Bank of America plays catch-up

Bank of America tries to expand in China, chasing competitors that already have a foothold in the fast-growing nation.

By TheStreet Staff Mar 22, 2010 4:10PM

TheStreetBy Lauren Tara LaCapra, TheStreet


Bank of America (BAC) is on a better track with its reinvigorated business strategy, but mistakes from the past will keep the bank's profit on shaky ground for some time.


Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan has outlined his broad plan to pursue new business in high-growth emerging markets, and develop better relationships with wealthy clients in mature markets. He left this week for a trip to China, according to The Wall Street Journal, in an effort to build ties with leaders and business partners there.


But Bank of America is a laggard in respect to its newfound priorities abroad, and it will take time and effort to catch up. Major competitors are already established in China or building a presence there.


Approval is needed from Chinese regulators before foreign banks can establish a major retail banking presence there, something Citigroup (C) did some time ago. When it comes to capital markets activities, such as underwriting stock and bond issuance, Goldman Sachs (GS) already has permission to do so, as do several European banks. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is reportedly in talks to form a joint venture that would allow it to expand its investment banking operations there as well.


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Instead of going that same, more difficult route in pre-crisis years, Bank of America had acquired a minority stake and a board seat at China Construction Bank. It also opened a branch in Shanghai, but didn't really make much of an effort to capitalize on opportunities in the fastest growing global market.


Bank of America sought growth instead by buying up huge American targets and expanding its franchise coast-to-coast. It became No. 1 in almost every retail banking category, including mortgages, credit cards and deposits -- a title that does little good while the economy suffers and consumer credit remains a drag on bank balance sheets.


Moynihan acknowledged as much in a presentation earlier this month, outlining Bank of America's path forward.


"In the past, our consumer strategy was to be a sales machine and to measure success mainly on a number of products sold. This served us well," he said. "But as our market share rose and the economy fell, the strategies resulted in ... too many products sold to customers which weren't working for them."


As those business lines have suffered, Bank of America has leaned on Merrill Lynch's capabilities to boost the bottom line. It has also taken advantage of the government-incentivized refinancing wave. As a result, Bank of America shares have shot up tremendously from the $3 depths they touched just over a year ago.


But the market has had its tremendous run-up, and mortgage profits aren't going to provide the booming surprise they did in the first couple quarters of 2009. Shares of major banks reflect this uncertainty about near-term profit capabilities. Bank of America shares have been volatile, but are up 12% since the start of 2010, closing at $16.82 on Friday. Several analysts have argued that the stock is cheap relative to "normalized" earnings, but few are daring enough to predict when the new normal will materialize for Bank of America and other big banks, or what it will look like, with any specificity.


Now it's time to implement a real strategy -- one that relies on developing meaningful banking relationships with wealthy Americans, and with new partners abroad. Those relationships take time to build, and must be backed up with performance. Moynihan seems up to the task, but investors should keep in mind that it will take more than a trip to Beijing to move the dial forward.


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