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Bank of America puts investments over cost cuts as 'operating leverage' fades

Imani Moise

NEW YORK, Oct 16 (Reuters) - For the first time in nearly five years, Bank of America Corp did not rely on cost cuts to amplify profits the latest sign of big U.S. banks prioritizing investments in their businesses over short-term gains.

On Tuesday, Bank of America reported better-than-expected quarterly results, helped by loan growth, higher equities trading revenue and bigger fees from dealmaking and wealth management.

But overall, the bank's net revenue was nearly flat, as were core expenses. The difference between those two figures, known as operating leverage, is watched closely on Wall Street as a barometer of how well a bank manages costs.

That metric had been positive at Bank of America for eighteen straight quarters, until the most recent one.

Instead of slashing expenses, the Charlotte, N.C.-based lender spent more on marketing, technology, real estate, equipment and compensation during the quarter.

Its U.S.-centric consumer business opened 20 new locations, renovated another 117 and paid retail employees more after a pledge to boost minimum wages to $15 an hour. Bank of America also opened a new Paris office, hired more customer-facing staff and spent on digital tools across its operation.

Such investments are necessary to keep businesses healthy and growing, executives said, while asserting they have a good handle on expenses. Chief Executive Brian Moynihan pledged to keep annual costs at around $53 billion.

"We've been able to operate at that despite increased investments in technology and infrastructure, buildings and people," he said.

Bank of America, the second-largest U.S. lender by assets, does not stand alone in prioritizing business investments over cost cuts.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc, for instance, has been spending heavily on its burgeoning consumer business even as its revenue has slumped. Executives defended the strategy on Tuesday when discussing quarterly results.

Similarly, Wells Fargo & Co partially explained its outlook for higher expenses in a presentation by saying "we don't want to forgo revenue to manage to an expense target." Costs at the San Francisco based bank have also been elevated as the bank hired more risk and compliance professionals to help it work through its regulatory issues.

Citigroup Inc management also faced questions about winnowing operating leverage. The bank, which reduced headcount by 7,000 over the past year, has been keeping a close eye on travel expenses while avoiding what its finance chief called "non-critical hires."

But CEO Michael Corbat also sounded a cautious note about not "sacrificing the investments that we need to make to either maintain or continue to attempt to build competitive advantages."

JPMorgan Chase & Co was the only one to report positive operating leverage for the third quarter as well as year-to-date.

Spending in the face of revenue pressure is a sharp reversal for the U.S. banking industry after years of cost cuts following the 2007-2009 financial crisis. For Bank of America, it also marks a new chapter for CEO Brian Moynihan.

His tenure was defined first by spending billions of dollars to settle costly legal disputes, and then cutting billions of dollars from Bank of America's expense line through an initiative he dubbed "Project New BAC."

From when Moynihan first developed the cost-cutting plan in 2011 through last year, the bank's annual expenses have fallen by more than one-third and its payroll is down by more than 70,000 workers.

On Wednesday, Moynihan predicted recent investments will pay off through productivity gains and that the bank will find more savings by doing things like reducing paper use.

"We have a good track record of generating operational savings," he said.

(Reporting by Imani Moise in New York; Additional reporting by David Henry in New York and Anirban Sen in Bengaluru; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra Editing by Nick Zieminski)