has reduced its calls on Bank of New York Mellon, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. Bank of America and Wells Fargo are unchanged from earlier projections, while KBW has raised estimates for State Street.

Still, the current expectations imply a 15.4 percent share price gain from current levels, the analysts said.

Elsewhere on Wall Street, the mood is essentially upbeat.

Goldman Sachs analysts said they "remain constructive" on the banking sector, with more than half the names in its coverage likely to top EPS estimates. The firm's analysts also see strong net interest margins and tax reform as positives, as well as increased volatility helping trading operations and higher interest rates boosting net interest income though having a negative effect on mortgages.

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