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Banks Up Profit Bets on the Rich

JPMorgan Chase (JPM) -- whose CEO warned in January that the bottom 5% of its customer base may be dropped from the banking system due to new fees and charges -- has performed better. Funds managed by JPMorgan have outperformed Goldman's by a wide margin over the past one, three and five years, according to Morningstar data. Net income from its asset management arm climbed 20% in 2010 while revenue grew 13%.

Citigroup (C) is also focused on the tippy top of the upper crust. Although it's selling its Smith Barney brokerage division to Morgan Stanley (MS), Citi has been hiring aggressively in its private bank, which caters to clients with at least $25 million in assets. Citi Private Bank CEO Peter Charrington has made several big hires since saying last year that he'd like to double the number of private bankers in North America from a base of about 130.

Yet in 2010, the division's revenue slumped 3%.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo (WFC) have been focused more on the retirement and brokerage needs of the almost-rich. That higher-volume, lower-fee business seems to be paying off so far.

Morgan Stanley's Global Wealth Management division reported a 35% increase in revenue and an 83% jump in profit last year, thanks to the addition of Smith Barney, which is still a joint venture with Citi. Wells, which acquired a huge brokerage and wealth management business with Wachovia, saw profit at its Wealth, Brokerage and Retirement division soar 90% in 2010, even as revenue climbed just 9%.

"If you're a financial institution or a bank that is ... seeing your fee income from debit card interchange reduced and overdraft-fee reductions and your decision is, 'Aha! Let me focus on high net worth,' that's not a quick turn," says David Carroll, who heads Wells' Wealth, Brokerage and Retirement segment. "You have to build capability, you have to build credibility, you have to attract talent and you just can't do that overnight...But I will tell you in our case, we are looking for the wealth management and asset management business to replace some of those revenues."

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